Josh Henderson’s sports bar Quality Athletics looks like the well-appointed clubhouse of a championship team. Lockers line one wall; artificial turf covers the floor; trophies crowd shelves. Long tables are set for 10; booths are few; deuces rare. Twenty screens in various sizes are never dark.
But Quality Athletics is a sports bar in the same way that Skillet is a diner, Hollywood Tavern is a roadhouse and Westward is a fish house: archly, ironically, ostensibly, but not really.
For Henderson, the founder of all those enterprises, a sports bar within blocks of the city’s major-league playing fields must have seemed ripe for the kind of reinvention his Huxley Wallace team excels at. They printed their mission on shiny gold matchbooks: “Change the game.”
When the restaurant opened in mid-September, with executive chef Seth Richardson leading the kitchen crew, the menu was conspicuously devoid of comfort-food clichés, but there were plenty of winks and nods to typical game-day fare.
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If you wanted wings, you had three choices: duck, chicken or salmon (bony fish collars with winglike fins cocked). Bacon-infused potato croquettes with green onion crème fraîche was the riposte to tater tots. A Philly cheesesteak contained lamb, provolone, pickled peppers and fresh mint (sacrilegious in my book only because the meat was in chunks and the baguette was granite-hard on top, soggy on the bottom.)
A person could order quinoa salad and fried Brussels sprouts, but if you wanted a burger, you were out of luck.
Soon (maybe inevitably), a bacon cheeseburger was added to the roster. It’s been rightly popular. The meat is juicy; the bacon crackles; the pickled onions pop. The “New Hampshire sauce” on the toasted bun tastes like a ketchup and aioli mash-up.
On the recently rolled-out winter card, lunch and dinner have merged into an all-day menu that offers fish and chips, Caesar salad, a BLT and steak frites, but also pork broth “ramen” and kalbi ribs. Some of the changes are seasonal tweaks, but it signals a directional shift. “We are definitely listening to customer demands,” a spokeswoman said.
I don’t know if the salmon wings, succulently smoked and glazed with honey and coriander, were voted off or just retired for the season, but only chicken and duck remain; whole wings so unavoidably messy they come with a supply of wet wipes. (The servers here are champs.)
Charred chicken wings sticky with sweet chili sauce nod to Buffalo with pickled celery sticks and ranch dressing with an umami undercurrent of black garlic. Before you take a bite of the fiery, jerk-spiced duck wings, lavish them with lime crème fraîche, dotted with pickled pomegranate seeds if you care about your ability to taste anything afterward.
Insanely good chorizo and queso dip with a side of tortilla chips amounts to deconstructed nachos. The tortilla chips are too fragile for heavy lifting, so use your fork and drill below the creamy corona of chorizo and asadero cheese to find the whole black beans hiding in the depths of a little cast-iron pot.
Nothing precious about the fried-chicken sandwich, packing crisp, honeyed nuggets of dark meat, smoked red pepper aioli and pungent mizuna leaves under its toasted bun. Don’t deny yourself the exceptional fries, though there is the option of a side salad.
A beautifully fresh but underdressed salad of butter lettuce, radish and hazelnuts accompanies steak frites. If the current 7-ounce New York strip is grilled as expertly as the tri-tip I sampled, don’t ruin it with “Sexyco sauce,” a dull, brown gravy mercifully served on the side.
How many sports bars excel at vegetables? Fried Brussels sprouts have browned, nutty-tasting outer leaves concealing just-tender bellies. Lambrusco vinaigrette and a dash of Saba (grape must syrup) give them a sweet-tart punch; shaved pecorino a sharp finish.
Grilled fennel and Delicata squash (the latter grown in the building’s rooftop garden) bulked out a lemony, chermoula-laced quinoa salad. I had it as a small plate, topped with a fried egg. Now it’s entree-sized, with chicken replacing the egg, which I think is a better idea.
Whether “togarashi cracka jax and nori sprinkles” belong on a salted caramel peanut butter ice-cream sundae, I leave for you to decide. Some things shouldn’t be messed with, but try telling that to Josh Henderson.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org