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Small bites, big flavors. Three Tacoma restaurants for group dining

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Aug. 22, 2014 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
August 22, 2014 12:04 pm

 

Hilltop Kitchen owners Chris Keil (left) and Matt Schweitzer. The Hilltop neighborhood lounge is perfect for diners in search of fine-crafted food with shareable plates, and a lively atmosphere.
Hilltop Kitchen owners Chris Keil (left) and Matt Schweitzer. The Hilltop neighborhood lounge is perfect for diners in search of fine-crafted food with shareable plates, and a lively atmosphere. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Shareable plates of sophisticated cocktail food with world flavors. An excellent cocktail, wine or tap list. Upscale digs. A place where grown-ups can gather comfortably without fear of being shushed.

That’s the checklist a reader handed me for a place to take out-of-town guests visiting during the final days of summer. So I went looking — and eating, and sipping.

I stuck with lounges and bars known for pairing upscale cuisine with thoughtful adult beverages, but also destinations with accoutrements necessary for gatherings: a sizable list of shareable plates, communal seating that can shrink or expand with the size of the party, a generous happy hour, and an atmosphere conducive for a group of talkers.

Finding a destination for a little grownup R&R is easier today than it’s ever been around the region.

If you’ve got friends from out of town on their way to celebrate the wind-down of summer, here are three destinations worth your time and dining dollars.

Hilltop Kitchen owners Chris Keil (left) and Matt Schweitzer have created a fine destination for Latin-themed cocktails and cuisine. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
Hilltop Kitchen owners Chris Keil (left) and Matt Schweitzer have created a fine destination for Latin-themed cocktails and cuisine. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

HILLTOP KITCHEN

Location: 913 Martin Luther King Drive, Tacoma; 253-327-1397 or hilltopkitchen.com

An unusual find, the cocktail lounge Hilltop Kitchen is Latin in foundation, but with a Northwest backbone.

Both food and drink cover a broad swath of Mexico and South America. Cocktails aren’t just shaken and stirred here. They are foamed, steeped, blended and mostly made from scratch. You’ll find liqueurs and bitters here you’ve only read about in magazines.

Street corn [deconstructed] is how Hilltop Kitchen lists this dish on its menu. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
Street corn [deconstructed] is how Hilltop Kitchen lists this dish on its menu. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
The restaurant’s presentation telegraphs modern Northwest. Wooden tones warm up a long, narrow space; naked Edison bulbs cast a warm glow. At capacity, it’s vibrantly energetic, though it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly loud. Hilltop Kitchen’s muted exterior can be easy to miss. It’s in a low-slung building across from the Tacoma institution Johnson Candy Co.

Here’s a piece of interest for restaurant watchers: Owners Chris Keil and Matthew Schweitzer celebrated their first year in business with a significant purchase this month.

On Aug. 1, they became owners of Marrow, the upscale Sixth Avenue restaurant serving a dual menu for meat eaters and vegetarians. Marrow previously was owned by Jaime Kay and Jason Jones and Kyle Wnuk. Much like Marrow, Hilltop Kitchen focuses on attracting vegetarian diners, with thoughtful veg- and bean-based dishes composed with lofty flavors.

Serving: Lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturday. Diners must be 21 and older.

Seating: Bench tables, which can accommodate parties up to 6-8, are seat-yourself during off-peak weekday visits, but a host takes over on weekends. Seating for large groups can be tricky at peak times.

When to visit: Happy hour, lunchtime and off-peak times are best. No reservations taken.

Happy hour: Served 3-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $6 craft cocktails.

This is one of the many variations of the Fern Gully Plate at Hilltop Kitchen. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
This is one of the many variations of the Fern Gully Plate at Hilltop Kitchen. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Eat this: Tacos and shareable plates were easily assembled into group meals. Tacos were served in portions of three and built on corn tortillas; shareable plates were built for two or more.

On the current menu, lamb tacos ($12) yielded a wonderful dissonance: fall-apart lamb with full, fatty flavor offset by a tart smear of mango mustard. Duck tacos ($12) earlier in the summer were full of lush duck confit and chicharrones, with queso fresco. The current version pairs confit with tart gooseberries.

Veg-friendly “summer” tacos ($10) made with shishito peppers held no heat, but gave off grassy tones, the peppers atop a nutty bed of blended chickpeas and topped with a mole-style dressing. Earlier in the summer, a veg-friendly taco trio ($12) paired candied lemon peel with crunchy asparagus spears. Menus change seasonally, but something always appeals to vegetarians.

A caprese tartare salad ($10) was nothing like you’ll think it should be based on that title: diced watermelon topped a disc of chevre cheese licked with basil; it was flanked by a smear of smoky chili balsamic syrup and epazote pesto.

Clams are a safe bet for sharing ($12). The current menu has the bivalves with bacon and serrano sofrito; I sampled the early summer version with chorizo.

Drink this: One cocktail constant is a pisco sour, served earlier in the summer with elderflower and a frothy egg white foam; it’s now flavored with goji berries ($10). Sample the gamut of Latin spirits, from cachaca to mezcal, pisco to tequila — and dip into the islands with plenty of rum. Cocktail bases are tinctures made in house, ranging from punchy drinking vinegars to spicy bitters. Texture is just as important as flavor here. Specialty cocktails are $10 each, a fair trade-off considering the ingredients.

A Chopped Chicken and Italian Kale Salad and a three-cheese sampler with Cambozola, Fontina Val D'Aosta, and Telggio cheeses at 208 Garfield, a bistro in Parkland. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
A Chopped Chicken and Italian Kale Salad and a three-cheese sampler with Cambozola, Fontina Val D’Aosta, and Telggio cheeses at 208 Garfield, a bistro in Parkland. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

208 GARFIELD

Location: 208 Garfield St., Tacoma; 253-538-5990 or 208garfield.com

This Parkland destination adjacent to Pacific Lutheran University is one of those rare finds that appeals at once to students and professors. The restaurant comes with a pricetag suitable for college students, but with complicated flavors suited for mature palates.

The menu tours broad terrain — the Mediterranean; Northern Europe with a nod to PLU’s Nordic roots; and a flash of Northwest flair, too.

The restaurant opened in 2011 and is owned and managed by PLU. Look for it right next to the college’s book store. At the culinary helm of 208 Garfield is 1990 PLU grad Erin McGinnis, also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

The menu shifts with the clientele and time of day. It serves coffee in the morning and a pressed sandwich menu at lunch. Later in the day, the small plates menu turns cosmopolitan with shareable plates of lemon-dressed sardines, slippery short ribs and jiggly pork belly.

The restaurant shows its roots as a former coffee shop (it once was a Forza) with large, communal tables and a seat-yourself edict.

It still has that loud, coffee house vibe. With big windows, tall ceilings and concrete floors, the hard surfaces bounce noise when large private parties are in the screened-off area in the back. Of course, that means loud talkers will fit right in with the rest of the din.

Serving: Morning coffee service, lunch and dinner daily.

Seating: Tables small and large, with the best communal seats up front. What I like best is that it is seat yourself. That also can mean servers will be slow in greeting your party.

When to visit: Summertime is perfect. A recent Friday night was slow, although students heading back to campus will change that. Tables can be reserved in advance.

Happy hour: 3-6 weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday. $4 beers, $5 wines, and $4 shared plate specials.

Pictured here, the spacious interior of 208 Garfield. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
Pictured here, the spacious interior of 208 Garfield. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Eat this: Bar nibbles are served beginning at 3 p.m. daily, noon on weekends. A menu of panini sandwiches is served all day.

From the small plates menu, we dug into slow-cooked short ribs ($8), the meat sliding off bone easily under minimal pressure; a horseradish glaze was tame, no nasal sting, but with a sweet tone playing nicely against the rich beef. The dish was accompanied by mashed yukons and a balsamic-dressed arugula salad.

Slow-roasted pork belly ($7) tasted divine, a small portion with a pricetag to match. A brown sugar glaze found a sweet partner in the accompanying lingonberry jam; the richness of the dish was offset by a shaved fennel salad, dressed in dill.

A trio of fat sardines ($7) came with parsley and crushed lemon, minus the pith and peel; a side of campagnolo bread was flanked by globes of molded butter, which was a nice touch.

The charcuterie plate ($13, for three meats) was a mix-and-match paradise with cured meat choices aplenty. We settled on beef bresaola, pork vanetta and salami flavored with porcini mushrooms — all three meats were cured by Visconti‘s in Leavenworth. With the plate came bread-and-butter juniper pickles (made in house) with pickled mustard seeds.

Drink this: Like many items on the food menu, beer and wine come from Washington. South Sound craft beers — especially from Sound Brewing and Wingman Brewers — play heavily on the beer menu. The 50-plus wine menu sticks almost exclusively with Washington grapes, with a showing of a few Oregon bottles. More than 15 wines are offered by the glass, $6-$13.

The patio of Social Bar and Grill. File photo.
The patio of Social Bar and Grill. File photo.

SOCIAL BAR AND GRILL

Location: 1715 Dock St., Tacoma; 253-301-3835 or thesocialbarandgrill.com

With its spectacular water and mountain views, Social Bar and Grill offers a sense of place for Tacoma in a way few restaurants can.

Perched on the Foss Waterway, the restaurant grabs fetching views of its neighbor, the Museum of Glass. The other treasures in Tacoma’s municipal toy box also are on full display — the Tacoma Dome and LeMay-America’s Car Museum. Did I mention the view of Mount Rainier way off in the distance? It’s there, too if you look hard enough.

The restaurant was opened in July 2011 by a trio of Matador alum, but only Philip Panagos remains. Chefs Michaela Ketchum and Jonathan Tram co-manage the kitchen.

The eclectic world menu sails to farflung places — European ports, the sun-kissed Mediterranean, with occasional dips to South America and trips to the islands and Asia.

The menu has a something-for-everyone appeal and is heavy on shareable plates. Pricing is attractive at around $7-$15. Happy Hour is among the best values in town, right up there with Pacific Grill and Maxwell’s.

Communal seating on the patio becomes my favorite place to lounge with friends in summer. While the dining room is outfitted with tables accommodating large parties, the noise level can be loud at capacity. This is, after all, a restaurant that’s named after what it’s supposed to be.

Serving: Lunch and dinner daily.

Seating: Plenty of group seating with ideal placement for large groups outside on the patio where fire tables are positioned adjacent to the Foss Waterway’s esplanade. Those tables can seat a dozen or more.

When to visit: Peak times on warm, sunny days can be quite busy. Tables can be reserved in advance.

Happy hour: Daily 4-6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight. $10 Sangria pitchers; 14 shareable plates priced $4-$7.

A plate of fries with lemon garlic aioli at Social Bar and Grill. File photo.
A plate of fries with lemon garlic aioli at Social Bar and Grill. File photo.

Eat this: Buttery clams ($10) in a boozy broth that almost tasted like a briny gravy; scattered with herbs and served with (not enough) grilled bread.

Ahi tuna poke ($9) remains my favorite presentation in town, a sizeable portion of velvety tuna — served raw — splashed with soy and sesame seeds. Huge rice crackers were meant for dipping, but a fork worked better.

Peel-and-eat sauteed prawns ($9) will get your fingers messy, and you’ll have to resist licking off the garlic-brandy butter. Try rockfish in either tacos ($10) or as lightly battered fried fish ($12) with shoestring fries.

Drink this: Pitchers of sangria ($18) are designed for group sipping, serving 2-3 easily; with a wine list of 15, served in bottle or glass. South Sound and Seattle breweries pepper the brief tap list. Specialty vodka and gin cocktails tend to taste sweet; stick with Social’s bourbon or whiskey drinks if that bothers you.

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