The décor at Sazerac might have changed, but the menu's still a hearty taste of the Big Easy, from fresh cornbread to crayfish and andouille gumbo to pecan-pie cheesecake.
Just over a decade ago, Sazerac exploded onto the downtown dining scene like a Mardi Gras brouhaha. Executive chef Jan “Big Dawg” Birnbaum got les bonnes temps rolling in the summer of 1997 and the party was fueled as much by his outsized and flamboyant personality as by food and drink that merged Southern comfort with bi-coastal culinary sophistication. Seattleites guzzled rye and bourbon and gorged on grits and gumbo in a room ideally designed for revelry.
That room at the Hotel Monaco has enjoyed a recent renovation without losing a whit of its former whimsy in the process, as one glance up at the massive new chandeliers will tell you. Ragged-edged and disheveled, they float like just-erupted paper party poppers above a dining room framed in scrolling black ironwork and furnished with French provincial chairs, velvet-clad booths and iridescent taffeta curtains in colors that range from ripe plum to amethyst to palest mauve.
Birnbaum is now busy opening new restaurants in San Francisco for the Kimpton Group, which also owns Sazerac, but his larger-than-life spirit still haunts the dramatic exposed kitchen set behind a counter on a dais that dominates the far wall. With flames jumping in the wood-fired oven and licking at chickens on a giant rotisserie, it could be an altar to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth.
Executive chef Jason McClure currently leads the pack. Part of the kitchen crew since the beginning, he knows how to make hearty food that rumbles deeply with flavor, whether it’s a cup of rooster, crayfish and andouille gumbo, house-made charcuterie, or a skillet full of smoky macaroni and cheese. But he includes lighter fare, too: “tiny little bites” balance the “big plates” and whole sections are devoted to seafood and vegetables.
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I came away enamored with something new every time. A salad of fava beans and fresh peas was simply enchanting. The tangle of fresh ingredients offered a surprise in every bite: mint, lemon zest and peppery greens; sharp, firm goat cheese or salty ham. Fava beans delighted again when puréed and spread on thin rounds of garlic toast; whole favas, petals of Parmesan and a drop of truffle oil crown each canapé.
Fried chicken livers are a cornmeal-crusted treat for organ lovers. Red-pepper and caramelized-onion “marmalade” offers soft contrast to the crunchy nuggets though I wished for something sharper than garlic and chives to offset the richness — something like the fat, tart caper berries that are tucked among Gulf prawns roasted with firm slices of spicy chorizo.
Chili pepper and pungent black olives add plenty of punch to a warm salad of charred squid tossed with small white beans (flageolet) and piquillo peppers. Plump, oven-roasted Manila clams sported some zesty seasoning, too, but the fire seemed to have sapped their sweetness. A small pot of coriander-spiked butter, meant to be poured over the sizzling pan, tasted sluggish and burnt.
Other disappointments included a severely undercooked artichoke draped in cloying lemon sabayon and asparagus soup that was unaccountably bitter.
Being a hotel restaurant, Sazerac serves breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. I didn’t sample the morning menu, but entrees are the same at lunch and dinner. Midday offers a selection of sandwiches that includes a memorable hoagie stuffed with house-made lamb sausage. The aroma of cumin precedes an explosion of spices at first bite. The meat tastes like muscular corned beef, and it’s aided and abetted by grainy mustard and sweet pickled vegetables that make a bulky package of the oven-crisped baguette.
Pickles, both sour and sweet, dressed up a fine burger, which, like the rotisserie-cooked free-range chicken, is available night or day. That gorgeous, brined bird, vividly seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon, comes with a side of bread pudding that does a good imitation of sage-scented Thanksgiving stuffing.
There are other pleasures here: Buttery, fresh-from-the-skillet cornbread in the breadbasket; a good-humored, energetic staff trained to treat a customer’s wish as their command; and expert bartenders who can mix the elegant New Orleans rye cocktail after which the restaurant is named, as well as a gingery gin refresher packed with fruit and vegetables dubbed “English Summer.” (Although one did badly botch a dirty martini.)
Wine flights join a long list of wines by-the-glass on a list that allows a few Italian, French and Australian bottles to mix with a mostly Northwest and California crowd.
Speaking of crowds, where have they gone? Surely not everyone’s at Purple Café. At 8 p.m. on a weekend the party seemed just about over. A rowdy group of women was winding down the fun at tall tables up front and a businessman at the bar had switched from martinis to beers. One Saturday night what looked like a tour group filled two large tables in the back, everyone eating identical plates of apparent banquet fare.
By dessert we were alone. We succumbed to pecan-pie cheesecake, which is just what it sounds like: gooey pecan under a cheesecake lid. Did it really need a puddle of bourbon crème anglaise? But of course, cher! This is Sazerac, where the good times still roll, even if you are the only ones in the place.
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