Most spots that offer us sustenance are mainly bar or restaurant, mainly summerish or winterish, mainly carefree-casual or serious kitchen. The White Swan Public House—opened last fall along the docks of South Lake Union, by the folks who brought us Matt’s in the Market and Radiator Whiskey—respectfully declines to commit.
The result can be confounding. You visit in winter, as I did last December, and if you’re in the right seat you may get periodically frozen by a rogue nor’easter. The bar stools are uncomfortable and the skinny space is awkward—the compensation, in winter, being the room’s low-ceilinged sense of cozy, which makes it feel like a pub in full roar when it crowds up. At odds with all that is its menu, which includes publike dishes, sure—but also a $33 production of halibut, pickled baby shiitakes, and wine-braised artichokes, formally composed between yellow strokes of Peruvian salsa.
Whose culinary ambitions might not be exactly what you were expecting, walking in through the broey bar scene, in these glorious lingering twilights of June.
Yeah, it’s confused. My advice? Walk in anyway.
Or better yet, out. For though White Swan has all that cozy inside, this is unequivocally a summertime hang; perhaps around South Lake Union, the summertime hang. Once you’ve found it—kind of a trick from the parking lot—you’ll see it alongside its sibling snack shack, 100 Pound Clam, which in summer services lunchgoers and alfresco diners with fish-and-chips and the like. (My god…the deep-fried corn slathered with smoked-jalapeño cotija cheese.) And, between the two, the perfect patio: all picnic tables and standing heaters, with bobbing yachts and splashing lake, right there. In this watery city, it’s amazing how few restaurants can boast as much.
There are also outdoor tables ringing the White Swan, which is where you can sample its fare outdoors by evening. And the Swan’s publike dishes—slightly more upmarket than the Clam’s, appreciably heavier than most seafood joints—can be swell. Poutine o’ the Sea piles clams and bacon (standing in for the cheese curds) and clam chowder (standing in for the gravy) atop soggy fries (standing in for the…soggy fries). Fried brussels sprouts are memorably vivid, their okonomiyaki-inspired tweaks of pickled ginger, tonkatsu sauce, and bonito flakes fluttering in the heat.
Indeed, the casual items on the menu go from success to success, from an umami-rich fried oyster salad—smoky with bacon against the mineral edge of the oysters—to a braised brisket for the bros. Go fancier and the kitchen’s reach can exceed its grasp. The aforementioned halibut preparation was too acidic, every bite ending in a vinegary pucker. A whole perch, all fluffy meat and chile-marinated skin, arrived alongside heaps of bitter radicchio with pickled green garlic. I looked that perch in his beseeching eyes and gave it to him straight: Too. Much. Intensity.
That’s when I saw the plate of toasted potato bread our waiter had also set before me, and I wondered what would happen if I piled these screaming parts between flaps of the gentle bread. And there it was: a mellower delight, and the prevailing metaphor for how to best enjoy White Swan. Make it—figuratively speaking—into a sandwich. Keep it lowbrow. Because even if White Swan doesn’t know that it performs best as a casual eatery—you do.