I don’t understand Black Bottle. The menu confuses me. The wine list is baffling. The “gastro-tavern” itself can’t really decide where it falls along the space/time continuum. For some reason, I always imagine this must be what a contemporary American wine bar looks like in Barcelona. Or, maybe Buenos Aires via New York? I dunno. Nothing quite gels. It’s all very disjointed. And always that strange, wrought-iron wheel-within-a-wheel spinning slowly above you, an eye powered by kitchen convection and the hot air of a thousand Belltown hipsters. Make no mistake, this is one of the premier places in town to see and be seen. Modern, dark, lofty. An omnipresent and unidentifiable World Beat pulses continuously through the speakers, night or day. The space is elusive and transient.
As keenly hinted at above, the food at Black Bottle is all over the map. Eclectic? New American? It’s a lesson in geography and semiotics to eat or drink here. And the menu doesn’t provide much of a roadmap (and the servers run the gamut as well – from ultra-sweet and helpful to dismissive and indolent). Terse listings like “Chicken Morocco” or “Casbah Falafel Plate” with no further description or explanation. As it turns out, that moroccan chicken is exceptional, sweet and moist and served over fluffy basmati rice. The falafel plate is less inspired, overly dry and generally average. It’s not that chef Brian Durbin wants for skill (and in fact his plating composition is impeccable), it’s just that I don’t see a cohesive vision represented on the menu.
And I should also emphasize that despite all of this meta-analysis, there really are some excellent dishes at Black Bottle. You’ll just probably have to experiment a bit to discover them for yourself. I’m particularly fond of the Lime Spice Ceviché with Hominy – a great big bowl of scallops and whitefish with huge kernels of white hominy. A paper cone filled with hot and salty housemade tortilla chips comes on the side, along with a series of aesthetically pleasing dipping bowls holding lime, salt and chopped jalapeño so you can season the ceviché to your liking. Those tortilla chips can also be found alongside the Carne Asada Tacos, served on soft corn tortillas with fresh avocado and juicy grilled bites of steak. And just when you think you’ve connected the dots and are starting to find a theme, you are confronted with a bowl of Beef Pho. Really, Black Bottle? And you are filled with an almost perverse desire to try it. And then as you suspected, it doesn’t hold a candle to any of the hundred or so dedicated pho joints in town. (And also the brisket is grey and overcooked and fatty and makes you long for Monsoon).
Durbin also does veggies exceptionally well. In particular, Broccoli Blasted is a fan favorite – florets lightly brushed with olive oil and salt and then roasted until crispy. Potatoes and Cauliflower Curried is another hearty and warm winner. I can’t say the same for the assorted Flatbreads though (prosciutto and bechamel, smoked chicken and sun-dried cherries, “french country”(?). The bread itself is doughy and listless, and the toppings immediately slide off into an unappetizing heap on the plate. My very favorite dish: Seven Spice Shrimp. A beautiful tower of whole fried shrimp arranged in a circle with heads up, the antenna intertwined and reaching heavenward as if paying homage to the crustacean gods. It’s a thing of crunchy beauty.
It probably goes without saying that the eclectic and global nature of the menu spills over onto the wine list as well. You can easily find something from just about every region in the world – from California to Australia, Italy to Chile, Oregon to Spain. I had an Argentinian Malbec that was quite good, but nothing else has really piqued my interest. But I’ll be back to try again. There is something alluring about Black Bottle’s inability to commit. It’s all very flirtacious and enigmatic, like a first date.