Doggy-style

Chez Gus comforts and confounds.

CHEZ GUS

2801 Alaskan Way (at Pier 70), 267-0236 7 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs. AE, MC, V / full bar GUS GOT OFF on the wrong paw with us. The preopening P.R. for El Gaucho owner Paul Mackey's experiment in downscale fine dining was a little too twee: There was the idea of naming a place after your Jack Russell terrier (hence the logo of a doggy in a chef outfit); there was the pretension to be "Seattle's neighborhood cafe" in the non-neighborhood where Alaskan Way butt-ends into the Myrtle Edwards parking lot; there was the stated goal of being all things comforting to all people—coffeehouse, sports bar, brunch mecca, steak house, featuring "hearty, homemade favorites" for the whole family. So it was that this grizzled Weekly foodie didn't make it round to Gus' place until an interview appointment found me and my jet-lagged interlocutor in waterfront-restaurant limbo at dusk one rainy January day. It was Six Seven (too dressy), the Spaghetti Factory (too industrial), or Gus: Gus won. And I have to confess, Gus was winning. On a dank Tuesday evening, the place was quiet, its retro diner decor attractive and, yes, comforting. The service was easygoing, the beer was cold, and, best of all, the food was fine. My exhausted companion managed to put away a platter of vegetarian linguine (tomatoes, artichoke, peppers, and mushrooms, $8.95) with every evidence of relish. As for me—well, pan-fried razor clams are the ultimate comfort food, bringing back memories of happy low-tide days toting a clam-gun tall as myself and blissful dreams in a seaside motel's sandy bunk bed. Gus' version ($13.95) is a lot fancier than my grannie's, with barely breaded clams swimming in a thick fusion of lemon and butter, but it met the crucial comfort food test: Tears came to my eyes as I ate. I promptly reported back to Weekly Food Central that we'd misjudged Gus. Never mind the icky rubric on the clam item ("Gus gets up early to hunt them down just for you"); it's not fair to hold the food responsible for the menu-writer's excesses. Another cadre member demurred; he'd had a perfectly terrible meal there, he said, and the clams had been oily and awful. But that was shortly after opening, and the Boss decided that on the basis of my report, Gus was worth another visit. IT TOOK PLACE, again, at dusk. Once more, the place was nearly deserted, but anything but quiet: Seventies pop all but rattled the ancient beams of Pier 70, and getting it turned down—getting the manager even to admit that it could be turned down—was a lively tussle, but one that left us with a hearty appetite. As appetizer we opted for a "half-rack of baby back ribs Gaucho style" ($9.95). "Baby" is right: If that was a half-rack, the animal that sported it must have been young indeed. But the meat was melting tender and smoky sweet, needing no help from the side of rather ordinary barbecue sauce it came with. With my main course, Gus scored a bull's-eye: Jack Armstrong's All American Meat Loaf ($11.95) was a plate of food from the diner of your dreams: two dark-brown slabs as firm but tender as the finest pound cake, beefy but with a subtle spice aroma suggesting somebody's mother's secret ingredient (nutmeg, maybe?), accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes topped—no, robed; no, gilded—with brown gravy as shiny soft as melted chocolate drizzled over ice cream. My companion's main dish special brought back clouds of doubt. Lovely lobster ravioli, but filled pasta like these are rarely made in the kitchen that serves them. And their dressing was all over the place: underdone onion chunks and rank-tasting rock shrimp in a colorless watery fluid of pronounced flavor but indeterminate composition. At $14.95, the dish pushed the price envelope. The mixed berry cobbler ࠬa mode ($5.50) made an unmemorable end to the meal: tart, unidentifiable berries in gluey cornstarch with ho-hum ice cream glumly plooped atop a tough pastry crust. But at least the bar bill was memorable. Granted, a double margarita should only be cheap in Mexico, but for $11 one expects more than a tumblerful of bottled this-and-that, and for $8.50 a glass you want more than passable red wine. As we ate, another problem with the fine dining/sports lounge formula appeared. Raising my eyes from my dish to speak to my companion, I often found her eyes directed just above my hairline. Same thing happened to her, and since the silently scintillating TV monitors we were looking at were tuned to different channels, we couldn't even communicate by trashing what was distracting us. I went home more confused than ever. Was Gus just a sports bar in over its head in the food department? We decided to have one more crack at the place on that assumption. Same scenario: early evening, empty when we arrived. This time, nothing fancy: I ordered the 13 Coins Cheeseburger ($9.95) and a small Caesar ($3.50); my companion went for the old-fashioned Reuben ($9.50). Well, the burger was served like a French dip, and the only evidence of cheese was a thin oily glaze on one side of the enveloping roll. The Reuben, on the other hand, ordered incautiously without reading the fine print, contained a thick layer of chicken along with an ample filling of salt-flavored industrial-grade corned beef, both backed by a few sweetish strands of "sauerkraut" that would earn the "Feh!" award from any Reuben fancier on Second Avenue. What are we to make of Gus? My best guess so far is that running a superposh '50s-style steak house like El Gaucho is not a great preparation for configuring a casual '50s-style diner for the economically less advantaged. At Gus the cuisine (or cuisines), the demographic signals, and the prices point in three incompatible directions, as if the place is trying to emulate all its neighbors—Six Seven at the Edgewater, the recently defunct RC's Sports Bar, and the Old Spaghetti Factory across the tracks—all at the same time. Suppose they managed to pull it off; would you want to eat the results? rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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