There are great restaurants, good restaurants, mediocre ones, and lousy ones. And then there are those that fall into the category of Things That Make You Go “Hmmm.” Such is Ballard’s new Chase Lounge (1556 N.W. 56th St., 829-8255).
Everything about it is awkward and slightly off, including the room itself, which feels like a pub trying to pretend it’s something more refined. Ugly tiled floors and chintzy light fixtures that look like they belong in a pizza place oddly commingle with white maps of Puget Sound beneath glass tabletops and posts wrapped (badly) in rope—an attempt to add nautical flair that feels like a poorly executed ripoff of a Renee Erickson or Josh Henderson spot. There’s even framed art of sea creatures and wildlife, like ducks and fish, but it’s tiny and oddly placed to make virtually no aesthetic impact. While there’s plenty of seating beyond the bar area, including several booths, it is impossible to escape the distraction of the large TV. There’s another one in the dining room upstairs, which is small and dark and leads to a room full of pinball machines and video games (good if you have kids along, I suppose).
As we sat down, our server brought us a dirty menu printed on thin, cheap paper, and my bewilderment amplified. He also brought us some bread and butter, which we’d spied sitting out on a small table in the dining room. The butter looked creamy and delicious, but after we spread it on our bread we nearly spit it out for its abundance of grains of salt. Before turning my attention to the menu, our server told us about the oysters of the day, their provenance written on a wall chalkboard, including many of the usual local suspects: Taylor Shellfish, Hama Hama Oyster Company, Jones Family Farms. Chase Lounge has received some local media buzz for bringing on Taylor’s Kevin Bartlett to curate its oyster selection, but I fail to see how this adds anything unique compared to other outfits in town serving a similar rotation. Only the happy-hour deal, a dozen for $20, seems worth mentioning.
The rest of the menu is a perplexing study, not only for its abbreviation but for its off-kilter ensemble of outdated ’50s seafood standards like crab and shrimp cocktail and its choice of only four entrées. Among them are four pan-seared scallops that, though cooked neither under or over, come without the requisite sear, sprinkled with breadcrumbs (hello, 1970s!), and drizzled with a concoction that sounded and tasted like something a first-year culinary student might attempt in a misguided effort to be creative: a tomato-Riesling reduction and roasted-garlic parsley oil with cracked black pepper and sea salt. To the side of it are large, extremely undercooked corona beans, which at least had a nice flavor but were disconnected completely from the rest of the plate.
Amateur hour continued with a broiled-mussel dip that aroused my salivary glands just thinking about it. Unfortunately, what could have been a standout dish, described as “fresh mussels and oysters in a blend of cream cheese, parmesan, and Mexican crema with a dash of smoked chili oil,” is essentially a warm mess of cream cheese with an occasional, nearly undetectable chunk of mussel or oyster. It was impossible not to devour, but only in the way you can’t stop yourself from eating anything covered in cheese.
The service, too, while friendly, is unpolished. A cocktail that was supposed to come served up did not. The server explained that “they’d changed up the drink” (a $12 “craft cocktail” that was woefully weak). Likewise, when we inquired about “Today’s Cioppino,” he was unsure of the ingredients. It turns out they’re written on a board, but I’d still expect a server to have it down pat.
Another starter, the ahi crudo, was just plain terrible—and considering that this restaurant is billing itself as a place to get good sustainable seafood, unforgivable. The tiny slices of ahi were mostly masked by large, inedible grains of sea salt, as well as by the avocado purée and chili oil. But considering the unadulterated bite or two that could be eked out, that was probably for the best, because it tasted far from fresh and I seriously questioned its quality.
The ultimate fail was the cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew with Italian-American roots that originated in San Francisco. In a good one, the broth is redolent of the myriad flavors that come from the seafood that inhabit it—typically mussels, shrimp, clams, and fish—along with tomato, onions, and herbs. This poor reproduction was more like a jar of bottled tomato sauce dumped into a bowl to which was added some overcooked mussels, shrimp, and salmon.
I’d planned to order one of their sandwiches to go—like a crab melt or a shrimp roll—but after so many disappointments, I couldn’t muster the will. We did ask, warily, about dessert, but our server sheepishly said that they usually have chocolate cake and ice cream but he wasn’t sure because their freezer had broken earlier and “the ice cream was kind of soupy.” Before he hurried off to ask, we told him not to worry about it; we were full—and fed up.
Unfortunately, the meal’s flaws were not of the sort that one can imagine being tweaked and perfected over time; they were just too fundamentally off-base. In my opinion, the owners would be smart to quickly change up the menu to reflect a pub-style atmosphere—keeping, say, the oysters and chowder but adding things like burgers and fries. Otherwise, in a city of discerning eaters, it’s hard to see what Chase Lounge adds to a robust selection of good seafood restaurants.