Little Water Cantina on Lake Union offers some picture-perfect food in a picturesque setting.
This much I know is true about Seattle restaurants and the dining public: Open by the water and they will come in droves, especially when the sun shines.
No surprise then that in the sun-soaked run-up to a glorious Fourth of July weekend, the wait for a table at Eastlake’s 2-month-old Little Water Cantina was nearly an hour. The picnic tables on the 2,200-square-foot patio were jampacked; so was the adjacent dining room, hugged by a curved wall of cinder block opposite floor-to-ceiling sliding doors opened wide to the panorama of Lake Union (Seattle’s “little water”).
There is no view from the interior bar — 24 gorgeous feet of live-edge Pacific Madrone illuminated by pendant lamps made of antique gramophone horns — but no empty seats there either. We found solace in the street-side lounge, where everyone seemed to be marking time until they could join the party next door. (Come November, that intimate anteroom equipped with a fireplace will have its season of glory, too.)
The fun is fueled by cocktails painted with the same colors nature uses for the scenery and the sunset. White port sangria blushes pink with Campari, grape and guava. Lime and mint give an emerald tint to Spicy Fogo, a fruity cachaca cocktail roughened with Serrano pepper.
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Chef Shannon Wilkinson’s food is just as pretty. Co-owner of Little Water with his wife, Laura, Wilkinson worked for years on “Top Chef” and he filters his love of Mexican cuisine through a TV producer’s lens. Nearly every plate is ready for its glamour shot. The best of them thrill with clean, focused flavors.
Kick things off with a colorful callejera salad — chili-dusted, lime-splashed spears of mango, jicama, watermelon and cucumber — or a stunning tuna ceviche. Habanero and mandarinquat (a kumquat and mandarin cross) duke it out to a delicious draw between sweet and heat and their communion transforms St. Jude’s albacore into pale, soft petals scattered among tart twigs of cucumber, jicama and citrus zest.
Cocktail sauce paints sweet Gulf shrimp nestled in guacamole as luxurious as any I’ve tasted. Alaskan halibut cheeks under a cap of frilly fried kale wore a necklace of epazote-flecked corn and a skirt of sunny mango sauce so butter-rich and habanero-happy it hardly mattered that the cheeks were a wee bit dry. In this vivacious company, sedate rockfish tacos barely commanded attention.
On the carnivore side, chorizo and potato plumped hot, flaky empanadas. Vanilla haunts wonderful cider-braised pork tostadas. Both are dainty bites compared with wild boar torta ahogada, Wilkinson’s take on the Guadalajaran “drowned sandwich.” Grilled pineapple sweetly punctuates tender smoked meat edged with crusty “bark” packed into a toasted bolo roll. Each half is placed cut-side down in a rip-roaring red chili sauce so good you’ll dunk for more with every bite. (Do your shirt a favor and tuck the generous cotton towel that serves as a napkin under your chin.)
Turkey-leg enchiladas with hazelnut mole, on the other hand, grew monotonous after a few bites, despite the welcome murmur of chili heat. It’s a rich sauce for an already rich milk-braised meat wrapped in corn tortillas. Too much of it ultimately defeats the dish.
Carne asada was D.O.A., so incinerated it looked like charcoal. Since the hangar steak is cut in half for plating (with beautifully grilled asparagus and mushrooms over lackluster black beans) you’d think the gray interior would have given someone pause before sending it out to a customer who’d ordered medium-rare.
No doubt the kitchen was as frenzied that night as the front of the house. Things became downright comical when checks arrived at the wrong tables causing a flurry of scrutinizing and exchanging tabs. Laura Wilkinson is a calm and gracious captain who does her best to steady the boat, but even on a slower night service wobbled. Perhaps the rainy spring worked in their favor, buying some time. Now that summer’s here in earnest, I hope they find their sea legs soon. Little Water just needs to get a little better to be great.
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