When I asked for a rye Manhattan at the bar of a classic New York City steakhouse recently, the bartender haughtily informed me that a true Manhattan is always made with rye.
You’ll get no such snobbery at Manhattan, an anti-establishment steakhouse with a strong Cajun accent on Capitol Hill. Here the eponymous cocktail swings both ways. Old Weller Antique bourbon goes into the classic Manhattan here, but that’s Fremont Mischief’s John Jacob rye in the signature house Manhattan. Dark, spicy and tinged with orange, it’s become my new gold standard for the drink. (A barrel-aged variation, made with dry vermouth and corn whiskey, was appealing, too.)
Manhattan opened in early 2012 as Manhattan Drugs, aiming to be a high-end steakhouse. After several rocky months, the original ownership group split up, and last July executive chef Khampaeng (KP) Panyathong changed the kitchen’s course. Steaks are still featured, but the filet, rib-eye and Cali-cut New York are choice, not prime. The rest of the menu looks to the South for inspiration.
Of the four variations on surf and turf, one couples filet mignon with Cajun-spiced shrimp and extravagantly rich white-cheddar grits. The traditional version pairs a 5-ounce filet mignon with a grilled lobster tail of equal weight. Both meat and shellfish were skillfully cooked and came with nicely browned Brussels sprouts on the side, but the overworked mashed potatoes can’t compete with those grits.
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You can upgrade any steak with lobster tail, seared scallops, crabcakes, creamed spinach and sauces, or get extra sides. Among those adjuncts, let me steer you toward the crabcakes, deep-fried pickles, fried green tomatoes and sautéed kale.
The kitchen favors those frilly, full-flavored greens. Luxurious kale soup enriched with béchamel is topped with bacon and Parmesan. At lunch, sautéed kale was splashed with lemon vinaigrette, and served with roasted cherry tomatoes alongside a lovely piece of halibut sparingly rubbed with Cajun spices and roasted with thyme. (The heartier dinner version comes with mashed potatoes and Cajun tomato sauce.)
Kale even accompanies fried chicken, also scaled down midday to just the boneless thigh, cayenne-seasoned and cooked to a winning dark-brown crunch. You could — and should — swap the consistently gluey mashed potatoes for boldly seasoned steak fries or white-cheddar grits. Either one would do well dampened with the excellent red-eye gravy.
Purple coleslaw gets dressed up all sweet ‘n’ sassy for its date with ale-braised ribs, but the meat was disappointingly dry under its spicy glaze. That slaw is a better match for zesty little crabcakes garnished with oranges and pimento rémoulade.
Fritter fans might forgo hush-puppy-like jalapeño corn fritters that are a little doughy and short on corn, and save room instead for cookie-dough fritters. Those decadent and ridiculously good chocolate-chip orbs, coated in crushed Rice Krispies and deep-fried, are served with vanilla ice cream and a chocolate-sauce drizzle.
There’s a whiff of decadence, too, in Manhattan’s décor, which a colleague aptly called “Victorian brothel meets hunting shack.” Purple taffeta drapes graze the cracked concrete floor. Plush sofas form a lounge area that divides the dim recesses of the back dining room from the livelier front, where the bar is. Above the bar, mounted on trompe l’oeil wallpaper that mimics tufted velvet, a woolly ram’s head sprouts twisting golden horns that morph into M-16s (the work of Bay Area artist Peter Gronquist).
Scenes of vintage Manhattan project into gilded picture frames hung on damask-patterned walls above generous, curved booths, where one night a couple in wedding finery were ensconced: the groom in a white satin waistcoat, her bride in frothy tulle.
Elsewhere under the ornate chandeliers that drop from scuffed ceiling joists a gaggle of older Asian women tucked into surf and turf at a long table. Young guys in ball caps devoured fried chicken and ribs. Couples dressed for date night drank Manhattans at the bar.
In the evening, engaging young women tend to this sundry crowd with smart efficiency. A waiter at lunch looked tough as a longshoreman but doted on guests like a fond uncle. A year after nearly going belly up, Manhattan seems to have found its niche.
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.