Wallingford, as your typical anti-gentrification rant would tell you, is growing at an insane pace. Specifically, the area between 36th and 45th Streets on Stone Way North has seen luxury apartments shoot up like weeds after a rain. Seattle magazine reported that about 700 new units have been built in the past five years, with more on the way. According to Zillow, the average home price has nearly doubled in the last five years. In that time, the area has also seen its fair share of commercial development, including an ever-increasing number of chic, upscale restaurants.
Given all those luxury apartments and million dollar homes, it's not unreasonable to assume that the new restaurants moving in have had, to some extent, dollar signs in their eyes. However, most seem to have a credible reason to be there, be it the relocation of a beloved original, wood-fired-grill worship, or even just to provide a slightly more luxury-apartment-appropriate watering hole than the Pacific Inn. So when Thackeray—the Heavy Restaurant Group's latest project (they also own Purple, Barrio, and others)—joined the mix, I wondered what, exactly, was their raison d'être, beyond the simple task of separating Amazonians from their ample disposable income?
At first glance, the menu seems more like a hasty collection of "Shit Seattleites Will Open Their Wallets For" than a thing with a cohesive vision or purpose. Indeed, its vaguely Mediterranean theme does not dare to eschew the safety of a house burger and a vegetarian pasta dish, a six-item gin-and-tonic menu takes top billing on the drink list, and the place is named after a 19th-century English author. As far as restaurant identity goes, it's a right clusterfuck.
I met some cannabis-industry friends for a drink on my first visit. The wine was lovely, which would prove to be a theme, but the grilled bread that should have sated one of my friend's munchies was clearly from the day prior, and not properly reconstituted before its meeting with the grill.
How, I wondered, do you screw up $6 grilled bread? And, more importantly, if you do screw it up, can you be trusted with a $30 albacore entrée?
You can, somehow. For my first proper Thackeray meal, the perfectly tender seared albacore we split for an entrée came atop a well-seasoned cauliflower puree and was complemented by a dollop of very agreeable red-grape-and-rhubarb agrodolce. Everything on that first run, in fact, was excellent, giving me hope that the bread thing was due more to a bad loaf than an apathetic, "if you make it look hip enough, they will come" attitude. I had a lovely smoked trout tartine, and I am still marveling at their sautéed prawn appetizer. The texturally excellent yogurt, walnut, and salsa verde spread was also a delight.
So, too, was the wine—a full tour of the Mediterranean that largely avoids the safety of French varietals. I was thrilled to discover wines by the glass from Greece and Central Europe, a rarity on Seattle drink menus. The "Macedon" pinot from the Republic of Macedonia was a particular favorite.
I was similarly thrilled by the service, which was prompt, pleasant, and helpful in a way that's so often missing in Seattle. Our server also offered the first glimpse of a cohesive vision for the restaurant, informing us that the restaurant's unifying theme was the spice route from India to Europe, a cute explanation for the menu's eclecticism.
As excellent as our server was, I suspect it was purposeful, as I saw at least one familiar face among the floor staff. You do not give someone 30-year-old Armagnac, truffles, two courses of impromptu wine pairings, and a complimentary appetizer simply because they seem like someone who'd appreciate it. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn't appreciate such treatment.
Though anonymity might be dead to us food writers, thanks to social media and the remarkable smallness of Seattle, we don't really need it. As longtime Seattle restaurant critic Bethany Jean Clement pointed out in her classic essay "The End of Anonymity," you can't fake consistency. Multiple unannounced visits will always tease out the true character of a restaurant, and my subsequent meals proved it to be a remarkably reliable rule. In this case, the perfect service I got the first time only threw into bold relief the universally awkward and indifferent treatment every time thereafter. More importantly, that first taste of their food turned out to be quite the red herring.
For a more incognito experience, I went back for a solo late-night sandwich at the bar, ordered another glass of that wonderful pinot, and selected the nine-spice Lebanese shawarma, which is precisely where things went south.
To begin, the fries were clearly not cooled properly after blanching—Jim Drohman's secret to enduring crispiness—and they became mushy and unpalatable after about 30 seconds. I asked for aioli and was offered a bowl of something that tasted like they had simply whipped some lemon juice into a plastic tub of grocery store Greek yogurt. I'm not much for ketchup, but I resorted to it, the ramekin it came in and Thackeray's spice-route theme deceiving me into thinking it might be some sort of house-made curried variety. Instead, it was very clearly Heinz. On the other side of the plate, a horiatiki salad was not the traditional Greek mix of raw, lightly dressed vegetables and feta that we know and love. While it had more flavor than anything else, it was bizarrely mushy and rested in several ounces of liquid.
As for the main event, charging $18 for maddeningly nondescript shawarma—especially when you are doing it less than two miles from Aladdin Gyro-cery—should be a crime. Doubly so if it is billed as having nine distinct spices and served in a restaurant ostensibly dedicated to the foods of the Eurasian spice route. I have no problem paying $18 for a shawarma, but it better damn well be good and not the absolute epitome of Edouardo Jordan's detested "white guy charging double for the same food as brown guy" phenomenon. If that shawarma and those mushy fries are really worth $18, Aladdin's should be $36.
My final visit provided a glimmer of hope—my companion's prosciutto Bolognese was perfectly executed—but I can't say it was a very bright one. Certainly, doing tagliatelle with meat sauce well is laudable, but it isn't exactly revelatory enough to redeem the place. And my Ethiopian fried chicken, which seemed like the type of signature, identity-establishing dish that might answer my initial question of purpose, did no such thing.
Grasping for a hint of berbere, I came up empty-handed. Perhaps it was there somewhere, but the honey spread all over the chicken wasn't making it easy to find. The accompanying potato salad was fine, if completely devoid of black pepper, but the corn bread was so sweet as to basically be dessert. The honey should have been saved for that, instead of basting an otherwise perfectly cooked piece of fried chicken.
I got the distinct impression that, like William Makepeace Thackeray the author did with Victorian England, Thackeray the restaurant is trolling Amazonian Seattle. Or rather, fleecing it. Certainly it's fine to operate a fancy, expensive restaurant, so long as the experience matches the price. In a neighborhood absolutely exploding with luxury apartments, it's even fine to open a pricier version of the casual, reliably good New American neighborhood joint. But the "reliably good" part is not optional. After three perplexing visits and one lovely aberration, I still fail to see what Thackeray adds to the neighborhood, other than a new way to subtract dollars from overstuffed bank accounts.