Three Experiments in Low(er)-Priced Fine Dining
Attempting to eat inexpensively at an expensive restaurant is pretty much an oxymoronic Mission Impossible. A recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer labored to prove otherwise, recommending thrifty measures including splitting entrées (you're hungry AND they hate you: win-win!), bringing your own wine (which the corkage fee undermines unless it's a pricey bottle, in which case, what are you so damn worried about?), finding coupons (nothing says "big night out" better), and/or having half your main dish boxed up in the kitchen before it ever hits the table—voilà, tomorrow's lunch (an "old dieter's trick"). To all this I say you might as well stay home and kill yourself. Eating in a restaurant is supposed to be fun and—forgive me—indulgent, not an exercise in weird, covert parsimony. However, for this Cheap Eats package, I found three cheap(er) deals at "better" restaurants that truly sounded promising—with mixed results.
Downtown's BOKA (1010 First Ave, 357-9000) currently offers a "Before the Show" three-course set menu for $29 between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. nightly (valet parking included). At two years old, BOKA still stuns: The ceiling alone has more design than most entire interiors, then there's the mod glass bamboo, retro burl tables, butter-yellow snakeskin chairs, ribbed black walls, shimmery scrims, complicated geometric upholstery, and (insanely) more. A flat-screen cycles endlessly through images of polar bears and waterfalls, while portions of the walls themselves cycle endlessly through different lurid colors (especially virulent toward the back; if you're easily made queasy or prone to flashbacks, do not sit here).
Last week, the entrée alone would've cost $27: a Thundering Hooves Farm pork chop, purportedly medium but dry-ish, with buttermilk mashed potatoes that crossed from rich into sour, spicy corn relish, crisped onions, and a pleasant sweet-smoky pork jus. Like the gazpacho starter—with crème fraîche and too-large sprigs of cilantro and budding basil immersed within—it did not attain superdeliciousness. The crème brûlée proved to be caramel flavor: a massive disappointment for a purist/fanatic.
The menu does change, and chef Angie Roberts's "urban American cuisine" is oft praised. But if you're going for the scene—and the people-watching is excellent; it's clear most of the people would love to be watching themselves—the twice-nightly happy hour will get you in for far less (and out far tipsier, at half the price).
La Medusa (4857 Rainier Ave S, 723-2192) is Columbia City's beloved surrogate kitchen. Preferred footwear runs to Tevas, Birkenstocks, and Crocs; the room is more upscale Berkeley cafe than L.A. When it's crowded, there's a happy din, and it's always crowded on Wednesdays for the Market Menu: three courses devised from that week's farmers' market for $25. From market to table is half a block, a pleasing carbon footprint for those in sensible shoes.
Last Wednesday, service dragged, and the wallet-impaired should be aware that bread—from Columbia City Bakery, mere steps away—is $2.50. Decent house wine, however, is just $6 a glass, so via relativity it might all even out. The salad (finally!) was likeable: beets, arugula, a little creamy sheep's milk feta, barely detectable almonds, and "spiced coconut" (a major departure from the local concept). The main dish, rigatoni with a runny tomato-basil cream sauce, was tasty but nothing to jump up and down about, with Walla Wallas and thin-sliced baby carrots making for a primavera on the sweet side. A berry cobbler topped with a shortcake biscuit and whipped cream: also just fine.
Like BOKA's preshow deal, the Market Menu changes, and La Medusa's Sicilian- inspired food is much beloved. Perhaps it was just luck of the draw that neither BOKA's fancied-up simple food nor La Medusa's cuisine of simplicity impressed.
When can $50 a person for dinner be considered a deal? At Sunday Supper at the Corson Building (5609 Corson Ave S, 762-3330), the long-awaited new restaurant from Sitka & Spruce's Matt Dillon. Sunday Supper isn't every Sunday—to get in, you'll have to watch the website and reserve pronto—but it closely resembles the Thursday/Friday/Saturday dinner service, which will set you back $80 a person plus $30 for wine pairings (available by the glass at Sunday Suppers). Sunday evenings start at 6:00 p.m., and early arrivals may stroll the grounds of the lovely little 1910 Spanish Eclectic building. It's an oasis of fruit trees and wisteria in Georgetown's grit, with cages of clucking chickens and cooing doves, a marvelous product of an extraordinary vision.
The interior is plain, the plaster imperfect, the light always just right. Seating is at three long communal tables and service is family style. Dillon's ambition is to make you a delicious dinner, and if you require your own turf and obsequious waiting-on, he'd rather you go elsewhere. In my limited experience—one regular dinner, one Sunday—the Sunday-goers are less likely to be visibly well-off and/or from Miami, more likely to appreciate the mismatched silver and/or burst out laughing. Dinner is a course or two shy of regular nights, but there's no chance you'll leave hungry. The menu last Sunday: cockles drowning in butter, served in their shells; tuna pâté; the world's largest platter of slow-cooked local albacore atop cool, crisp green beans, with hard-boiled egg and aioli; grilled sardines with chickpeas, mint, eggplant puree, tomato jam, and Armenian cucumber; salad of arugula from the bed outside the window with cantaloupe and bacon; tenderest brisket with baby potato/ corn/dill salad and yogurt; poached peaches, cream, fried almonds.
More on the Corson later—for now, Sunday Supper is a very wise way to spend your eating-out money. Another tip: Brunch is starting soon. Your nonexistent accountant would approve.