My first experience with Georgetown's Ciudad was not a great one. This was a bit shocking, given how much I've enjoyed all of proprietor Matt Dillon's other restaurants. There is, in my opinion, no such thing as a bad meal at Sitka & Spruce. But on my first visit to Ciudad more than a year ago, I stopped in with a chef friend after an uncharacteristically disappointing meal at El Sirenito. Hoping to redeem our night, we figured Ciudad would be a safe bet—but we left baffled by the experience, which was decidedly underwhelming.
Since that visit, Ciudad has gone through a chef shuffle, with former chef de cuisine Nick Coffey departing for Lopez Island to launch the buzzy Ursa Minor. In his place, Aaron Willis, formerly of Pioneer Square's Delicatus, has taken the helm. Upon announcing his new position, Willis promised to revamp the menu and focus on the restaurant's massive charcoal grill. I wanted to see if things had improved since my first visit, so I decided to check back in.
As promised, Willis has upped the selection of grilled items, and as many dishes as possible include something from the precious grill of theirs. However, I'm not so sure that helps. Despite what Seattleites seem to think these days, simply laying things on a big ol' grill does not make them special. It can be magical if done well, but it's not an intrinsically upcharge-worthy affair.
Unless you're a Matt Dillon restaurant, I guess. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with a stripped down, simple concept like Ciudad's. Grill up some good protein; serve it with quality condiments, a decent starch, some tasty sides; make sure there's booze; and you've basically re-created every good backyard barbecue ever. Doing it in a lovely converted industrial building and providing pleasant, attentive service can only sweeten the pot. However, no matter how mesmerizing a mural you have, people ain't exactly coming in for an art show. They come for the food, and the food continues to fall short.
If Ciudad's food were served at someone's backyard barbecue, I would give the host an A-plus for effort. The fact that it is served at a Matt Dillon restaurant, where most small plates are $10 and up, is a different story. Sure, the ingredients sound as eclectic and intentional as you'd expect from Dillon, but most dishes failed to deliver. I left feeling like I'd paid more for the reputation of the restaurant's locally famous proprietors—Li'l Woody's Marcus Lalario is Dillon's partner in the venture—than for the actual product. Call me crazy, but I would like the food to not only sound like it's from a guy who won a James Beard Award, but to also taste like it.
The grilled meat, for example, ostensibly the star of the show, reflected none of the marinades or seasoning advertised on the menu. Apple-cider-brined pork shoulder tasted like plain pork. So too for the harissa-marinated chicken and citrus-marinated shell-on prawns. Their supposedly herby hanger steak was just steak. More than one item was left on the grill slightly too long, and in the case of the kofta (lamb and beef meatballs) and lamb merguez sausage, far too long.
Their selection of sauces (which are not exactly optional but have an upcharge nonetheless) could have rescued the meats. Unfortunately, most did not. Aji, a spicy green chili sauce, was absent of spice. Black garlic aioli was pretty much just aioli with a slight funk, although black garlic on its own is generally sweet, pungent, and flavorful. Tomato sambal was spicy enough, but the initial hit was of straight up unsalted tomato puree, with the spice arriving unfashionably late. Even the ubiquitous grilled pita was chewy and difficult to tear, when it should have been pull-apart soft.
The appetizers and sides were similarly disappointing. Grilled haloumi cheese, served with confit tomatoes, apricot, sage brown butter, and fancy edible flowers, did not live up to its visual promise. As with some of the meats, it was grilled to the point of graininess. Saffron cauliflower had fluffy, airy florets but was oddly ashy and served with an unwelcome amount of sugary glaze and candied fruit. The baby arugula salad with coal-roasted carrots, walnuts, blue cheese, and maple verjus vinaigrette was every milquetoast arugula you've had at a neighborhood coffee shop, just with a pile of under-seasoned grilled root veggies next to it.
There were, of course, a couple of bright spots, and they were very bright indeed. When food that sounds as good as Ciudad's actually is that good, it's mind-boggling. Their chicken-wing appetizer, which consists of three wings large enough to remind you that birds are cousins of the dinosaurs, is very worth getting your face covered in pomegranate honey glaze for. A dish of perfectly supple heirloom potatoes with labneh and smoky, smoldering urfa biber (Turkish "raisin" chilies) came together nicely, as the tangy, smooth labneh provided the perfect base for the plentiful crumbles of urfa biber, and proved to be a satisfyingly even coat for the potatoes.
If everything on the menu were as harmonious as those two standouts, I would be in love with Ciudad. Georgetown has plenty of places to sit down and get a great meal, but something with Ciudad's level of service and sense of adventure is still a welcome addition to the neighborhood's landscape. Even after eating the chef's tasting menu twice and going back to try the dishes I missed—as well as corroborating my findings with an informal survey—I still have trouble believing it's not good. I want it to be good. Maybe someday it will be, but it's certainly not quite yet.
My fear here is that in modern Seattle, Dillon doesn't have to be good if he doesn't want to. You build it, put an outlandish mural in it, use plenty of ingredients that people have to google, and throw a big grill in there, and the people will come. Even if the food isn't amazing, they will come, because dropping $125 on a weeknight dinner for two isn't really that outlandish for a lot of people. I'm not trying to live in the NIMBY past or anything, but I do wish that, even though people can afford to be disappointed by a fancy restaurant nowadays, our city's chefs would still cook like they can't.