Spur co-chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough dabble in the shape-shifting world of molecular gastronomy with integrity and verve at their Belltown gastropub.
It’s not easy being married to a restaurant critic.
My husband went along on my first visit to Spur, Belltown’s trendy, new gastropub. I thought we were having a lovely meal. It began with a trio of smoked-salmon crostini. Each fragile toast bore a nugget of soft, gently smoked sockeye on a pouf of mascarpone, boffo little bites enlivened with pickled shallots, spicy micro radish greens and crunchy fried capers.
But then came potato-leek soup. There wasn’t more than a puddle of rich, creamy potage in the bowl. The rest was foam, and from that ebb tide emerged three whole prawns, looking like they were making a run for it.
Mussels followed, gripped by some fearsome-looking crustacean. It was a giant chicharon, a canopy of fried pork rind sheltering the shellfish. It took some might to break it into pieces small enough to dunk, and it crackled like a windshield shattering when it hit hot liquid, merging its delicious bacon-flavor with the scallion- and chili-stoked broth.
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It was after that, as he nibbled politely on crispy little drumettes of chili-glazed chicken confit, with whipped buttermilk where he thought mashed potatoes belonged, that he calmly announced, “I don’t think I need to come back here with you.”
“You’re not enjoying this food?” I asked, nonplused.
“There are certain things you don’t fool around with,” he said. “I shudder to think what tagliatelle with parmesan foam is like, or carpaccio with fried béarnaise.”
I enjoyed both on my second visit (sans husband) to Spur, where fooling around with food is part of the fun. Co-chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough dabble in the shape-shifting world of molecular gastronomy, finding new ways to manipulate flavor and texture, but they do so judiciously, not just for effect.
Fried béarnaise sounds like a gimmick, but that rich sauce, transformed into springy, grape-size globules, released a flood of tarragon in the mouth, mightily enhancing tissue-thin raw beef.
Foam did indeed froth from the pasta. It faintly echoed the smoky oyster mushrooms and melting ribbons of nutty parmesan that clung to the fresh noodles. A duck egg, cooked sous vide to a quivering, semisolid state, nested among the tiny bubbles. A vigorous toss with fork and spoon distributed pale foam and orange yolk, and the result was akin to a divine carbonara sauce.
Sous vide is the process of vacuum sealing and slow-cooking food in a warm-water bath. It results in a moist, velvety texture, and it’s used here on both steak and fish to great effect. Lush butterfish (another name, in some parts, for sablefish or black cod), sauced with foaming fish fumé, is paired with earthy companions: chanterelles, chopped black kale, white beans and marble-size potatoes. Sweet shallot marmalade and sharp, spicy Tasmanian peppercorn vinaigrette temper the gaminess of flat-iron steak arrayed against a crisp-creamy slab of fried mashed potato.
As much as these 27-year-old chefs like to play with their thermal immersion circulator, and with ingredients like agar-agar, they don’t get carried away by chemistry. Their cooking has integrity as well as verve.
They tweak their short menu monthly, and nothing on it resembles a science experiment, except maybe the chocolate “soil” and almond “caviar,” two of the “playful accompaniments” to gelato. Granted, the powdery chocolate tastes way better than dirt, but the liquid pearls released little almond flavor, nor did either much enliven bland, thin Bing cherry gelato. Foie gras ice cream was more voluptuous; its savory swagger perfect with a pistachio financier teacake drizzled with sweet elderflower syrup.
Fruit tartlets were exceptional. In early October these tiny shortbread canoes held wild huckleberries dressed up with candied orange peel, sprigs of lavender mint and dots of Bavarian cream. The waiter made a point of explaining that the kitchen had “suspended physics” by devising warm Bavarian cream. When I pointed out that the plate had been chilled and sauce congealed, he was back in a flash with warm, fluid spoonfuls of vanilla cream.
Food hadn’t come that swiftly all night. The lag time between ordering and eating was sometimes long, and no two plates ordered together managed to arrive simultaneously.
It was a different story on another night sitting at the small bar, where cubbies are stocked with high-end spirits and small TVs soundlessly run spaghetti Westerns. Service never missed a beat and I had the added pleasure of observing head barman David Nelson practice his own kind of alchemy.
Dozens of small, chubby corked bottles line the far edge of the bar. They hold his house-made tinctures and bitters. His expertly crafted drinks include the elegant Kentucky Tuxedo and the raffish Red Hook. The former blends bourbon and sherry with a hint of lavender and orange. The latter, named not for the beer but for the Brooklyn neighborhood, winks at a Manhattan with a mix of rye, maraschino liqueur and Punt y Mes. It’s not shaken but stirred, slowly. “For at least a minute,” says the meticulous Nelson, “unless we’re really busy.”
Spur was packed on both visits. The youngish crowd gravitated toward the high, communal bar tables that seat eight, though eventually the dining area and even the wing chairs by the front door filled with patrons dressed to match the artsy, urban-industrial surroundings.
It’s not everybody’s kind of place. Just ask my husband. But I could see becoming a regular.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org