A handful of restaurants have opened in the past six weeks and more are on the way. Today, I take a bite out of three. One is a polished bistro in an unexpected neighborhood – Midland. Another is a restaurant serving a style of cuisine we don’t see much in the South Sound – Puerto Rican (but the menu goes much deeper than that). Finally, I took a trip across the bridge to check in on the first suburban outpost for an established Tacoma brewpub. Take a read.
1718 99th St. E., Tacoma, 253-537-3655, facebook.com/barbistrotacoma. Serving lunch and dinner daily, light breakfast service Sundays.
Put the new Midland restaurant Bar Bistro in the category of “Wait, where is that?” and “Gas up the car for a restaurant road trip.”
Bar Bistro opened Sept. 9 with a menu of far-flung themes in a location that’s a fair distance from Tacoma’s typical restaurant hubs. Not quite sure where it is? It’s right off state Route 512, between the Parkland and Puyallup exits. Midland is a bit of a desert for restaurants, which is either brilliant or a bit of a gamble to open a bistro with high-end leanings in that neighborhood.
Owner Eric Poulin said he studied restaurant demographics and found the region between Lakewood and South Hill to be underserved for fine dining — and boy, is his research accurate. The immediate area is home to a few taverns and eateries, but nothing as polished as Bar Bistro. Flat-panel televisions flickered throughout the bar that’s lit up with red and blue neon. The soundtrack was pure indie rock. The open dining room offered little separation from the bar, outfitted with a lounge area for game viewing.
Servers were young and seemed straight out of Tacoma’s Social Bar and Grill. The menu reminded me of what diners find at Social — an eclectic mix of regional eats with a theme that flickers from the Northwest to the Mediterranean to island destinations and draws on Latin inspiration.
I liked the menu that shrinks and expands for every diner’s budget. At dinner, appetizers run $5-$10. Pastas ranged from $12-$18 with sandwiches from $10-$12. Spendier surf-and-turf items average around $20, with steaks topping out at $30-$32. The lunch menu skews affordable with sandwiches between $9 and $11.
The dishes I ordered looked professionally plated with high-quality ingredients for the prices charged.
Ceviche ($10) was the real deal — raw fish cooked in a citrus bath — the flavors bouncing light and bright. A charred hearts of romaine salad ($4) came with a cold center cradling deconstructed ingredients — a drizzle of red pepper coulis and crushed bacon croutons.
Entrees were near flawless. A pork chop ($23) was teased with Southern flair; a mound of dirty rice laced with beans held a perfectly grilled chop glazed with smoky mushroom butter. Southern reinforcement came from a sweet side of grilled peaches. The boozy broth of clams linguini ($14) needed bread for dipping. I liked that the tangle of pasta cradled clams still in their shells.
The cocktail list skews more sorority-girly than sophisticated, but expect changes there.
The bar and bistro was founded by Poulin, who has a hospitality background with a résumé that meanders from high-end Boston hotels to high-end restaurant work in Las Vegas. In the Bar Bistro kitchen is executive chef Jason Blessum, a Tacoma native with a résumé of South Sound country clubs and casinos. Chris Lewis, formerly of Maxwell’s Restaurant and Lounge, is sous chef.
Bear with the restaurant as it works out a few kinks, namely the confusing front entrance missing a seating station. As it is now, diners walk directly into the dining room, and there may or may not be someone there to greet you. That’s something Poulin said he will fix.
Although the restaurant is called Bar Bistro, kids are welcome.
2717 N. Proctor St., 253-761-7685, facebook.com/TacomaSoul. Serving lunch and dinner daily, breakfast on weekends.
When Soul opened in Tacoma’s Proctor District in late August, its blend of Latin cuisine and American soul food sounded different from anything in the region.
Co-owners Jennifer Zaskorski and Natural Allah intended to merge several categories of Latin cuisine — Puerto Rican, Cuban, Peruvian — with Southern American soul food in an upstairs dining room in one of Proctor’s most charming buildings, the former home of The Old House Cafe.
What I found was a restaurant with a buzz-worthy mix of cuisine, but one that struggles with execution.
In a phone interview this week, Zaskorski described a restaurant in transition. Allah and Zaskorski recently replaced chef Maria Torres. Allah is acting as chef with help from Zaskorski. Meanwhile, the duo continue to operate Vinum, their coffee and wine bar in downtown Tacoma.
I didn’t need to be told there was trouble in the Soul kitchen. I witnessed that on two visits.
I stuck to the Puerto Rican side of the menu because it’s a cuisine missing from the region, outside of the tiny cafe Old San Juan in Lakewood.
Puerto Rican-style arroz con pollo was overcooked chicken with a $14 price tag that felt above market for a single chicken thigh on a bed of dry rice. Pernil ($17), a Puerto Rican dish of roasted pork shoulder, tasted leathery. A Puerto Rican-style steak ($24), biftek al horno, was cooked precisely as ordered, but the promised rum-based marinade was undetectable.
Several sides faltered — mofongo (mashed plantains) tasted too garlicky, a side of beans was oversalted, and potato salad was soupy. Entrees leaned heavily on meat and starch, with few vegetables to lighten the plate (dieters beware).
There was a bright note with carnitas fritas ($14), a plate of supple roasted pork teased with sweetness from wisps of caramelized onions, flanked by yellow rice. That was the most successful dish of everything sampled and the kind of success that makes me think Soul has potential.
Speaking of unrealized potential, service ranged from proficient to dismal. One server unleashed a tableside vent, sharing the kind of staffing drama that diners never should hear. An appetizer went missing on one visit, and servers didn’t communicate well when kitchen delays turned long. Yet water glasses remained filled, and servers were adept in menu descriptions.
Zaskorski acknowledged before I even brought up the myriad issues in a telephone conversation that the restaurant was missing its desired mark, and she laid out the plan they launched to fix that. I found her acknowledgement impressive. Owners who admit to and quickly fix troubles are the ones who have a shot at a turnaround, in my experience.
Does Soul have work to do? Oh, yes. It does. I’ll be back in a few months to check its progress.
Hub at Gig Harbor
1208 26th Ave. NW, Gig Harbor; 253-853-1585, harmonbrewingco.com
Burgers? Check. Pizza? Check. A straightforward menu of Harmon beers and sandwiches? Double check.
Pat Nagle and Carole Holder have duplicated in Gig Harbor their Hub brewery restaurant, which opened in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood in 2008 (the original Harmon opened in downtown Tacoma in 1997). The Hub at Gig Harbor opened Sept. 16 at the Narrows Airport and is the company’s first suburban outpost.
I popped in for a first bite and found a restaurant almost identical to The Hub in concept and execution. Be warned that the restaurant might be swamped on your visit, as it was on mine. That was just one more indication that Gig Harbor diners are hungry for more restaurants. Two more are on the way. Lunchbox Laboratory now expects to open around Oct. 25 (that date has been a moving target) and the sushi restaurant Domo should be following later in the year.