Babirusa has moved from its Eastlake strip-mall location to the former Kushibar space in Belltown, and ownership changes have been afoot. The food can be very good, says critic Providence Cicero, but not always.
Like the endangered Indonesian wild pig for which it is named, Babirusa has had a beleaguered existence. The bar reared its head in 2014 as the next-door-sibling to Blind Pig Bistro, launched by chef Charles Walpole and René Gutierrez three years earlier. By the end of last year, rent hikes had priced both businesses out of the scruffy Eastlake strip mall where Sitka & Spruce started out a dozen years ago.
Walpole and Gutierrez decamped to the former Kushibar space in Belltown where they combined the two concepts into one and reopened under the Babirusa banner in March. Two months later, citing personal-health reasons, Walpole departed, leaving Gutierrez as sole owner. Former chef de cuisine Ryan Miller took over the kitchen on June 1.
In theory that should guarantee a smooth transition. Miller had worked with Walpole at Blind Pig and headed the kitchen at Damn the Weather. But after four visits, two with Walpole at the helm, two with Miller, I’ve concluded the most consistent thing about Babirusa is its inconsistency. The food can be very good, but also halfhearted or poorly executed.
On the up side, Babirusa still serves one of the best burgers in town. It comes with the same chunky golden fried spuds that act as “chips” to faultless beer-battered cod served with a side of aioli punched up with yuzu kosho. I also have no beef with the medium-rare wagyu bavette steak backed by charred-eggplant sauce, ketchup’s dark, smoky cousin. It’s as flattering to the steak as to the beef-fat-basted fingerlings with it.
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The downside: Dinner is a roller-coaster ride. Among starters, smoked-cod hush puppies were a pleasant nibble, with or without a dip into chimichurri, but BBQ pork cracklings hardly crackled, though they did sizzle with gochujang. Horseradish and mint ricocheted through coarsely ground lamb tartare, partnered by delicate shards of oregano-speckled flatbread for scooping. Duck-liver mousse was equally delicious but arrived inelegantly slathered on crumbling fragments of oversized almond-oat crackers overloaded with currant jam.
It’s as if the kitchen’s adrenaline spikes, then peters out. Octopus came off the grill blackened and tender to join bok choy in peppery dashi, but brined and grilled Cornish hen had a severely scorched breast and was painfully salty from brining. Pork-loin chop was a tough chew, pork belly even tougher. The pearls among the swine were bits of cured pork collar that lent bacon-like goodness to steamed Manila clams with green almonds. That dish was supposed to contain rapini, but a few wilted leaves on top hardly counted.
I devoured sheets of cool, crisp kohlrabi in a salad dressed with buttermilk, Parmesan and dill, but pushed around under-seasoned grilled asparagus that had been poorly prepped; some of the woody bottoms were trimmed, others not. Fresh radishes protruded from tahini flavored with ash-roasted shallots and za’atar; it tasted wonderful but looked as appetizing as a toddler’s mud pie.
More care was lavished on presentation when it came to the tasting menu, which does justice to the restaurant’s growing collection of one-of-a-kind porcelain plates made by Deb Schwartzkopf of Rat City Studios. (Her partner, Joseph Wilkinson, is the artist behind the 27-foot, swirling ceramic sculpture currently installed above the booths opposite the kitchen.) The tasting menu, a not-insignificant $75 for six courses of the chef’s choosing, revealed Miller at his most creative and confident. Among the highlights: A smoked, chopped Cherrystone clam was tucked back into its purple-streaked shell with borage blossom; rockfish ceviche came with fir tips, serrano pepper and sweet-potato chips; and pale-green chamomile-and-curry cream wreathed a glorious, multitextured array of early-summer produce — snap peas, squash, radish and berries. A dry-aged version of that bavette steak was also superb.
A tandem vegetarian tasting menu impressed as well. (Special dietary requests require advance notice.) The courses were thematically linked and more than once I coveted my companion’s meatless counterparts. Flash-seared morels were even better than grilled quail with baby zucchini and black cap raspberries. Risotto-like farro, simmered with buttermilk, Parmesan and chopped garlic scapes, outshone a less-than-stellar sockeye fillet with grilled scapes and plain farro.
We enjoyed the tasting menu on the patio, a long, narrow breezeway with a few parched-looking plants that runs perpendicular to the main restaurant along the Second Avenue sidewalk. The restaurant’s interior is long and narrow, too. Up front, the colorful bar and lounge has a counter facing the sidewalk, a great place to knock back a deeply complex house Old-Fashioned. In the midsection, several hard, wooden booths sit in the harsh glare of the open kitchen. Throw pillows cozy up a small, banquette-rimmed dining area in the rear. I was happy to learn improvements to the space are ongoing. In addition to a more reliable kitchen, Babirusa could do with livelier décor and better lighting, or I fear it, too, may face extinction.
2319 Second Ave., Seattle
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 4 p.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday; lunch/brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; happy hour 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday
Prices: $$$ (snacks $5-$16, dinner plates $12-$27, lunch/brunch plates $12-$16)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; local beer and cider on draft; small Eurocentric wine list
Service: cordial, casual
Parking: on street or nearby lots
Sound: moderate to loud
Credit cards: all major (3 percent cash discount)
Access: no obstacles