What exactly does 'aroused Americana' taste like?

The Icon Grill was the brainchild of an interior designer. Those who are still reading, having open-mindedly allowed that the stylish joint may also offer culinary substance, are alas too generous. But that's beside this point. Upon walking in, decor is the first thing one notices; one can practically hear it from the sidewalk. Squashed Chihuly-esque glass globes suspend in vast nets from ceiling chandeliers; pictures cover nearly every inch of wall; vintage lamps glow and orchids bloom. As in a place like Hamburger Mary's, or Beppo, the cacophony of decoration screams at you to have fun. Even the patrons are decorative. (I've long suspected that big, bucksy corporations like Restaurants Unlimited must invite models and Sea Gals and Clinique counter girls to dine gratis in their properties' opening weeks. Perhaps they import them from LA and put them up at the Westin across the street.) Icon Grill 1933 Fifth, 441-6330

lunch Mon-Sat, dinner daily

major credit cards, local checks The Icon Grill is not an RUI property, but it resembles one for a reason. One owner, the aforementioned interior designer, Gary Dethlefs, designed Palomino and Palisade. Partner Michael Douglas came from RUI, apparently bringing with him the tinnily insincere "team service" that mars so many of that company's restaurants. The third owner is Philip Kephart, erstwhile exec chef at the El Dorado Hotel in Santa Fe, who runs the kitchen. The tagline for Kephart's food is "aroused Americana," as his menu features such down-on-the-farm dishes as fried chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes ($15), chicken soup ($5), molasses-glazed meat loaf with blackstrap gravy ($13), and a side of mac 'n' cheese ($5). Beyond these the list offers a range of appetizers, and four or five each of seafoods, pastas, meats, and salads. Our impression of the food began to crystallize with a Dungeness crab potato crisp appetizer ($9), in which crab, scallions, smoked bacon, and manchego cheese decorated crisp little wedges of potato. Here was a dish with what nutritionists call "mouthfeel": the satisfyingly creamy textures that make certain starchy foods more dangerous than others. Rich crab, smoky bacon, melting cheese: It didn't take us long to dispatch this dish and recall it with a fond belch. This was good, old-fashioned comfort food. As dinner progressed we began to realize that comfort food is the Icon Grill's stock-in-trade. A merlot-braised lamb shank ($16), served in hefty King Henry VIII portion, was rich and wonderfully cooked; great hunks of the meat tumbled off the bone and into the intense winey sauce. With this came an assortment of unpopular root vegetables (does anyone really like turnips?), and the comfort junkie's favorite, polenta, which promised Gorgonzola but offered no discernible evidence thereof. Too little flavor seemed odd, as Kephart's reductions could generally wake the dead. The zinfandel sauce alongside the duck ($18) and cherry barbecue sauce alongside the grilled shrimp ($21) were both strong and sure-footed. Unfortunately, the meals they were meant to augment were not. The roasted breast and zinfandel-braised leg of duck were tough and chewy. The shrimp were overcooked and redolent of unsavory flavors from the grill. These last were served with bitter greens and a nondescript corn pudding called Shoepeg Spoon Bread. It's as if the modulations are off, leaving some of Icon's comforting dishes with too much flavor and others with too little. A salmon cake appetizer ($8.75), served in a fine and light sour cream/chive vinaigrette, was much too salty. Butternut squash soup ($5), though silken and creamy, packed a big pow of curry, which clashed with the dollop of salsa in its center. One dessert, a seven-layer chocolatefest called Texas Funeral Fudge Cake ($6), was suitably over-the-top. (Talk about comfort food: They serve it with a bottle of milk.) Another, burnt cream ($5.25), wanted more vanilla flavor. From what we've seen, salads have been the most reliable performers. Icon's house salad ($4.50) is just terrific, with a zingy cotijo cheese/balsamic vinaigrette. Alongside the nondescript burger ($9) comes a spicy mélange of marinated vegetables called the Fire and Ice Salad. Really good. Without doubt, the Icon Grill does some things nicely. So why do I say it lacks culinary substance? No consistency. Dumb missteps of execution. An emphasis on strong statements over subtlety, from the decor to the plate. The Icon Grill is a place where everything is scripted to be as adorably clever as possible, from the smarty-pants epigraphs on the menu to the videos playing in the bathrooms. (The men's room, apparently, features video of running water. "Motivational," nodded the maitre d'.) Self-consciously wacky, the place is trying to project quality through its boldness alone. Real quality requires more. A final note: It is refreshing to find a come-as-you-are joint downtown. Though Seattle has never been prohibitively bound by dress codes, Icon's kitchen-sink backdrop seems to eliminate the demographic distance between fur coats, business suits, jeans, and (kids in) jammies—all of which I spied there on a recent Saturday night.

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