Tastes of Spain reign at Ocho and Txori
Ballard's Ocho and Belltown's Txori have much in common: snug quarters and menus composed of small, Spanish-influenced bites priced from...
Special to The Seattle Times
2207 Second Ave., Seattle
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.
Prices: $ ($2-$9)
Drinks: Solid all-Spanish wine list; Basque beverages, cocktails, beer.
Parking: On street.
Sound: Moderate to noisy.
Who should go: Fans of Harvest Vine.
Credit cards: All major.
Access: No obstacles.
2325 N.W. Market St., Seattle
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily; kitchen open until midnight Sundays- Thursdays and 1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Prices: $ ($1.50-$10).
Drinks: Wine, beer, cocktails.
Parking: On street.
Sound: Moderate to loud.
Who should go: At these prices, you can eat here and still save for that trip to Spain.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover.
Access: No obstacles.
Ballard's Ocho and Belltown's Txori have much in common: snug quarters and menus composed of small, Spanish-influenced bites priced from $2 to $10. Yet each is as different as, well, Ballard and Belltown.
Ocho's gilt-framed mirrors reflect an ocean of fleece, flannel and denim. Folks are often packed as tightly as olives in a jar in this square corner spot, defined by its bar, behind which co-owner Zach Harjo practices nonstop multitasking. He mixes plenty of $10 margaritas but pops open just as many $3 cans of Iron City Tall Boy. He muddles fruit for sangria, constructs elegant cocktails and gives wine advice, all while keeping track of the numerous little dishes customers have ordered at the intimate nine-seat bar.
Tables are tended to by his partner, Gelsey Hanson, aided by others when the throng gets thickest. Orders go to the kitchen on yellow sticky notes; servers keep tallies; somehow it works.
A trip to Spain motivated the couple to tango with tapas; their favorite number, eight, inspired the name. The chalkboard menu lists about 20 dishes, which change at the whim of the chef, Colby Chambers, who most recently worked at Canlis. She has a talent for skillfully weaving tastes and textures. Grazing through more than half the menu, I encountered only one lifeless dish: an oily bean, mushroom and chorizo stew.
But oh, those dates! Soft pancetta-wrapped fruit stuffed with blue cheese get a splash of reduced balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of cinnamon that intensifies their sweetness and plays against the sharp, salty cheese. Zesty tomato jam with caramelized fennel enlivens an oil-and-vinegar-dressed tuna salad made with canned Basque bonito, picholine olives and large, crunchy croutons.
Bread provides a platform for sautéed mushrooms in a nutty, rich sherry cream sauce, and a single crouton dusted with Spanish paprika becomes a one-bite wonder skewered with a slice of cured chorizo and a whole clove of roasted garlic.
No skewers are needed for the Three Amigos. Shrimp, chorizo and clam balance on one another like circus acrobats on a ball of fried paella rice, its crisp shell concealing a soft, saffron-tinted heart.
Clams go solo in a small cazuela. Bits of shallot, rosemary, parsley and garlic cling to their shells, but most of the briny white-wine broth gets absorbed by slices of once-crusty bread, now so deliciously soggy at the bottom of the bowl, you need a knife and fork to finish the job.
With all due respect to Iron City fans (I'm a Pittsburgh native myself), this food begs for sherry or cava or tempranillo; you'll find them on the brief, inexpensive wine list. And while that margarita will give you a buzz, so will the food-friendly El Picador (gin, maraschino, cucumber and lemon), which gets its name — and its gradual fuchsia blush — from a beet pierced with a rosemary sprig. Notice the bartender carefully rubbing rosemary on the rim of the glass. It's the kind of detail that makes Ocho a solid diez.
At Txori, the kitchen is the focal point and the best seat in the house isn't a seat at all: It's a spot at the narrow ledge that runs along the stand-up-only counter where you can watch the cooks' controlled ballet and eyeball each tempting little plate. Lined up between you and them are bowls of almonds and olives, slices of sheep's milk cheese steeping in olive oil and herbs, wedges of tortilla Espanola (a cold omelet studded with onion and potato) and ramekins of flan waiting to be unmolded.
No yellow sticky notes here. As orders are filled, manager Jeffrey Watanabe uses a crayon to cross out each item on register receipts pinned to a corkboard mat.
"What's that?" we asked, pointing to a dish we hadn't seen before. "You can't have that," he said. "That's for the chef of the Dahlia Lounge." Sure enough, there in a giant swell of Belltown's beautiful people was Eric Tanaka, corporate chef for Tom Douglas Restaurants, schmoozing with Txori's chef de cuisine, Joey Serquinia.
Well, at least we could have what he was drinking: a glass of Txakoli, from the solid all-Spanish list. The bartender makes a splash holding the bottle high and pouring it into tumblers, the traditional way to decant this slightly fizzy white wine from the Basque region.
Txori's owners, Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez and his wife, Carolin Messier de Jimenez, have been educating Seattleites about Basque food and wine since 1999, when they opened Harvest Vine. Txori means "bird," and you sort of eat like one here, pecking at little bites of meat, seafood or cheese, many of them mounted on slices of bread or pierced with a wooden skewer. Called pintxos, meaning "thorn" or "pick," they are the sort of snacks you'd find in a San Sebastián bar. Things like an opulent blood sausage, savory with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, soft and plump as a feather pillow in its thin casing; or stuffed squid, full of itself, napped in its own briny ink; or something as simple yet intriguing as crusty bread topped with spicy dry-cured chorizo dusted with bittersweet chocolate.
Those are from the printed menu. Look to the chalkboard for daily specials, such as a succulent whole roasted sardine, cool white gazpacho and octopus salad mounded on toast wearing a floppy sunny-side-up egg as if it were a jaunty Basque beret. Pierce the yolk and watch it run like lava over minced octopus and creamy white pochas beans bound by mayonnaise tinted pink with piquillo pepper. The soup — pale as milk, thick as cream — had a sweet, nutty almond underlay supporting green top notes of cucumber and melon.
A salty slice of Serrano ham came with the soup, pinned to a cube of not-quite-ripe honeydew. Burned, bitter garlic and undercooked chickpeas ruined a sauté of garbanzos and spinach. Roasted cauliflower needed salt. But those missteps are offset by many other satisfying, even sensational nibbles.
For those determined to sit, there are stools at high tables opposite the counter as well as tables and chairs in a rear dining room where tall, narrow French doors open onto a brick-walled garden that will soon have a deck for outdoor seating — just the place for sipping pink cava on a summer day.
Providence Cicero: Providencecicero@aol.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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