The New Age of Deviled Eggs

From the owners of Pair, an ungimmicky tribute to the good old days.

Fifteen years ago, just before the dot-com boom turned West Coast cities into havens for high-tech douchitude, we rediscovered the Swing Era. People too young to have rebelled against the supper clubs, pinup girls, and martinis of their grandparents' youths figured out what was so great about everything the 1960s counterculture dismissed. Steakhouses became fashionable again. Cigar smoking earned its own lifestyle magazine. Couples who wouldn't have been caught dead shaking their hips at a club signed up to learn the foxtrot and Lindy Hop.These memes haven't disappeared. They're part of the cultural landscape today, their cartoonish beginnings having matured with the decades. The pinup girls developed full-fledged burlesque personae. The martini grew into the second Golden Age of Cocktails. And though the supper-club fad hasn't had as much traction as the dry-aged New York strip—thanks to a little boost from Dr. Atkins—Felix and Sarah Penn, owners of Frank's Oyster House and Champagne Parlor, are reviving old notions of fine dining without making them seem gimmicky.The owners, whose 5-year-old Pair is now solidly popular enough to enable them to open a second restaurant three blocks down the street, say that Frank's is an homage to Sarah's grandfather, a pressman at the Boston Globe who died in the early 1970s. They're showing their respects by reworking dishes like crab louie, a classic that Seattleites have loved for a century. The retro louies I ate in 1995 presented the salad almost verbatim, the stolid iceberg lettuce and egg wedges a direct challenge to our spring-mix sensibilities. At Frank's, Felix Penn gives us something more like the Thai miang khum: a stack of wavy butter-lettuce cups, a few rounds of oven-roasted tomatoes, a dainty mound of crab meat, a white-and-gold drift of grated egg. You're free to dot the roll-up you assemble with as many points' worth of spicy mayonnaise as your Weight Watchers plan permits. Even with the louie sauce, the salad fits today's demand for lighter, cleaner flavors.The Penns are also giving a nod to the classic American steakhouse, with its wood paneling, golden lighting, and leather booths, through Jacob and Lucas Mihoulides' decor. Here, the woodshop chic the brothers introduced at How to Cook a Wolf has taken on a psychedelic cast. The walls of the "Champagne Parlor" section of the restaurant are covered in hundreds of unvarnished plywood squares that jut from the wall at varying heights, reminiscent of a Kurt Schwitters collage, while the "Oyster House" half is paneled vertically in the thin sides of raw two-by-fours. Sitting at one of the booths, I'd occasionally flash on the thought that perhaps I was actually laying on my side in the middle of a lumberyard. The effect is witty, striking, and occasionally—when it comes to the mismatching Grandpa's-basement seats in the lounge, for example—too much.Nevertheless, the Penns have scored their point: They love their grandparents' era, but they are firmly committed to the present. And that carries through in most of the menu—the parts I loved the best, certainly. Their Boston grandpa's fried littlenecks are now chunks of Washington Coast razor clams, covered in a batter that flakes off in golden sheets that crunch loudly as you chew them. Their oysters—kushis, Olympias, shigokus, other top picks from the Northwest—are presented on a long, blocky rectangle formed from pressed ice cubes. You can spoon into the shells a champagne mignonette that dates back to the Escoffier era or tip in a fingernail's worth of icy bloody-mary granita.The least successful section of the menu may be the entrées, most of which stay firmly rooted in the now. Not only was a fillet of citrus-poached salmon clearly a few days old (not in the danger zone, mind you, but evident to any Seattleite who's lived through a Chinook season), but it was dull: a few slivers of shaved fennel on the top, a milquetoast carrot purée on the side. A pan-roasted halibut tasted on another night, with pea shoots and a proper beurre blanc sauce, was beautifully cooked, but I had to strain the next morning to remember its flavor. I appreciate that the cooks serve 6- and 7-ounce portions of the steak, and that if you order the bordelaise sauce with it (other options: horseradish-parsley butter or the herb-caper-anchovy pesto called salsa verde), you'll wonder why red-wine reduction sauces ever went out of fashion. Just don't do as the critic did: Instead, spend a few more dollars on a New York strip or a filet, because the cheaper top sirloin, while textbook medium-rare, had all the graininess of a block of aged gouda.Frank's food succeeds when it plays past against present. Nostalgia gives it focus, distinguishing Penn's contemporary Northwest style from all the other chefs in town pan-roasting sustainably raised beef and pairing wild salmon with shaved fennel. The meal I most enjoyed at Frank's was a mishmash of appetizers, salads, sides, and desserts that my grandparents would have recognized but never eaten in one sitting: deviled eggs whose moussy piped filling had the brave tang of fresh goat cheese; a pile of asparagus, blanched just enough to sweeten up its grassiness and showered in tiny watercress leaves and Washington hazelnuts; a freshly baked cream biscuit spewing June strawberries and tufts of whipped cream. Fifteen years after California chefs shocked gourmets by serving a blue-cheese-drenched iceberg salad called "the wedge," Penn freshens up the cliché by drizzling thin cross-slices of iceberg lettuce in a green-goddess dressing redolent with herbs. And Penn has retooled the baked-potato side by grilling stubby fingerling potatoes and clustering them around chived sour cream. All these dishes mine a well-worked vein in a way that doesn't feel tired. The winks are all respectful, and the cooks' sense of how to update and lighten up classic American food is sure.If Frank's is meant to be an oyster house for the new millennium, the facet of the meal that clashes most with their vision is the service. It's all over the place: The slightly stiff competence of one waiter was undermined by a food runner who kept delivering the wrong plate and giggling off her mistakes. Another waiter had the sweetest demeanor and spot-on timing, but her descriptions of the wines by the glass never matched what she delivered. What the Penns need is to settle on an ambience they want to create—what was it about the service at their grandfather's favorite restaurant that today's bistros lack?—and then coach their staff in a bit of playacting.Most of all, what will make Frank's Oyster House into that perfect blend of boardroom and pub, hangout and special-evening destination, is to pack the room with diners who've eaten there so often and so long the booths become a neighborhood in themselves. And that's simply a matter of time.Price Check

  Deviled eggs $4

  Half-dozen oysters $13.50

  Razor clams $8

  Halibut $19

  Sirloin $18

  Fingerlings $4.50

  Strawberry shortcake $7.50 jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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