Navy Strength Rethinks Tiki

The new Belltown spot has a great menu, but feels more Seattle than South Seas.

First, you should know that Navy Strength (2505 Second Ave.) is a tiki bar and restaurant. Next, you should forget you ever heard that. Coming off a winning streak with the recent opening of their Belltown beer bar and restaurant, No Anchor, Chris and Anu Elford (who also own Rob Roy) have brought that neighborhood a sophisticated tiki experience, which sounds oxymoronic. Little in the décor references the South Seas. And while the extensive drink list does include a few of the usual suspects—mai tais, zombies, and planter’s punch—they’re not recognizable as such. Which is to say, don’t expect froth and forthright sweetness (though some drinks come in coconuts and Tyki-style glasses, occasionally festooned with a colorful, paper umbrella). Do, however, expect copious amounts of alcohol; many of the drinks come in at $16–$19 and are essentially three shots of liquor.

A mai tai here is a smooth, palate-cleansing concoction of rum, Curacao (orange liqueur), orgeat (almond), and fresh citrus, minus the cloying fruit juice that typically stands in for half the cocktail that you’re served at beachy hotels or on the flight to Hawaii. Likewise, a daiquiri is just rum, lime, and sugar (light on the latter) and not frozen. The Navy Strength Cocktail is an original—a sweeter, tropical take on an Old Fashioned, in which they melt beeswax into the rum and Calvados mixture and incorporate roasted pineapple. That all sounds fantastic, but ultimately it tastes like a craft cocktail you might get at any good bar these days. And therein lies the quandary for me.

Some drinking and dining experiences we want to remain kitschy (if only as an antidote to how seriously we take ourselves these days, particularly in the culinary world). For me, tiki is one. While I fully appreciate what Navy Strength is doing, I couldn’t help yearning for my daiquiri to be just a tad girly, instead of looking and tasting like a refined sour/citrus craft cocktail—ubiquitous these days, whether served with rum, gin, or whiskey. The space, too, which is huge, doesn’t impart that tucked-away-in-a-beachside-hut ambience, and I found myself craving that as well. Instead, there’s a sort of fabulous floating, dropped wooden ceiling hung in pieces, leaving some of the upper ductwork exposed. It’s very cool, and yet the most colorful, festive things about the space are the bar stools in alternating shades of teal, orange, and blue—but they’re the same stools every restaurant has of late.

The food here, also created by No Anchor chef Jeffrey Vance (formerly of Spur), is secondary, focusing on just under a dozen small plates and snacks, plus dessert. Given No Anchor’s more ambitious menu and small space, I couldn’t help thinking that the two establishments should be reversed: No Anchor, with its darker, cozier, elbow-rubbing feel would make a great spot for a tiki bar, while Navy Strength’s soaring, open format would allow more diners to experience the innovative menu and esoteric beers of No Anchor. But I digress.

What’s unique about both the food and drink menus at Navy Strength is that they change twice a year to reflect “the flavors and drinking customs” of different countries. Currently, India is in rotation, and while there will always be tiki staples, cocktails also include a garam masala whiskey Collins and a mint chutney mojito. The curry rice bowl is yellow curried rice topped with a coconut seaweed foam that’s like a delicate coconut cloud, airy, fragrant, and addictive. Pickled mushrooms, piquant but not overly sour, their woodsy funk still present beneath the brine, mess with the dish in just the right way. A BBQ duck slider slow-roasts duck in a sweet vadouvan barbecue sauce, which results in a flavor that was new to me—and ridiculously delicious. Served on a sweet Hawaiian roll with a side of green papaya salad lightly tossed with fish sauce, it’s Indian/tiki fusion at its finest. The duck liver paté also lit up my taste buds. Smeared on large toasted rolls, with kalamansi (a lime-kumquat hybrid) jelly to spread over it all, it reminded me of an old-school jelly donut—but with a savory paté as icing. It’s gourmet stoner food, maybe a new genre in itself. Tofu steam buns are filled gloriously with a shiitake/tofu/hoisin affair, but the buns aren’t like the traditional fluffy, doughy Chinatown pillows you’re used to; these are dense and reminded me more of an arepa in texture.

Least successful is the fish-sauce Caesar, in which Indian paneer cheese is subbed for Parmesan. The problem lies in the characteristics of paneer: A fresh, mild cheese, it’s much like tofu in that it takes on the flavor profile of the sauce it’s served in. Here it has nothing to absorb, so it’s kind of just flat and lost. Likewise, the fish-sauce dressing is too tame, and the pretzel croutons don’t taste like pretzels. It’s basically a big bowl of lettuce with no particular flavor profile. Against my better judgment, I also tried the Dungeness Crab Snack. It’s blended into a crab salad that’s painfully ambushed with mayo, which even the herbaceous shiso leaf it’s served on and the sour hit of tamarind can’t save. The Kumamoto oysters with the passion fruit and black-pepper granita, though: right on.

Navy Strength is going to be a hit, no doubt about it. I’ll come back for sure, but not because of the un-tiki tiki theme. I’ll go to No Bones Beach Club for a taste of that, and save this spot for when I want my Polynesian straight up, no chaser.