Old bar, new tricks: Whale's Tail gets a makeover

Victoria Barber

In the family of restaurants under the Captain Cook's roof, the Whale's Tail has always seemed like the overlooked middle child. Fletcher's has an old-school clubhouse feel and the Crow's Nest is a fancy place for special occasions. The Pantry is a comfortable spot for lazy brunches with coffee and the paper. For years, the Whale's Tail had elements of all these without doing any of it well.

So I was curious to see what the Cook would do with the place when Whale's Tail underwent an identity change a few years ago. After closing for a while, the restaurant reopened and looked essentially like its old self -- wood paneling and deep booths, dated tile flooring. On closer inspection, it seemed management was trying to encourage a younger, more lively crowd: the booths were turned to face the room and the tables spread with butcher paper. A cup of crayons comes with the table so patrons can scribble during their visit. The wait staff uniform now includes black and white Converse sneakers (a seemingly cruel mandate for anyone over the age of 15 required to be on their feet for many hours).

These are superficial changes, but the Whale's Tail's new approach to up-scale and playful came through to their food and drink offerings as well.

First, there are the wine machines. To my knowledge, the Whale's Tale is the first bar in the city to install self-serve wine dispensers -- glowing, stainless steel stations that look like boozy vending machines in the starship Enterprise. But you can't just stuff it full of change and fill up; you have to first buy a wine card from the wait staff, prepaid in the amount of $10 or $25 (the card costs $1, non-refundable). Then you can choose from among dozens of bottles that dispense a 2-, 4- or 6-ounce pour. The cost per serving is based on how expensive the bottle is.

At first I thought this was a gimmicky way of using a machine for something a server would normally do, which seems pointless when you still have to go through a server to do it.

My friend with infinitely more sophisticated taste explained that the machine allowed her to try a wider selection of wines, including small increments of the bottles normally outside her price range. She bought about five 2- or 4-ounce glasses of wine to create a personalized tasting.

The menu is just a page long, and replaces the bistro-style soups and sandwiches I remember with trendy finger foods; there are the nostalgic spinoffs (deep-fried PB&J, smoked cheddar mac and cheese), the sliders (two kinds: Kobe and salmon) and an entire section devoted to "mini tacos."

We started with sesame tempura mushrooms ($10) and peppered bacon-wrapped dates ($8). The tender shiitake and oyster mushrooms were covered in a perfectly crisp, light-tasting crust. What made the dish really stand out was the three dipping sauces it came with, all of them equally satisfying. The aioli, wasabi aioli and lemon "yuzu" sauce, which tasted like a more citrusy variation of the traditional tempura dipping sauce, made it easy to eat a lot of fried mushrooms -- too easy. About 25 minutes after consuming most of a large basket, I had a stomachache and a strong urge for a nap thanks to my overindulgence.

The bacon-wrapped dates were about the size and color of black olives. While the raspberry and stone fruit relish the dates were served with didn't really make an impression, we enjoyed how the crunchy, savory shell delayed the intense sweetness of the soft dates.

Encouraged by the dishes thus far, I looked forward to our braised short-rib mini tacos ($12), which arrived on a plate shaped like an accordion file. The hard-shell tacos were wrapped in small tortillas, which kept them from shattering all over my lap. The meat was tender and topped with an unusual but pleasantly tangy dab of whipped goat cheese. Unfortunately, the tacos were quite bland overall, though once I went off-menu and doused them with the aioli and yuzu sauce from the tempura mushrooms, I happily polished them off.

My friend ordered an Alaska winter salad, which was an unusually beautiful arrangement of the usual berry/nut/feta green salad. The salad is served with a "bourbon vanilla vinaigrette" that somehow tasted like frosting, and made this the closest to a dessert green salad I've sampled.

But we like our desserts on the unhealthy side as well, and asked what sweets the Whale's Tail had to offer. The chocolate souffle ($6) didn't resemble a souffle so much as an especially dense chocolate cake, topped with a luxuriant scoop of chocolate ice cream and a berry drizzle. I'm a sucker for sweets that are combined with something salty, so I loved the vanilla pot de creme ($6) mostly because of the salty caramel drizzle on top of the rich, sweet custard.

About this time we realized that the bar had filled up with people. There was a DJ playing music, groups of young women with shiny hair and tall boots and groups of young men checking them out. Perhaps Whale's Tail has succeeded in becoming a new pick-up scene for the 20-something set after all -- it's as if the middle child went off to college and came back with a trendier wardrobe and updated tastes, looking to take downtown by storm.

By Victoria Barber
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