Don't be misled by our city's lack of pitch-black dining rooms, cotton-candied fish, or foods that require you to solve a puzzle to eat—there's nothing last-century about Seattle's food scene. It's just that Seattleites are . . . hungry. After a cold, overcast, wet afternoon, what are you going to order: a plate of "papaya air" with a sprig of lemon verbena, or a thick, flame-charred steak? Two Seattle restaurants in particular have found the right balance between science and sustenance: MistralKitchen and Spur Gastropub. These both house an arsenal of cutting-edge cooking equipment and a stocked supply of futuristic ingredients you won't find at your local grocery. They're known for constantly developing rule-defying preparations. However, they succeed by putting food first and avoiding cheap gimmicks. MistralKitchen, the brainchild of chef/owner William Belickis, is the second iteration of Mistral, which operated in Belltown from 2000–2008. The restaurant is stunningly unusual—there are two kitchens and a bar, each of which abut sections of the divided dining space. A thousand-degree wood-fired oven is mirrored by a gas-fired tandoor oven in the area referred to as the "caveman kitchen." Chunks of beef and lamb are skewered on yard-long spikes, then seared in the fire and hung on the water-filtered exhaust hood to rest. Nearby, almost juxtaposed with the open flames, an array of induction burners are used to heat sauces with high energy efficiency. Just below the counter, sous vide heating-immersion circulators are quietly keeping tubs of water at the perfect temperature for slowly cooking deboned chickens. The complete line of Texturas brand additives, used for transforming the textures of foods into powders, spheres, foams, and gels, lines the spice shelf, but chef Belickis makes judicious use of those ingredients and techniques. "If every dish involved some form of manipulation, it would be fatiguing to the guests. And you'd lose the ability to cook à la minute [preparing dishes as they are ordered]," he says. In fact, cooking off the cuff seems to be a specialty of his: At an event at Dale Chihuly's glass studio, Belickis spontaneously decided to sear his sous vide short ribs in a 2000-degree glass kiln. The chef acknowledges that five years ago, his diners expected to see gimmicky uses of modernist techniques. However, he says, "Modernism is about details, and details are lost on big dishes." He is also very conscious of how his raw ingredients are treated, and recognizes a tension between modernist cooking and the farm-to-table philosophy. When creating a dish, he asks, "If the farmers really knew what was happening to their products, would they be upset?" Insider tips: Order a John Cameron Mitchell. It's an esoterically named off-menu cocktail from mixologenius Andrew Bohrer. For this drink, he hand-carves three-inch blocks of clear ice that he cuts down by chain saw and band saw from a 300-lb. block each week. Also, take a peek in the upper lounge—they keep it stocked with vintage comics to satisfy your inner geek.
MistralKitchen 2020 Westlake Ave., 623-1922, mistral-kitchen.com. Spur Gastropub 113 Blanchard St., 728-6706, spurseattle.com. Organic Cheetos, Wine Jelly, Sous Vide Salmon, and Other Geek RecipesThe Seattle Food Geek's Tips for Being a Kitchen Chemist Specialty Food Guide Listings
Tucked into a Belltown side street, Spur Gastropub, run by chef/owners Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, is divided into a dining room in front and a bar area adorned with wooden-slab tables in the back. The whole vibe is somewhat understated; it's not until you taste the food that you realize that spectacular forces are at work. "We have a delicate approach to modern. A lot of what we do is behind the scenes, coaxing the best possible flavor out of an ingredient and presenting it in a dish in a variety of ways to heighten the overall meal," says McCracken. But behind the scenes is where things get really interesting. In the kitchen, the chefs use centrifuges for separating and clarifying sauces, as well as liquid nitrogen to form some of their signature dessert presentations. "We're serious about our food, but we like to play too. The most gimmicky thing you'll find is an occasional dish on our dessert menu that involves liquid nitrogen. People have fun eating something delicious and blowing steam out of their nose. It makes you laugh, and there's always room for a little playful humor in desserts," says McCracken. However, the chefs have a serious side, evident in their reverence for certain ingredients. As Tough explains, "We work with a lot of small farmers who really honor and hone their craft. So when they come by to deliver at Spur, we love to show them what we do and let them try their produce after we're finished preparing it. We're proud of our recipes and how we honor the product. Located where we are in this region, and with a real passion for what's produced here, we're right at the heart of where farm-to-table meets modernist." Insider tips: Spur hosts a great happy hour. Must-trys include the pork-belly sliders and the salmon crostini. Also, ask for an order of corn nuts—they're addictive!