The Never-Ending Txori

The space is small, the plates are tiny, and the experience 
is the full-meal deal.

By Kathryn Robinson January 6, 2009 Published in the July 2008 issue of Seattle Met

THE FIRST TIME I WENT LOOKING FOR TXORI , the tiny new Spanish bar in Belltown, I walked past it three times before I realized I had arrived. What caught my eye was the little round gnome—goatee on the bottom of his face, black beret on the top—leaning against the doorjamb. This tableau could not have been more European if a Spanish cigarette had been dangling from his mouth and old toothless men had been lined up at sidewalk tables nursing San Miguels. I was no longer lost—but I was no longer in Belltown.

With proprietary gallantry, the little round man—co-owner Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez—stepped aside to allow his guest entry. I found myself in a clean white-walled room with a bar and little efficiency kitchen to my left, café tables to my right, a larger room opening off the back. Hunks of Manchego cheese and ropes of chorizo sausage and vats of olives and pimentos dotted the counter, while above the bar orderly shelves held tidy rows of Limonada and Coca-Cola, and bottles of Cardenal Mendoza brandy and La Gitana Manzanilla sherry. A smiling young server in a Txori T-shirt and ponytails motioned me to sit anywhere. Through speakers the Jackson Five trilled “Rockin’ Robin,” and at intermittent intervals nearly everybody in the place—a gay couple with great shoes, a trio of female execs unwinding after work, a pair of giddy young romancers, even a buttoned-and-bespectacled accountant type reading The New Yorker—swayed in their seats or mouthed a corny chorus.

Ms. Ponytails approached with a menu and an explanation. “Welcome to Txori!” she said, pronouncing it CHO-ree. “First time?” I lied so as to hear her instructions (noting how many Seattle restaurants to have opened in the last few years that have required instructions) and with unrehearsed relish she delivered a primer on the mini tapas the Basque call pintxos. “Pintxos”—she said PEEN-chos—“are small bites—one, three ounces—that the Basque eat when they’re drinking.” Txori also offers plates called raciones, sized for light or shareable eating; and bocadillos, fist-sized sandwiches overstuffed with savories like Serrano ham or cured chorizo.

But small plates by any name give me menu vertigo, so Ms. Ponytails—in the invisibly persuasive manner of inspired servers everywhere—had mercy. “Everyone loves the braised pork,” she offered. “And you’ve got to have some tortilla Española, right? And—oh, look over there,” she inclined her head toward the next table, where the uptight accountant, who had by now loosened his tie, was biting into something voluptuous: “That’s the duck foie gras. With apricot drizzle.” He looked to be experiencing a bit of a transformation—were his pupils dilating?—so, yes, I told her, I would have one of those.

She returned after a few moments with the pork: a thick wedge of the braised meat on toasted bread, with a nugget of roasted green pepper. (Did the pork shoulder appear to be pork belly because it was so thick, offering the same irresistible unctuousness, or has Seattle’s latest foodie fixation just trained me to see pork belly everywhere I go?) The preparation was simple, the flavors Castilian, and the tiny plate even more compelling for its brevity. One bite, two bites…aftertaste. That’s pintxos.

The place was crowding up now, threatening
 to spill out the paned-glass doors and onto the secret brick-lined alleyway alongside. (At press time the alley patio remains a work in progress, but it’s scheduled for opening by the time you’re reading this, and will doubtless be just the spot to spend July.) Another server—she of the dazzling white smile and easy affability—laid down my duck foie gras and tortilla with a winsome, “Enjoy, chica.”

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Prevailing winds at Txori blow a casual, cooperative spirit, so service here makes an organic sense: Any server might drift by to take your order, and whichever server happens to walk past the endearingly low-tech corkboard on the counter might deliver it. The foie gras was potent and lush, tempered by its fruity drizzle. Even the tortilla—the starchy workhorse of any tapas repertoire—was, with its forthright flavors and pretty lacework of garlicky alioli (a Spaniard’s aioli), leagues better than the insipid versions I had sampled at Ocho in Ballard and, weeks before, here at Txori. The tiny bar with the efficiency kitchen had found its stride.

Which does not mean one should come to Txori expecting Harvest Vine, Jiménez’s flagship in Madison Valley. They both feature small plates, Txori’s microscopically so, but the two entities are night and day—Harvest Vine being a bona fide destination, with grander ingredients and higher price tags. By contrast, Txori (Basque for “bird”) is his co-owner Carolin Messier de Jiménez’s love song to the simple all-day nosh bars found across her husband’s native San Sebastian.

I had just finished savoring my bocadillo sandwich, stuffed with well-lubed pulled pork on Columbia City Bakery rolls (and, at $4.25, the downtown lunch deal of the century), when still another genial server—a sweet young man with heavy-rimmed glasses and a crooked grin—dropped over to inquire into the state of my appetite. (“You’ve got to get the octopus in the lagrima olive oil,” he gushed. “When I first came I ate it every single day for three months.”)

Has Seattle’s latest foodie fixation just trained me to see pork belly everywhere I go?

And that’s how meals grow at Txori, like Topsy, according to the incremental dictates of one’s appetite. It’s the most current way to eat, pitch-perfectly attuned to the new ethos of sustainable consumption, within the Old World atmosphere Jiménez succeeded in importing from San Sebastian: A place where folks of all ages and stations forge big, untidy community over elemental bites and drinks both upmarket and down.

Which, minus the kids, is just how Txori felt as my evening ripened. (Txori is licensed to allow children—Jiménez made sure of that—so it’s too bad Belltown doesn’t have any.) It’s the kind of bar where real life bubbles and swirls around you. Ms. Dazzling Smile and Mr. Crooked Grin suppressed giggles as they groped beneath a tablecloth for a lumpy crumb. A friend of the house walked in, hugged Carolin, then burst into tears. “Cava—we need some cava here,” murmured Carolin to the barkeep. One table over, Mr. Uptight Accountant—glasses off, tie now AWOL—had traded his New Yorker for a sumptuous companion, her tattoo advancing and receding every time she reached for a bite.

And I saw it all through the bottom of my glass of pitilingorri, red wine with orange soda, a San Sebastian favorite that mimics sangria in a poor-man’s kind of way—more or less so depending on the hour of the evening—and which was conspiring with the ambient vitality to make me sated and tipsy. When Ms. Ponytails came over with my check—a mere $38—I burst out laughing.