The prime rib grabbed my attention and held it for several bites – until that awkward moment when I sensed my dining partner might forcibly reclaim the entree.
“Jus one merrr bite,” I might have murmured, mouth full of the juicy beef.
Supple and lightly charred from a finish with a blowtorch – yes, a blowtorch – the prime rib might as well be called “beef velvet” at Smoke + Cedar, the Tacoma restaurant from Gordon Naccarato that opened March 1 at the new Elks Lodge at Allenmore Golf Course (open to the public). It’s Tacoma’s newest view restaurant, with a lush course-side perch.
The slow-roasted prime rib is just one kitchen trick produced by the restaurant’s high-priced oven that can flip from oven to smoker with a few swipes of its computerized controls.
Besides turning out slow-cooked prime rib, that fancy oven smoked olives for martinis and tomatoes for ketchup, a house-made condiment one local diner aptly coined “ketchup crack.”
That hard-working oven is at the core of a menu featuring solid American fare occasionally tinged with smoke and a ’60s sensibility, a hallmark of Naccarato, a Tacoma native who also co-owns the polished downtown eatery Pacific Grill with Joe Hardwick Jr., its affiliated catering company and the Classics Cafe at LeMay-America’s Car Museum. Naccarato also has partnered with his brother Steve Naccarato in the Stadium neighborhood burger diner Shake Shake Shake, also co-owned by Robert Stocker.
If the family name sounds familiar, that’s because they’re the sons of longtime sports promoter Stan Naccarato.
The kitchen is led by tenured chefs: executive chef John Louderback, formerly of Alderbrook Resort on Hood Canal, and sous chef Kristen Lyon, formerly of Hotel Murano’s Bite Restaurant.
I made three anonymous visits during Smoke + Cedar’s first six weeks and found well-conceived food and polished service, with the usual fledgling restaurant jitters. A few dishes needed more salt; a few could have been hotter. I wanted more flavor from one dish; less spice from another. If that’s all I can criticize, a restaurant’s doing fine. I recommend Smoke + Cedar with few reservations.
As with every opening of a new restaurant, I hear from readers. I agree with the diner who complained about the noisy dining room at dinner. But the diner who complained about lunch prices – I wondered where he’s eating lunch. Mediocre diners charge $10-$12 for average sandwiches these days. In the $11-$14 range at lunch, Smoke + Cedar felt well-priced for the quality and concept offered. As a paid belly, my view is broader.
I found enchanting servers with smart tableside prattle. Those servers explained menu items, something similarly priced casual restaurants lack. And make no mistake, Smoke + Cedar is a casual restaurant. It lacks the formality of its sister restaurant, Pacific Grill. Its emphasis is on fun, in decor and spirit.
The decor’s attitude is cheeky, starting with the entry. Stark-white painted deer heads with red-tipped antlers quirkily saluted to a modern lodge decor. Unexpected tongue-in-cheek touches offered a sense of whimsy, from the patriotic red, white and blue, wall-mounted bedsprings, to a hand-painted graphic mural with pipe smoking Elks, a gesture to the restaurant’s name and Elks affiliation.
The vibrant carpet percolated energy into the L-shaped dining room yielding stunning course views from all tables. Look to the outdoor patio with longing for when the restaurant begins brunch service (soon).
First-time guests should dig into that sublime prime rib as an entree at dinner ($26.95) with a twice-baked potato, or as a lunchtime sandwich ($12.95) with house-fried potato chips.
The fried rock shrimp appetizer ($11) showed the kitchen’s prowess with finessing flavor in unexpected places. Dig into the plate of beer-battered shrimp and find gingery jackpots – thinly sliced pickled ginger, battered and fried. I appreciated that the plating accommodated group sharing, the dip vessels wide and shallow.
Buffalo cauliflower ($8) tasted as wicked spicy as the wing dish for which it’s named – that will bother some – with a coating I wanted crispier.
Augusta National pimento cheese dip ($6) – a fun curtsy to the golfing overlords – looked straight out of a ’60s-era housewarming party (close your eyes and imagine shag carpet) with gussied up Ritz crackers. Even tastier was the cheese on a grilled sandwich ($9.95). I regret not getting to that shag carpet-era fried bologna sandwich ($10.95).
If you don’t order the prime rib at lunch (big mistake, I’m telling you), get the Smoke and Cedar burger ($12.95), with crispy shoestring fries and a side of that ketchup crack. As with every sandwich sampled, the half-pound chuck burger was built for easy handling.
Bistro steak ($19.95) was a generous portion of teres major, the shoulder cut we don’t see much around here that’s about as tender as tenderloin at a fraction of the price (local butcher Brian Brozovic calls it the poor-man's tenderloin).
Crunchy fish and chips ($14.95) was a portion perfect for sharing, but needed an extra shake of salt.
Cedar-planked steelhead ($19.95) proved itself the surf equivalent of that velvety prime rib; the dish was served with baby spinach tweaked with smoky ham hock, a southern delight. Another southern twist showed up in chicken fried steak ($14.95), a crispy jacketed steak, fork tender, covered with a river of gravy that spilled onto the side of herbed fries – not that I was complaining.
Don’t skip out on dessert or drinks. Barkeep Dean Shivers, formerly of Crown Bar, executes a menu with a smoky center. Try the vodka-lemon spin on an Arnold Palmer teased with smoked tea ($8) or the house-made cedar bitters in a smoked whiskey cocktail ($8).
Pastry chef Erin Powell’s rhubarb cobbler ($7) sang with spring’s favorite flavor; her chocolate ice box cake ($6.50) with espresso cream and dulce de leche was a testament to the restaurant’s penchant for updating midcentury classics. Nicely done.
Smoke + Cedar2013 S. Cedar St., Tacoma; 253-343-6090; smokeandcedar.comServing lunch, happy hour and dinner daily. Breakfast and brunch coming soon.Space: A 165-seat restaurant with space portioned into a dining room and bar about the size of the bar at Pacific Grill. An 80-seat patio will open for outdoor dining during the warmer months.Price range: The opening dinner menu listed most entrees in the $12.95-$16.95 range, with two items hitting $19.95. The one item above $20 is the blow torch prime rib at $26.95. Lunch is around $11-$14. A daily discounted happy hour menu just started and it's worth a gander.Decor: Modern Northwest Lodge with playful touches. Seattle design studio McVey Oakley, which also designed Pacific Grill, worked on the restaurant.Wine list: Short, but sweet. Eight reds, five whites and one sparkling (by the glass or bottle) with farflung geographical representation - Washington, California, Europe, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa. By the bottle $21-$41; by the glass $6-$11.
Smoke + Cedar staff: General manager: Northwest native Elizabeth Russell formerly worked at Seattle's Hyatt at the Olive 8 and the conference center at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.Executive chef: John Louderback is from Nantucket, Mass., and worked at several of the island's notable restaurants, such as 21 Federal and The Chanticleer. More recently, he served as opening banquet chef at the Alderbrook Resort on Hood Canal and also cooked at Salty's on Alki.Sous chef: Kristen Lyon most recently was kitchen manager at The Bite Restaurant at Hotel Murano, and also has cooked at Tacoma's Marrow Kitchen & Bar. Previously, she was at the Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.Pastry chef: Erin Powell has served as Pacific Grill's pastry chef for several years and previously worked at the Yarrow Bay Grill in Kirkland. She attended Johnson & Wales University.Mixologist: Dean Shivers grew up in the Bay Area and worked at restaurants such as Zuni Café, Rose Pistola, and Kokkari. He moved to this region six years ago. He previously worked at Crown Bar in Tacoma and Seattle's Rione XIII.