If the food writers on your latest gift list were honest about their holiday wishes, they'd have asked you for a bunch of new adjectives, as there are only so many ways to say "moist." The thesaurus suggests dampish, dank, and wettish, but you try explaining to a restaurant owner why you used one of those words to describe his signature chocolate cake. And it's not just dishes which present a cliché trap: Restaurants are forever lovely, charming, sleek, trendy, ambitious, and successful.
COASTAL KITCHEN 429 15th Ave. E., 322-1145, coastalkitchenseattle.com. 8 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Sun.
So here's to Coastal Kitchen, the graybeard of Capitol Hill dining, for suggesting an adjective which rarely surfaces in restaurant discussions: handy.
Opened in 1992 under the auspices of the then-fledgling Chow Foods empire, Coastal Kitchen went to co-owner Jeremy Hardy three years ago when his partnership with Peter Levy dissolved. In September, Hardy—who also retained control of tiny Mioposto in Mount Baker (Levy kept The Hi-Life, 5 Spot and Endolyne Joe's)—closed the restaurant for a month-long remodel which sounded prosaic even in press releases. Upgrades included "the integration of a private dining room into the main dining room," leveled flooring in the kitchen, and new bamboo floors in the dining room. More noticeable, the cocktail bar was moved to the opposite side of the front room to make way for a gleaming, marble-topped oyster bar that curves around the open kitchen. The flip-flop has incited its share of double-takes from regulars unprepared to encounter their memories in mirror image, but guests seem mostly sanguine about the change—particularly once they realize they can still order bacon and eggs for supper.
Although the addition of the oyster bar and installation of Poppy vet Jason Jones as executive chef indicate grander aspirations for Coastal Kitchen, the redone restaurant isn't likely to make a culinary splash on a block that this past year welcomed Ethan Stowell's Rione XIII and Heather Earnhardt's The Wandering Goose. The new floor and Naked Roys on the half-shell are nice touches, but the kitchen will have to resolve basic cooking issues if it wants to make a serious run at dining-destination status. Yet that may not come as bad news to longtime Coastal Kitchen fans, who will be relieved to know their favorite restaurant's utilitarian appeal is intact.
Coastal Kitchen is initially reminiscent of an unmoored Cracker Barrel, with eaters of all ages sharing comfy booths. The split-level dining room is big and boisterous, though never so noisy that Aunt Sadie would have trouble hearing dining companions across the wooden table. She'd also likely approve of the lighting scheme, designed to facilitate chores like cutting up a chicken breast for your kids.
The potential for romance is slightly higher at the new oyster bar, which nightly offers $1.25 oysters between 10 p.m. and midnight. But few of its seats were taken on my three visits, perhaps because the bar curves very close to the perpetually opening front door. During cold spells, oyster eaters are more apt to congregate at the cocktail bar; it offers a menu of drinks to match the restaurant's regional theme, which changes three times a year. Coastal Kitchen is now in a Sicilian phase, so bartenders are pouring cocktails with Italian associations, including achingly sweet Vespers and tarted-up Negronis overwhelmed by fruity peach bitters. Perhaps it's better to save your cocktail cravings for a nightcap at nearby Liberty, and here drink a Georgetown pilsner or Proletariat syrah, both on tap.
As for the oysters, they're cleanly shucked and properly served atop fields of ice. But the bivalves represent the apex of elegance at a restaurant which often seems inexplicably befuddled by seafood. Asked about a special, our server assured us that the opah came from Alaska, which would require a very wayward opah. She later corrected herself, but there was no undoing what the kitchen had done to the tropical fish. Badly overcooked, the opah was tough and flavorless.
There are a few highlights on the dinner menu. A seaweed salad with chilled calamari is a Medusa head of scraggly green and purple plant life—the width, translucence, and frizzle of each crunchy weed clearly not determined by an efficient agribusiness. Topped with yellow curlicues of calamari and garnished with a biting sesame-rice vinaigrette, the salad is a tasty celebration of oceanic diversity. A Manhattan fish chowder dutifully stocked with a thickly-diced mirepoix has an attractive tomato zing. And a tart Key lime pie with a sturdy crust and biscotti with rich lemon curd are fine ways to end any meal.
Yet too many of the highfalutin dishes—including a single crab cake, knitted with tarragon, singed at its edges, and sold for the eye-popping price of $17.25—falter. Sometimes the fixings were the problem: A bland tuna carpaccio wasn't improved by a dousing of olive oil and a heap of shredded basil big as a racquetball, nor was there any discernible reason to combine mashed potatoes and mandarin orange segments on a plate anchored by an unimaginative slab of of mahi. Other dishes suffered from sins of omission: A Caesar salad was served without dressing, and grilled sturgeon paired with French-fried onions and split Brussels sprouts was desperately under-seasoned.
So if it's a fancy fish dinner you're chasing, Coastal Kitchen might not be incredibly useful. But it's plenty handy for eaters in other situations.
Are you cheap? The offending crab cake aside, there's a slew of deals on the restaurant's daytime menu, including an unlisted half portion of huevos rancheros for $5.25. These are Anglo rancheros, griddled up with orange cheddar cheese and mild salsa, but the sunny-side up egg is perfectly prepared.
Are you hungover? Coastal Kitchen's burger doesn't have the exterior crust that's critical to burger greatness, but it drips as a patty should, and comes topped with an egg, cheddar cheese and a bookmark-like flap of Hempler bacon. Exuberantly crisped hash browns complete the cure. Coastal Kitchen also makes defensible fish-and-chips, with vivid-tasting cod wearing a good-fitting coat of clean fry.
Are you hosting a motley group of eaters? Coastal Kitchen's conservative menu is broad enough to handle most dining hang-ups, and servers are keen to address any unanticipated dilemmas. Service is assertively casual here—one server repeatedly referred to my party as "you dames"—but it's also thorough and polite. Hardy is often on the floor, and servers care more about what their guests need than who's getting tipped by whom. Thankfully, that's a value which wasn't lost in the shuffle of new flooring planks and oyster trays.
Seaweed salad $7.50
Barnyard burger $13.25
Tuna carpaccio 12.25