If I had a farm dress, I'd wear it to The Sexton, the new Ballard bourbon haunt which evokes the glammed-up Southern rusticity of Dixie-proud movies like Fried Green Tomatoes so exquisitely that I feel guilty for showing up in tweeds.
THE SEXTON 5327 Ballard Ave. N.W., 829-8645, sextonseattle.com. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Tues.-Sun.THE INNKEEPER 2510 First Ave., 441-7817, innkeeperseattle.com. 3 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.
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The walls, done up in patterned ivory wallpaper and weathered two-by-fours, are hung with framed black-and-white photographs of owner Amber Sexton's ancestors, looking appropriately hard-bitten. Clusters of mismatched Mason jars stand in for chandeliers. And the wavy bar's top is inlaid with tight rows of white cassette tapes, a design element that immediately registers as redneck swank.
Fortunately, my lack of matching attire hasn't prevented me from having a few fine drinks at The Sexton, including a perfecty balanced Lion's Tail that wagged my way when I asked for something tart and whiskey-based. The 1930s cocktail of bourbon, lime juice, and allspice liqueur fit the request, the weather, and the room's vintage mood, which is all an acquiescing drinker really wants.
The Sexton enthusiastically promotes its bourbon selection, even though the list is narrow and misleading. When I asked how much a pour of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle cost, since prices aren't printed on the menu, bartender Marley Tomic-Beard told me The Sexton's never stocked it: Ocho got the last of the distillery-determined local allocation. Yet the bar program Tomic-Beard has developed is undeniably impressive, putting The Sexton in the strange position of being perhaps the only joint in town underselling its craft cocktails. If you can snag a stylish pigeon-toed stool, this is a fantastic place to drink.
At some point in your drinking session, you might get hungry, which is precisely where the situation at The Sexton gets stickier. Food isn't a mere legal obligation at The Sexton: The venue is serious about what it feeds its patrons, although not quite serious enough to feel like a full-fledged restaurant. It's compiled a thematically correct small-plates menu of collards, hush puppies, pork chops, and yam fries, dishes perfectly tuned to the frequency of corn whiskey drinkers' palates. I spotted food on every table both nights I visited The Sexton.
But like a high-school quarterback in trig class, The Sexton loses its swagger when it transitions from the bar to the kitchen. The sureness that flavors its cocktails is entirely absent from its food, a misbegotten mess that seems designed to bolster Yankee delusions of regional superiority.
Hush puppies should be made with buttermilk and bacon grease, but The Sexton gets a pass since it's primarily a bar, not a museum of Southern cookery. What's unforgivable is the dry, gritty texture of the cornmeal balls, which desperately need a splash of something wet added to their recipe. Fried to a deep oak brown, the firm hush puppies taste like something to slip on a fish hook. Should those unpleasant associations become overwhelming, an obscuring roasted-red-pepper mayonnaise is served on the side.
Sogginess is an acceptable attribute in Southern food, but the hush puppies aren't the only dish to suffer from The Sexton's bias toward dryness. A twice-roasted chicken probably should have stopped roasting after the first round; the attractively blistered skin didn't make up for the parched meat. Red beans and rice were woefully undercooked, with the rice grains especially stiff and hard to chew. Even the noodles in a popular macaroni and cheese, made rich by a stout bacon roux, danced on the firm side of the al dente line.
The Sexton does best when it abandons its Southern pretenses. Bourbon-braised ribs dissolved off the bone, an indicator of fat-filching parboiling, but the gingery sauce had a teriyaki appeal. Coleslaw gigged with horseradish was inoffensive, and a sweet, cinnamon-assisted applesauce was fairly delicious in its simplicity. Geographically neutral sliders smeared with housemade steak sauce and seated on eggy brioche buns, each no bigger than an average apricot, would have been tasty if the house-ground chuck weren't marred by plugs of gristle.
There are myriad problems at The Sexton, but its formula isn't one of them. Over in Belltown, in the space formerly occupied by Marco's Supper Club, another pub is proving it's possible to make modest plates, smart cocktails, and a Disneyfied concept work for an audience that openly despises everything Disney, save perhaps a few scenes from Fantasia.
The theme at The Innkeeper, launched late last year by the Black Bottle crew, is the 17th century, in all its buccaneering glory. The tavern's name is borrowed from Don Quixote, and a fuzzy portrait of Queen Elizabeth I keeps you company in the bathroom. The room isn't overwhelmed by Age of Exploration knickknacks, but Captain Kidd would likely approve of the decor: The front windows and bar cabinets are arranged in shipshape squares, like gaol-cell doors or canvas sails, and the bare wooden tables are set with flickering candles and cigar boxes holding utensils and napkins.
Chef Brian Durbin previously cooked at Petit Byahaut, a five-bungalow resort on St. Vincent, and his most successful dishes echo the high-seas respite ambience. If wayward pirates found an old island wench willing to feed them, she might very well have produced a bowl of something like Durbin's terrific, insides-warming chicken thighs, roasted and tossed with starchy plantains, slow-cooked rice, pigeon peas, and a full head of roasted garlic. The rustic dish wasn't flawless, though: The thighs were icy-cold at their centers, suggesting the kitchen might have prematurely clanged the bell that indicates a ticket's up.
Other elaborate dishes include pork tacos and goat curry, but most of the menu is snackier. My servers were smitten with a "grilled Mexican cheese," which sounds like a sandwich but turns out to be queso fresco grilled in the saganaki sense. The fried cheese squares are paired with an aromatic green chile, which is also served in cups, bowls, and aboard cheeseburgers for adventurers who've arrived at The Innkeeper via New Mexico. The burger is beefy and moist, although a thick brioche bun soaks up too much of the meat's juice.
The Innkeeper's very good at finger food, including Padrón peppers, which are grilled to a waxy, wilted consistency and heavily garnished with sea salt that melts against the hot, golf course-green peppers, creating a coating reminiscent of the flavor powder atop a potato chip. (That's a good thing.) Chili-flecked, house-smoked chicken wings with leathery skins are immensely satisfying, especially paired with a rum cocktail. The Innkeeper mixes Dark and Stormys, Corn 'n' Oils, and—since there's plenty of ginger beer around—Moscow Mules in copper mugs, but doesn't flinch at drinks without a tropical pedigree.
Both The Sexton and The Innkeeper are already doing brisk business, and their customer counts will no doubt rise proportionally to the mercury, since both venues have enticing patios. But I wish Sexton and her partners could find a free night to see what's doing at The Innkeeper, where the trinity of casual food, drink, and theme translates into a lovely evening out.
Hush puppies $6
Herb chicken $11
Red beans and rice $7
Grilled cheese $7
Padron peppers $5
Chicken-thigh bowl $15
Green-chile cheeseburger $9