Kickin’ Boot Should Raise the Steaks

Yet another Ballard barbecue emporium might want to ditch its smoker.

The wreckage of our midday meal at Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen, the newest contestant in Ballard’s ongoing barbecue pageant, was staggering. A good 20 minutes after a cheery server dropped off our plates, the table was landscaped with derelict jointed chicken wings, pointing their saucy tips toward the sky; a pile of grease-ridden potato chips; multiple sauce bottles uncapped in a fruitless search for something to invigorate flagging slices of tri-tip; and rugged hunks of cornbread so sweet it could double as dessert. The manager who surveyed the scene was unfazed. “Food’s awesome,” he said, the question mark apparently sticking in his throat.

Kickin’ Boot desperately wants to be awesome. The 2-month-old restaurant promoted its impending awesomeness so relentlessly that everyone I took to eat there remarked on the smallness of the space. Although the high-ceilinged dining room could hardly be classified as cozy, indoor seating for 50 feels modest in a restaurant which has been boasting about the size of its spread since long before renovations on downtown Ballard’s Henry Gowan Whyte Building were completed. I expected a second floor and a mechanical bull.

Instead, Kickin’ Boot has gone corporate country, eschewing any decor elements that might indicate a real hillbilly was associated with the enterprise. If your favorite examples of interior design are found in Las Vegas casinos and upscale shopping malls, you’ll be smitten by the deeply grained wooden tables, massive steel halos suspended from the exposed rafters, and an impressive six-shelf pyramid of whiskey bottles, backlit by a sweeping window overlooking the Ship Canal. (OK, so the back bar’s pretty neat, no matter which way your tastes run.) It all adds up to an aesthetic so carefully engineered that some customers have mistakenly assumed the team behind Bastille and Poquitos is responsible for it.

In fact, the pair associated with Kickin’ Boot is another local glossy-restaurant success story. In 2004, down the street in Ballard, Nathan Opper and Zak Melang opened the first of seven Matador locations in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a trajectory the owners seem determined to repeat: Southland Whiskey Kitchen, a carbon copy of its northern neighbor, is set to open this month in Portland.

According to many press releases, the Whiskey Kitchen concept revolves around barbecue, brown liquor, and “a generous helping of Southern hospitality.” What’s unfortunate is that a better, more original (at least for Seattle) concept is buried beneath the restaurant’s adopted Dixie swagger: If Kickin’ Boot weren’t so distracted by its own smoked-meat tomfoolery, it could be the region’s finest upscale sports bar.

In well-paved cities where men wear three-piece suits to NBA games, it’s not uncommon to encounter “sports lounges” with steaks measured in vertical inches and flat-screen televisions measured in feet. Avidly patronized by Cigar Aficionado subscribers and Ferrari drivers, such restaurants probably wouldn’t transfer seamlessly to the Puget Sound area, which has an admirably low tolerance for long martini lists and servers in stiletto heels. The near-total banishment of televisions from Seattle’s best restaurants is a godsend for eaters, who deserve to enjoy their meals—and one another’s company—without the interference of broadcast chatter. But it’s kind of a drag when you’re hungry during important sports months, such as October. While there are plenty of respectable sports bars around town, Seattle fans deserve a restaurant where they can simultaneously dine well and spectate comfortably. Whether by accident or design, Kickin’ Boot comes very close to being that kind of restaurant.

Many of the hallmarks of the affluent sports den are in evidence at Kickin’ Boot, including valet parking. The dining room’s noisy, but service is crisp, and the bar’s bracketed with six high-def TVs, which counts as ample by local standards. Most important, the kitchen—helmed by Bo Maisano of Bo Ramen pop-up fame —makes a mean steak.

While the red-meat sandwiches on Kickin’ Boot’s lunch menu are memorable mostly for their gently griddled potato buns, the T-bone I tried was terrific. Cooked to a textbook medium rare, the beef’s hearty flavor was locked in by a fast, hot sear on a grill fueled by mesquite and punctuated by a thin crust of salt. The steak wore its smoke like a Gore-Tex jacket, a subtle reminder of the outdoors and misty ranch mornings. Kickin’ Boot keeps more than a dozen items on its sides menu, but the steak is appropriately accompanied by a fine baked potato and perhaps a bottle of red wine from the restaurant’s Washington-heavy list.

At $40, the steak’s likely to wipe out the budgets of many diners, who may not be accustomed to dropping a day’s wages on a restaurant that drops its g’s. But if there’s call for a starter, a few of the side dishes—notably the sturdy cheddar-and-grits sticks, the cheese-drenched mac, and the stinging horseradish slaw—are decent choices. My shrimp-and-grits entrée was a mess of butter, bland shrimp, and thick, pasty grits that congealed in odd places, but the seafood appetizers were unobjectionable, including a stack of three peel-and-eat shrimp balanced on a slice of Texas toast and showered with a sharp vinegar-pepper sauce.

Vinegar is a constant at Kickin’ Boot, sometimes to the dishes’ detriment. Collards are ruined by too much of the stuff, and the potato chips’ salt-to-vinegar ratio leaned too far toward vinegar on one occasion. But at another meal, the chips tasted balanced and cleanly fried. For all its sleek professionalism, Kickin’ Boot hasn’t yet mastered consistency: Smoked chicken wings veered from excellent to nearly inedible over the course of two visits.

Smoking is the source of Kickin’ Boot’s most serious culinary missteps. The restaurant uses a pair of custom-built Bewley smokers, which command respect in the barbecue industry but have already annoyed at least a few Ballardites. “Kickin’ Boot is spewing toxic burnt-wood smoke fumes into the Old Historic Ballard neighborhood,” the writer of a letter to the Ballard News-Tribune complained this summer. “They have decided to ignore the pleas of nearby residents and continue to burn firewood in their giant meat smokers day and night.”

Sadly, the payoff is small. Like an accordion, a Bewley is a beautiful instrument that can’t just be picked up and played. It demands practice— possibly years of it. For now, the meats emerging from Kickin’ Boot’s pit are tough, dry, and overly smoked. The restaurant provides a lineup of six sauces, atypically forgoing secrecy and listing the sauces’ ingredients (hope you like cider vinegar). The caddy functions as a chemistry set for condiment hounds, who may find that a dab of mayonnaise-based White sauce mixed with a dash of mustard-based Gold sauce makes an upstanding fried-chicken dip, but it can’t salvage the underwhelming meats. Low-and-slow devotees are probably better off at nearby Bitterroot, which offers a similar barbecue-and-bourbon formula, but adds stupendous buffalo livers instead of hype to the equation.

Yet even in Ballard these days, there’s more to life than barbecue. There’s baseball. And football. And a steak dinner with a whiskey neat at its end. Beyond the haze emanating from its smokers, that’s what Kickin’ Boot has to offer.

PRICE GUIDEWings $8Kickin’ shrimp $11Smoked sirloin sandwich $12Smoke master platter $35Fried chicken $16Shrimp and grits $16T-bone $40