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When I read that Star Chefs had named both Brian McCracken and Dana Tough as 2009 Seattle Rising Stars for their inventive cooking at Spur Gastropub in Belltown, I knew I was way past due for a visit. In less than six months, the two young chefs have come screaming onto the local food scene, bringing with them Spur’s equally talented barkeep David Nelson. While both McCracken and Tough cut their teeth working with celebrated chef Maria Hines (at Earth & Ocean and Tilth), their approach to cuisine couldn’t be more different. Rather than an unabashed worship of the organic, they bring with them strange flavored foams and deconstructed gums and other bleeding edge food science techniques. And even though I’ll be the first to admit that the tenets of molecular gastronomy are just as cultish and sanctimonious as those of the hallowed locavore, the good news is that McCracken and Tough employ these methods in very subtle, almost undetectable ways. The technique takes a backseat, the focus remains on the food.
And the food is fantastic. Of course I’m generally going to be inclined towards any place that has rabbit on the menu (and New Wave on the sound system). Check one, Oregon rabbit with rutabaga and ham hock. Check two, Gary Numan-induced grin. Or maybe that was just the Empress cocktail working her magenta magic (rum, St. Germain, grapefruit, happiness). That rabbit by the way, is exceptional – moist and tender, with julienned strips of rutabaga, served on the bone in some sort of mustard reduction sauce (“some sort of reduction sauce” being about the extent of my knowledge as regards molecular gastronomy method).
On one particular Winter’s evening, we started with a plate of fried potato dumplings, which looked all the world like tater tots, but instead held an impossibly silky puréed potato filling with the flavor of chive and peppercorns. Accompanied by a small skillet of fondue for dipping, we quickly discovered that the dumplings were so light and airy that they quickly vanished beneath the cheesy undertow – best to pour the gastrique over the tots and then proceed to the devouring. Also best to be drinking something from the wonderful and compelling cocktail list. Hanky Panky. Cardinal Sin. Widow’s Kiss. For me, it was all about the Broken Spur – a vibrant green drink made with bourbon, cointreau, amaretto and lemon that answers the question of what a 21st century whisky sour should taste like (complete with egg white foam).
The absolute highlight of the evening (besides that rabbit), was a bowl of tagliatelle topped with a gorgeous duck egg cooked en sous vide. Another wildly popular contemporary technique, cooking en sous vide essentially entails vacuum-sealing your protein and then submerging the bag into low level hot water to slow cook for upwards of 24 hours. The result was an egg unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. The yolk had the consistency of a bright yellow jelly, and combined with an oyster mushroom and parmesan foam to create a sticky, rich, brilliant sauce. That bowl of noodles was the first best thing I’ve eaten in the New Year. No wonder the gang at Star Chefs were all over these two.
I had reached my breaking point for the evening, but quickly returned the following week with a single object in mind: I had to try the Ostrich Burger with red onion jam and provolone. One more exotic meat to check off the list. The ostrich was lean and surprisingly juicy – far more reminiscent of bovine than flightless fowl. The onion jam was a little too sweet for my taste, and the cornmeal crusted Jo-Jo potatoes served on the side were pretty disappointing; far too textured and rigid. On the other hand, the brioche bun the burger was served on was airy and flavorful and yet still substantial enough to support the thick meaty ostrich. This same brioche is repeated in miniature form on Spur’s already famous pork belly sliders. Even though pork belly is not really my thing, I had to give them a try since I’d heard nothing but one rave after another. Topped with diced heirloom apples cooked en sous vide and a thick, sweet bourbon gastrique, the pork belly was cooked well, but still a little too intense and concentrated for my liking. Your mileage may vary.
Spur has a hint of Western vibe, but mostly it is very dark and very modern and a little mysterious. An art show featuring local photographer Peter de Lory’s lonely black and white images is currently projected into an empty frame on the main wall. There are three enormous mirrors hanging opposite the bar to better reflect the candlelight and shadows. A white log lit from within casts an eerie glow from a shelf high in the back. Huge slabs of polished tree trunk are fitted together to create several tall tabletops. The kitchen, like much of the cooking technique at Spur, is hidden from view.
I can’t wait to see what unearthly delights McCracken and Tough concoct for their next menu. In the meantime, the Rising Stars Revue is scheduled for March 24th at McCaw Hall, and many of my favorite local chefs are being honored as well (including Mark Fuller for Spring Hill and Jason Wilson for Crush, and special awards to Ethan Stowell for Restaurateur and Joshua Henderson of Skillet for Restaurant Concept). Congratulations to everyone! Especially Seattle.