Von’s Roasthouse on Pine Street, a downtown favorite for cheap martinis, Manhattans and “hamburgs” for a quarter century, closed its doors in January, but that doesn’t mean the party’s over for the irrepressible Tim Firnstahl and his family.
In February Von’s moved lock, stock and barrels of aging tequila to the top of the Harbor Steps where the next generation, Tim’s daughter, Merrisa Firnstahl-Claridge, and her brother-in-law, Jason Amador, are leading the charge at Von’s 1000Spirits GustoBistro.
A thousand bottles of booze? Looks like it to me, and some of them are so rare they’re locked in a glass display case. I took a rough tally while sipping an upgraded version of the “scratch martini,” made with their proprietary “Junipered gin.” Smooth and slightly tawny in color, it’s worth an extra two bucks. The “scratch Manhattan” was a little watery, but for $3.50 at Happy Hour it was hard to complain. Do order the salty, sweet, butter-roasted peanuts, an essential accompaniment to whatever you’re drinking.
The bar runs long and deep under a flag-draped ceiling, connecting dining areas front and rear. The front opens to the street, where sidewalk tables allow prime viewing of Hammering Man. The back holds high tables and low, a TV inevitably tuned to sports, and Von’s famous “Wagering Wheel,” spun every so often to select the drink special of the moment.
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You’ll spy the Seattle Great Wheel from a secluded dining room in the rear that is ideal for large groups or private parties. (Fair weather tip: patio seating is available back there, too.)
Opposite the bar, the almond-wood-fired oven in the open kitchen signals the biggest difference between the old Von’s and the new GustoBistro. Executive chef Jason Amador, the scion of a bakery family (Sugee’s in Bellevue), is putting its 50-year-old sourdough “mother” to good use in rustic breads, brioche buns and frics (pronounced “freaks”), the French country pizzas only available after 4 p.m.
Anything on the menu involving dough is a good bet. I enjoyed a thick, soft wedge of focaccia, lightly salted and embellished Caprese-style with slices of ripe Roma tomatoes, creamy mozzarella, fresh basil and a splash of balsamic.
Like the focaccia, the fric crust tastes subtly of sourdough. The oval-shaped pies are sliced and served on a wire trivet, so the bottoms don’t get soggy from trapped steam. The crust remains pliant with a firm chew and good elasticity.
Of the two I tried on separate occasions, I preferred the “Champignon.” Its blistered and charred crust framed chopped button mushrooms sautéed in white wine, caramelized onions, fresh basil, Emmentaler and (though the menu didn’t say so) pungent Roquefort cheese. The sausage, cheddar and egg fric seemed slightly underbaked, and though richly laden with cheese and eggs, it was under-endowed with sausage, mushrooms and tomato.
Amador’s brioche buns act like soft sponges for the juicy burgers that taste like coarsely ground steak. The French onion variant sports melted Gruyere and a heap of sautéed onions, just like the soup of the same name.
Other good things come on those buns. “Torrid Wurst” sounds a little overheated and it is, in a good way. Provolone, pesto and “Lusty Ladies” (roasted, marinated Roma tomatoes) top the zestily herbed and seasoned sausage patty. The sandwich tastes like it hails from South Philly. So does the “Lusty Lady” marinara saucing sourdough tagliatelle and several spicy little pork meatballs so tender you wonder how they hold their shape.
Aioli punched up with sambal heat and crunchy pickled vegetables bolster a pan-fried cod cake seasoned like a Maryland-style crabcake. The same sauce ignites braised chicken adobo piled on jalapeño-spiked cabbage slaw, crowning a salad of mostly romaine, not bibb as the menu stated. Better to have it on a bun instead.
The delightful “simple greens small salad” was neither simple nor small; fresh chevre, shaved fennel and apple embellished the vinaigrette-dressed greens. A fried egg and savory asiago beignets are lagniappes with the lemony Caesar.
The deep-fried bites of breaded cheese are distant kin to the cinnamon-sugar-dusted dessert beignets, light and airy marvels that, along with sourdough griddle cakes, will be a feature of weekend brunch, beginning June 1.
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 email@example.com.