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Friday, April 6, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Steelhead Diner a glorious gumbo of Market-fresh eats

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Steelhead Diner 3.5 stars


95 Pine St., Suite 17, Seattle

206-625-0129

www.steelheaddiner.com

Northwest/Contemporary American

$$$

Reservations: Recommended.

Prices: Starters $8.95-$13.95, soups/salads $6.95-$9.95, sandwiches $9.95-$15.95, lunch/dinner entrees $14.95-$32.95, brunch entrees $9.95-$14.95, side dishes $4.95-$6.95, desserts $6.95-$8.95.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays (brunch till 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays). Happy hour 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Closed Mondays. Note: Beginning May 1, Sunday hours will be 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Drinks: Full bar. Wine list trolls the Pacific Northwest.

Parking: Pay lots nearby.

Sound: Lively.

Who should go: Tourists and townies who love Pike Place Market.

Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, V.

Access: No obstacles.

Special note: 35-seat private dining room.

Sample menu


Heirloom Beet Tartare: $8.95

Dungeness Crabcake: $13.95

Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo: $8.95

Steelhead Diner House Salad: $8.95

Wagyu Beef Burger: $9.95

Kasu-marinated Black Cod: $16.95/$26.95

Theo Chocolate Pecan Pie: $8.95

Nancy Leson on KPLU

Catch Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants every Wednesday on KPLU (88.5 FM) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m, and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Listen to "Ethnic food," her latest commentary.

Whenever my grandparents went on vacation, they'd bring me a souvenir. Had I saved those paper placemats from diners along their route, I'd be sitting pretty on a stack of U.S. presidents, states and their capitols and greetings like "Welcome to Atlantic City, N.J.!"

And had they lived long enough to visit me in Seattle, I'd have taken them to the new Steelhead Diner in Pike Place Market. There, placemats double as the daily changing menu and Pacific Northwest wine list, offering everything they'd need to know about what makes this corner of the country — and Pike Place Market, in particular — a food and wine lover's paradise.

At the Steelhead, cheese comes from Beecher's, the artisan cheesemaker across the street; produce for the terrific terrine defined as "Frank's Veggie Meatloaf" hails from Frank's around the corner; and if they run out of the Chukar Cherries saucing the wild Alaska salmon, that stall is just a pit-toss away.

At this tongue-in-chic diner, where the fishified furnishings extend to hand-tied flies and photo montages of local rivers, tourists will clamor for window tables offering a view of Elliott Bay — or a patio spot overlooking Post Alley. But they'd get a bigger bang for their not-inconsiderable buck if they took a stool at the stainless-steel counter fronting the compact kitchen.

There they'll meet Kevin Davis, to whom I am no stranger. But then, he's a guy who never knew a stranger. Don't believe me? Go eat at the counter, where as owner and head chef, he works day and night with seasonal products and near-religious fervor, doing what he so clearly loves to do: cook.

Let him tempt you with Manila clam "chowder." Steamed to order, those briny bivalves appear to be smiling with delight as they frolic with shiitake mushrooms, potatoes, winter squash and apple-smoked bacon in a cream-stoked broth.

Connoisseurs need look no further for the quintessential Seattle crab cake than his golden disc of Dungeness, held together with little more than the chef's bountiful blessing. This pan-seared dazzler is fat with lumps of sweet crab, decked out with a frizzle of fried beets and sauced with a hit of habanero hellfire.

Searching for a salad with diner style and a showman's substance? Have the house special: crisp baby iceberg decapitated and stuffed with diced bacon, avocado and blue cheese crumbles, thrumming with a high-falutin' version of Thousand Island.

Classic diners might serve Harvard beets, but Davis deserves a Ph.D. in creativity for his "Heirloom Beet Tartare." Hinting of horseradish, the finely chopped beets are a bitter-sweet treat when eaten with chips made from lotus root, taro root and potatoes. Every diner has a burger, but this chef serves his po'boy-style: big messy affairs overstuffed with marbled American Wagyu beef.

Leave without trying his gumbo — surprisingly light yet incredibly complex when composed with Uli's Famous (andouille ) Sausage, tender chicken and (yee-hah!) a scattering of pork cracklings — and you're making a mistake. Ditto for the flash-fried Beecher's cheese curds, which found their whey here from the big vat visible through Beecher's nearby storefront. These taste like bite-sized mozzarella sticks for grown-ups and must be eaten quickly, before they regain their cheese-y chew.

The "Forever Roasted" pork sandwich is a hearty two-fister, as are all the sandwiches here. Too bad it comes with ho-hum fries and tastes as if it's been "forever soaked" in salt. But a briny bath makes for one chubby, bone-sucking good half chicken, its spice rub subtly seasoned with coriander and cinnamon. For the perfect side dish, order the collard greens, gentled with chicken stock and bright with sherry vinegar. Or the infinitely crispy hominy cakes with red-eye gravy — a Southern staple that puts fried polenta to shame.

Gumbo, collards and hominy cakes in a Northwest diner? What gives? Having spent years as chef-exec at Arnaud's in his native New Orleans, Davis got his local cred running things at Seattle's Sazerac. And that was before he did a five-year star-turn at Oceanaire Seafood Room, overseeing a colossal kitchen and a menu vast as the Seven Seas. He has since landed ashore to run this little "mom and pop shop" with the able assistance of his wife, Terresa.

Helping them make their mark is a solicitous staff that includes a suit-wearing GM/sommelier whose wine list embraces $35-and-under gems and extends to three-digit darlings from Betz and DeLille. And bartenders happy to pour a booty-kicking nonalcoholic Bloody Viaduct to go with your "Sequimbled" eggs at brunch.

Well-schooled waiters can riff on everything "Chef" cares to serve — including entrees available in generous half-portions, like the incredible slow-braised short ribs and delicate kasu-marinated black cod — each simple yet sumptuous.

The same may be said of Fremont's Theo-chocolate-infused pecan pie, notable for its scrumptious short crust. Your idea of a divine dessert might be the coconut-enhanced Black Velvet cake, a veritable skyscraper lily-gilded with gelato from nearby Bottega Italiana. But mine is the caviar pie — an appetizer disguised as a slice of heaven. Built on a creamy canvas of sour cream, cream cheese, chopped egg and white onion, it's bejeweled with a colorful array of American fish roe and accompanied by traditional garnishes (chopped eggs, capers, red onion). If Bubbie and Zayde were still around to spread this signature sensation on the multigrain crisps provided, they'd take home their souvenir placemats — and rave.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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