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Better on the second Bite

Post by Craig Sailor / The News Tribune on Jan. 1, 2010 at 5:38 am | 1 Comment »
December 31, 2009 5:48 pm
 Matt Stickle, executive chef at Bite restaurant, holds a grilled chile brined pork chop with pistachio mountain berry relish, one of many dishes available at the restaurant, which is located inside the Hotel Murano. (Janet Jensen/The News Tribune)
Matt Stickle, executive chef at Bite restaurant, holds a grilled chile brined pork chop with pistachio mountain berry relish, one of many dishes available at the restaurant, which is located inside the Hotel Murano. (Janet Jensen/The News Tribune)

It’s not very often I walk out of a restaurant before there’s even food on my table. But that’s what I did one evening in August ’08 at Bite, the restaurant in the then newly rechristened Hotel Murano. I left after 15 minutes of watching the staff amble about with confusion and a general malaise.

So when the hotel recently was voted number 6 on the Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers Choice list for top American hotels my first reaction was, “Did they visit the restaurant?” I had to go again.

What a difference a year makes.

This time the highly professional staff was on-the-spot and corrected problems before I even knew they existed.

And the food? Some amazing hits and only a couple of misses.

The scene

Some hotels seem to have no kinship with their restaurants, instead choosing to rent out space to an incongruous establishment.

Not so at Hotel Murano. Like the rest of the hotel, Bite exudes a hip vibe. Menus arrive on clipboards. Sharp lighting shines on red tiled walls, graphic art hangs on walls and everything from plates to textures have been selected with a considered eye for detail in the art gallery-like space.

Despite the best intentions, the restaurant feels shoved in to its upper balcony location. I found myself missing the spectacular location of Altezzo, the top-floor restaurant when the hotel was the Sheraton. It’s best to go at night when the surfaces sparkle and the background recedes.

People in the kitchen

Local boy Matt Stickle has had a long career with the Murano, starting just out of high school back in the Sheraton days. After schooling at the Culinary Institute of America and restaurant stints in Wisconsin, Aspen and Las Vegas, he’s served as executive chef for 3½ years.

Stickle, balancing the needs of a diverse hotel clientele and building a local base, describes his menu as “upscale comfort food” with large portions. He says the Condé Nast listing was an exciting moment but acknowledges the expectations new customers will have now. “I know a lot of people expect five-star dining” at Bite, he said.

The food

All three menus range from the unusual (limoncello-cured salmon) to the clichéd (truffled mac and cheese) to the tried and true (Reuben sandwiches). Entrée prices go up for dinner, but starters and salads remain the same for lunch and dinner.

Starters

Our server said some diners seem a bit hesitant to order the fries and gravy ($8). And that’s a shame because you’ll never go back to dunking your fries in ketchup again after trying these. Don’t think of grandma’s pasty turkey gravy. This was a full plate of garlic herb fries with a translucent zinfandel gravy loaded with mushrooms and sprinkled with gorgonzola cheese. My party almost stabbed each other with our forks to finish this savory concoction.

Bite’s limoncello-cured salmon shows up on a bagel for breakfast ($12) and an appetizer for lunch and dinner ($9). Like most liquors, limoncello (a lemon-flavored liqueur) is an intensely surgery beverage. But those sweet notes do not overpower the salmon. Generous piles of lox were layered on flatbread and topped off with a red onion gremolata. A dollop of chive crème fraiche was a fitting accompaniment.

Slices of fried green tomatoes ($6) were given just the right amount (a thin coating) of cornmeal breading to create this dish of contrasting flavors, textures and visuals. Sliced red cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives and capers added a briny counterpoint.

Lobster corn dogs ($12) aren’t a common dish, but others we’ve tried have been superior to Bite’s. It was the only appetizer that disappointed us. Too much breading overwhelmed the delicate lobster flesh. As one of my dining partners said, it might as have been a hot dog in there. Ramekins of sweet mustard and cocktail sauce will finish off whatever subtle flavor that’s left.

Salads

Bite has a nice range of salads. We tried the green ($6), the beginner’s Greek ($8), the Caesar ($8) and the old-school chicken ($12). The green was punched up by a sweet dressing with tomatoes and cheese. The Greek’s dressing was too mild and a deficit of feta cheese didn’t help. The Caesar was a classic presentation. The chicken salad was more of a sandwich filling with arugula than a green salad with chicken. But the addition of grapes, smoked almonds, bacon and shallot aioli gave it a new twist.

Bite doesn’t offer a soup of the day, but a changing “soup of the moment.” Always on the menu is a crab and corn chowder (cup $6, bowl $8). A vegetable confetti colored up a flavorful base with generous chunks of crab.

Entrees

When I see truffled mac and cheese ($15/$17) on a menu I think one thing: pretentious. Well, put a bow tie on me and call me a snoot. I’m now a convert to this heavenly dish. A crunchy panko-crumb crust yielded to macaroni that was miles away from mom’s elbow pasta. Instead, orecchiette pasta filled a light but creamy cheese sauce. The dish had the right amount of black truffle peelings and truffle oil to give it that difficult to define, but unique, flavor that only the rare fungus can provide.

A grilled chili-brined pork chop ($20) had a rich hue and sharply defined grill marks. The chili was mild but still flavorful. A pool of dark sauce with both sweet and savory notes filled part of the plate along with asparagus spears and potatoes. A relish made from pistachios and berries accompanied.

For chicken olivida ($18), a tender, perfectly pan-roasted bird rested in a savory white wine sauce punctuated by green and kalamata olives and liberally covered with cherry tomatoes. The sauce didn’t overpower the chicken or its accompanying mashed Yukon potatoes.

Corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut made up the Reuben sandwich ($13) on rye. A sweet sauce contrasted with sour cabbage. For its price, it was skimpy on meat.

An Angus burger is offered at lunch ($12) and a Kobe at dinner ($16). I tried the Angus, ordered medium rare. It came to the table well done, dry and a bit chewy. The burgers come with a choice of cheeses (gruyere, fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola or Oregon cheddar) and bacon relish.

A healthy slab of halibut makes up the fish and chips ($14). While a touch on the oily side, it had the right amount of batter. An unusual cabbage and fennel slaw counterbalanced it.

Dessert

As soon as the warm strawberry rhubarb crisp ($6) arrived, an aroma of strawberry wafted across the table. Vanilla ice cream topped the hearty oatmeal-based dish.

Hand-painted chocolates ($12) were where art intersected with food. Nine chocolates sat on a fused-glass plate. Each one was unique in flavor, shape and color – one even with gold leaf. Flavors ranged from fruit to coffee to spice.

Service

New management has cleared up the service problems I experienced in ’08. Our servers and buspeople were always on the spot. At one visit, when too many of our dishes were accompanied by fries, the server took the proactive step of offering salads or soup as a substitution. That’s a server who is thinking and not just delivering food.

Bite Restaurant in Hotel Murano
Where: 1320 Broadway, Tacoma
Hours: Weekdays: 6 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Weekends: 7 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Information: www.hotelmuranotacoma.com; 253-238-8000

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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