La Dive | ★★½ | Bar | $-$$ | Capitol Hill | 721 E. Pike St., Seattle; no phone; on Facebook; Monday-Friday 3 p.m.-2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday noon-2 a.m., with food served until 1 a.m. every day; no reservations
THE MURAL AT La Dive doubles as a psychological test, or maybe it’s the documentation of a dream. How does lightning shooting out of fingertips — given the perspective, maybe your own — make you feel? What do you suppose is the meaning of the train tracks going through a tunnel in the wall, behind which awaits a very starry night sky? Seattle artist Jennifer Ament’s striking graphic style is more promisingly odd than ominous, something to gaze at and contemplate, should you feel like thinking along with your drinking.
New on Capitol Hill, La Dive — pronounced, Frenchily, “lah deeve” — seems more set for Pike/Pine party time. The menu of small plates and snacks might easily be mistaken for an afterthought, given the kinds of drinking to be done. Natural wines make their currently required-by-law appearance, as do familiar cocktails and the now-also-requisite slushies — but the usual suspects get funny makeovers here, à la Seattle’s cocktail-geek favorite The Last Word transformed into a Jell-O shot. Instead of summertime-trend frosé, it’s fancier, smarter and even more au courant “francerre”: Sancerre frozen with the sweet-and-heat taste of St. George green chile vodka and a little simple syrup, cut with the tartness of lots of lime. The taste ends up a little like a margarita making out with quality white wine.
Sparkling wine gets served in a Chambong — a Champagne flute’s unholy union with a beer bong — for $8 a pop, or $5 filled up with the Champagne of beers, aka Miller High Life. Does this kind of drinking gimmickry make you feel conflicted? Me too, and yet it seemed important to immediately order one, and it proved to be good, spilly fun.
For the innovation-opposed, La Dive’s “extremely cold martini” bracingly lives up to its name. They make it in batches and keep it in the freezer, which makes all the sense for both coldness and consistency, though in the latter category, the gin edition tasted over-vermouthed one night, then completely balanced another. From the choices of garnish, a slice of beet makes a most defensible departure from martini tradition, leaking its juice gorgeously. Those feeling less than particular and just plain weary may want the “long day home pour,” the bar’s choice of one red and one white wine served filled to the brim — so you’d best lean in — at $12 for 8.5 ounces.
NOBODY SEEMS to be eating much here, but everyone should — not just for ballast, but because La Dive’s making substantial snacks that have their wits about them, all $11 or under. Chef David Gurewitz’s résumé includes Lark, Spinasse, Mamnoon, Little Uncle, Chicago’s Blackbird and Michelin-starred Guy Savoy in Paris; he set up the very good bar food at local Standard Brewing, too. He grew up in Minneapolis in a Jewish household, with grandparents from Belarus, Lithuania and Poland; he says he loves the food and drink traditions of Eastern Europe, so he looked to take things in that direction at La Dive.
The obvious go-to choice on Gurewitz’s menu is dumplings, which he takes from his roots to a very nice place. The wrappers are fresh-tasting, chewy and springy, with the amount of tasty potato or pork filling just right; both kinds bathe in a buttery broth, with cilantro to brighten up the potato, while pork gets balanced with kraut-y vinegar, sour cream and dill. Every one turned up perfectly cooked over several visits, and it’s hard to imagine going to La Dive without eating them every time.
From the selection of “toasts,” served on Macrina rye, kielbasa from Olympia Provisions makes an unprecedentedly pretty appearance: It’s cut in glistening, bite-sized pieces and dressed with slices of cucumber, strips of onion, a confetti of chopped chive and dots of horseradish dyed bright pink with beet juice, just for fun. The toast loaded with plump, silvery Matiz sardines come in a close second, beautywise: It’s topped with a tangle of yellow pickled fennel and more chives, and the flavors and color of Georgian adjika — a spicy-ish, salty, apparently completely delicious dip — augment a slathering of orange-gold mayonnaise underneath. Vegetarian toast with split pea hummus, miso, walnut, pickled beet and dill looked almost as lovely and tasted almost as rich, interesting to eat without going off too far in any odd direction. Aside from a mozzarella grilled cheese that remained boring despite the additions of feta and dates, and a chicken liver pashtet that tasted savory and luxurious one evening and disappearingly tasteless another, La Dive’s toasts have all been thoughtfully conceived; they are exceptionally well-built and doing all the good that an open-faced sandwich should.
The very best thing at La Dive may be, somewhat improbably, the cauliflower. Roasted exactly right, it’s served in a glorious heap with a silky mustard-and-cream sauce infused with lime leaf. Inspired by an Indian dish he ate once and couldn’t forget, Gurewitz also gives this lucky cauliflower a tarka of shallots, golden raisins, mustard seeds and caraway seeds fried in butter and finished with a squeeze of lemon. The crispy shallots, chewy raisins, all these textures and flavors bathed in butter together — it’s so beautiful! And the funniest thing at La Dive is the “Minnesota sushi,” the visual joke of Russian potato salad rolled up in prosciutto, which also turns out to be ideal with High Life or bubbles. A reader board with food specials on the wall is easy to miss, and so far the regular menu’s yielded better results than the just-all-right lamb stew and a bland lamb turnover found on different nights there.
They should serve the potato salad, creamy and vinegary with bits of carrot and the pop of unexpected peas, on its own as a side. Ingredients reappear here — the beets in your drink, or on your toast, or as a small plate (and, sorry, a dull one). For a full bar, there’s very little shaken or stirred — cocktails are prebatched or served on tap. You’re unlikely to get the kind of natural-wine education you’ll find at a place like Petite Soif, but the funky ones are kindly marked on the menu with La Dive’s DIY-style, hand-drawn lightning-bolt logo. Service is order-at-the-counter, always friendly, if sometimes rushed.
From an operational perspective, these little choices amount to big, intelligent streamlining for Seattle’s tough restaurant climate. And if it ends up feeling like the right corners are being cut, that’s probably because of who rounds out La Dive’s team: Kate Opatz, part-owner of Capitol Hill’s popular Montana and Nacho Borracho, and Anais Custer, who’s worked in management and wine at Ethan Stowell restaurants and Mbar, and also part of the Garbage People Love Wine pop-ups. They’ve clearly put as much thought into the experience and the drinks as Gurwitz did for the menu.
The place’s reset from its incarnation as a sandwich shop also shows smarts: a few basic, wooden booths stayed and a pink, L-shaped bar got installed, along with a handful of tables and some sparkly upholstered stools. Simple stuff, but the lighting is just right, and there’s the mural for musing. And while La Dive sounds like a pile of everything hippest at this exact moment — Natural wine! Toasts! Dumplings! White Claw! Chambong! — it’s got all the potential to become a longtime favorite place.
La Dive: 721 E. Pike St., Seattle; no phone; on Facebook; Monday-Friday 3 p.m.-2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday noon-2 a.m., with food served until 1 a.m. every day
Recommended for creative, generally very tasty and affordable small plates, open-faced “toasts” sandwiches and dumplings; recommended for both party-time cocktails like slushies and the “extremely cold martini” with beet garnish; recommended for natural wines in styles from traditional to funky (and marked as such on menu)
Prices: $-$$ (small plates $4-$9; toasts $7-$10; dumplings $8 small/$11 large; specials $4-$15)
Noise level ranges from fairly quiet on the earlier side/off nights to rather loud during peak hours.
Service is order-at-the-counter and always friendly, if sometimes in a rush.
Drinks: cocktails from shots to slushies to the batched “extremely cold martini,” $4-$10; Chambong of Miller High Life $5, bubbles $8; natural wines in styles from traditional to funky (and marked as such on-menu) from $8-$15/glass, $32-$60 bottle; beer from a can of Rainier for $4 to Holy Mountain rotating can for $12
Access: no obstacles, one gender-neutral restroom with lighting so Instagrammable, it could cause delays