Michael Herbst, editor
Your intrepid restaurant reviewers have sunk to new depths this month. We have chosen to eat in four underground restaurants. Underground as in below ground level, as opposed to unlicensed.
When the thought of gazing out at the moist gloom we call winter in the Northwest is too much to cope with, you can retreat into one of these subterranean refugees. Our four choices: Boat Street Kitchen, Nordstrom Grill, Benihana and The Pink Door.
Our first offering, Boat Street Cafe & Kitchen, 3131 Western Avenue, 206-632-4602, is a long lunch walk or a quick drive for those who work in downtown Seattle. A warm room and tantalizing scents from the kitchen greeted us as we shut the door on the November wind.
We each celebrated the Friday afternoon by ordering a different glass of white wine. All were crisp and light, but the consensus favorite was Domaine de Pellehault Harmonie de Gascogne.
We felt like we were playing hooky and the waiter was a willing accomplice. At his suggestion, we ordered the fig and walnut torta with salad as an appetizer. It was an exquisite combination, both rich and light, served with delicious warm baguettes from Columbia City Bakery, delivered fresh three times a day.
Entrees, shared by all, included Provencal meatloaf with horseradish sauce, served with potato celeriac gratin and salad – gourmet comfort food of the highest order and quality, delicately herbed and exactly what a person needs on a chilly fall day. Our second entrée was simple peasant food at its finest: roasted root vegetables with baguette and sausage – an appealing presentation of a simple meal; a perfect balance of sweet, roasted vegetables and mild sausage.
The third entrée, selected by the waiter, was a rich, but not heavy, moderately portioned potato gratin with roasted kale. The latter was crisp and airy around the edges, topped with a poached egg and a perfectly roasted apple gracing the edge of the plate. The waiter (Ryan) proved to be a trustworthy advisor and added to our enjoyment.
Food was served quickly and cell phone coverage was fine. We look forward to returning for weekend brunches and summer lunches in the courtyard.
Although hardly “underground” from the public awareness point of view, it is easy to overlook the restaurant in the basement of the Nordstrom flagship store, 500 Pine Street, 206-628-2111. Nestled next to the men’s department, it provides quick service with much less bustle than the more crowded café several floors above.
It has a full bar and a menu with strong salad emphasis. The tables are too close for confidential discussions with clients, but otherwise the venue is not too loud.
We tried the Dungeness crab bisque (not as good as I had remembered) and the Manhattan clam chowder (somewhat spicy, tasting like a good minestrone with a lot of seafood). The calamari strips were fresh but bland. The Chinese chicken salad was fresh, crisp and a good size for lunch.
Special requests – dressing on the side and hold the wontons – were accommodated graciously. The strawberry chicken salad, ordered by the next table, looked particularly enticing. The most popular item was the complimentary sourdough bread. The blueberry gimlet special was tempting, but we resisted.
One could say that the Benihana is not authentically Japanese or that Benihana is a piece of fusty, 1970s “Generica” or even that being insulted by a man wielding multiple knives while trying to eat is just not normal. Still, Benihana, 1200 Fifth Avenue, 206-682-4686, offers a compelling reason to overlook these quibbles – we are speaking, of course, of all-you-can-eat sushi within the downtown core.
Benihana is located in the rather bleak, below-street-level plaza on the corner of Fifth Avenue and University. As you enter, you are presented with a choice of eating to the left (sushi) or right (teppanyaki). Time being short, we chose sushi.
The sushi buffet is situated at the end of the room, under some very un-Japanese cellar-style brick arches. The usual raw fish nigiri sushi staples were available, such as maguro tuna, salmon and yellowtail. However, for those who insist on cooked items, there were plenty of choices, including several deep-fried rolls, freshwater eel, a very flavorful seared tuna, salad and fruit.
The rice portion included in the sushi was small, allowing greater consumption of fish before one is sated. It being the holidays, there were rolls topped with disturbingly bright-red and green tobikko fish eggs.
The tables are very close together, so a confidential conversation would be impossible. Cell phone coverage was fine. We did not have to wait for a table; however, if you did need to wait, there is a wall with photographs of celebrities by the front door to stimulate gossip and innuendo.
The Pink Door, 1919 Post Alley (between Stewart & Virginia), 206-443-3241, serves Italian-American food with fresh ingredients from the Pacific Northwest. As we entered through the eponymous pink metal door off Post Alley, and walked down the steps, we knew that this downtown hot spot is no basement dive.
With attentive waiters and décor reminiscent of a Cirque du Soleil stage, The Pink Door ambiance gets your dining experience off to a great start. Food came reasonable quickly and cell phone coverage was excellent.
On the lunch menu, be sure to check out the paglia e fieno (straw and hay). This delightful blend of fettuccine with exotic mushrooms, light cream sauce, fresh herbs and essence of truffle will more than satisfy any pasta aficionado. The perfectly portioned Puttanesca was an excellent preparation of the classic tangy capers, garlic and olive sauce.
Dinner offerings are similar to lunch, with an extensive menu of antipasti, pasta and risotto, seafood, meat and salads. Rather uniquely for an underground restaurant, The Pink Door also provides terrace dining with a view of Puget Sound – all the better to sit under pellucid evening skies when the long summer sunsets return.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of the King County Bar Bulletin. Reprinted with permission of the King County Bar Association.