Every six months, Navy Strength introduces a new food menu to match its latest flashy tiki drinks. How does it hold up?
The fastest way to get lit at Navy Strength is to order the Butuan City Soundtrack. That mango-sweetened ballad to bourbon comes with its own tiki torch. Citrus zest grated over the flame by the bartender induces a mini meteor shower.
Do not try this at home. In fact, none of the showy drinks here are easily duplicated by amateurs. You’d need an arsenal of spirits, spices, fruit juices and flavorings, not to mention a truckload of crushed ice, to reproduce Navy Strength’s punches, slings, slushies and fizzes. Go fruity or floral, sweet or sour, herbal or effervescent. Whatever road you take, trust owners Chris and Anu Elford and their expert bartenders to give you one hell of a good drink, just as they do at their beer-focused No Anchor next door and their classic cocktail den, Rob Roy, a block away.
Tiki bars are enjoying a resurgence across the country. They date back to 1933, when Don the Beachcomber opened in Hollywood, followed a few years later by Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Often described as “Polynesian,” they are an American invention, born of and feeding on an escapist longing for tropical Pacific isles. In their heyday, these restaurants were luxuriously decadent destinations for food as well as drinks. But don’t expect crab Rangoon and rumaki with your Mai Tai here. Navy Strength nods to that tradition but it is a 21st century tiki bar. There’s not a lot of kitsch and no cheeseburgers in this paradise.
These potent drinks demand food. That task falls to chef Jeffrey Vance and sous chef Alexus Williams. Every six months they introduce a new menu. Creating dishes to compete with such flashy cocktails must be like dancing backup for Beyoncé. No matter how good you are, is anyone likely to notice?
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Vance is a very good chef, as he proves at No Anchor. The new spring/summer menu, unveiled as Navy Strength marked its first anniversary last month, is full of good ideas. They are largely dishes ideal for warm-weather grazing and, like the drinks, they are inspired by various steamy ports of call: Laotian duck larb; Hawaiian kanpachi crudo; Chinese noodle salad; Cubano and banh mi sandwiches. Some rivet your attention; others can’t compete with the drinks.
Crisp cubes of spicy pickled daikon are a marvelous foil for garlicky chicken wings, deliciously sticky with maple and fish sauce. It’s one of three large plates; the other two are cold salads. Vance credits a member of his kitchen crew from Laos, Brandon Souriyamath, with providing direction and inspiration for duck larb, the better of the two. Minced leg and thigh meat, mixed with toasted rice powder, fish sauce, cilantro and lime, delivers heat, sweet and sour flavors with equal force. Wrapped in a lettuce leaf with sticky coconut rice and pickled vegetables, each bite is nuanced and exhilarating. The perfect chaser is the Escape Hatch, dark rum and falernum lightened with coconut water that you sip from a faux coconut shell.
There is a lot to like about the Chinese noodle salad — fresh herbs and bok choy, the spark of Szechuan pepper in the peanut sauce — but not the sodden, clumped noodles. The fish sauce Caesar is a returning fan favorite and remains a favorite of mine, too. I had high hopes for yuzu potato salad with charred corn, but the potatoes were hard and the corn carried no hint of char.
The potato salad accompanied the sandwiches. The Cubano’s Swiss cheese was unevenly melted, but it held lots of sweet pulled pork and thin slices of salty ham. The chicken-liver banh mi was well endowed with cilantro, pickled vegetables and a generous schmear of paté that soaked into the baguette along with Kewpie mayo. Both sandwiches came on outstanding Sea Wolf Bakery bread, though its gum-lacerating crust departs from both Cubano and Vietnamese custom. (A switch to different bread is planned.) A pair of steam buns were tough, not the puffy, light bao I expected and that would have shown off the vivid filling of hoisin-brushed tofu and shiitake mushrooms to its best advantage.
Hawaiian kanpachi and Washington albacore each put their best fins forward. Mauve-tipped slices of raw kanpachi slicked with olive oil became a dazzling mosaic interspersed with avocado cream, pickled green grapes, radish rounds and peppery sprouts. Nori chips cradled raw tuna flagged with mint, pickled jalapeño, tiny purple blossoms and a dab of sour pineapple gel.
That gel is one of seven ways they use pineapple here. The flesh is juiced, the fronds garnish drinks, the scraps are saved to make tepache vinegar (paired with fresh oysters) and chicha morada, a fermented juice made from dried purple corn, fruit and spices. The chicha partners with sherry, brandy and rum for the Chicha Marauder, among several Peruvian-inspired cocktails being featured for the next six months. They include the alluring Inca Libre, a blend of pisco, verbena and cream soda garnished with a fuchsia-rimmed slice of dragon fruit. The drink tastes like summer on the rocks and makes a sexier finale than either dessert: very dry banana rice pudding and dull soy-milk custard somewhat aroused by prickly-pear granita.
The rocks in the drinks are crushed because crushed-ice machines are incredibly water efficient. Looking for ways to eliminate waste is as ingrained in the daily process at Navy Strength as it is at No Anchor. That’s why a candy-striped reusable straw pokes from the orchid-bedecked Hinky Dinks Fizzy, a tall, shapely, blond bombshell of rum, gin and bubbles, invented at Trader Vic’s circa 1984.
Navy Strength ★★
2505 Second Ave., Seattle
Reservations: accepted; recommended for groups larger than six
Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Saturday; 4-11 p.m. Monday (Sunday hours coming soon)
Prices: $$ (plates $5-$27; drinks $11-$17)
Drinks: tiki cocktails and shareable bowls, plus a limited selection of beer, cider and wine
Service: more attentive at the bar than at tables
Parking: on street or in nearby lots
Credit cards: all major
Access: a few steps inside Wall Street entrance; wheelchair access through Second Avenue entrance