Have you ever wandered into a new part of town, and suddenly felt as though you’d been transported to an entirely different and unfamiliar city? I had that very experience this week, navigating my way through what seems to be the pop-up neighborhood of South Lake Union. In truth, there have been all sorts of businesses there for years, but with the recent arrivals of PATH, Microsoft, and Amazon, not to mention all of the condos and apartments, there is now a critical mass of diners and shoppers ready and willing to support businesses in the area.
This feeling of geographic dislocation might have been part of the reason that I felt a little out of sorts on my first visit to Brave Horse Tavern, one of the trifecta of restaurants newly opened in South Lake Union by Tom Douglas. Although just blocks from other parts of Seattle that are quite familiar to me, once inside BHT it felt as though I had made a very quick trip to Las Vegas, or somewhere else equally tourist-friendly. The interior is a very well-conceived, slick version of the wild west, what you might call upscale rustic. Lots of exposed brick, beam, and wood of all varieties, and distressed leather stools at the bar and multiple tall tables.
Though I shouldn’t fault Brave Horse Tavern for having a very clear identity, and instead should celebrate that they make no bones about what they do. The front of the menu, really, tells the whole story: “Twenty-Four Taps, Housemade Pretzels, Shuffleboard.” Nothing on here about Tom Douglas and the promise of great cuisine, just a space where you could happily tip back a few beers and enjoy some food somewhere along the way.
My fault for not coming to this conclusion earlier in the experience, as it would have greatly improved the evening. Instead, I hear Tom Douglas and immediately think that the food will be fantastic. And there is the promise of some of that at BHT, borrowing some from his other restaurants (naturally), in menu items that I didn’t happen to sample this week: Dahlia Bakery bread for the “Egg in a Hole;” the Seatown Smoked Trout; and beef tartare, spring onion, and anchovy chili on the “Cannibal Crostinis.” What we had, however, mostly missed the mark for me.
The malt-boiled Brick Oven Pretzels were soft, salty, and delicious, and two of the accompanying spreads were tasty (cheddar-pimento, and sour cream and crispy onion), but the smoked peanut butter and bacon was terrible. Somehow sharp and overly salty, all at once. The Fried Cheese Curds with grain mustard mayo were of the greasy fried variety, and many of the puffs were empty of cheese entirely. Mom’s Dungeness Crab Dip definitely felt like a throwback in its super-creamy texture, and the Ritz were indeed just the right cracker for the job. (No wonder this was such a popular combo of cocktail parties past…) The Smoky BBQ Brisket Dip was my least favorite dish of the night; even the spicy ancho chili sauce couldn’t save this rather spartan sandwich.
Without a doubt every restaurant deserves a second visit, and when I make my next trip to Brave Horse Tavern I’ll go in with a different mindset. I’ll know that I’m not headed for the kind of meal I might expect at Serious Pie or Palace Kitchen. Instead, I’ll look forward to the big, salty pretzel and happy hour boilermaker of Jim Beam and Olympia that will be waiting for me — just as soon as I finish my game of shuffleboard.