New Heartwood Provisions downtown is emphasizing its cocktails as much as the food. But can it, and others, successfully do both well? We try five spots.

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It used to be that if you wanted a good cocktail, you just headed to a reputable bar. It’s pretty much an accepted doctrine by the hotel concierge.

But then the craft-cocktail renaissance created a new type of establishment, places that give equal weight to the dinner and the drinks.

The recently opened Heartwood Provisions takes it even further. It wants to make the case that cocktails aren’t just an aperitif or a digestif in a dinner setting. They present opportunities for cutting-edge food pairings — swapping you a cocktail instead of, say, a Bordeaux or a Belgian beer to go with your entree.

As Heartwood Provisions ventures into this territory, Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement and cocktail writer Tan Vinh wanted to see if the new downtown bar restaurant could pull it off.

They dropped in at Heartwood Provisions and four more places whose mantra is that cocktails can be as important as what’s on the plate. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Heartwood Provisions

1103 First Ave., Seattle, 206-582-3505, heartwoodsea.com

Bethany Jean Clement: Brand-spanking-new Heartwood Provisions is handsome in the unsurprising way you’d expect from its parent company, Consolidated Restaurants, responsible for the Metropolitan Grill, Elliott’s and the Wing Domes, among others. The downtown McCormick & Schmick’s used to be here, and the place feels like a self-conscious fish-and-steakhouse update. The huge, curved bar, with an exceptional amount of workspace, signals the commitment to cocktails, as do the dish-and-drink pairings throughout the menu. Even beverage director Amanda Reed shares top billing with chef Varin Keokitvon.

The 5 O’Clock Shadow cocktail at Heartwood Provisions is essentially a sangria with sherry, black pepper-infused scotch, lime and lambrusco, garnished with a piece of salty Serrano ham.  (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
The 5 O’Clock Shadow cocktail at Heartwood Provisions is essentially a sangria with sherry, black pepper-infused scotch, lime and lambrusco, garnished with a piece of salty Serrano ham. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

Tan Vinh: But, you know, pairing cocktails with food usually doesn’t work. They’re like the loud, boozy guests who clash with everyone at the party. I see Heartwood Provisions tries to solve that by making cocktails with the DNA of wine — including vermouth and sherry — and also with lower-proof spirits. They’re on the right track, but I don’t think they pulled it off. Its best pairing comes in the form of a garnish: The 5 O’Clock Shadow cocktail, essentially a sangria (sherry, black-pepper-infused scotch, lime and lambrusco) to balance a piece of salty Serrano ham.

Clement: Yes, the drink was light but layered, a lovely concoction. To nitpick, thinner-sliced ham would’ve been a better fit.

Vinh: Heartwood’s most elegant drink was its most simple: a sweet Hayman’s Old Tom Gin cut with lemon and celery bitters and sizzling with the fizz of sparkling wine. It made for a crisp and clean cocktail with vegetal notes that could go with a million dishes — except for the yellowtail crudo that the menu insisted was its match. The briny bombs of green olives obliterated the delicate drink.

Clement: I agree. This cocktail rang like a bell, but the overcomplications of the crudo — those olives, plus sharp bits of grapefruit, horseradish, smoky-tart pimenton vinaigrette, an avocado element — landed with a thud. If this and a similarly multifarious duck confit entree are any indication, the kitchen might need to dial back on the ambition and heed the drinks’ call for clarion flavors.

Single Shot

611 Summit Ave. E., Seattle (206-420-2238, singleshotseattle.com)

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Clement: Capitol Hill’s Single Shot hits an atmospheric sweet spot: It’s intimate yet airy, casually elegant. The long, narrow shotgun-shack-style space is made spacious by high ceilings, a lovely marble bar and restraint in the décor department. The namesake firearm — a prominently hung oversized wooden one — makes all the statement anyplace needs. Chef James Sherrill’s thoughtful, highly praised upscale menu creates a drinks-and-oh-maybe-some-dinner date that makes you look marvelous, but not like you’re trying too hard.

Vinh: Opening bar manager Adam Fream put Single Shot on the radar for his cocktail program. Brady Sprouse is the new manager but an old hand at this game, with stints at Smith and Oliver’s Twist. It’s still consistently good under his helm. The Stinger, this year’s hot retro drink, gets a smart makeover with Branca Menta subbing for crème de menthe to add herbaceousness and a crisp minty flavor, plus Calvados and Angostura bitters.

Clement: The Dungeness crab trifle was my single most favorite thing at all the places we went: an airy-but-savory parfait extraordinaire, smooth and cool and subtle, with fresh crab stacked on top and a little citrus hit of cara cara orange embedded. It also made such a good match with the Autumn Almanac cocktail, I wanted to marry both of them.

Vinh: I love that Autumn Almanac as much as you love the crab trifle. It’s one of the best tequila drinks I’ve had in recent seasons, an aromatic cocktail (tequila, spiced wildflower honey, lime and grapefruit) with earthy, citrusy and floral notes.

At Damn The Weather in Pioneer Square, the Caesar salad sandwich is a crowd favorite, here served with chicken fat fries.  (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
At Damn The Weather in Pioneer Square, the Caesar salad sandwich is a crowd favorite, here served with chicken fat fries. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Damn the Weather

116 First Ave. S., Seattle (206-946-1283, damntheweather.com)

Clement: With its smartly restrained interior and exposed brick, Damn the Weather seems to have known it didn’t have to get all gussied up to become an instant classic in historic Pioneer Square. It reads more bar than restaurant, making chef Eli Dahlin’s adventurous food feel like discovering a secret — though that cat’s way out of the bag, with D.T.W. on the 2015 Bon Appétit top 50 new restaurants list.

Vinh: Not many Seattle spots get this much national ink. But for a place so celebrated, Damn the Weather sure plays it safe. It doesn’t use its pulpit to take the risks that you would expect from a staff with pedigrees from Vessel, Rob Roy and Sambar. The tequila and chicken consommé pairing was a nice tease. But the bar features daiquiris and margaritas to cater to the mainstream and tourists who’ve read about Damn the Weather in The New York Times.

Clement: Foodwise, it can cater its salt-and-pepper chicken skins or its Caesar salad sandwich to my mouth anytime (though the latter I had most recently was seriously overdressed). I loved their pristine, simple scallop crudo, too, though an artichoke risotto was a richness overload. And the bar does make boring old classic cocktails with beautiful exactitude, like an excellent pisco sour.

Vinh: They make good cocktails, for sure. I just wished these guys would push themselves more, take a few more chances. I want to see more drinks like its Bella Amargo, an Armagnac cocktail that is dried out with vermouth and some artichoke liqueur for a funky, savory profile.

Canon

928 12th Ave., Seattle (canonseattle.com)

Vinh: Seattle’s most esteemed cocktail den consistently puts out the most original drink list: every two months, a new roster of three- to four-ingredient cocktails that impart more complexity than what other bars do with six or seven components. That — and not its rare whiskey collection — has always been the most impressive thing about Jamie Boudreau’s cocktail temple.

Clement: To the non-cocktail-nerd, though, Canon’s sheer number of glowing bottles — thousands of them, cheek-by-jowl on custom-made shelves practically to the pressed-tin ceiling — is gorgeously overwhelming, like you’ve died and gone to some library-of-liquor heaven. (Don’t think about earthquakes.) The good stuff coming out of the kitchen here has never gotten enough play, however.

Vinh: For sure, but it’s still a drinking den at heart. Boudreau has the two best cognac cocktails in the city now. His Truffle Old Fashioned — cognac infused with truffle — gives you the kind of nose-full of baking spices and vanilla notes that you’d only get when your aunt is baking. The Traverse Cherry cocktail would be overrun with its nutty and dark fruit components (orgeat syrup and cherry) in lesser hands. Here the richness gets dialed back with lemon juice for a subtle tartness that makes this drink sing. I often get the pork belly buns.

Clement: The buns! Everyone loves those. And their sweet-spicy-softness makes them perfect booze-soaking-up fodder. Also the big, thick-cut, sous-vide pork chop was super-tender with a fabulous sear; the mostarda playing the applesauce role added the kick of whole-grain mustard, and the crisped-up, savory spaetzle was just great. I’d skip the heavy gnocchi, though.

Spur Gastropub’s Mermaid Avenue cocktail is made with gin, dry sherry, white vermouth, grapefruit bitters and sea salt.  (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)
Spur Gastropub’s Mermaid Avenue cocktail is made with gin, dry sherry, white vermouth, grapefruit bitters and sea salt. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)

Spur Gastropub

113 Blanchard St., Seattle (206-728-6706, mccrackentough.com/spur)

Clement: Chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough opened Spur in Belltown in 2008 — in Seattle bar years, it’s practically old-school, and the understated room with its industrial hints looks almost old-fashioned. These days, they’ve got Tavern Law, the Old Sage and the now-private-events-only Coterie Room to contend with as well, but the menu’s still got modernist touches.

What I loved most about being back here was how the perforated-drum light fixtures in the bar cast shadows like ghostly patterned wallpaper. That, and the salmon crostini: fat, vivid cubes of oil-poached sockeye with creamy mascarpone, plus jolts of pickled shallot and capers, on a crunchy bread-cracker. And while the duck breast was marred by eye-wateringly pickled pieces of satsuma, a tagliatelle with sous-vide duck egg and Parmesan foam was creamily pleasing.

Vinh: That sockeye crostini is still one of the best bites I’ve had in Seattle. I wish I could say that about the cocktails. The same drinks retested a few days later bore little resemblance to what we sipped. The drinks were stellar on one visit, and the next visit — eh, not so much. Perhaps the loss of talented bar man Seth Sempere recently explains the disappointing unevenness in the glass. Spur’s gin aperitif — the Mermaid Avenue (white vermouth, dry sherry, sea salt and grapefruit bitters) — made my list of Top 10 cocktails of 2015, but this time, it didn’t have that briny zing.