You've got a lot of nerve, eating an octopus. The decision gives a diner pause not because of any outstanding cruelty in the preparation—there's no suffering akin to foie gras, or the lobster David Foster Wallace considered. Your dilemma is that octopi are so flippin' smart. The more we know about them, the more they seem to know. They open childproof Tylenol bottles. They predict the outcome of World Cup matches. They have more neurons in their arms than humans have in their brains. One longtime octopus handler told Orion Magazine last year, "I think consciousness comes in different flavors." Gulp.
Riffle NW, the new Pearl District seafood restaurant from married New York transplants Ken and Jen Norris, doesn't just serve octopus: It makes the cephalopod its signature entree. And while the RNW octopus doesn't permanently erase moral qualms, it certainly causes temporary amnesia. The Spanish octopus is skillet-charred and served with a chorizo chili cream, but what's really flabbergasting is the size and texture of those arms. The meat is presented in pieces so large and firm they recall beefsteak more than any catch of the day. It's the porterhouse of the sea.
This is a bold restaurant, if not exactly experimental, and its best ventures have the stinging clarity of an ocean breeze. The misfires are like getting a mouthful of seawater. But Riffle NW succeeds far more often than it flounders, and its triumphs tend to alter one's basic conception of a dish.
This is true not only of the octopus, but also of something as apparently simple as a Brussels sprout salad—which is interpreted here as a pile of the veggies (usually such dense little grenades) shaved razor thin and piled high as an anthill, with a light and buttery dressing. At times the kitchen's discovery is slight but profound: A side of fingerling potatoes is quickly deep-fried so they become fingerling jojos. Sometimes it's a completely alien revelation: A sea urchin and quail egg shot takes that unlikely pairing (the urchin puréed, the egg an unbroken yolk) and drops it in a shot glass of tomato water that's been drained through a cheesecloth. You swig it, and break the yolk on the roof of your mouth. It's spectacular.
Most of the entrees I tried were more mundane, with some late-night menu duds. The drinks director is Beaker & Flask veteran David Shenaut, who's put a lot of time into bespoke ice cubes. He's created one mean beer cocktail—the panache, combining an IPA with fortified wine and St. Germain—and several other inventions I found pushy or off-putting.
But nothing I say here will sink or ratify Riffle NW. The place's fortunes will depend on whether it catches the post-work fancy of the Wieden+Kennedy set a block down. To that end, the restaurant has branded itself with what it imagines as creative-class flourishes, including line cooks dressed like 1950s auto mechanics with "Riffle" merit badges sewn to their caps. This sort of thing suggests trend sensitivity has trumped intelligence. But the food is better than that—here's betting Riffle becomes a go-to dinner choice for the smart set.
- Order this: RNW octopus, fingerling potatoes, shaved Brussels salad.
- Best deal: The sea urchin shot is $6 for mind expansion.
- Iâll pass: The tuna salad, with its green beans and clumps of albacore, should not be.
EAT: Riffle NW, 333 NW 13th Ave., 894-8978, rifflenw.com. 5 pm-midnight Tuesday-Sunday. $$$.