As far as I can tell, a restaurant that spells "cube" with a capital Q, paints the house fluorescent green and orange, and specializes in "Qubed sets"—three-course meals in which each course showcases one ingredient prepared three ways—is aimed at a peculiar target audience: Iron Chef fans, Belltown swanksters, and/or overeducated palates looking for a little kink to spice up their fine dining.
Qube 1901 Second Ave., 770-5888, www.quberestaurant.com. DOWNTOWN. Open for lunch Mon.--Sat., dinner and late-night daily.
I'd count myself as two-thirds of that demographic. So I looked forward to trying the playful creations from executive chef Lisa Nakamura, who spent three years at Thomas Keller's Napa-based French Laundry, which has repeatedly been named one of the best restaurants in the country. I wanted to see how she would apply her classic French-Californian technique to ingredients culled from all over Asia.
Ever since the paper on Qube's windows came down two months ago, friends have been commenting on its distinctive looks—some pro, some con, all fervently so. The sunken lounge, my favorite spot in the place, updates the conversation pit of the 1960s with creamy neutrals, loll-able couches, and square white-light tables. The main floor, with high ceilings and multiple levels, sets orange and green against black and more black, the furnishings spare but not enough to engender discomfort. The focal point of the room is Qube's long communal table, napkins and silverware tucked into a lighted school-desk niche underneath.
After two visits, I never warmed to the color scheme—the green lighting made even the pretty people seated underneath look ill—but enjoyed the architectural drama, which is clearly set in downtown with a capital D (and a long, long way from Gibson's, the punk-rock dive that, I'm told, previously inhabited this corner).
Embracing the restaurant's ambitions, a friend and I ordered two Qubed sets one evening: "Surf" (first course: salmon; second course: prawns; third course: chocolate mousse) and "Turf" (beef, duck, mini crème brûlées). Each trio of micro-dishes was plated on narrow ceramic rectangles, resembling banquets for Barbies. There was too much going on in the meal for a proper blow-by-blow, so I'll summarize.
1. The seared foie gras (Turf set: entrée) quivered with the sublime texture of a cube of butter just about to melt.
2. The prawns (Surf set: entrée)—both grilled and stir-fried—came out fat and juicy, never overshadowed by the subtle sweetness of their accompaniments (a Thai red curry, a cumin–white wine sauce, and a pineapple stir-fry).
3. The bulgogi skewer (Turf set: appetizer): thin, lightly charred slices of beef marinated in a sweetish soy-based sauce, served with a tangle of Asian pears and caramelized onions. Simple and successful.
1. The stir-fried prawns (Surf set: entrée) tasted just like the sweet-and-sour I get from my local cheap Chinese, the curried prawns, what any local cheap Thai sells.
2. Unseasoned, sauceless shredded oxtail meat (Turf set: appetizer), wrapped in a lettuce leaf, tasted like it had been in the refrigerator a few days too many.
3. Buddha Samba, a reworked margarita with a cumin-salt rim, promised the twin jolts of lime juice and jalapeño but tasted like tequila diluted with Sunny Delight.
Even lower points:
1. That gorgeous foie gras arrived on a slice of underripe mango, sauced with a veal-stock reduction so sludgy I had to scrape it off my knife with my teeth.
2. All of the crème brûlées had been taken out of the oven after the custard had begun cooking into scrambled eggs. That flaw I could have overlooked had they been edible. But the caramelized banana had no presence on the palate, the sugar crust on the vanilla was charred bitter-black, and the flavor of the centerpiece—chocolate–Thai basil topped with candied ginger—somehow melded ash and Listerine.
3. The nadir of the meal: bone-in sushi. When I started chewing a piece of the salmon maki (Surf meal: appetizer), I felt a scratching at the back of my throat and had to pull out a long pinbone, which hadn't been removed from the paper-thin slice of smoked salmon that wrapped the roll. (Not to mention that the sushi was clearly rolled hours before and kept chilled, so the rice got hard and grainy.)
The latter dish was the most extreme example of how a small staff, given too many components to prep and cook on the line, makes sloppy food. Each time I encountered things like a white chocolate mousse made with cream that had soured or what-in-the-Jim-Dandy flavor combinations like purple sweet potatoes saturated in truffle oil, I'd ask my companion, "Did the chef even taste this?" For a $70-per-person meal, that step should be a given.
I do have to offer props to the waitstaff, who, during both my visits, knew the menu, noticed the moment we ran out of bread and drinks, and gave us a quick tour of what was on our plates with a minimum of hype. They kept the meal down to earth.
If you go to Qube, I suggest bypassing the house specialty and sticking to the other half of the menu. The à la carte section lists a half-dozen appetizers, a few "sticks" (skewers), and eight or nine entrées. The meal my friend and I put together ourselves was far from perfect, but I didn't leave offended by its execution. With the exception—let me just get this out of the way—of the dessert, a cinnamon-heavy apple "crisp" (quote marks mine) that had been reheated in the microwave so its topping came out a bland dough ball. And I have to add to the column of offenses the massive sea scallops: Though their edges were pan-seared a gorgeous caramel color and their centers perfectly satiny, they had not been washed of sea grit and were coated in twice as much salt as necessary. This was a $30 dish.
But others hit their marks. The smokiness of bacon-olive dumplings flowed beautifully into the loamy scent of the dried-mushroom consommé they floated in. Pork-loin satay skewers achieved that perfect point at which the marinade crisped and browned on the grill and the meat hadn't shed all of its pale pink tenderness. The scallops were accompanied by a lovely caramelized onion flan that, if not for the oversalting, would have been the perfect earth to their ocean. In the most successful dish we tried, the cooks balanced duck confit on a heap of ovals, some pale green baby bok choy hearts, some sweet chestnut gnocchi, some bright orange braised kumquat, the assembly resting on a pool of sweet-tart pomegranate sauce that was beautifully concentrated, not thick and sticky.
Enough elegant touches marked this second meal that I felt if Nakamura could just step back and refocus, either dropping the Qubed sets or integrating them with the regular menu, she was capable of creating delicious—and not just creative—food. Ambition may be great. Follow-through is better.