Dahlia Lounge is not far off from the main touristy heart of downtown Seattle. I had passed within a block several times earlier during my visit. You can't really make it out in the photo but there's a big animated neon chef holding a fish on the sign. A bit tacky, really. The inside is classy, though. Kind of clubby and a bit dark. Dark enough that I had trouble taking photos anyway. Some turned out better with a flash, some didn't. None turned out great. Sorry. I felt a little under-dressed without a sport jacket, but felt no need for a tie. It was full up at 7:45 on a Wednesday.
Having seen the menu on-line I knew I wanted to order the sea bar sampler, particularly as at least one item on it was suspiciously similar to one in Abokado's taradito sampler and I wanted to compare and contrast. It was a bit large to have a full main course with so I had another appetizer, the pork belly (and I really must get around to curing and slow-cooking my own pork belly one of these days.) and had just enough room left for dessert.
The sea bar sampler was comprised of five little dishes:
Kanpachi with yuzu, nashi pear and shiso
Dungeness crab with bread crumbs, crispy capers and lemon aioli
Dahlia smoked salmon topped with a dollop of hot mustard
Seared albacore tuna with togarashi and pickled ginger
Citrus cured halibut with a scoop of avocado-green chili sorbet
I'm not sure if I ought to bother describing each in detail. I did like them all and, in my notes, I found I had to describe them like wine with the flavors progressing from first impression to aftertaste. Oddly, I didn't describe the wine that way. Huh. It was a pleasantly light grassy Austrian Gruner with mineral notes. I don't think I've ever had a Gruner before.
I've just now checked Abokado's menu and I was remembering incorrectly. The tiradito I was thinking of was actually salmon with pear in a ponzu sauce so it's not quite fair to make a direct comparison. I will say that in general Abokado's tiradito sampler was much prettier than Dahlia's sea bar sampler and a bit more inventive, but Dahlia was way ahead in terms of flavor. I won't bore you with detailed descriptions of all five, but here are my two favorites.
The kanpachi had small pieces of fish topped with matchsticks of pear in a pool of sauce--that's it in the bottom left corner of the picture. Each bite started with a sharp hit of yuzu, then the fruity crunch of the pear followed by a mellow creamy finish of the kanpachi. No one flavor dominated. It was a bit surprising that such a little bit of pear could hold its own. It must have been a particularly flavorful, nicely ripe fruit.
My favorite of the five was the salmon which you can sort of see on the upper left of the picture. It started with a mustard with enough horseradish for bitterness and spice, but not enough to burn. The spice faded, but the horseradish stayed as an undertone through the sweet smoked salmon which was tender and chewy (with just a bit of crunch from a sprinkling of sesame seeds) which faded into a long smoky finish. Really, this description comes nowhere close to doing it justice. It was truly spectacular.
I followed the sampler with honey lacquered pork belly with Chinese black bean sauce, congee and radish pickle. As you might guess from the description, this is an interpretation of the standard Chinatown-style roast pork on white rice dish. The lacquer actually reminded me more of the sauce on the soy-sauce chicken you can get at the same places (my favorite is on west 38th street in New York). It's less salty than the Chinatown version , the bean paste less spicy, and the glaze more caramelized. So caramelized it stuck to the plate, actually. And most importantly, roasted pork is no match for a layer cake of tender pork, honey glaze and delicately melting fat.
The white rice was replaced by a pretty standard congee (a rice porridge) with traditional garnishes of peanuts, scallions and sesame oil. I was impressed that the congee was perfectly done with creamy soft rice that hadn't quite fallen apart and lost its texture. It's hard to get it to just the right point and must be even harder to keep it there during an evening's service.
I enjoyed the dish a lot, but the Chinatown original is pretty great when done right, too. If I was served it in a Styrofoam box I would have missed the pow-socko of the usual flavors and probably would whine about it as is my unfortunate wont. The flavors here weren't dull at all, just dialed down to fine dining levels. The texture of the pork belly pushed it right back up though.
Dessert was a warm rice pudding cornet with strawberry and rhubarb compote, caramel bits and horchata ice cream. Actually, I'm not sure that was ice cream and not just horchata that had been run through a churn. A good industrial ice cream maker could get that creamy texture without cream or eggs. This dish didn't really knock me out. Making rice pudding is like doing easy skills in gymnastics; even if it's perfect, scores of 10 just aren't going to happen. It was a really interesting dessert, though. Mixing and matching each pair of components gave a different result. Neither the ice cream or rice pudding were terribly sweet, so you had to scoop up a bit of the fruit or sugar to balance it out with sweetness and either tart or caramel notes. Or you could pair the ice cream and pudding for an interesting contrast in temperatures with similar textures. The actual cornet, while nice visually, I don't think added much otherwise.
With dessert I had the menu's suggested pairing of a glass of Lillypilly noble blend muscat. It was a syrupy, but not overwhelmingly sweet dessert wine. It had strong white grape flavors with late sour notes that kept the long sticky finish from cloying. It matched really well with the horchata.
I should mention the service. My waitress noticed me taking notes and switched from asking how my food was to how the flavors were which is just the excuse a pretentious ass like me needs to start pontificating so I think she had me pegged there. She also offered to get me another dessert when I mentioned that I wasn't entirely wowed by it. I should go to nicer places more often; professional service is a real treat.
I ended up spending around $65 including a good tip, but it would have been another $10-$15 if I had had a proper main dish instead of a bunch of appetizers. Well worth it. I usually read while eating, but this meal required attention. Every bite had multiple flavors and texture to savor. I have one night's meal unscheduled while I'm here in Seattle and I'm strongly considering heading back to Dahlia.