Restaurant Reviews

At Montlake Cut, the Yacht Club Life Tastes Pretty Damn Sweet

You can almost smell the scent of brine in the air when you step into Preston Center’s Montlake Cut. The small but mighty vessel, helmed by acclaimed chef and restaurateur Nick Badovinus, is tucked quietly into a corner on Westchester Drive in the space formerly occupied by Spoon, another high-end seafood restaurant owned by another chef with a big personality, John Tesar. Fish, bones and famous faces — that’s where the similarities between these two spots end.

If you were to close your eyes and picture a houseboat designed by an HGTV design star who owns stock in decorative rope, you’d have a pretty good idea of what Montlake Cut looks like inside. The restaurant is highly accessorized and thematic but in a classy way that rich white people really like. Though it’s difficult to avoid comparing the relatively cluttered Montlake Cut to the sea glass-filled, clean-lined space of its predecessor, the interior offers boatloads of attention to detail. From the faux radio station playing “Montlake cuts,” complete with college radio-style voiceover interludes, to the ramekin of childlike Goldfish that plays amuse bouche at the beginning of each meal, each decision at Montlake Cut has been carefully made.

A bit of background: Chef Badovinus hails from Lake Washington near Seattle. Montlake Cut, the restaurant’s namesake, is a horizontal canal that connects Lake Washington to Puget Sound. An homage to his hometown of Seattle captured just the way he left it in 1995 before starting his professional career, the upscale seafood restaurant is a sweet yet chic spot, full of friends and neighbors, families and businessfolk on expense accounts, all of them doing what people with full pockets do: enjoy themselves. It is Preston Hollow, after all. Looking around, several tables seem to know each other, as if they just casually strolled into their country club dining room. There is much enthusiastic elbow rubbing and air-kissing at Montlake Cut. But even those who are not native to Preston Hollow (if you catch the drift) can feel at home here. Sure, the prices are upscale — fresh-off-the-boat seafood isn’t cheap, nor should it be — but the preparations are anything but frou-frou. According to Badovinus, that “simple, honest and straightforward nature” of cooking is what they’ve tried to recreate from the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest.

So what do Dallasites know about the food in Seattle? Well, there are the ever-ubiquitous Starbucks and newer Top Pot Doughnuts chains that hail from there, or perhaps it's that Washingtonians eat quite a lot of fish. Maybe a food-focused few know there’s something called “Pacific Northwest cuisine,” but they aren’t quite sure what that means. So what is is? The Montlake Cut-to-the-chase version goes something like this: Take the local, farm-to-table trend we all know so well and apply that philosophy to fresh seafood, from oysters to mussels to Dungeness crabs and everything in between, as well as certain game meats commonly found in the region. The fertile riverbeds, rich topsoil and long growing season mean you’re able to pepper in plenty of stone fruits and wild plants. Then, of course, add fish straight from the Pacific. Apply culinary emphasis on straightforward, simply prepared, high-quality ingredients and a bit of Asian and Native American influence in some of the recipes and preparations. There you have it.
The wine program at Montlake Cut has a variety of crème de la crème Champagnes, sparkling wines, whites, rosés and reds to choose from, the majority of which hail from France, California and the Pacific Northwest, of course. If you’d prefer a cocktail, Montlake has a full bar as well as a nice selection of well-crafted cocktails, including some fun tiki-style numbers. According to Badovinus, the bar program is, by intention, “not overly complicated." “You could make it on a boat. You’re not competitively muddling.” On one visit, I enjoyed the Trader Nic ($10), in which rum, blue curaçao and an umbrella all swim in a festive, totem-shaped glass. Vacation in a glass. Hold the muddling.

A tour of Montlake Cut, menu-wise, begins with oysters, which at $3.25 apiece are priced a bit higher than elsewhere in town, but for good reason. The sourcing is done expertly here and the staff is extremely knowledgeable about each variety, even though there are nine. If you have questions, ask them. Oysters can be ordered simply on ice with house-made accoutrements, or dressed, currently in a cucumber-mint salsa. Oyster lovers should consider a combination platter of “Nick’s Picks” for $39, which features a baker’s dozen from both coasts at a cost savings. Otherwise, the light and salty Gigamoto from British Columbia, clean and crisp Pickering from Washington or the smooth and buttery Rappahannock from Virginia all come highly recommended.

There is a section of quite worldly “Raw Bar Preps” which fare wonderfully as appetizers. Ceviche ($13) features the fish-of-the-day, and the other ingredients are selected to build a flavor profile that best complements it. S.F.F. steak tartare ($16) is one of the best-tasting tartares I’ve had in Dallas, likely due to the quality of beef that a meat-slinger with Badovinus' buying power can get his hands on.

Lest you forget about the all-important crab, chef Badovinus has several dishes that highlight the sweet meat, including a wedge salad-like Dungeness crab and avocado with thousand island ($26), which sits perched atop a bowl made of crisp iceberg lettuce. There's also king crab fried rice ($19), baked Dungeness and parm dip ($17) and king crab on the half ($24), available either hot-dressed with butter or cold in a cocktail style.

Mains arrive simply, either grilled, seared, pan-fried or baked. The belief in strong ingredients that stand on their own is truly pervasive throughout Montlake Cut’s ever-changing menu, as it is in Pacific Northwestern cuisine as a whole. The philosophy of letting the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves is one Badovinus subscribes to wholeheartedly. The cuisine should be “elevated in terms of restraint, rather than flourish,” Badovinus says.

Sole Milanese, for example, arrives with a perfectly crisped crust that reveals soft, mild flesh beneath. Topped with a simply dressed mix of cress, red sorrel and frisée, the dish needs little more than a squeeze of the lemon it's served with, though a sharable crock of baked shells and cheese couldn’t hurt. After all, isn’t nostalgia what Montlake Cut is shooting for?

Since salmon is the quintessential fish of Seattle, there’s a cold-smoked version ($14), an Asian-style seared dish ($14) as well as a larger, simply grilled plate ($26). One night’s special of über-responsibly-trolled salmon ($36), simply seared and served with a delightful house-made dill sauce, was a perfect specimen of the fish: seared until crisp but with a velvety soft, rare flesh inside. A more down-to-earth plate of fish and chips ($22), which stars a different fish depending on the day, was completely classic and served with house-made tartar and fries reminiscent of the addictive ones served at Badovinus’ Off-Site Kitchen. Speaking of OSK, sides at Montlake Cut include a crispy beef taco. This might seem odd to the typical Preston Hollow dweller, but to me, it was a wink. Fans of Off-Site Kitchen might be lured, pun intended, by that item, if they’ve ever tasted the Sloppy Taco at the insanely popular burger joint.

Not to be ignored are the menu’s other land-dwelling offerings, including a long-bone pork chop ($28) and a dry-aged NY strip ($39), both from Southeast Family Farms. Also from Southeast Family Farms: the dry-aged, custom-ground chuck that forms the Tillamook Cheddar Burger ($17). A burger like that on a menu from a chef like Badovinus, who also owns Neighborhood Services, is significant.
Though you may be sated by this point in your voyage, don’t pull up anchor just yet, because at Montlake Cut, the small but well-curated selection of desserts ($8) change often, so you’ll want to taste them before they’re gone. A chocolate pot de crème of super rich dark chocolate topped with whipped cream is a definite contrast to the sweeter, butterscotch version served at Neighborhood Services. On one visit, a unique take on rum bundt cake featured Gosling rum, Chantilly cream, key lime and orange rinds. Petite and special, like the restaurant itself, desserts are not to be missed at Montlake Cut.

The last bite of your meal might just be a bright red Swedish fish candy left with your bill. Yes, they’re another nostalgic nod from chef Badovinus, who grew up in a family where the candy was one of few sugary indulgences. “We take our execution and sourcing very seriously,” he says. “We take our customers’ time and money very seriously — but having fun matters. We want to show people a really good time.”