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It was a Saturday night, and somewhat incredulously, I found myself in West Seattle for the third time in as many months. Also beyond belief: I was having dinner at mothertrucking JaK’s Grill. Now I readily admit that my food writing is completely subjective and hopelessly incompetent, but this is only exacerbated by the fact that I’m nowhere near equipped to comment on a steakhouse. I know nothing about steak, and don’t much care to.
Steakhouses have always kind of given me the creeps. They strike me as corporate and testosterone-fueled and completely antiquated – a vestigial appendage of a bygone era when meat and potatoes ruled the school. I went to Morton’s downtown a few years ago and it felt like descending into a circle of Hell, what with all the red leather and Old Money and waitstaff pushing creaking carts of cellophaned meat around the room. It’s all so American. Plus there was that whole decade long stint of pescetarianism, so what use do I have for a steakhouse? This has all left me with a profound underappreciation for cow.
JaK’s is apparently notorious for not taking reservations, but our party didn’t have to wait long before we were seated. I sat in the bar, drinking a not bad glass of Tempranillo and taking in the scene – a pretty slick layout, with dual stories and lots of dark polished wood and booths stretching into infinity. Also, lots of neon (which I am a sucker for). I watched a steady stream of carbon copy orders flow out of the kitchen – plate after plate of steak + potatoes (mashed) + vegetables (two pieces of broccoli, two slices of carrot). An octogenarian couple decided five minutes was too long to wait, and slowly shuffled out the door.
And then, the ordering of the steak. Words: Sirloin, New York strip, filet mignon, ribeye, prime delmonico, 18 oz, 40 oz, dry-aged, rare, medium, etc. (as well as an admonishment on the menu that at JaK’s well-done = medium, medium = rare, and on down the line). So not only were there lots of decisions to be made, but JaK’s Grill was turning the entire concept of cooking steak ON IT’S HEAD. And I know you don’t eat steak to feel good about sustainable food culture or locavore cuisine, but the menu practically challenges you to a dual: “We buy only corn fed, Nebraska raised beef. The finest beef available anywhere!” I’m guessing Japan might have something to say about that.
I sort of dodged a bullet and ordered the special – a tenderloin “bistecca” filet prepared Italian-style in a balsamic vinegar reduction with sliced tomato, shredded basil and some pungent cambozola. And despite all of my reservations, I have to confess that the steak was really, really good. Juicy, flavorful, tender, not fatty or chewy in the least. I guess if steak is your thing, this is the right place to be. A fact borne out by a sample of the pork chop marinated in bourbon and brown sugar with a honey peppercorn glaze. It was stupid sweet, bordering on cloying, essentially inedible. During dinner, all of the entrées were served with the ubiquitous potatoes and vegetables. I went totally off the reservation and ordered potato pancakes, which were a little gummy and cold, but otherwise tasty. The broccoli was nice!
If you’re dying to get your steak on, JaK’s Grill also has locations in Laurelhurst and Issaquah (truly cornering the market on outlying destinations). They also apparently do brunch, and you know what that means? Steak and eggs, people. STEAK AND EGGS.
There has been no shortage of high profile restaurant openings in Seattle over the past year – it has actually been quite a feat keeping up with them all. That explains why I only just recently managed to make it to chef Mark Fuller’s new culinary destination Spring Hill in West Seattle (well, that and the fact that if I’m actually making the trip out to West Seattle, I’ll be easting sushi at Mashiko, but I’ll save that for another time). On this particular occasion, I had guests arriving from out of town, so I thought an expedition over the bridge would be an entertaining way to pass the evening. I was eager to discover for myself what everybody else had been raving about the past few months.
I was not disappointed. Well, mostly. Spring Hill is located on California Ave SW inbetween Genesee and Oregon, and reservations were definitely required – every seat in the house was taken. The space was modern and elegant, with soft wood panels and straight lines that shotgun the length of the narrow, symmetrical room. Booths on the left, tables in the center, the bar and the open kitchen on the right (the cooks themselves forming another straight line). True to everything I’d read, Mark Fuller’s wife Marjorie was delightfully gracious and amicable as hostess.
I had eaten many times under Fuller’s tenure as head chef at Tom Douglas’ flagship restaurant Dahlia Lounge, so I figured I had a pretty good inclination of what to expect. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All of the previous restraint and fastidious presentation I had associated with Fuller’s cooking were out the window. The food at Spring Hill is big and bold and messy. The smell of sizzling meat and smoke permeates everything. The food is sensual, almost dirty.
We started with the crispy veal sweetbreads, fried up like chicken nuggets and served with three dipping sauces – housemade barbeque, ranch dressing and mustard. Fuller clearly has his tongue planted firmly in cheek, and this playfulness comes across throughout the menu. Nothing like a little pancreas served up à la Burger King to get the conversation started!
And speaking of burgers, I’m usually not a huge fan, but the 1/2 pound Strawberry Mountain beef burger with huge slabs of housemade bacon oozing teleme and white cheddar cheeses served on a sesame seed bun with a side of “special sauce” and beef fat fries was an unequivocal masterpiece. The outside of the burger is smoky and has a light char, and the inside drips with aromatic juices. The burger towers above you, and can only be mastered with a knife and fork (and three other dining companions). The only misfire was the fries – the texture was fairly off-putting, almost mealy, like they had been previously frozen.
Which would be hard to believe, given the lengths Fuller has gone to locally source all of his ingredients (the menu is painstakingly detailed, crediting every last farm, cheesemaker and forager he uses). And it was the last of these (the legendary Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found), which brought me the most thrilling surprise of the evening: the elusive Hen of the Woods mushroom, featured alongside chanterelles, delicata squash and chard in a beautiful bowl of handmade tagliatelle. This would be a first. The bowl arrived smelling of autumn, and I sank my teeth into the tender noodles. The Hen of the Woods was earthy, but not pungent, with a hint of sweetness. It was a very delicate flavor, and sadly, almost entirely lost underneath the overly generous pile of shredded parmesan that permeated the bowl.
These tiny hiccups repeated throughout the meal, each dish having a bold and thoughtful center with some minor misstep in execution. Nothing glaring, but certainly noticeable. The wood grilled prawns with creamy grits were delicious, tasting of sea and smoke and piled on top of an exquisite poached egg. But the grits themselves were watery and so finely ground as to be virtually undetectable. The beef steak hot & cold featured a duo of beef – a wood grilled rib eye cap steak and a raw steak tartare. The rib eye was toothesome and devoured in seconds, but the tartare could not compete with the rich, concentrated steak and tasted almost dull in comparison (and the potato cracklings at the center were so light, they were almost entirely devoid of flavor).
But overall, the audacity of chef Fuller’s vision more or less eclipses these slight shortcomings. The burger alone is worth another visit. At the end of the evening, a final whimsical creation completed the meal: a bowl of Ovaltine ice cream, malty and smile provoking.
There’s a lot going on at Spring Hill, and I certainly feel like I have much more to explore before I can make a definitive conclusion. Now if I can just bring myself to get back over to West Seattle…