Vinnie’s | ★½ | Seafood | $$-$$$$ | Belltown | 2505 Second Ave. Suite 103, Seattle; no phone; vinniesseattle.com; Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.; no reservations
As they’ve sometimes done in the past — evaluating the likes of Seattle’s posh rooftop bars and Mutsuko Soma’s new sake-and-snacks bar Hannyatou — Seattle Times critics Bethany Jean Clement and Tan Vinh will occasionally team up to review a place for you. Here’s their take on a new Seattle seafood spot.
Bethany Jean Clement: Vinnie’s is the latest bar-and-restaurant combo from Anu Apte-Elford and Chris Elford, the duo best known for the tiny-but-mighty Belltown craft-beer bar No Anchor, which earned much love for its creative and super-delicious food under chef Jeffrey Vance (hello, fish sauce Caesar!). He even scored No Anchor a James Beard Best New Restaurant nomination in 2017, while also anchoring the Elfords’ newer stylized take on a tiki bar, Navy Strength. But Vance left Seattle for Los Angeles recently. (Sad trombone! And no, he’s not cooking anywhere there currently, so L.A.’s out of luck on that front, too.)
Former Navy Strength sous chef Alexus Williams is in charge of Vinnie’s concise, sustainably minded, generally not-too-pricey seafood menu, and anyone familiar with the food scene here knows we could really use more of that (how is it that Seattle’s not a great place for seafood restaurants?!). The space is pretty, airy and vaguely nautical — some marine rope and such — conveying the feeling that you might be on holiday at a cool little wine bar in, say, Lisbon. It’s named after Apte-Elford’s mom (as noted sweetly on the menu), the wine is all natural, and everything seems set up for greatness. Even the wine glasses are especially nice, with a blue and green pattern that matches the tile behind the bar. We wanted to love Vinnie’s so much …
Tan Vinh: Apte-Elford also owns the stellar cocktail den Rob Roy nearby. No Anchor and Navy Strength have been two of the most important developments in Belltown in the past four years — this pair pulled bar-hoppers to an area that had resembled a ghost town after 9 p.m. What they have been doing there is extraordinary. Earlier this year, No Anchor nabbed another James Beard nomination for Outstanding Bar Program, and last year, their tiki-inspired Navy Strength was named Best New Cocktail Bar in America at the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail. A cocktail bar, a beer bar — they needed a wine bar for the trifecta.
Bethany: And naturally, it’s a natural wine bar, since biodynamic is all the rage these days.
Tan: Were the couple on a cruise ship’s lido deck crossing the Atlantic Ocean when they came up with this drink list? Vinnie’s spirits-and-cocktail menu channels the sea with Islay Scotch and other brown spirits and cocktails that feature briny notes like the “Seaside Martini.” I like where they’re going with this theme — it’s far more interesting than their wine lineup. A natural wine bar doesn’t need to carry the big boys like Clos Rougeard and Overnoy to have cred, but I wish the selection was better here. The skin-contact sauvignon blanc is worth seeking out, but those gems were few and far in between. A rosé had ripe strawberry notes. A riesling hinted of green apple. And a hoppy wine was intriguing only in the first two sips, and in any event is a better conversation-starter served at their beer bar next door. These were more one-note, so-so wines that don’t excite me the way the ambitious tropical drink list does at Navy Strength and that don’t surprise me the way the eclectic beer list does at No Anchor.
Bethany: Hats off to the winemakers doing it the environmentally friendly way, but I’m going to say that some of these, with their aggressive cidery or kombucha-esque flavors, definitely fight with delicate seafood — and win, unhappily. The servers know fun facts about the wines (there’s one that only the feet of elderly women are allowed to touch during crush), but they’ll tell you that everything on the list goes perfectly with the seafood tower, which is not the case. The best match was the least argumentative and most balanced one I tried, a faintly lemony gruner sylvaner from Battenfeld-Spanier. Tan had one rosé that smelled as if fruit had dirty socks; it tasted interesting, but this is not easy-pairing wine.
But I love Vinnie’s cocktails. They can pull off the neat trick of making a drink with one of your least-favorite spirits that you’ll deeply appreciate anyway. For me, “Four Horsemen of the Coincidence” made mezcal less oversmoked and more magic via a house-made riesling-lime cordial. And — please don’t tell anyone, I know it’s deeply déclassé — I really prefer a vodka martini, but Vinnie’s “Seaside” gin version has a beautiful, subtle salinity to it without going anywhere near full-dirty. It tastes like an excellent vacation.
Food-wise, our first visit felt promising. The steamed butterfish in dashi loaded with shiitakes earned its menu descriptor “other-worldly” — the fish rich, lush and silky-soft, the broth full of umami and somehow also elegantly austere. We also very much liked the cool salad of Dungeness crab livened up with preserved lemon and a noticeable horseradish level, with pretty butter-lettuce leaves to wrap it up in. But then there were the butter-poached prawns. I love prawns (and shrimp!) so much that bad ones can leave me depressed for days. These were despair-prawns … and still that way when we tried them again on another visit, just to be fair.
Tan: They were mushy and acrid.
Bethany: Leaving prawns uneaten almost physically pains me. We could not eat these. Twice.
Tan: We both concluded that the butterfish was the best thing we had. “Can’t wait to go back,” I wrote in my notes. Well, when I ordered that fish bowl a second time; the dashi broth was oversalted, not the nuanced, luscious offering of the first go-around.
The inconsistencies sum up my experience. With the seafood charcuterie or “seacuterie” — the first time around, I couldn’t tell you what seafood this originated from. On a second visit, the octopus terrine, salmon pastrami and the smoked-fish rillettes tasted more like their representation, their texture neither waxy nor rubbery. I love Vinnie’s scallop-and-shrimp XO mayo-sauce, but its smoky pungency overwhelmed the caviar slider. If they would just smear this housemade XO mayo over toast, it would be the best dish on their starter-and-snack menu.
Bethany: The lack of consistency is real. The first time we had the salmon pastrami, it was inedibly salty (and we’re both fans of salt); the next time, pleasantly lox-like. Tan tried the summer salad and liked it; on a separate visit, mine was underdressed and odd, with cauliflower not so much roasted as scorched in spots, plus tough-podded, overpoweringly sour pickled beans. The clam chowder I tried contained undercooked potatoes and chewy clams; Tan says his was completely fine. The seafood tower we ate on one visit looked sadly sparse, with lots of ice showing on its two levels; for $98, you expect bounty. And again, the different elements varied wildly in terms of quality — including more of the prawns of sorrow. Vinnie’s just seems a bit out of its depth.
Tan: Vinnie’s feels like a rough draft, not a polished product like Navy Strength or No Anchor.
Vinnie’s: 2505 Second Ave. Suite 103, Seattle; no phone; vinniesseattle.com; Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.; no reservations
Recommended for its lovely atmosphere, tasty cocktails and interesting natural wines; for its food, not so much
Prices: $$-$$$$ (raw bar items $13-$24, plus a seafood tower that feeds two for $98; “other snacks” $6-$22)
Noise level: fairly quiet
Service is very friendly but not always super-professional.
Drinks: excellent cocktails $9-$13; natural wines $11-$16 by the glass; beer and cider $3-$12
Access: no stairs; two gender-neutral restrooms are accessible, but oddly require going through two doors and a stretch of the building’s lobby