Perched on the 14th floor of the 400 Fairview Building in South Lake Union, at eye level with the holiday-festooned cranes that have become a permanent fixture of our city, one truly feels gobsmacked by Seattle’s rise, both literal and metaphorical. Seated in the covered patio under heat lamps that lead out to an uncovered patio with fire pits surrounded by mid-century egg hoop chairs in bright colors, diners at MBar (400 Fairview Ave. N., 457-8287) can look from the sloping ridge of Eastlake on one side to the towering presence of the Space Needle and Queen Anne beyond—a stunning view further enhanced by the glamorous decor from the folks behind the chic, impeccably designed Mamnoon.
Before you can see the sights, though, you are likely to spend some time in MBar’s first-floor waiting area—a bar unto itself with dim lighting and a wall showcasing an artful iteration of an oversized, backlit circuit board with gold fixtures, a hint of the rarefied experience above. This is where you sit until the hostess signals that your table is ready and you’re free to jet up the elevator, where you disembark down a glowing blue passageway that ends in rainbow-colored neon lights. You may wonder if you’re headed into alien territory and, indeed, at the entrance of the restaurant/bar, diners are met with a large painting that reads “Space” in graffiti-esque lettering.
Once inside, the large, dark room, centered by a square bar, allows for seating in all sorts of configurations, from a dais-like raised table for six to more intimate two-tops, and is sparkled up with curtains ingeniously made from the metal bottoms of votive candles, which give it a slight nod toward the Middle Eastern-Mediterranean fare that makes up its small menu, meant to accompany cocktails. Even inside, glass windows allow for the breathtaking views and befit the winter months, though plenty of people chose the patio on a recent evening despite the season.
Unfortunately, the food sometimes fails to live up to the charisma of the place itself, which, given Mamnoon’s unwavering excellence, is hard to fathom. Here, helmed by Seattle superstar chef Jason Stratton, who has been acting as Mamnoon’s Executive Chef since last fall, the abbreviated menu is creatively conceived but, on our visits, inconsistently executed. The cauliflower hummus is lovely, redolent with the flavor of the vegetable itself and given a unique twist via a small central pool of rice beans and clarified butter. It’s a generous portion at $11, but, bewilderingly, served with hardly enough toast points and crudité (cucumber spears when we visited) to eat with it. In fairness, this isn’t a problem at MBar only, but a ubiquitous conundrum at many restaurants; plenty of the actual expensive part of a dip or spread, but scant on the cheaper bread or crackers needed as the vehicle with which to eat it. I couldn’t help wondering if this was designed to upsell the “MBar bread service,” since the waiter specifically inquired if we wanted it after we ordered the hummus, but which at $7 would have turned that small plate into $18. We declined, and when left with more than half of our hummus but nothing to smear it on, requested more toast points. Our server seemed a little peevish about it, but brought us more of the bread and cucumbers.
The next upset was the chicory “chop salad” with chickpeas, fontina, soppressata, egg, and pomegranate, all of which were nearly tasteless due to the obliteration of the oregano vinaigrette. It was, in fact, so terribly overdressed that we sent it back. (It was kindly removed from the bill.) You have to work hard to smother flavors as strong as chicory, soppressata, and fontina, and this felt like a real rookie mistake.
Fortunately, redemption was had in the soft polenta with rabbit and foie gras bolognese bianca and carrot sauce, a kind of rustic, warm risotto-like dish that marries rich, lush flavors with vegetal brightness. A dreamy, creamy concoction that carries sweet and savory beyond deftness and into the sublime, it is easily one of the top 10 dishes I’ve had this year; it displays the level of expertise I expect from any Mamnoon enterprise, and obviously plays to Stratton’s strengths. (I could easily envision this on the menu at Spinasse, where he formerly served as executive chef.) Likewise, the grilled trout with avocado, sumac, labneh, fenugreek, and brown butter delivers an arsenal of textures and tastes. The only issue I had with it was that one side was overly charred while the other was cooked perfectly. It’s worth noting, however, for anyone expecting a replica of Mamnoon, that these dishes, while excellent, are light-handed when it comes to the Middle Eastern flavors. The intention here is to give Stratton free reign in the kitchen to mix and match cuisines. Head to Mamnoon or Mamnoon Street if you’re more of a Middle Eastern purist.
House cocktails are also tightly curated but extremely esoteric; you may need to ask your server or bartender a few questions before ordering. I first went for the Rum Royale, a blend of Sun Liquor silver rum, cantaloupe, and sparkling wine. It sounded intriguing, and the server promised it wasn’t sweet (I’m not a huge rum fan). He was right; it wasn’t the least bit sweet but, sadly, I couldn’t detect a trace of cantaloupe, the reason I’d ordered it. I let the waiter know, and he swore it was there. For my second cocktail, I stayed in more familiar territory with the MBar Negroni, which replaces Campari with another Italian aperitif, Rinomato, made from beet sugar—and gives the classic drink a slightly less bitter, slightly sweeter profile.
At $12, these specialty drinks are reasonable and, ultimately, the reason to come: Sipping them in the enchanting space, surrounded by the riches of the landscape (again both literal and figurative) is the real allure of MBar, and come summer it’s certain to be an impossibly hard spot to snag.