Above All, Mbar

Mamnoon’s burgeoning restaurant empire has a lofty new jewel in its crown.

By Kathryn Robinson December 20, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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The interior bar at Mbar

There’s some serious James Bond going on at the entry to Mbar.

The 400 Fairview building already has you in a midcentury mood—its groovy randomized windows making it the white go-go boots of Seattle’s current skyline. But by the time you’ve navigated the restaurant marketplace lobby and checked in at Mbar’s ground-level host station and trailed the host to an elevator—with no buttons—then down a long hall toward the increasingly reverberant throb of Europop…and find yourself here? Running into Goldfinger honestly seems the next logical step.

There is simply nothing like this in Seattle. Huge windowed, the restrainedly appointed room is decorated with views, soaring ones, from thenewly rechristened MoPop on one side across hills and a lake and a needle, and a ridiculous number of cranes, to St. Mark’s and beyond on the other. Never has a 14th floor been so high. Out north doors a broad rooftop more than doubles the footprint, where guests reportedly hang out in the cold, even the rain, swathed in Mbar’s artisan-designed blankets, nibbling and sipping clever cocktails around fire pits. The covered part is wrapped in retractable glass in winter, making it Seattle’s only all-glass restaurant: a jewel one can spy glowing atop 400 Fairview for blocks, and a place I dream of sipping scotch in a snowstorm.

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The 14th-floor deck

If being surrounded by all this Seattle sounds just very Seattle—it’s not. The Syrian-born Microsoft alum Wassef Haroun and his wife, Racha, own the burgeoning Mamnoon empire (Mamnoon, Mamnoon Street, Anar) of which Mbar is now the crown jewel, having, for the moment anyway, bested Mamnoon in the intrigue department. (Oh, Mamnoon is still a winner—it’s just that serving as headquarters for the street food enterprises has flattened innovation some, to an increasing reliance on grilled meats.) Like its brethren, Mbar radiates a cosmopolitan worldliness that had heretofore not been part of Seattle’s provincial identity. It feels like Istanbul in here, or Singapore, from the tech nerd in jeans to the model in the purple sequin miniskirt.

But irony, for while the quintessential Seattle view surrounds an enterprise that’s not very Seattle at all, our foremost Middle Eastern restaurateurs deliver a menu that couldn’t be more Seattle. Mbar is the restaurant the Harouns had in mind when they hired venerated chef Jason Stratton, the one from Top Chef, to helm their entire enterprise in 2015. When he began focusing solely on Mbar, he wrote a menu filled with Northwest ingredients in preparations from across his storied resume.

So a delicate salad—perfect butter lettuce leaves, dewy with vibrant mustard-cabernet vinaigrette, cupping soft snips of tarragon and parsley and dill fronds—pays precision homage to the seminal version learned at Le Gourmand. Ingredients like chicory and rabbit (the former in a lively chop salad with chickpeas, soppressata, fontina cubes; the latter bubbling up with foie gras in a fathomless bolognese amid pools of mascarpone in polenta, which was stunning) recall Stratton’s signature ingredients at Cascina Spinasse. A starter of smoky baba ghanouj–like dip with walnuts and pomegranate molasses and an entree of tenderest grilled trout finished in a za’atar spice blend with labneh for dipping are pure Mamnoon.

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The chicory chop salad

The food is, figuratively and literally, all over the map. Through references to his mentors, from the herb whispering of Jerry Traunfeld (Poppy) to the microseasonal Italian of Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita), Stratton at Mbar embraces Mamnoon’s Middle Eastern virtuosity, then extends it into European, even Asian, terrain. The result might look like a plate of grilled pacific and shigoku oysters in their ruffled shells, on an ornamental bed of uncooked lentils, each in a briny pool of cinnamon butter and strewn with diced matsutake mushrooms. At once Eastern and Western, at once throwbacky and novel—this is Mbar distilled. 

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Mbar’s take on the negroni

Imperfections happen, mostly as small execution snafus: fried potatoes too greasy, a white chocolate pot de creme too grainy, that kind of thing. Servers are on top of it and unexpectedly folksy against this cosmopolitan backdrop. Really the closest thing in here to a problem is Stratton’s exuberant refusal to focus the menu. In a room with this sort of view—which our palates associate with the mediocre food such places can usually get away with—that will bother exactly no one.

Despite its status as part of an empire, Mbar is, in short, an original. It’s not a bar, and it’s not doing Mamnoon—unless you want to count the way it’s vaulting Seattle to world-city status. No, what Mbar’s doing, thrillingly, is Stratton. Jason Stratton. 

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