The woman at the next table at Txori wants mint tea. The man wants a Diet Coke. The server explains with equanimity that neither of these beverages is available. "We're in San Sebastian!" he says encouragingly. (The servers at Txori are patient, encouraging people.) Some sort of liquid compromise is reached, and he leaves them to look over the menu of pintxos. (Pintxos are the Basque, harder-to-say version of tapas—"txo" is pronounced "chõ." Those inclined to arguing about authenticity and showing off their accents will have a field day here.) She doesn't like olives, she says. She doesn't like octopus. She doesn't like the taste of either garlic or alcohol (it's momentarily hard to hear). The man's empathy is nearly visible. It must be love!
At another table—they're so close together, eavesdropping is involuntary—a group talks about their last trip to Spain, about choosing blindly from menus there, about someone who was making out with everyone at a party. They're drinking red wine (the list is all vascos—Basque—and other regions of Spain) and using bits of bread to get every iota of sauce off every little plate, and then they're ordering more wine, more bread, more little plates. They're talking more about kissing.
Luckily, Mint Tea and Diet Coke have their mutual admiration to sustain them until they get to an olive-free zone. She gives him a sip of her non-mint tea, holding the cup for him; he looks charmed. The trip-to-Spain people watch other people's food go by nonsurreptitiously; they will have one of those (indicating something at another table), too—no, make that two.
Txori is the new Belltown branch of Harvest Vine, the Spanish favorite of Seattle's octopus-embracing set for a decade. I've wanted to love Harvest Vine; I've felt like I should. The ingredients are impeccably sourced, the food is indisputably good, and owner Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez is magnificent of name and mustache. But the price/portion/formality balance always felt off, and I have no recollection whatsoever of the interior. Txori is what I've always wanted Harvest Vine to be.
Txori—Basque for "bird"—is compact and light. In the front, on the dark wood shelves with their rolling ladder, there's a birdhouse, along with reassuring stocks of olive oil, spices, cookbooks, wine. Some bird-themed art hangs in the back. A bird printed on the coasters is ready to eat the dot off the "i." This makes Txori sound cute, which it isn't; the hardwood floors, clean lines, and Euro-style glass doors (which will eventually lead to a patio) are cosmopolitan, anti-precious. On the tables: small-size flatware; pottery toothpick containers; both those thin, tissuey squares that function as napkins in Spain and domestic paper napkins actually capable of absorption.
The prices at Txori promote the kind of abandon you'd like to indulge in at Harvest Vine. Even better, they promote the feeling that even the rare thing you don't care for—one thing, in my experience so far—is worth it. Most of the pintxos, priced individually, are a couple of simple, exactingly prepared elements perched on top of a small piece of bread. The glass case at the stand-up-only bar offers a preview (one or two may look dried out, which will not be the case with yours).
Txori's octopus is particularly delicious. It's imported from Valencia, and it's blanched three times to avoid vulcanization—if you lurk at the bar and look curious, you'll learn things. You might be invited to taste-test the expensive lagrima olive oil ("the tears of the olive," gathered via precipitation instead of pressing) against extra virgin and pomace (from the pits). Or you can just eat the pulpo de feira ($3.50), a bite of octopus skewered to a bite of potato (both of ideal, transcendent consistency) with lagrima and pimentón. Or you can eat whatever octopus special is on the blackboard. Or—why not?—one of each.
Some of the pintxos are hot, some cold. Oceanic flavors are unabashed: mojama ($3.50), rich, salty cured tuna topped with rich, salty large roe; boquerones txepetxa ($5.25), a mound of fluffy pink ham/crab mixture with two vinegary anchovies curled around it. Lavish, buttery meats may have lavish, buttery complements—braised oxtail resting on panadera potatoes ($6). Chorizo is given shavings of chocolate over the top ($2.25). A ramekin of tomato sauce ($2.75) is sweet with garlic, balanced with gentle, melted tetilla cheese. A mushroom/serrano ham tartlet ($2.50) was dry and a little dull, the sole disappointment.
A few slightly larger plates, raciones, are available, such as albondigas ($6)—three veal and pork meatballs, pink at their centers, in a lush sherry sauce. Pochas con almejas ($9)—a totally creditable version of clams, white beans, and garlicky broth—is, in context, unremarkable. Contrariwise, revuelto de gulas ($9)—a special of eggs soft-scrambled with thin, noodly strips of hake—was shockingly tasty for something so mild. Sprinkles of pimentón and a border of green oil made this food look like a flag—every plate at Txori pleases the eye.
For sweets, a coffee flan ($3) makes both coffee-flavored things and flan itself seem like newly excellent ideas. The sweetened-up espresso drinks—café bombón ($3), with condensed milk; café kantoi ($3), sundae-like, with caramel—are as good, maybe better. Txori's cocktails (sweet, saffron, with anchovies) deserve exploration as well, and Basque specialty drinks combine wine or beer with soda pop. But not Diet Coke.