One of the most popular smells these days in restaurants of a more sophisticated class is the aroma of smoke, salt, hot oil, and cured meat, the kind of odor that follows you home, clinging to your hair and clothes.
It is typically the smell of days-old cooking oil, bacon, and things deep fried, the smell of drinking binges and road trips, of greasy spoons, all-night diners, and truck-stop Chinese joints with names like Rickshaw Palace.
It is the smell of arteriosclerosis.
Recently this is also the fragrance of many high-end kitchens, as restaurateurs embrace the concept of comfort food with dishes like macaroni and cheese and ingredients like pork belly, officially the most overdone cut of fetish meat on restaurant menus today.
Some are more blatant about it than others, but all sorts of places in different parts of Seattle, from The Coterie Room, to Quinn’s Pub, and Local 360, sing a page from that song book, artfully transforming fat into guilt-free objects of desire.
On an institutional level, we might be at war against saturated fat, but in our personal lives we are devouring it, perhaps as an act of rebellion, self-destruction, or just denial. Pfizer, the maker of Lipitor, should be pleased.
In an instance of true irony, or tragedy, or perhaps unintended performance art meets cultural commentary, a 40-something man suffered a heart attack yesterday (Feb. 15) while eating a triple-bypass burger at the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas. The Heart Attack Grill is known for its waitresses who dress like nurses; customers can don surgical gowns. Patrons weighing more than 350 pounds eat free. The restaurant’s motto: Taste Worth Dying For! As the ailing man experienced a coronary, other customers laughed, thinking it was a joke. (He survived.)
The newest to join the comfort food caravan is The Sexton, a narrow, inconspicuous restaurant that opened on Ballard Avenue in December, setting up shop where Madame K’s pizza used to be. The Sexton doubles the comfort-food ante by riffing on a related restaurant concept, Southern cooking. That too is gathering steam, as a type of cooking that gets back to our American roots. (Another example: Serious Biscuit, the latest Tom Douglas project, is a breakfast and lunch joint that serves biscuit sandwiches with ingredients like gravy, bacon, eggs, ham, sausage.)
The Sexton serves the food of ordinary folks, dishes like collard greens, hush puppies, beans and rice, grits, braised ribs, blackened fish, and of course the obligatory mac’ and cheese, the kind of food you might expect to eat in a roadside diner or picnic. The décor of the restaurant just about spells out the setting for you.
Diners eat on what look like picnic tables, distressed to look like they’ve been exposed to the elements for years. The walls are finished with bare lathe, and painted horizontal planks. Drinks are served in jelly jars, which the chandeliers are made of. The found-object theme continues at the bar, made up of hundreds of cassette tapes fastened together and covered with Plexiglas. There is one elegant touch, damask wallpaper, intended to suggest, perhaps, a once grand home that long ago fell into disrepair.
The food, served mostly in appetizer-sized servings, is acceptable if you’re there for the atmosphere and the fog of grease vapor. Dishes tend to be under-spiced and over-sweet, a little too fussy and delicate for my tastes. The hush puppies ($6) are studded with bits of green pepper; the blackened fish ($11) is all char and no flavor. The red beans and rice ($7) are tangy and sweet rather than smoky and salty, the way it is typically made in the South, where the beans are cooked with ham hocks down to a slurry so that the beans are no longer intact. The sweet-tangy version of beans and rice seems to be endemic in Seattle. Just about the only way to eat smoky-salty beans and rice is to drive out of the city and find a Popeyes chicken franchise.
The most charming dish is probably The Sexton’s fried Brussels sprouts ($3), the tiny leaves pulled from the heads approximating the effect of cabbage French fries. Frying is the thing in the south, as the stereotype goes, and The Sexton fries plenty: potatoes ($5), yams ($6), green tomatoes ($6), among others.
The premise of The Sexton is that eating there will recreate the experience of stumbling into a road house in the Deep South, some shack only the locals know about set a few paces off the asphalt of a country highway, a good place to come and eat after a long day of trapping varmints and fishing. The Sexton, on the other hand, is a fine place to retire after shopping for Scandinavian furniture, cashmere baby blankets, and organic dog biscuits down the street.
No, The Sexton is not authentic, but to care about authenticity is a privilege. In other words, those in a position to care about authenticity have the luxury of making that distinction. If you’re poor, keeping it real means you do what you can afford. A poor person would probably love to eat a pretentious bowl of gourmet noodles disguised as street food, or dip his fries into a saucer of aioli.
The prevailing theme in trendy restaurants is currently the food of the working class. Comfort food and street food is chic. The Sexton and Local 360 both serve a version of corn dogs, perhaps the first time carnival food has come with a wine list. Cotton candy will soon arrive on desert menus, paired perhaps with brandy- poached pears.
Places like Ballard Avenue, First Avenue in Belltown, and the Pike-Pine corridor on Capitol Hill are to restaurants what Banana Republic is to fashion, identifying if not inventing trends and packaging them to maximum effect. The Sexton manages to leverage not one but two restaurant trends, comfort food and another for vintage cocktails and spirits (separate but related to the trend of speakeasy-style bars). Actually, if you count sliders as their own trend, The Sexton rides three popular waves, an impressive feat even on Ballard Avenue.
As it adds to its lineup, Ballard’s restaurant row is becoming the Epcot theme park of dining. Disney’s Epcot in Orlando has pavilions representing 11 countries. Ballard Avenue is getting there. Between Market Street and Dock Place, you will find the Mexico pavilion (La Carta de Oaxaca), the France pavilion (Bastille), the Japan pavilion (Moshi Moshi), the Germany pavilion (The People’s Pub), the Thailand pavilion (Jhanjay), the Italy pavilion (Staple & Fancy, Volterra), the India pavilion (India Bistro), the Ireland pavilion (Conor Byrne), and the Americana pavilion, represented by the various would-be dives that make up a tableau of working-class America past and present (Kings Hardware, Smoke Shop, Hattie’s Hat), some less ironic than others.
The promise of Epcot and of Ballard Avenue is to provide a safe, simulated excursion into foreign places without having to pay the price of a real voyage with all of its grit and inconvenience. The road houses here have no mosquitoes and humidity, although there is nothing anyone can do about the smell. For that, there is a dry cleaner a few blocks away.
If you go: The Sexton, 5327 Ballard Ave. NW, (206) 829-8645, http://www.sextonseattle.com. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.