There may be no bigger contrarian in Seattle restaurants than Josh Henderson.
“Nope, no burger on our menu,” our waiter announced with pride. There we were in Henderson’s new sports bar: spitting distance from the CLink, all done up like a shiny locker room, aglow with the radiance of 20 TVs—one of which was, at that very minute, broadcasting great moments in lady wrestling. And here on the menu were esoterics like quinoa salad and braised lamb neck. Grilled squid, shaved ham, five flippin’ veg plates.
“There are at least eight other places around here you can go for a burger,” she explained. “Why would we want to be like everyone else?”
Henderson is savvy; in less than two months he answered demand with a bacon-cheddar burger. Still, Why would we want to be like everybody else? could be stitched onto the waitstaff’s baseball jerseys. Henderson confounds expectations, like when he turned kale into comfort food at his Skillet empire (now in other hands) or launched Hollywood Tavern way out in Woodinville, or blew up the waterside fish house cliche by building Westward out of Greek food and ironic decor.
But Quality Athletics is his unlikeliest yet: A bona fide postmodern sports bar. The crisp windowy space is clean and contemporary with bright green banquettes and long team tables with old school chairs; a shelf of gleaming trophies at the entry and a wall of lockers lining one side of the bar (which can be sealed off into a party room by a clever vertical-slider Ping-Pong table). Even so, it wasn’t until I spied the Astroturf carpet that I got the wink. This isn’t a sports bar; it’s a commentary on a sports bar.
Which, of course, a glance at the menu sealed. This is the sort of kitchen that makes its own ginger beer, for goodness’ sake. I ordered a minimalist green bean salad—smoked almonds, rocks of sea salt, curls of pecorino—whose beans were grown in the rooftop garden upstairs. And crisp-on-the-outside, silken-on-the-inside potato croquettes accoutered with house-made bacon, lacy crisps of cheddar cheese, and—bien sûr—green onion creme fraiche.
You get the idea: Not your daddy’s sports bar. Problem is—it might not be yours either. Yes, the place delivers the highest-quality food you’re likely to eat while watching ladies wrestle. But in essential ways, Quality Athletics is more about its kitchen than its diners.
Take eatability—a word that doesn’t exist in everyday conversation for a concept that should. In a rare nod to the sports bar genre, Quality Athletics offers three takes on wings: charred sweet chili chicken wings, jerk-spiced duck wings, and coriander honey–glazed smoked salmon wings—the last a cheeky preparation of salmon collar bits with the fins attached. Colorfully spangled with shallots and peppers and delectable in their briny-sweet way, they also made somewhat ridiculous eating—requiring clamping one’s jaw upon each sticky, angular joint and scraping back whatever isn’t cartilage or bone.
Athletic indeed. An open-faced sandwich—on my visit topped with unctuous braised lamb with a novel Philly cheesesteak treatment of provolone cheese whiz, pickled serrano and Fresno chilies, pickled shallots, and mint—was richly flavorful (loved the lamb with fresh mint), but delivered amidst a puddle of juices in a cast-iron skillet. Soggy bread, fork required, drip drip.
Fish tacos arrive as a platter of whole trout to share among three or four diners; it’s boned (and in our case, partially gutted) at table. The diner wraps morsels of the fish in tortillalike roti, then dresses them with pico de gallo and pickled peppers. Swell in theory—but the combination of cooling fish, jaw-challenging roti, insufficient intrigue from the accompaniments, and an imperfect boning job added up to a dish that was not worth the labor required. (And painful.)
Henderson’s revision of the sports bar depends on these sorts of shared platters, of which the menu offers four or five a night. To him, it’s not the burger that makes a place a sports bar—it’s the gathering, in front of the game or around the patio fire pits, to share. In that sense Quality Athletics’ culinary style plays ideally to his vision, because flavors here are so bold, even the nonshareables are more likely to be passed than completed. A coconut curry with butternut squash and charred fennel and terrific housemade pappardelle, was intense and one-note for one diner—but made a fine side dish for all of us.
Don’t mistake this for comfort food: The unmitigated punches of flavor at Quality Athletics frustrate a comfort jones more than satisfy it. No, this is the food a kitchen makes when it’s laboring on every cylinder to make a statement. A charred pork shoulder salad featured two generous hunks of the meat soused in sweet Korean barbecue sauce—along with apple slices, ruffles of kale, knobs of cauliflower, and a scattering of chewy wild rice. The apples and the saucy meat intertwined sumptuously; the rest shared a plate but not a purpose. Desserts were similarly eager to impress, including an ice cream sundae whose players—peanut butter ice cream, peanuts, salted caramel, chili-spiced Cracker Jacks, flakes of nori—added up to something more sassy than smart.
Chili and seaweed on peanut butter ice cream? Like I said, contrarian. My favorite story about Quality Athletics is one that another friendly waiter (the servers here are sweethearts) shared when she set before us the very best dish we sampled: a piquant tostada with braised lamb, black bean puree, avocado cream, and cotija cheese—tasty, coherent, conceived with a temperate hand on the originality meter. “This went on the menu as a substitute for the nachos we opened with,” she told us.
And why were the nachos replaced? “Oh, they were too popular!” she said. “Everyone was ordering them!”
This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.