The menu at Bookstore Bar in Downtown Seattle reads, well, a bit underwhelming: burger, turkey BLT, Northwest chowder, clam dip. It sounds fine, but certainly nothing to write an article about. It would make sense, considering that before this recent visit, I had only eaten there twice in its entire existence. Both times were “meh” at best, so for this stopover, I wasn’t expecting the rockets and streamers that I was met with when I settled in for a long food coma.
And that’s kind of the point if you ask recent arrival Chef Eric Rivera, who took over just a few months back. With his roots at Michelin three-starred restaurants including NOMA in Denmark and Alinea in Chicago, he’s done plenty of tweezering of garnishes and cooking in silence. And while he still totes a pair of tweezers in his apron, he prefers to undersell and over-deliver on his dishes.
The aforementioned burger reads as pretty straightforward: brioche bun, secret sauce, etc. But Rivera has packed a punch into it, with wagyu beef, and a made “a la minute” cheese sauce that’s rich and delicious, as well as a custom-made bun from Columbia City Bakery. To top it off, he serves it in a white paper bag and calls it “The Richard” when he speaks about it — an homage to his favorite cheeseburger from Seattle’s iconic Dick’s Drive-In. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s accompanied by Fiery Jojos, thrice-fried with magic kitchen techniques accounting for its crazy crunchy texture. It’s a great meal.
And that clam dip? It’s actually plump smoky mussels and clams in a supple sauce, topped by vintage purple potatoes that have been soaked in soda water and their starch content manipulated somehow to make them funky and crunchy toppers to the creamy depths below. A bright cocktail like the Magical Thinking, with its pamplemousse, sherry, rye and Cynar, adds balance to the lusciousness. It’s a terrific cocktail, and great things are to come when the new bar manager comes aboard shortly.
While the menus change constantly, there are some ingredients that show up across multiple dishes, like vadouvan curry. Punchy and long-finishing, Rivera’s cooks toast spices right up to the edge of over-doneness before blending them together for a bevy of dishes, which may get a different treatment of the spice medley depending on the plate.
In one instance — my favorite, and one I would eat daily — vadouvan and paneer from local cheesemaker Appel Farms were stirred together simply in a bowl on the happy hour menu. The crushed cheese and deep green curry were presented with hot, pocket-y flatbread Sous Chef Charlotte Glaves made perfectly. It was so good, I went back immediately only to find it had already departed the menu (though it magically appeared anyway*).
On other days, fresh tombo tuna showed up for happy hour as a poke with smoked compressed pineapple, or as the centerpiece in a dish on the Afternoon Delight high tea menu, surrounded by bright green emulsified chile sauce in a pool of piquant chile oil. The latter was among the best of the 30-odd dishes I ate at Bookstore Bar.
Speaking of Afternoon Delight, to call it “high tea” is to undersell it as a possibly stuffy experience that should be enjoyed with a visiting old person. Instead, it’s a tour of delights that are surprising in both presentation and abundance. Guests choose three “sandwiches” from a menu that includes items like a whipped Camembert tart on a brown butter crust with tomato jam; avocado toast that turns the over-Instagrammed phenomenon on its head with frothy avocado and cured egg yolk shaved over top; and a “lox and bagel” that’s a custom bagel made just for them, dehydrated, then topped with super fresh salmon, dots of this and that, and little flowers. Okay, that one is precious enough for grandma… The whole service is accompanied by paired teas from Portland’s Steve Smith Teamaker.
While Rivera is only a few months into his takeover transformation of the restaurant at the delightful Alexis Hotel, he’s already well on his way to making his mark as the most exciting chef to come on the culinary scene in Seattle (and beyond). And with his arrival and blowing of minds, he has big plans for the restaurant.
For starters, he’s transforming the rather gutted Author’s Corner room on the other side of the hotel lobby into the main restaurant. It’s certainly a work in progress, but once finished, the area will go from a sparse room decorated with half-mooned booths to the locale of his ambitious in-the-works tasting menu. The menu is a tour of Washington State, where Rivera grew up, starting from the coast and heading east with each of the courses. The official roll-out of the smaller menu (nine-courses, dubbed “The Local”) will be in mid-May, followed by a longer coursed menu of 17 dishes (“The Tourist”) in July.
*Full disclosure: Chef Eric generously sent out many dishes over the course of my visits on the house.