Last week, I told you about the transformation of the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms at the Cliff House, the legacy restaurant that has been closed more than it's been open since 2009. Today, here's an update on the food. Three weeks after reopening, the restaurant is doing brisk business and I can see why - the take-it-down-to-the-studs remodel has restored the restaurant's charm, and a menu of Northwest fare is predictable, yet well executed.
The Cliff House first opened as a tavern in 1925 and is a restaurant with a colorful history that includes reconstruction after a fire in 1958. Under the direction of Guido Brendicke for more than 30 years, the Cliff House in recent years suffered through revolving operators - three at last count - and has been closed more than it's been open since 2009. But in November 2011, Giuseppe "Joe" Nappo, best known for his Federal Way restaurant Verrazano's, began restoring building to continue the Cliff House's legacy of prom-night dining, waterfront views and upscale regional cuisine.
Did he deliver on that promise? Early visits strongly suggest so. The restaurant looks impressive, as noted here last week.
The menu is straightforward steaks and seafood in the $16-$24 range for dinner, with prices in the teens at lunch. You won't find fussy food or anything remotely challenging for adventurous palates, not that I minded. The food is precisely what you'd expect from a restaurant with a legacy as the go-to restaurant for celebrations for every generation. Staffers effortlessly projected the cadence of seasoned, career servers. The chef is Brandon Eckert, who previously cooked at Nappo's Copper Falls Restaurant.
Meals were executed well with just a few gaffes. On one visit, overcooked asparagus turned stringy, and during another visit, a requested rare steak was overcooked to medium. Both instances are forgivable for a fledgling restaurant in its opening weeks. (But diners tend to be less forgiving after the first month, the kitchen should note.)
Appetizers read like a Northwest usual-suspects list, heavy on crab and clams. Crab was scant in an artichoke dip ($10) appetizer at lunch that otherwise was a creamy-rich kin to toasted crostini. Dungeness crab also played light in two breadcrumb-laden cakes ($13) that were outshone by a plucky red pepper remoulade paired with a simply dressed tangle of arugula. We asked for extra bread to soak up the buttery broth with meaty Manilla clams ($13) - watch out for the lip sting from pepper flakes.
During a lunch visit, salmon ($16) glazed with hazelnut butter broke to an opaque center. Herb-laden chicken breast ($12) coated with rosemary and oregano was thin but juicy. Both chicken and fish were perched atop buttery red potatoes and asparagus.
At dinner, a heavily marbled 14-ounce ribeye ($29) had fatty edges sizzled with grill marks we could smell before the plate even hit the table. A daily special of rack of lamb ($29.95) rested on sauteed mushrooms and a pool of red wine demi; the meat was tender and expertly grilled, but $30 is a high price for a two-rack. Both entrees came with garlic mashed potatoes attractively piped onto the plates, along with crisp, firm early spring asparagus.
As with the rest of the menu, nothing about the dessert menu challenged, but I did note the presence of a dessert that has become so ubiquitous, it should be banned: chocolate molten cake. I admit to purposely lingering for dessert just so I could watch the sun fade on the horizon. A streusel-topped cheesecake ($6) marbled with lemon curd proved a perfect ending.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at: 253-597-8270 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cliff HouseWhere: 6300 Marine View Drive, TacomaInformation: 253-927-0400, cliffhousetacoma.comHours: Lunch served 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner served 3 p.m.- 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Brunch served 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. Happy hour daily from 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m.-close. Please note, while Happy Hour is served downstairs, seating downstairs is for dining.What happened to Guido's downstairs? The more casual bistro concept downstairs is gone. Both upstairs and downstairs serve the same menu.Wine list: The two-page wine list offers 20 wines by the glass ranging from $5-$12 and about 60 bottles with an emphasis on Washington, Oregon and California wines. I appreciated the monikers categorizing wine styles - "light & fruity, " "big, bold, full-bodied" and "purple-stained mouth."Accessibility: Improved. The Cliff House previously only had bathrooms downstairs for guests, but the remodel added bathrooms upstairs.Noise level: Medium. Even at full capacity, the restaurant absorbs the din.