Anthony Bourdain has said a lot of things, a good number of which are of value only to food writers looking for controversies to cover. But one passage in Medium Raw, his latest collection of essays, is so eerily accurate I hope it's reprinted in culinary-school textbooks. Take it away, Tony:
THE COTERIE ROOM 2137 Second Ave., 956-8000, thecoterieroom.com. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 4 p.m.-midnight Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri.; 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. & 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Sat; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.
"You're on your way home from the menu degustation. You ask yourself: How do I feel? That's fair, isn't it? Do you feel good? Look across the seat at the woman with you . . . what she'd much prefer to do right now is to roll, groaning and miserable, into bed, praying she's not going to heave up four hundred dollars' worth of fine food and wine."
Food lovers like to pretend the table represents the last stage of an immaculate process that starts in the fields and wends through the kitchen. But nobody talks about farm-to-heartburn cooking. All those duck livers and lardo and cream sauces must go somewhere, which is why I wasn't the least bit surprised when I recently found a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in the front seat of a fellow food critic's car. Dishes made with gobs of butter may appeal to our palates and even engage our minds, but our digestive systems would strongly prefer a bowl of plain white rice. The results of goading human guts with fat are so inescapable that David Chang's ramen stomp across Japan, as chronicled in the first issue of his journal, Lucky Peach, was punctuated by far more vomiting than most non-physicians would care to discuss.
The porky soups that toppled Chang were no doubt spectacular. But there is a limit to how much richness a body can politely process, and diners at The Coterie Room are at risk of hurtling toward it.
The Coterie Room is the latest venture from Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, the team responsible for Tavern Law and Spur, the inventive gastropub located just a few doors down Blanchard Street. While The Coterie Room's dining room has a pared-down, Petit Trianon opulence, its food is supposed to appeal to 99-percenters who might have gotten the willies reading about Spur's parmesan foam and chocolate consommé experiments. "Everything here is meant to be a little bit more approachable than what we've done in the past," McCracken told Seattle Weekly's Voracious blog when the restaurant opened in September.
Americans tend to approach fatty foods with open mouths, so it's hardly surprising McCracken and Tough are trying to woo a new customer base with calorically audacious dishes. Obviously, these guys aren't in the health-food business, but eight of The Coterie Room's dozen small plates are fried or plied with cheese. Those that aren't include a serving of thickly buttered slices of toast crowned with pigeon-egg-sized pats of foie gras.
There are a few absolutely wonderful dishes at The Coterie Room, and McCracken and Tough couldn't have provided a nicer place in which to enjoy them—or a more professional staff to serve them. But the food's richness can be overwhelming and, ultimately, exhausting. Diners who dare to assemble a full feast at The Coterie Room will not leave the restaurant feeling revitalized. They're more likely to slump toward the door clutching their stomachs. Like the foot-high stilettos and transparent dresses that designers send down the runway, maybe the restaurant's menu isn't really meant to be used. The dishes impress, but—taken in succession—aren't entirely suitable for real people. The onus is very much on the diner to order wisely.
The Coterie Room swiped its name from a 19th-century Seattle social registry. The Coterie Club long ago disbanded, which may be why the name poses pronunciation (`koh-te-(,)ree, according to Merriam-Webster) problems for locals who've taken to calling it "that C place," but its members would likely have approved of the restaurant's elegant decor and genteel clientele.
There appear to be many well-to-do diners at The Coterie Room, but perhaps everyone looks wealthier by the light of a drop-crystal chandelier. Resembling a massive turned-over toadstool, it's hung from a pressed-tin ceiling that's nearly the same shade of winter white as the hexagonal tiles on the floor. The room is surrounded on two sides by very clean windows which reach the ceiling, and a third wall sprouts with green plants, giving the restaurant the feel of an Edwardian conservatory.
There's a small bar at the back of the room, rendered slender as a streetcar by dining-room seating. So it's best to nab a table even if you're just banking on bar snacks. And it's somewhat silly here to talk about snacks, plural, since there's only one snack you'll be wanting: ham cracklings.
The Coterie Room's menu is jammed with traditional Southern dishes remade in ways that never would have occurred to farmers armed with fresh kill and a kettle of hot oil. The preparations are Rube Goldberg–esque in their complexity, stretching two- or three-step dishes into lengthy recipes involving a slew of sophisticated kitchen tools. To make its bully cracklings, the kitchen first makes a ham stock. The stock's heated to 194 degrees and tossed in a blender with tapioca flour, then the whole hammy mess is rolled in plastic wrap. Once set, cooks shave off and fry bits of the stock/flour log. The resulting translucent wisps are extraordinary, their captivating lightness a worthy rejoinder to the old question about flying pigs.
The subtly smoky cracklings are served with a heavy black-truffle fondue, which would be a fine cloak for a snack in need of disguising, but here just interferes with the magical way the cracklings seem to melt on the tongue. There are many goopy, creamy dishes still to come.
Poutine is typically made with chicken or beef gravy, but The Coterie Room slathers its bendy, perfectly crisped French fries with an assertive pork-shoulder gravy, which gives the dish an odd croque-monsieur cast. The Beecher's cheese curds are fresh and classically firm, and there's plenty of everything in the cast-iron skillet.
Another cast-iron pot holds a bubbly macaroni and cheese, gaudy in its richness. Here, flattened ears of pasta are saturated with an onion-flecked mornay sauce, thick as motor oil, and heaped with gently fried onions. The flavors are lovely, but it's the sort of dish that's more likely to be picked at than forked clean.
There is some respite from butter and cream in the form of two salads: a bright collection of baby lettuces, soaked in a nigella-seed vinegarette, and an even-better endive salad garnished with walnuts and gouda shavings. But the restaurant's Diamond Jim Brady attitude roars back into view with the arrival of the entrée. The menu covers all the protein bases: There are steaks and shellfish and pastas, variously sized for solo consumption or sharing. A lustrous pork shoulder, served drippy from the roasting pan, is paired with shredded cabbage smothered in butter. And a butter-packed potato purée and salty onion rings accompany a rib eye daintily touched with a dollop of mild horseradish sauce.
But it's the chicken and the crab that guests are bound to remember. The Coterie Room's fried chicken is not the right chicken for cooks who earnestly debate the relative merits of deep-fryers and pans. This is not Southern-style fried chicken; this is a chicken that's brined and cooked sous-vide, a technique that produces a juicier, more notable chicken than traditional methods. Its flavorful, bluish flesh is shielded by clouds of brackish skin that have an alluringly tender crunch. And there is, of course, gravy.
The crab relies on fewer apparent special effects: Colossal hunks of sweet King crab are perched on a sturdy potato rösti and swathed in a bacon hollandaise that's equal parts citrus and smoke. This is The Coterie Room's sweet spot: The restaurant excels at food that's excessive, unrepentant, and so delicious it's tempting to brush aside augurs of future gut pain. So behave yourself.
Ham cracklings $6
King crab $29
Rib eye $35
Pork shoulder $38
Fried chicken $32