Feel Like Flirting?

Licorous is a delight, but don't go looking for anything too serious.

It's a wink of a place: Licorous, Johnathan Sundstrom's new cocktails-and-nosh restaurant on 12th Avenue and East Union Street, sparkles coyly from its hourglass stools-slash-tables to its molded chrome ceiling. The menu lists quizzical little items like "foie gras bon bons" and "mackerel tartine." Ask the servers for instructions on how many "savories" and "supper" dishes you should order, and you'll get a vague response: "Oh, we take a free-form approach." In short, it's a delight. If you go for that sort of thing. Sundstrom, of course, is one of the Seattle food scene's golden boys, and when it became clear the crowds gathering outside his two-year-old Lark weren't going to go away, the chef and his partners, Kelly Ronan and JM Enos, began eyeing the business next door as a good spot for a lighter, later-night lounge, even a bit of a holding pen for Lark on busy weekends. Last year the space opened up, and last month, they opened Licorous, bringing in Gordon Wishard to serve as its chef de cuisine. The scent of Sex and the City is strong at the new place, complete with a female-to-male ratio of 70-30. Rolling waves of gauze curtains wash over the front windows, tinting the light peach. A mod motif splashes across the upholstery on the curvy booths and the centerpiece lamps, but it doesn't stoop to kitsch in order to charm. And all whimsy stops at the L-shaped bar. It's a station for serious cocktail drinkers, with woodshop-chic lights hanging plumb from the ceiling and a library of spirits that gets bigger as you move toward the top shelf. For an extra $2, cocktail designer Michelle Magidow (also a partner in the business) matches each of her house drinks ($8.50) with tiny bites, say a cherry pepper stuffed with anchovies or a few shavings of salumi. Though a few of the drinks missed the mark—the rhubarb-infused vodka in the "12th Avenue Cocktail" looked pink but tasted like nothing much, for example—pairings like the rich, fragrant Renaissance (brandy, vermouth, limoncello, and bitters) and a cherry-sized ball of foie gras mousse were inspired. EVERYTHING YOU need to know about Sundstrom's food can be divined from the restaurant's name: It's a lovely, obscure word, one that the owners define on Licorous' door. ("Tempting the appetite/relishing good food" is their take. An archaic sister of lecherous, say the dictionaries I consulted.) As at Lark, the chef's long, lean menu is packed with insider gestures, of-the- moment ingredients cultivated from the same pool of high-quality local, sustainable sources as Sundstrom uses at Lark. Footnotes would be helpful, except there'd be so many that the menu might start reading like a David Foster Wallace novel. Thankfully, the servers do a great job of putting you in the know without making you feel like every question is a black mark on your report card. They're unabashedly nice, even a tad maternal. The night two friends and I had to cobble a dinner table out of stools, the waiters kept the flow of plates slow and steady so we weren't setting food on the floor. Despite their "free-form" claims, the servers smartly arranged our random picks into courses, graduating from tiny to smallish plates—starting, say, with a "personal sized" (their words) tartine of toasted bread topped with sautéed porcini mushrooms and a daintily fried quail egg ($4), followed by an espresso cup of the world's sweetest, mildest white corn soup ($4), out of which we fished chanterelles the size of corn kernels. The cooks marinated, ceviche style, thinly sliced geoduck rings ($10) in an electric mix of chiles, limes, and fresh mint and served it up in a martini glass. I enjoyed Sundstrom's culinary faddishness, his willingness to play. The high level of preciousness meant that when something didn't work, though, I felt like I had earned the right to snicker. The desserts were like hipsters who'd taken their getups one step too far. A chocolate almond cognac torte ($5) was so dry that it took the remaining swigs of my cocktail to wash it down. Gorgeous brown-butter hazelnut financiers ($5), eight small pyramid-shaped cakes lined up two by two, looked like a Cairo subdivision, complete with view of a burnt-caramel sauce reservoir and reflecting pool of coffee-blossom honey. But what should have been moist, caramelly cakes tasted like ground nuts pasted together with melted butter. A few of the savories also didn't come off—a mackerel tartine with olives and preserved lemons ($4) was a beautiful combination of tastes that suffered from overcooked fish, while a rabbit-leg confit (which means it was slowly braised in oil instead of stock, $10) needed more cooking to soften and enrich it. But when Sundstrom set aside all his winking, he seduced outright, as with translucent slices of bresaola (air-cured beef, $10) anointed with fresh morels and leeks and the simplest salad of baby lettuces and herbs ($7), almost invisibly dressed and arranged like a bouquet. Sprinkled among the leaves were the best bacon bits ever—fried guanciale(cured pork jowl, the pancetta of the new millennium). For me, the only problem was the potential disconnect between price and expectations. If you hope to leave the restaurant with all appetites satisfied, you may find Licorous a bit of a tease—at $40 a person. That's not much when you consider the quality of the ingredients and the care given them, but for $40, I don't want to huddle around a stool. Take Sundstrom at his word: Treat Licorous like a bar where you can sip a little and eat a little, and then sip a little and eat a little more. It's no Lark. But then, it's not meant to be. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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