The Real McCoy

Mixing it up on Prospect Street

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bellingham finally has a new cocktail bar. After months of remodeling and waiting for licenses to come through, the Real McCoy officially opened its doors a few weeks ago and has already become a welcome addition to the downtown food and drink scene.

While craft cocktails have become so popular in cities like Seattle and Portland that you can hardly throw a rock without hitting a speakeasy, Bellingham has been slower to get onboard. Owner Brandon Wicklund started with a traveling bar business before setting up a permanent establishment. Influenced by great mixologists like Jim German and Murray Stenson, his passion shows, and it’s reflected in his bar and staff.

The ambience is really nice. Fans of Prospect Street Café, which previously occupied the space, will find it comfortably familiar, but made into a pleasantly casual hangout. As with the best watering holes, you can sit at the beautiful wood bar and chat up the bartender, sit with a few friends at an intimate table, or make use of the cushy sofa near the door—which is pretty much the only place a large party can sit. Some nights there don’t seem to be quite enough servers to handle the after-work crowd, but I’ve been impressed with the staff’s competence.

While it’s possible to make a full meal here, the small plates that make up the menu are more conducive to a few nibbles with drinks before heading on to a show or another restaurant. One of the best things I’ve had here is the rockfish ($13), perfectly cooked and crispy on the edges, with an addictive brown butter sauce, potatoes, and little pieces of Castelvetrano olive, but another big winner is the meltingly tender short rib ($12), which the kitchen has obviously been working hard on. For a while the beef was accompanied by rather bland boiled potatoes, but they’ve since been replaced by a delightfully crispy risotto croquette.

I like the Wagyu slider ($8), served with whiskey-soaked onions and gouda over a nicely pink beef patty, plus a smoked paprika aioli, which is sadly only dabbed onto the side of the plate instead of smeared all over the slider as it should be. I’ve also enjoyed the chorizo wonton ($11), served with apple salsa and arugula, and the local clams in wine broth flavored with smoked fennel ($11). Thai meatballs ($10), on the other hand, were not a big hit with my party of tasters either time we tried them. The meatballs were bland and dry, and the coconut sauce too sweet, which made for an odd pairing with the pureed sweet potato underneath. Everyone, however, liked the charred leek draped over the top.

The real draw, of course, is the drinks. Wicklund has a deep interest in classic pre-Prohibition cocktails and is doing a great job of mixing things up. The cocktail menu changes around, but I get the impression the bartenders will be happy to make you anything you like, as long as they have the ingredients, so don’t despair if your favorite drink vanishes from the list. House cocktails are $9, with a dollar off during happy hour. For those not in a cocktail mood, the bar has beer and wine on tap or in bottles, with some nice choices, or you can get a flight of three spirits for $15, comparing different bourbons, tequilas or rums.

There are cocktails for every palate. The Coal Train is a sweet, spicy concoction, like apple pie in a glass, with a froth of egg white. But for those (like me) who love dry cocktails, their version of the Pegu, a tart drink made with gin and lime juice, was flawless, as was one called a Casino. The Cocktail #9 was exactly the kind of gin drink I like best, punched up with yellow Chartreuse and dandelion bitters, and my husband was highly impressed by the Nasturtium, which Wicklund tasted at Clyde Common in Portland and reinvented for himself. But more and more I’m finding myself drawn to their Old Fashioned on tap. During happy hour this can be as cheap as $7, and it’s a steal for such a delicious drink. Just bourbon, sugar (Wicklund uses gum syrup), and bitters, mixed up in bulk and generously poured over a single large ice cube, garnished with a strip of orange peel and a cherry, this is a perfect cocktail for any occasion.

Despite a few stumbles as they find their feet, I’m thrilled to have the Real McCoy added to Bellingham’s bar scene, and I hope they’ll be mixing for us for a long time to come.

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