Those lips! That neck! Those cheeks! I’m head-over-ham-hocks in love with the food at Radiator Whiskey, though ham hocks are one of the few animal parts not currently appearing on the menu at this brazenly meat-centric, boozy sibling to Matt’s in the Market.
Those lips are beef lips. Braised and pressed into a terrine, then cubed, breaded, deep-fried and stacked in a puddle of “dijonnaise,” they taste like bite-size, boneless short ribs. With brittle shells and rich, melt-in-your-mouth centers, they are to meat what truffles are to candy. As a bar snack, they vie with cornflake-crusted chicken livers, naughty nuggets that, even slathered with Frank’s Red Hot and dipped in red-pepper aioli, keep their impressive crunch.
That neck is lamb’s neck on a soft, toasted brioche bun that can barely contain the lush, long-simmered, mildly gamy meat heaped with finely shredded, tangy coleslaw. It’s a sublime sloppy joe sided with onion rings, wraithlike and wonderful.
Pig is hardly underrepresented. Those cheeks are porcine, so tender you can cut them with a spoon. You are using a spoon because they loll like dumplings in a tomato stew that also harbors creamy cannellini beans, red peppers and smoked cheddar. A bag of Fritos is a cheeky accompaniment to the cheeks; add them, crushed, to the bowl and prepare to swoon.
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The real showstopper here is half of a pig’s head. All eyes swivel toward the massive platter whenever it’s carried to a table, where it is set on overlapping blue-and-white cotton dish towels, spread like receiving blankets. Brined for several days, the head is smoked for 10 hours. The skin turns ruddy brown. The pink flesh of cheek and jowl underneath, veiled in a luscious layer of fat, tastes sweet, slightly smoky and butter-soft.
Ringing this rugged ridge of meat and bone are dark slices of tongue, pepper-edged tenderloin, crusty twists of fried ear, griddled rounds of potato bread and condiments aplenty: Whole-grain mustard, herbed aioli and Mama Lil’s pickled peppers counter the rich meat with bold, sharp flavors.
The squeamish may want half of a smoked chicken instead, but for those who don’t mind looking their dinner squarely in the eye (a blackened socket), the pig’s head is a sumptuous spread, and a deal at $48. (Intended for two to three, four or more can eat their fill, but call ahead; availability is limited.)
There is more besides meat to get excited about here. Salads exploit the season and explode with flavor. Chive-flecked, egg-rich potato salad gets its punch from Tabasco, its crunch from celery. Cherry tomatoes and watermelon salad in chili vinaigrette thickened with Mama Lil’s pickled peppers hit the tongue like a bolt of summer lightning.
Squash salad is more of a summer breeze. Fresh tarragon, basil and parsley, shards of manchego and fried Marcona almonds are tucked among folds of shaved raw zucchini and yellow squash. Roasted lemon bolsters the sideswipe of creamy labneh (strained yogurt), reinforcing the salad’s lemony dressing.
Brittany Holmberg’s desserts all involve whiskey. A couple of warm, double-wide, chocolate-chip cookies come with a shot of Early Times. More subtle is the hint of bourbon in the ice cream atop superb maple-pecan pie.
Whiskey and other spirits dominate the drinks, too, as you would expect, though there is a token wine list and some beers on tap. I’m partial to the smooth, barrel-aged Rob Roy, sweet and smoky in equal measure. I also loved the elegant “Einstein Classic” made with Templeton Rye and Carpano Antica, part of “The Manhattan Project.”
A bourbon margarita and “King’s Calling,” a mix of basil, rye, ginger beer and bitters on the rocks, were welcome coolers on a hot summer night, when the windows above First Avenue were flung open to catch the faint breeze.
Those grand, arched windows suit the rough-and-tumble, devil-may-care, pre-Prohibition era Radiator Whiskey so skillfully evokes. Amid the barrels, crates and burly, burnished wood, co-chefs Tyler Palagi and Charlie Garrison cook center stage framed by a shiny proscenium of pots and pans. Here’s a toast to them, to owner Dan Bugge and to their entire team, for creating an instant classic.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.