Sidewalk: Full Review - May 1999    

Tamara Murphy gets off to a hot start
Fred Brack - FirstBite restaurant reviewer

Tamara Murphy intends to satisfy, not dazzle. She aims at appetites, not awards — though she's won bushels. This might disappoint some diners following the pack into the Denny Regrade's unfashionable depths in search of the Next Big Thing, only to discover that the celebrated Murphy creates robust rustic flavors instead of bright, trendy eye-candy. Judging by how packed Brasa has been, many others find contentment in the pan-Mediterranean dishes Murphy skillfully crafts.

Murphy spent two years away from the kitchen before she and co-owner Bryan Hill opened Brasa March 1, 1999. Expectations ran high. During her seven years as executive chef at Campagne she was instrumental — along with Hill, who was Campagne's general manager and wine director — in creating one of Seattle's few four-star restaurants. She also assisted in spinning off Cafe Campagne. During this span she was named best chef in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii by America's gastronomic arbiter, the James Beard Foundation.

At Campagne she produced French country food. At Brasa she calls her cooking "sun-drenched Seattle," apparently without sarcasm. That means she borrows ideas from the Mediterranean basin and creates dishes whose flavors melt into one another country-style — food meant to be consumed with gusto, not worshipped.

Consider roast suckling pig, a standard on the Iberian Peninsula, from which she draws much inspiration. (Brasa means "live coals" in Portuguese.) Though Murphy evolves her menu daily, the pig seems certain to be a signature. In her first two months, Murphy experimented with three approaches. The first bedded the succulent meat on cabbage and white beans. The second employed potato gratin and sautéed greens. The third, and perhaps final, pays homage to the Portuguese penchant for pairing pork with in-shell clams. Potatoes give the dish body, chorizo and hot smoked paprika lend it depth and bite. It's altogether soul-satisfying, an unabashed celebration of flavor and aroma. But then that description applies to the first two approaches, also, as well as to nearly all Murphy's food.

Appetizers get Murphy's menu off to a running start. She riffs on Spanish escabeche of chilled, marinated fish by substituting quail. For a warm starter, she scents quail with cinnamon and takes a fusion tack by adding black-bean sauce. She wittily dresses another dish, perfectly cooked squid-ink risotto topped with snowy calamari, in a tuxedo. (The risotto's fulsome olive-oil bath startled. Diners in Lisbon, Madrid and Palermo expect certain dishes to be awash in olive oil. In "sun-drenched" Seattle, concessions probably should be made.) She constructs haute-pizza out of potato confit (slow-cooked in oil), foie gras, arugula and white-truffle oil. Proving she can separate as well as meld flavors, she produces a merry-go-round of tastes and textures on a single plate containing a lobe of seared foie gras, one plump scallop, a dollop of pear chutney and a miniature herb-scented brioche loaf.

She can also produce vibrant flavors. The menu's produce section, for example, includes salads such as mixed baby greens with shallots and sherry vinaigrette; spinach with warm mustard, goat cheese and shiitakes — both perfectly dressed and tossed; and grilled asparagus with a dab of hazelnut-oil aioli and a brilliant slick of pinot noir syrup. For veal scaloppini she marries mellow (yam purée and avocado cubes) to piquant (lemon and capers).

But mostly her creations remain as mellow as their Mediterranean models: sweet scallops joined by braised leeks, bacon, chive-scented potato cake and a fried quail egg; braised lamb shank with white-cornmeal pudding; delicate Arctic char with manchego-infused mashed potatoes. While her kitchen staff remains in training, some things go awry: charred bacon with roasted shad roe; nearly breadless bread salad; an almost-raw pork chop; dry couscous with Moroccan chicken (served dramatically under a red, earthenware cone). And a few ideas fail, such as sweet-potato slivers trying to pass as frites in the bar menu's steak frites. The rib steak, topped with Roquefort butter, is sensational.

The bar menu is important. Murphy and Hill envision Brasa as two separate dining venues. To that end, they sought, and received, a cunning design. Behind a custom-forged iron gate in a handsome brick building at Third and Lenora, the restaurant evokes a Mediterranean village. A curvaceous terrazzo path and iron railings separate lounge and dining room. The former features a copper bar with padded elbow rest. The latter includes gallery seating. Warm colors and woods, upholstered booths and banquettes and soft music spell conversationally friendly comfort.

Murphy's bar food is meal-sized and remains in play until the 2 a.m. closing — and it's brilliant. Like the dining-room menu, it changes daily. But some items surely will become signatures. Among them: mussels steamed in a Portuguese double-dome copper pot called a cataplana and topped with soft, pita-like bread triangles, perfect for sopping up the mussels' full-flavored broth; clams also steamed in a cataplana and topped with a sausage-stuffed empanada; fried oysters with garlic aioli; the Provençal pizza called pissaladiere, a salty, savory marriage of anchovies, caramelized onions and dark olives, here gussied up with goat cheese and pine nuts.

Foremost among the bar-food hits is a gorgeous, gloriously messy Greek-accented concoction called Mediterranean fish sandwich. It's a head-turner. A warm round of pita-like bread is cut in half, each half enfolding delicate butter-sautéed rockfish, a restrained yogurt sauce, tiny cucumber cubes and lots of greens. The halves are then skewered one atop another, and the whole thing is delivered while everyone nearby gapes.

That is, if they can see well enough. Though the design delivers the stylishly casual surroundings Seattleites evidently crave as the century turns, lighting in the lounge is murky rather than romantic, a shame given Murphy's splendidly attractive food. At the bar, the lighting annoys even more, as darkness envelopes the space in front of every other seat. Menus can't be read, and all the food seems to be chocolate or licorice. Drinks — a glass of red wine glowing from its heart or a martini sparkling to the brim — lose their appeal when set down in the shadowed spots.

Such flaws await the attention they will surely receive as Brasa matures. Murphy and Hill demonstrated their poise long ago. They'll likely build on their early success rather than rest on it.

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