Bar Snacks

Eating, for a change, at two of Seattle’s best bars.

It was maybe my fourth or fifth time at the Zig Zag Café before I ever ventured beyond the bar and sat at an actual table. I'd stood, with friends, outside the front door like a schlub waiting for the place to open, like a petitioner at the gates of a highly selective church. We'd watched the crowds grow and the line stretch across the little wedge of cement that makes up the landing on which the Zig Zag sits, trying not to look like we were peeking through the curtains hung over the front door or craning our necks to see in through the unbolted patio doors.When we saw a hand snaking around the drape to unlock the door, everyone shifted as though getting into sprint position, but it was a false alarm: a cook coming out, not yet ready to let the faithful in. There was grumbling. There were threats to just go next door to the Mexican restaurant with the big patio, the umbrellas, and the wide-open door.But no one did.When finally the hostess popped the lock and opened the door, everyone went through in a rush. Though the three of us there waiting were only a couple of parties back, the bar filled like that—one moment empty, the next every seat taken. It was a Friday, and apparently on Fridays this is just how things go at the Zig Zag. If you're really dying for a tall stool at the curving bar, you've got to camp out like a fat kid waiting on a Star Wars premiere.So we were deflected—sent off to the patio, where we sat under an umbrella and waited for the flying squad of waiters and waitresses to carve their way through the first slug of customers choking the floor. We were given water, asked about cocktails, and handed the black folders which contain some of the best drinks invented in the last century, returned to life by a bar crew who operate like archaeologists of adult beverages—constantly on the prowl for those that died and were buried long ago, lost in the rubble of candy-colored shots and Jäger machines.I took a folder off the stack, meaning just to peruse the offerings before ordering a single Redbreast with three ice cubes. But when I opened it, I found olives instead, hummus, flatbread pizzas, salads, and a steak. The Zig Zag is like a temple of cocktails—a church for those alcoholically inclined. Finding food there was kind of like discovering that St. Peter's serves chicken wings during services to those wise enough to ask.It was my first time at Tavern Law. Stepping in off the street was like walking into a scene from The Sting—dark wood, leather chairs, soft, cool jazz popping with LP imperfections. There was no wait; the place was nearly deserted on a Monday evening—just a couple guys lounging around the small front dining room, two chefs at the far end of the bar talking about staffing problems and fruit emulsions, one bartender in a tie and buttoned vest.Tavern Law is the cocktail-lounge concept launched by Brian McCracken and Dana Tough of Belltown's Spur. Like the Zig Zag, Tavern Law is a place of rebirth and investigation, where forgotten cocktails, even entire bodies of drink-mixing knowledge, are given a second chance to charm the livers out of those for whom a simple Jack and Coke will never be enough. Tavern Law's cocktail menu even comes with small history lessons, the points of origin briefly detailed for the Antoinette, the sangaree, the cobblers, fizzes, and shrubs that make up the complicated board.The bar here is like a wizard's laboratory. There are bottles, flasks, and jeroboams everywhere, filled with strange colored liquids. Most of the labels are unfamiliar, the brands so boutique or relentlessly small-batch that I'd need an entire second life just to study them the way I have food. Who knew, for example, that a man could ever need seven different kinds of bitters? I have gone most of my life without needing even one.One thing I do recognize, though, is the kitchen and the cook in it: one man, standing alone, dressed in a snap-front dish jacket and a plastic apron. He's dressed like a short-order fry cook in one of cuisine's lower hells, turning in slow circles in a galley the size of a decent walk-in closet but packed with gleaming equipment. Because this is a Tough and McCracken operation, I knew before walking in that there would be food here. But when I pick a stool at the center of the bar, no one hands me a menu. There's just a chalkboard, sketched with six or seven offerings as simple as the drinks are complex. There's foie, a single salad, one dessert, some finger food, and a burger."Is that the whole menu?" I ask the bartender."That's it," he says. "Are you hungry?"The Zig Zag Café mixes some of the best cocktails in the city; is home to one of the country's best bartenders, Murray Stenson; and has one of the loveliest, most comfortable, in-demand bars around. The dining room, on the other hand, is like one big Siberia—so far gone from the hot, juicy center of the world that it feels like a different and alien continent. It is dark, somewhat lonely, and sparsely kept, looking for all the world like a very nice train-station men's room with its tile walls, cement floors, and bare Deco touches.The Zig Zag's cocktail menu hangs together mostly by dint of that archaeological metaphor and because everything on it has been so relentlessly tested and retested by the tenders behind the long oak. Sit there on a lucky night and you might get to taste the cast-off experiments of Stenson or his crew—failures of ingredient, intelligence, or industry which, even when cast off, are still better than most drinks mixed purposefully by most bartenders in the city.But the food menu does not have that same solid core. It is a strange mix of influences—Italian and Latin American and American fusions of bits and pieces that come off either as too simple or way too overwrought. Hummus, for example, is a fine bar snack. Hummus jacked up with so many competing herbs that it turns green? Not so good. The risotto on the menu lists nearly a paragraph of ingredients—herbs, spices, pork belly, saffron, oil, wine, and more. It tastes like eating a rainbow of things that are all good individually, but reduced across the board by their forced intermarriage and higgledy-piggledy inclusion.Sitting in the dining room on a return visit, I relegated myself to drinking only beer—forgoing completely the one thing, cocktails, that the Zig Zag does best—and eating off the hodgepodge menu. I had uninspired sautéed calamari and a plate of prawns which were nicely cooked but haphazardly deveined (a big pet peeve, because it stands as absolute proof of a lack of focus during both prep and service) and dressed in a "sangrita" sauce that tasted like ketchup sprinkled with crushed red-pepper flakes. Not only that, but the bread I was served was going stale.Something from the bar would have shifted the focus from the food to what the house does best—would have made sitting in the dark trying not to think about eating the digestive machinery of uncleaned prawns better, because the drinks alone would've made it worthwhile. Without a cocktail, though? Without the bar's specific genius propping up the kitchen's less-than-brilliant work? There would be no reason for me ever to come back to the Zig Zag Café.That night I made my first visit to Tavern Law. I decided to play the same game there: no cocktails, no hint of what the house is supposed to do best, just a simple drink and some food.I had a glass of wine. I don't recall the label, and anyway, it was unremarkable. In other words, perfect. Then I ordered the smoked fingerling potatoes from the cook slowly turning in circles in the kitchen—probably giving a last scan to his stock and mise, but looking like a dog getting ready to lie down.I want to be careful not to overstate this, but those potatoes were the single best potato-based appetizer I have ever had in my life, anywhere. Better than any order of fries. Better than all the house-made potato chips everywhere. They were what every potato wants to be when it grows up.And it was so simple: just perfectly chosen fingerling potatoes, high in sugar, low in starch, split in half, smoked (I can only assume) by magical elves with secret powers, then crusted with spice rub and fried 'til golden in every way that word can be taken. They tasted like they'd been fried in bacon grease, and had the texture of perfectly constructed chocolate truffles—a little crunch from the shell of spice, then a warm, soft center, with a bit of texture from the skins that had been left on. They were, in a word, unbelievable.Which of course meant I had to go back for more.The next night, the bartender was handing out tastes of a dessert experiment from the kitchen: peaches soaked in vodka and set atop mascarpone like peaches and cream. There were a few more people at the bar, scattered around the secondary bar and the tertiary bar and the clubby interior of Tavern Law's back room. The chalkboard menu was the same, similarly simple—odd in its easy, American influences and roots, because "easy" and "simple" are not words one generally would use to describe the work done by Tough and McCracken at Spur.There was pan-fried trout, a burger with onion jam and pork belly, a green salad, some lamb. On other nights, there's roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, turnips, and smoked almonds; potatoes done with wild mushrooms; nearly classical confit legs of duck. I went for that most American of summertime indulgences: fried chicken with warm potato salad, because I figured that fried chicken is so easy even for a really good galley to screw up that this second-thought kitchen at Tough and McCracken's cocktail lounge stood a really good chance of blowing it completely.But it didn't. The kitchen didn't just do a solid plate of fried chicken, but an amazing one: partially boned-out breast, rib, and leg sections done with the skin on, in a crisp cornflake crust, fried perfectly with an expert's sense of doneness so that the meat was wet with fat and the crust had formed a shell both crisp and yielding. All this was mounted over a potato salad that was barely the suggestion of a potato salad: the same fingerlings used in the smoked potatoes, boiled this time, shocked before losing their stiffness, and dressed in nothing but a smear of coarse-grain French mustard. The entire thing was excellent beyond all my expectations, delicious in a way that was totally out of line with how good it needed to be to act only in support of a very good bar.Which is why Tavern Law has now rocketed onto my list of favorite restaurants. It isn't merely that I would happily come back just for the food, forgoing the cocktail list and drinking nothing but water. No, if allowed I would move permanently into the crawl space below the bar and live like a troll, drinking nothing but whatever dripped from the bar gun and eating sautéed rocks two meals a day—provided that the third would come off the chalkboard menu, cooked for me whenever I got hungry.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

Tavern Law

 Smoked fingerling potatoes  $7

 Fried chicken  $14

 Foie gras torchon  $15

Zig Zag Café

 Risotto  $14

 Sangrita prawns  $11

 

 
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