RN74's Spectacular Start

Good wine, great service, and the summer's splashiest opening.

RN74—the first Seattle venture from famed restaurateur Michael Mina, a University of Washington grad whose professional cooking career was launched atop the Space Needle—has an extraordinary wine list, with bottles ranging in price from $34 to four-digit figures that wouldn't be out of place on a used-car lot. There are glasses and half-bottles too. Should the volume of choices prove overwhelming, a gaggle of knowledgeable managers and sommeliers stand ready to point out which earthy Old World red best complements the cassoulet. Then again, they might suggest settling on a wine before fiddling with the food menu, as the dishes at RN74 were designed to match the wine, not the other way around. Wine is clearly king at this kinetic restaurant, where the walls are hung with slatted signboards listing available bottles and a European train schedule with letters that flip wildly to indicate which are on the cusp of selling out. If you're serious about wine, you're already keen to RN74—and may very well be there now, sipping a 2005 Château Giscours. But if your budget, dining companions, or personal convictions prevent you from ordering a bottle of wine with dinner, there are still many pleasures to savor, not least of which is an emphasis on service and presentation that's exceedingly rare in Seattle. RN74 excels on both scores, as Mina is a stickler for staff training. His company has developed a dedicated Intranet site so front-of-the-house workers can watch videos of various dishes being prepared. They're schooled to rattle off ingredient lists and manage any conceivable guest query, no matter how wacky.SLIDESHOW: The food and finery of RN74.  Over the course of a very short summer, RN74 has convincingly established itself as one of the city's top destinations for meals that matter. The mood in its expansive dining room is considerably more rakish than the restaurant's entrée prices and oenophilic orientation would suggest. Nobody lowers their voices, whether they're seated in the lounge that occupies the restaurant's front half, the leather-backed booths that populate the back, or at the boxy, three-sided bar that functions as a dividing line. The booths are crescent-shaped, an old-timey touch that subtly forces diners to stay in their seats and submit to the very French enchantment of food, drink, and conversation. Keeping diners put also keeps them out of the paths of RN74's many servers. The numbers have dropped slightly since the restaurant's first few weeks, when a cadre of trainers were imported from Mina properties in San Francisco and Las Vegas to oversee the opening, but it's still common for multiple plaid-shirted staffers to inquire after the same unchecked bag or nearly drained cocktail. Situated at the busy corner of Fourth and Pike, RN74 can't plausibly limit its clientele to the hoity-toity set. To its credit, the restaurant hasn't tried to shut out the city, instead beckoning passersby with happy-hour specials and $2 Fernet Branca shots after 10 p.m. The restaurant's casual neighborliness sometimes draws a motley crowd; on a recent weekday afternoon, the bar was visited by an inexplicably sweaty tourist seeking a shot of Patrón and an aggravated driver who needed change for the parking meter. The bartender treated every customer respectfully, a service feat bested only by a server who remembered my exact cocktail specifications nearly one week after I'd ordered the drink once. Service is so good at RN74 that it's likely to jar Seattleites unaccustomed to being proffered a warm towel after eating a cheeseburger. RN74's showy cuisine is likewise strange by Seattle standards. While the restaurant has pointedly incorporated locally grown products—dinners might start with warm, nutty bread from Macrina Bakery and end with berries from Ballard Market grocery—the kitchen hasn't sworn a blood oath to leave mushrooms and greens the way foragers found them. Executive chef Michelle Retallack, a longtime Mina employee most recently stationed in San Francisco, apparently believes most ingredients can benefit from the poking and prodding that used to be reverently referred to as classical technique, before chefs sought to scoot restaurant tables closer to the farm. RN74 may tolerate its customers' questionable sartorial choices, but no dish leaves the kitchen looking rumpled.  RN74 harbors no fear of boldly elaborating upon its gorgeously fresh produce and flavorful meats, often finding room for a dab of foie gras, of which the kitchen is quite fond. This is all-caps cooking, and much of it is excellent. To start, the kitchen butters up guests with an array of approachable trifles, termed "shareables" on the menu. There's a kettle of billowy gougères with a whisper of black pepper, and a buttery grilled Gruyère sandwich, trimmed into canapés the size of checkerboard squares, for trawling through an accompanying pot of straightforward tomato soup. For eaters eager for luxury, there are terrific foie gras sliders: Generous slabs of the rich meat are perched upon cider-colored buns, round as bowler hats. Our servers were especially proud of a thick corn bisque with clumps of Dungeness crab. The soup bobs with sweet piquillo peppers and, in what amounts to a seafood-hater's rumaki, nuggets of white fingerling potatoes wrapped in bacon. The soup is unapologetically fortified with scads of cream, which may be why I much preferred a block of beef tartare served with a garlicky aioli and slender, rosemary-flecked fries. The vivacious tartare disappears quickly at a table of carnivores. Steak and potatoes is a predictable menu entry at a restaurant with hundreds of big French reds to sell, but RN74's most impressive openers are salads. The kitchen takes note of tomato season with a landscaped mesclun-and-avocado salad featuring wedges of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes interspersed with salty bits of bacon. A farmers-market salad which sounds pedestrian on the menu turns out to be a beautiful arrangement of colorful carrots, thinly sliced radishes, and split cherry tomatoes on a plate judiciously frosted with mild goat cheese. Entrées are tuned to the same aesthetically pleasing key. A hunk of ivory-fleshed salmon crowned with a slice of foie gras is sunk in a shallow bowl, tightly surrounded by pearl onions and mushrooms. Thickly cut slabs of duck breast—one perfectly cooked, one badly overdone—are laid in opposing, cherry-sauced rows, with hills of farro and chard set between. Similarly, the precisely cooked côte de boeuf, so gloriously beefy that it deserves to be ranked among the city's best steaks, is a looker. It's sized for two, so a server presents the prepared cut before it's split and plated with a small pitcher of gratuitous steak sauce and ramekins of corn and mashed potatoes so creamy they might have been milked straight from a cow's teat. The salt-crusted steak, which comes from Painted Hills Natural Beef in central Oregon, is remarkable. The desserts are disappointing. Much-touted beignets, paired with a supremely alcoholic butterscotch sauce layered with caramel, are dense and bland. And a miniature English garden of berries, herbs, and cardamom sponge cake croutons didn't wow. But there are other ways to end a meal at RN74. There are ice wines, ports, and Sauternes. And, at a restaurant whose Seattle arrival is well worth celebrating, there is always champagne. Price Guide Tomato soup fondue $9 Corn bisque $16 Beef tartare $18 Salmon $27 Duck breast $34 Côte de boeuf $96 (market price) Beignets $9 hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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