The concept — loosely defined as where the ocean meets the forest — allows a lot of creative license, but Rider is also a restaurant attached to a hotel downtown, so the menu plays it a little safe, too.
Tallyho! Rider trotted into downtown just after Thanksgiving, finally filling the empty space at Seventh and Pine vacated by Von’s when it moved closer to the waterfront in 2013. The restaurant is part of the newly revamped and re-christened Hotel Theodore (known as The Roosevelt since 1929).
Von’s was (and still is) famous for its $5 martinis and Manhattans. Rider has a $17 Manhattan made with 2-year-old, barrel-aged straight bourbon from SoDo distiller 2Bar Spirits. The drink symbolizes the restaurant’s goal, which is to be “a real, authentic Seattle experience … approachable but memorable … rooted in this place,” according to executive chef David Nichols and general manager Jonathan Fleming. Rider has the potential to be just that, once it clears a few hurdles.
Nichols grew up on a farm in Cashmere and recently returned to Washington after more than a decade in New York City, where he was executive chef at Landmarc in the Time-Warner Center and at Irvington in the W Hotel Union Square. Fleming, a UW grad, has managed restaurants as diverse as Ivar’s Acres of Clams, RN74 and Ciudad. Together they’ve made sure there is plenty about Rider that tethers it to the city and the Pacific Northwest. Wood smoke perfumes the air and tattersall covers the banquettes in the white-tiled dining room. A sprig of rosemary is tucked into each leather napkin ring. The menu and beverage program display admirable local fervor. The concept — loosely defined as where the ocean meets the forest — allows a lot of creative license, but Rider is also a restaurant attached to a hotel in a downtown nexus for tourists, theatergoers and conventioneers, so the menu plays it a little safe, too.
619 Pine St., Seattle
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. daily; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; breakfast 7-11 a.m. Monday-Friday; brunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; happy hour 3-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-midnight daily
Prices: $$$$ (soup, salads, starters $11-$18; seafood plateau $40-$120; grilled fish and meats $28-$65; dinner entrees $19-$32; lunch entrees $16-$28)
Drinks: full bar; Northwest- and California-focused wine list; local spirits and beers
Service: more enthusiastic than polished
Parking: garages nearby
Sound: moderate to loud
Credit cards: all major
Access: wheelchair lift from dining room to bar level to hotel atrium
Boxes on the menu highlight specialties like raw seafood and grilled meats and fish, but some of Rider’s most interesting dishes are outside those boxes. I’m thinking of farro cooked like risotto with wild mushrooms, Parmesan and enough kale to turn the grains into an emerald green porridge. Of kohlrabi and squash salad mounded on ricotta-like fresh cheese that tempers the piquant, minty chimichurri dressing clinging to the spiralized vegetables. Of fresh noodles made with sweet roasted carrots worked into the dough, tossed with whole clams, Calabrian chilies and a rousing chorus of cilantro and lime.
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Clams and calamari inhabit the “Salish Sea Cioppino,” a chili-stoked tomato-based soup revealing a strong current of Dungeness crab distilled from the shells. The crabmeat itself goes into another dish: crab toast. Creamed with coconut milk, puréed fennel and salsify root, scattered with chives and dill, the crabmeat lay like drifted snow on a grilled slab of Sea Wolf Baker’s rustic bread. Each bite made me glad the toast trend isn’t toast yet.
Iced seafood plateaus come in varying degrees of grandeur and price. The entry level, a $40 “novice” plateau, is intended for one or two diners. I can’t fault the freshness but only a seafood neophyte would have been happy with the array: four vibrant mussels escabeche; four sloppily shucked oysters; four raw clams lacking any intrinsic flavor; and a scallop shell holding a small amount of crudo with as much pink grapefruit as rockfish. Cured steelhead, a dish separate from the plateau, came with beets, turmeric-tinted yogurt and crispy puffed rice. Though lovely to look at, as with the crudo, the fish hardly registered.
Much of the cooking involves a custom-built multilevel monster grill fed with Washington apple wood and California almond wood. It’s visible from most of the comfortably spaced tables in the dining room, but the 10-seat chef’s counter gives diners a front-row seat. The cooks have the measure of this beast. A Quinault steelhead fillet, a bavette steak and duck breast were each skillfully cooked and elegantly sauced. (The duck includes a bonus confit leg.) Additional sauces can be had, but none that I tried bested what the kitchen chose to pair with each item. A flourish of fresh vegetables, fried herbs or dressed greens were the sole accompaniment for these proteins, so consider a side dish or two to round out the meal. I suggest tender roasted sunchokes in a garlicky sunchoke purée laced with fish sauce, or warm, pull-apart rolls. A dusting of nutritional yeast gives the soft bread a slight nutty flavor; a pot of tomalley-infused crab butter speckled with Old Bay seasoning makes them wickedly good.
“Everything is either cooked or kissed by the fire,” a waiter declared. A poached pear dessert could have used a much heartier embrace by the fire to soften it sufficiently for a spoon to penetrate the fruit. Longer cooking also might have benefited a hefty pork shank with cranberry beans, making both more yielding, but the braised greens, chorizo-like house-made sausage and the tang of pomegranate molasses in the baked beans deliciously distracted from those minor textural flaws.
Rider’s bigger hurdles are with staff training. I wish every server here was as practiced as they are pleasant. Some couldn’t identify sauces or describe wines by the glass. Others forgot things like a spoon for tea or serving utensils for dishes being shared. Pacing of multiple courses was problematic, too. We were still “working on” our seafood plateau when entrees arrived, which didn’t faze the servers as much as it did us.
Diners might disregard such lapses in a less pricey establishment, but Rider’s dinner entrees average $35. Sandwiches and other lunch entrees like fish and chips hover around $20. Appetizers, soups and salads priced in the double digits can further spike the bill. On top of that, there’s an automatic 20 percent service charge in lieu of tipping, an idea I generally support, but it does behoove the restaurant to provide service commensurate with the price.