SO GRANDMA'S COMING to visit. You want to take her to dinner; you want to show off your city. You heard that Argosy, the cruise line that does scenic tours and private parties around town, now has a dinner boat. With food by Consolidated Restaurants, the folks who do Elliott's and the Metropolitan Grill. You think maybe Grandma might enjoy this. This is all against your better judgment. Royal Argosy Dinner Cruise
departs Pier 56, Alaskan and Seneca, 623-1445 lunch daily, departing at noon (till 1:30); dinner daily at 7pm (till 9:30pm); through August AE, MC, V; full bar You know, being a cosmopolitan sort, born a significant piece before yesterday, that the quality of a place's food and the quality of its view almost always occur in inverse proportion. And, of course, this boat will offer view and then some, chugging out from its berth at Elliott Bay's Pier 56 toward Bainbridge and back, cruising past West Seattle and Blake Island and Magnolia along the way, sun staining the sky red over the Olympics during dessert. With scenery like that, the food is extremely likely to be dog chow—and this at a whopping $79 a head, not including booze. (That's the Thursday-through-Saturday price; other nights it's $74.) So you have reservations. But you need reservations. You make the call. You read them your credit card number, and suddenly you're committed; the operator taking your call politely informs you there are no refunds. WHAT HAVE I DONE? you scream at the cosmos. You calm yourself and do the only thing you can do at this juncture: wait quietly for the appointed day and time. Parking costs $8 at the end of Argosy's pier and is run by a petty little despot who insisted we repark our car three times before he was satisfied. (Hint: Drop Grandma at the gangway before parking; it's a long pier.) Thirty-eight crew members stood to greet us at various points as we boarded; scrubbed and smiling, they looked like escapees from the Torchlight Parade. They pointed the way to the staircase and appeared genuinely concerned to report that the elevator was out of commission. (Hint: If Grandma's got a bum hip, helpfully point out the Red Robin down the block and tell her you'll be back around 9:30.) THE DINING ROOM on the second deck is sleek and white-linen fancy, with Titanic-era light sconces and a little Sinatra mood music to create a vision of canned elegance not unlike that found in fancy dining rooms from the '60s. We were greeted by our waiter, who handed us menus; every diner may choose one each of three starters, five mains, and three desserts for her $79. In our view the starter list held one clear winner: the hearts of romaine salad. Nice icy-crisp spears of romaine strewn with lots and lots of Alaskan bay shrimp along with tomato, chopped egg, and toasted hazelnuts wore dollops of a refreshingly light-handed blue cheese dressing. Good, old-fashioned, good eatin'. Another salad, field greens tossed with spiced walnuts, Granny Smith apples, raisin bread croutons, craisins (unbilled), blue cheese, and green apple dressing, tasted crowded and confused, as if conceived by committee. (Besides which its "apple-flavor" flavor put me in mind of Jolly Ranchers.) A jiggly bowl of crab-and-corn bisque captured the full, sweet flavors of its headliners but was deal-breakingly gelatinous. Entr饳 were uniformly bountiful and even pretty, arranged with colorful sauces and herb garnishes. (Here the butter must be praised: a pot of the stuff, all whipped and lemony.) Three Dungeness crab cakes were arranged between a creamy ginger beurre blanc (ginger? really?) and a journeyman plum sauce, alongside a grainy pilaf and some asparagus. The crusty cakes were nice and nondescript, in the manner of crowd-pleasers everywhere; the dish a hit with its diner. Ditto the Chinook salmon, which was chargrilled with restraint and topped with a perky sun-dried tomato concass鮠Garlicky mashed potatoes and a pile of beans appeared alongside. A New York strip loin was rare as requested and likewise served with chive-decorated potatoes and beans; we took issue only with the saltiness of the marinade cloaking the meat, which interfered with our enjoyment somewhat. Most interesting in this litany of crowd-pleasers was, curiously, the chicken. A split breast of skin-on bird was crusted with sagey herbs and roasted good and golden, then served over mashed potatoes and a warm salad of arugula, bread cubes, currants, and pine nuts in a balsamic Pinot Noir reduction. A little ham-handedly presented, with more than a few tender arugula shoots suffocating quietly under a smothering load of potatoes and fowl, this plate nevertheless had its heart in the right place and was driven by an actual creative vision. Perhaps the vegetarian option, a gussied-up grilled portobello, featured such verve as well; it was the only dish we didn't sample. MEANWHILE, out the window, the summer evening ripened and declined around us, with our captain intermittently pointing out landmarks. Servers, though mostly attentive, should have pointed out that we diners had the run of the boat; we didn't realize until just before dessert that both bow and stern had fine windy sundecks for our pleasure. Nor, as long as we're carping, were we offered coffee until after our desserts were served, by which time we were well back into Elliott Bay. These enders were fine all around, though: a tidy layered chocolate confection starring g鮯ise, ganache, and espresso buttercream; a smallish parfait of fresh berries and Grand Marnier sabayon; and a slice of coconut cake, admirably heavy on the coconut, in passion fruit sauce. It was 9:40pm by the time we slid into our berth and debarked, considerably fatter but for the $346 (for four) notably missing from our wallets. (Plus the $8 for parking and whatever our companions paid for the Argosy-sponsored photo the mae d' took at our table. Grandma will groove on that.) Laughable tourist trap? Hell, yes! Safe, middle-of-the-road food aiming a straight pitch at Peorians? No question! Appallingly overpriced? Bien sur! Most enchanting prospect from a restaurant table in town? Well . . . yeah.