It's true, Seattle knows its share of nautical-themed bars. But there is perhaps no better location for one than along the Lake Washington Ship Canal, where fishing vessels float to and from the Sound, moored against rickety wood, all rope and net and calloused hands. The real deal.
The Helm—a recent addition to the rank and file of nautical bars, opened by the team behind Fremont Oktoberfest—rests a block away from the canal, but takes it relatively easy on the aquatic visuals: chunks of coral among the bottles, drop pendant light fixtures that sort of invoke a dock at night, some canvases covered in sea colors. It's near the water, sure. The sailor miscellany may grow in time, but three months after opening you could walk in to the Helm and not not immediately pick up on the motif.Less so for the food and drink menu. This is where the Helm delivers its theme, with vodka, rum- and gin-based cocktails named things like Duck Pond, Newfoundland, and Portknockie. Many of these concoctions list a few too many ingredients to sound appetizing—a common problem on cocktail menus but rarely so....nordic. Vodka, punsch and lingonberry jam? Mushroom-infused gin? Others, like the Viking Negroni, really work. The aquavit delivers a more biting herbaceous flavor than gin, tucked under the grapefruit bitters as to not overpower. It's like a negroni that can cure scurvy. Come for the curious imbibing, but stay for the snacks. While it's easy to get lost in the broad strokes of the drink menu (cocktails, hefty beers, boilermakers, spirit flights), the food is laser focused: refined sailor grub. Plump scallops with fried and pureed butternut squash. A hearty waldorf salad. Bite-sized bits of fried cod, satisfyingly dense and served with remoulade. The furthest you get from the sea is a farro risotto and an excellent beet salad sprinkled with finger lime pearls and candid pistachios. If you're thinking some of these sound closer to fine dining than bar snacks, you're right on the money. Chef Travis Stewart, formerly of Canlis, plates each dish as if it's about to be set down on linen. Except these scallops are pan fried on a hot plate and can be eaten while watching the game on Sunday. The prices, though, remain more bar food than tasting menu, with small and large portion options for some of the heartier dishes. The Helm owns the nautical designation. But don't get too caught up in the labels. It's 2017, after all. These days a bar named after a ship wheel that serves aquavit can also have a Wednesday happy hour with half price wine bottles and a chef with fine dining pedigree. Sail on, sailor.