The fare up there

Our landmark eatery makes some welcome improvements.

SKY CITY AT THE NEEDLE

203 Sixth N., 905-2100 Lunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri., dinner 4:30-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Sun., brunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun. AE, MC, D, V / full bar AS LABOR DAY approaches and you prepare to escort your out-of-town visitors to Bumbershoot, you should also prepare to answer the inevitable question: "What's it like up there?" they'll ask, craning their necks Needle-ward. You, ever the savvy native, will provide your stock answer: "Oh, there's this terrible spinning tourist trap with a great view that rips people off for bad, uninteresting food." But on nearly every count you would be wrong. Oh, the restaurant recently christened Sky City spins, all right: one revolution every 47 minutes, not quite a merry-go-round clip but fast enough to throw you off your game momentarily when you step off the stable center and onto the rotating platform. (You may also get lost on your way back from the bathroom.) This means that the storied view will go around roughly two-and-a-half times per average dinner visit—a plus for lay-of-the-landers but a distinctly overrated prospect for the rest of us, who've long since learned to view our town through more interesting frames. From so high above the topography Seattle's seductively curvaceous hills flatten and fade; the lakes and mountains and shining sea appear like points of interest on a map rather than the breathtakingly ephemeral glimmers-through-trees they tend to be at sea level. Nah, I'll take my visitors instead to the top of Queen Anne, the beaches of Alki, the waters of Portage Bay. And I may just go to the Space Needle for dinner. Contrary to popular opinion, the food no longer completely sucks. I'm thinking now of an Asian greens salad ($7), topped with daikon radish and washed in a refined miso vinaigrette. Or a plate of seared ahi ($31), waved briefly over the heat and served with wasabi mashed potatoes and bok choy. Or tenderloin medallions ($38) you could cut with a spoon, in a rich pinot noir demi-glace over diced fried potatoes. Or a nicely garlicked breast of chicken ($28), flavorful throughout, with solid roast potatoes. Or even a perfectly cooked prime rib of beef ($32). I know, I know, it's a dreadfully predictable menu, aiming a straight pitch at Peoria (make that Omaha; it's Nebraskan prime rib) with the occasional nod to Seattle's Pacific Rim status. And it is undeniably one of the priciest lists in town. But a ripoff? I've seen worse. In two visits to Sky City we were heartened to encounter the revealing small sign of largesse: an extra pot of dressing for the Caesar salad ($7.50) ("I just don't think they dress it enough," confided our server), uniformly generous salads, and more crab than filler in the Pacific crab cake appetizer ($14). Indeed, where dishes failed it was often from too generous a hand with some or other ingredient. Too much brine and butter in the clam broth (steamed Manila clams, $12.50), too much butter in the garlicky sauce for the seafood penne ($34.50), way too much butter in the weird-tasting crab bisque ($8, the only smashing failure we encountered). THIS LACK of subtlety was a pattern at Sky City, the result being bludgeoning demi-glaces or overcreamed pasta or an oversweet salad treatment (on the pear-blue cheese salad in berry vinaigrette, $6.50) where refinement should have been. Probably the thick hunk of alderwood-smoked salmon ($30) should not have been served with apple relish and a sticky rice cake; the interplay of sticky, sweet, and smoky added up to too rich a plate. Similarly the aforementioned crab cakes were just plain too much: Served on apple salsa and drizzled with a walloping curry aioli, the crab flavor didn't stand a chance. I would call both of these dishes failures, thanks to ham-handed conception, but they were interesting failures, rather like what I imagine finals week among first-year culinary students must be. Uninteresting failures come from things like overcooked seafood or wizened vegetables, neither of which we saw once at Sky City. This in itself represents an improvement from past incarnations. Finally, service at Sky City defied expectations. Tourist traps typically feature insipid, salesmanlike servers flogging beef and booze, but our servers were refreshingly frank and folksy. One actually talked us out of the spendiest item with a wrinkled nose. We trusted them. All in all, dinner at Sky City turned out to be not nearly as awful as expected. Perhaps this is faint praise, but let it stand as the myth-breaking truth about eating at the Space Needle. And be advised that Needle execs are themselves laboring under a delusion or two—namely, that anyone cares at all about their remodel last year. Apparently when they revamped the menu and renamed the restaurant they spent a good deal of money retro-ing up the decor, which you may notice in the form of some vaguely midcentury table lamps. But who's kidding whom? Up in the Space Needle nobody's looking at the table lamps. And nobody's coming for the food. Which makes the culinary improvements, however minor, all the more admirable. krobinson@seattleweekly.com

 
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