ONE OF THE GREAT IRONIES OF RESTAURANT service is that servers who introduce themselves by name undermine the rapport they seek. “Hi! My name is X and I’ll be serving you tonight!” feels false and obsequious in an industry where authenticity (of ingredients, of cuisine, of experience) is increasingly the coin of the realm.
We hadn’t been settled 10 minutes in our plush round booth at downtown’s new RN74 before our waiter told us his name—three times. I was prepared for a service song and dance; this was my third visit to restaurant magnate Michael Mina’s 19th restaurant and already I’d been lavishly complimented on my food selections, informed that RN74 is the name of a rail station in France—(in fact it’s the former name of the highway through Burgundy)—and subjected to an up-sell thrilling in its ambition: Instead of tap water might I prefer an $88 glass of pinot?
What all this distracting enthusiasm didn’t prepare me for was serious food. It seems this duplicate of Mina’s San Francisco RN74 functions as two completely different operations: one, a wine bar and restaurant where avid servers peddle a menu concept (a term that strikes dread into the hearts of sincere epicures); the other, a serious destination whose menu concept amounts to innovatively updated French classics for connoisseurs of wine and seasonal food. So the Seattle menu lists sources like Willie Greens baby lettuces and Alvarez Farms beans, made by chefs with earned cred, including Mina veteran Michelle Retallack as top toque and local star Larkin Young (Tilth, Golden Beetle) as her sous.
None of which is obvious to the diner who walks in off the corner of Fourth and Pike. To her RN74 looks like a polished stage set for fatcats and tourists; the sort of oxblood dinner house Seattle’s financial district has never quite had. The bar is packed with lawyers and venture capitalists and people who look like them. Caramel brick, amber pendants, and a man-eating tufted leather sofa in the bar lend a generic elegance that’s reinforced by the glossy dark plantation shutters removing the view of the unpretty bus stop outside—a savvy stroke that adds to the “You could be anywhere!” feel.
But you’re not anywhere—you’re in France, sort of, in a train station (see the station lanterns?), sort of, with a couple of those wall-size arrival-departure boards announcing not departing trains but “last bottle” wine warnings. Periodically these clack out an update, which is both deafening and ridiculously fun to watch. It’s also a sales strategy: Our happy waiter told us lots of people order bottles from it just to see the board go flap flap flap. It certainly induces a sort of oenophilic panic—“Oh my god it’s the last bottle!”—which successfully fomented demand at this diner’s booth.
RN74 is not a relaxing restaurant.
So when the food makes a poised statement, it’s a welcome disconnect. Mina’s stock-in-trade across all his menu concepts is comfort food, innovated—here applied to the classic cuisine of Burgundy. Thus the storied pairing of lentils and pork shows up in the form of Idaho rainbow trout, crisp-skinned and beautifully grilled, over firm Puy lentils alongside alternating chunks of glazed pork belly and swoony caramelized peach—a combination both novel and ordained. Beef bourguignon arrives good and deconstructed on its white plate—slab of bone-sheddingly moist braised Painted Hills short rib and chunks of root vegetables over a puree of celeriac, to be lavished at table with a pitch-perfect pouring of demi-glace. Crisp, defined, bright: a lovely revision of the stewy classic.
This was the work of a pro: beautiful to look at, beautiful to eat, and a testament to Mina’s commitment to local sourcing.
A salade Niçoise is similarly nudged out of its familiar habits, featuring chunks of ahi belly confit and a naughty little deviled egg, along with fingerlings, olives, onions, baby greens. Composed salads are a strength at RN74. The farmers market crudite salad is a color-bright assemblage of lightly blanched vegetables—carrots, snap peas, otherworldly sprigs of broccoflower, smoky squash with grill marks, more—dewy with Banyuls vinegar and precision-arrayed over a schmear of soft Robiola cheese bright with creme fraiche. This was the work of a pro: beautiful to look at, beautiful to eat, and a testament to Mina’s commitment to local sourcing.
Until our fork dragged up sprigs of fresh cilantro. The flavor wallop of this herb both upset the gentle balance of the composition and hauled its little French derriere on a tour of India by way of Oaxaca. Perhaps it was the “innovating” ingredient Mina’s houses are known for; certainly it innovated. Just not very well.
The food at RN74 may be serious, but seriousness isn’t itself enough. A really interesting starter involving balls of agar-jelled cherry filled with duck confit risotto and served with foie-stuffed cherries was a fascinating failure, its elements entirely neglecting to cohere. (But bring on the foie-stuffed cherries!) A plate of phyllo-crusted halibut over Dungeness brandade in a mustard beurre blanc wanted color, moisture, flavor contrast, interest. A sweet corn and Dungeness crab bisque tasted like it was trying too hard to fire on every popularity cylinder, resulting in a soup that was too sweet, its only discernible flavor foil being, bien sûr, bacon. Even the maitake mushroom tempura—its aerated rice flour batter resulting in a tempura crust so insanely delicate it’s become the toast of the Seattle happy hour scene—may be a blast to crunch into, but doesn’t taste like anything, the accompanying green onion mousseline adding little to aid the situation.
Here it should be noted that other of RN74’s bar nibbles are enjoying earned rock star status, particularly a tart tomato soup “fondue” with tiny square-inch grilled gruyere sandwiches for dipping, and foie gras sliders that bring apples to the party in a beguiling way.
The successes of these, the rollicking happy hour that promotes them, and the thoughtful wine selection that warrants them suggests a third identity for RN74: casual drop-in downtown watering hole. “I think Seattleites weren’t expecting something so approachable from me,” Mina admitted after the place opened, and approachable is indeed the right descriptor for the manic RN74. Rock music pours from the speakers; waiters bounce around the lawyers and venture capitalists in unlaced sneakers and floppy shirttails. Mina himself grew up in Ellensburg and worked at the Space Needle restaurant before his star rose; the guy knows from populist.
Which is just another way of saying: You don’t have to be into menu concepts or locavorism to enjoy RN74. You may just want to hoist a glass and laugh at a flapping wine board.