(BlatherMunch is our weekly (on Sundays) foodish respite from political bias, media dish, snotty intenuendo, and liberal glee. For more essays on food and dining click here or 'BlatherMunch' in Categories).
113 Blanchard Street
I've kind of known Dana Tough, and Brian McCracken for a while.
Both were veterans of the W Hotel's Earth & Ocean under diminutive superchef Maria Hines. In 2006, Hines catered an intercoastal dinnert to the foodly swells of Manhattan at the James Beard House, the foodly Greenwich Village shrine. I traveled East with the restaurant crew which included the two young cooks and wrote about it for The Seattle Weekly.
Since then I'd run into Dana cooking at Tilth, his mentor's hugely hot Wallingford restaurant where he changed my life one evening by telling me how to crisp up pork bellies (I take my epiphanies as they come these days).
I was happy to hear Dana and Brian had opened their own joint in the Belltown space long inhabited by Mistral. Spur Gastropub had been open but a few weeks when we arrived last week -- there still was no signage outside, yet the joint was jumping with the 20-30-something eaters and drinkers who seemed to be taking in stride and for granted this unpretentious wow-food.
We said wow.
A straightaway wow was the Summer Vegetable Salad. a lemony, toss of
peeled cherry tomatoes, wispy sprouts, yellow squash, nasturtium
flowers, and thin carrots... the best part, though was the yellow corn
panna cotta in tiny, (about twice the size of a pea) invisible skinned,
You might know that panna cotta is a Northern Italian "set dessert" of cream, milk, sugar and gelatin that's frozen or served with fruits like berries. Here was a savory version but encapsulated in a clear skin by the use of sodium alginate and calcium chloride.
(Photo: Dana Tough in the headlights)
In case you've been eating in only in the 19th or 20th centuries lately (as so many of us have) you might not know about the 21st century food movement called "molecular gastronomy" (MG) in which geeks using high tech techniques and sophisticated lab equipment have developed to make some definitely interesting and very delicious things.
This from Hungry in Hogtown:
Sodium alginate, which is derived from seaweed, is a common emulsifier and thickener in the food industry. If you've ever wondered how a McDonald's apple pie maintains its jam-like consistency, wonder no more. When sodium alginate meets calcium chloride, the sodium ions in the alginate are replaced by calcium ions, thus creating a polymer skin that holds everything inside.
The use of sodium alginate in a calcium chloride bath is MG 101. In Spur's salad, the corny, creamy stuff is mixed with the sodium alginate and dropped into a calcium bath forming a globule full of the corn mixture with enough tensile strength to be handled and chilled.
Chefs, and geeky cooks are making "liquid raviolis," and clear dumplings both sweet and savory.
I must tell you that Spur uses only a few MG techniques which are well integrated into a brief small-plates menu notable for its execution and tastiness come of good old fashioned cooking skills and ace ingredients.
The other MG toy they use is the sous vide, a thermal immersion circulator, an expensive piece of medical equipment that's been pressed into cookery by a growing number of chef/geeks.
Here's chef Maria Hines describing the process on her Tilth blog:
For a recent Monday night menu, Larkin, the sous chef, made a 12-hour pork shoulder that was absolutely amazing. We have been making our fennel, baby turnips, carrots, sablefish and pork loin using the sous vide method. Basically, the process involves cooking foods that have been vacuum packed in a plastic bag in a water bath that’s kept at a constant temperature. The slower heat allows the food to retain its inherent flavors and nutrients. Pork tastes like pork! Carrots taste like no carrots you’ve tasted before. The flavors in general are “cleaner.” This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but the subtleties also shine. How I describe the taste of sous vide vegetables is that they taste raw but have a cooked texture and they retain all the vitamins and minerals.
At Spur, we had butterfish (black cod, sable fish) cooked in the sous vide. It flaked as any cooked fish would, yet retained a dense moistness, and transparent look that suggested undercooked, even though it didn't eat that way. It was poached fish without the leaching of texture and color or other battle scars of regular poaching. It was served on a bed of English pea slurry, whole peas, peavines and a vividly flavored duxelles of morels.
(Holy shit, er... wow, we muttered, the sleek, well-employed children at the surrounding tables smiled in agreement: Whadja expect? they murmured).
Brian and Dana's menu also has a suveed flat-iron steak which is flopped onto a charbroiler after the long bath. I'll be trying that next time, so curiouso am I.
I was (and still am) agoggle with the high tech stuff, but I gotta tell you that another high point were the pork belly sliders made with tiny brioche burger buns, Dana's famous crispy pork bellies, broccoli sprouts, smoked orange marmalade, mustard and sherry gastrique. These were simply roasted, crusty pigmeat with tangy sauces served on the buttery-est buns since Brigitte Bardot's And God Created Woman (1956).
(pork belly sliders; photo by Rocky)
(Pork bellies, of course, are uncured slab bacon, also known as sidemeat. They've become the seared ahi of this decade -- they're on every tone-y restaurant's menu. But pork bellies aren't just glitz: There's a reason they're popular: they eat real good, as my fat Aunt Lulu might have said just before her stroke).
Spur is one of those intentionally noisy joints with loud music, and a pub feel. That's mainly because it IS a pub. The service, while not at a high level (no linen except napkins, no crumb scrapers, no fevered table re-settings, no host or hostess) the waitroid was attentive, very friendly, funny, and proficient.
At the end I ordered Pistachio Financier -- couldn't resist it... made with foie gras ice cream as it was. Duck liver ice cream? Yes, but the livery flavor was hard to distinguish, sharing, as it was, the same plate with macerated Rainier cherries, elderberry puree, and lots of pistachio flour. The Tiny Architect would have none of that -- it was, after all, her birthday. So she had lemon balm ice cream with sea salt shortbread, and poppyseed jel which she slathered all over herself in a celebratory fugue of crazed whoop-de-do. (The woman gets nutty on her birthday).
We're pretty sure that once this restaurant gets its sign up and the other food weasels discover it, you won't be able to get near. So time to go is now.