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Friday, January 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

"Oohs!," "Ahs!" and "Ohs?" The mysteries of Veil

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Veil 2.5 stars


555 Aloha St., Seattle; 206-216-0600; www.veilrestaurant.com

Contemporary American

$$$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (bar menu available till 11 p.m.)

Prices: starters $9-$13, entrees $26-$32, desserts $8-$9, four-course tasting menu ($60) with wine pairings ($85), bar menu $8-$13.

Drinks: creative cocktails, plus a wine list that goes beyond the pale with interesting New World labels, a welcome range of price points and intriguing by-the-glass options.

Parking: on-street.

Sound: loud.

Who should go: style-conscious Seattleites hot to hit the latest food-as-art gallery.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no obstacles to access.

Veil, uncloaked, can be everything it's meant to be or much ado about nothing.

It can seduce you with creative cocktails, smart service and a tantalizing four-course tasting menu matched with wonderful wines ($85). Or turn you off with noisy acoustics, monotonous music and expensive entrees that promise Progressive American Cuisine but translate as bland short ribs with undercooked potato.

If, as the name suggests, Veil is meant to be mysterious, well, I'll grant them that.

This house of high style, shrouded in willowy fabric, Philippe Starck furniture and barely discernable signage, glows from a quiet corner east of Seattle Center.

Enter and you'll find a restaurant divided — sexy little lounge to the left, sleek little dining room to the right and unmarked, hidden restrooms (the height of hip!) in-between.

In the lounge you can sit tall at the bar, low on a leather ottoman or snug in a private alcove. Here you might graze from a prettily prepared and carefully crafted cheese plate ($12) or sample Salumi's inimitable salami ($10). You can brave a brazen cocktail like the Devil's Bouquet (Hendrick's gin, peach brandy and herb teas), or raise The Veil (a sweetly layered looker involving Stoli, sake and cassis): $9 libations bound to provoke responses from "Wow!" to "What the hell is that?"

And that's exactly the kind of roller-coaster reaction I experienced on each of my visits to this new food-as-art gallery, open since November.

Whether you're dining at one of the many close-quartered deuces or taking up real estate at the towering 18-seat communal table, you will find yourself elbow-to-elbow with strangers, sharing personal space and menu suggestions.

"You've got to try this lobster mac 'n' cheese," coached our neighbors as we eyeballed their hand-rolled troffiete. We did. Enriched with shellfish stock and mascarpone, that lobster-laden Ligurian pasta was chief among the joys of a $60 tasting menu. One whose other courses (an elegant sunchoke soup, rosy slices of Kobe pork tenderloin and a citrus-shocked sorbet) made this dining option a sensational value.

Servers are eager to make suggestions, too, and expound upon the brief, cryptic menu. They'll let you know that the "Artisan duck breast" ($29) comes from the fatty drake (male), the better to render its skin to a crisp before slicing and serving over duck confit and vegetables. But they'll likely fail to mention that the monkfish, at $29, is a penurious portion with a yin-yang smear of olive paste as colorful as it is dull.

The kitchen proves willing to honor special requests, agreeing, say, to send out half-portions of a terrific truffle-scented agnolotti ($26/entrée) to bridge the gap between "introduction" (appetizers) and main course.

If every dish were as compelling as chef and co-owner Shannon Galusha's amuse-bouches, his place might be the hottest ticket in town. On various visits, those pre-prandial gifts from the chef — a mouthful of fresh crab and spicy chorizo, crisp prosciutto perched atop lentil salad, a tantalizing taste of tuna tartare brightened with parsley oil — were four-star first-bites one and all.

Imagine my delight when six oysters ($13) were alternately presented with Meyer lemon granita, tart green apple and finely slivered cucumber, refreshers that allowed their natural sea scent to shine through. And I loved the multihued beet salad with zinfandel crème-fraiche ($10): Bubbie's borscht re-envisioned — with pistachio-crusted beets and horseradish powder — as a salade composé.

Now imagine my dismay when the $19 foie gras appetizer, whose sole description is "peanut butter, jelly and toast" arrives disguised as a crimini mushroom (the tiny toasted bun), in a nutty moat of russet-hued goo (the peanut butter) on an oversized plate punctuated with polka-dots (er, "jelly"). That liver lobe? You guessed it and I should have: lost in the sauce.

Chewy chunks of celery root detracted from an otherwise gorgeously creamy celery root soup ($9) in need of no more garnish than its single — and sublime — beef-cheek raviolo. And a round of that too-hard tuber added nothing to perfectly seared sturgeon ($27). Sturgeon is high on my list of favorite fish, but even applewood-smoked Nueske bacon with luscious black lentils couldn't mask the muddy flavor of a funky fillet.

Desserts, too, had their "oohs!" (the salt and sweet of peanut-butter ice cream with oatmeal-enhanced "Nutter Butter" cookies), their "aahs!" (Valencia orange sorbet with a deconstructed marmalade), and their "ohs?" (a forgettable lemon bar with Marcona almond panna cotta).

With a well-staffed kitchen and a chef-owner whose culinary credits come from on high — 727 Pine, Campagne, Fullers, the French Laundry — one can only hope that time and tinkering will improve things. Until then, Veil's greatest mystery, after all's said and eaten, will remain its inconsistency.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants

Sample menu

Kobe Beef Cheeks $12

Heirloom Beet Salad $10

Artisan Duck Breast $26

Roasted Sturgeon Steak $27

Cheese Plate $12

Salted Peanut-Butter Ice Cream $8

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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