Matt Dillon is in sync with the way many people like to eat now: informal, seasonal, a meal that’s more improvisation than set piece. He has arguably helped shape those preferences in this city.
His restaurants feel like extensions of his home. The original Sitka & Spruce on Eastlake was the equivalent of his dorm room. When he moved the restaurant to Melrose Market, it was his first serious apartment. The Corson Building is his romantic vacation villa.
Back in 2006, we were willing to line up outside Sitka & Spruce’s first cramped storefront, to eat standing up or crowded at a communal table, because the food trumped any discomfort. What drew us back then, as now, was Dillon’s creativity and the likelihood of discovering something deliciously new or something familiar made newly delicious.
His latest digs, Bar Sajor (say SIGH-yor), is a dream space perfect for entertaining 40 to 50 guests with style and comfort. It’s his most pulled-together effort yet, evidence that this 2012 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest is edging into the mainstream as a chef/restaurateur in his own renegade way.
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Beautifully conceived by Dillon and built with three of his friends, Bar Sajor occupies a 1920 masonry building on a tree-lined block of Pioneer Square. Painted gleaming white and duck-egg blue, with touches of gilt and crisp navy accents, the room is rustic in a Martha Stewart way. Generous windows rise above cushioned banquettes to the high ceiling. Across the middle of the room, between the zinc bar and the kitchen with its side-by-side wood-fired oven, rotisserie and grill, a stand-up ledge with hanging hooks beneath allows drop-ins to comfortably lean.
Dillon cooks along with chef de cuisine Edouardo Jordan, a former Sitka colleague and, like Dillon, an Herbfarm alum. They are fond of edible oddities, or as Dillon puts it, “I’m good at going through the junk drawer.” Thus, chrysanthemum greens blended with pine nuts become an intriguing pesto (one that almost made up for the overcooked halibut with it). Spruce tips flavor cured salmon, and the noteworthy pickle plate includes things like parsley root, kamut, bitter kale and young green almonds.
Those soft, olive-like orbs join cured lemon lending tart counterpoint to roasted smelts pulled from Puget Sound and girdled with dried Berkshire ham. Many plates are like that: dioramas composed of foraged, fished and farmed treasures whose seasons are fleeting. In one, petals of smoked sablefish join coral mushrooms, wild watercress and charred garlic scapes (the stalks’ young buds). In another, a six-minute boiled egg weeps yellow yolk onto black morels oven-roasted with onion ramps.
Sauces don’t smother; in fact, they are usually underneath. Crème fraîche and a touch of house-made vinegar played acid tang against the earthy morels and ramps. Garlic-chive aioli did something similar for the sablefish. Tarragon led the charge of herbs in a rousing Green Goddess dressing for poached chicken salad.
Peppery, smoky, hazelnut-thickened Romesco sauce flattered both cauliflower and whole Walla Walla onions, each roasted to sweet tenderness. But the vagaries of wood-fired cooking can throw off the timing of a meal. Sometimes there were long gaps between plates; other times too many arrived at once.
An eclectic beverage list takes diners off the beaten path. Try a spritzy refresher made with rhubarb vinegar or whey soda flavored with lime. (Whey ice cream with fresh berries was way good, too.)
The brief wine list is moderately priced, and all are offered by the glass, half-bottle or bottle. Ciders and wines are predominantly European.
Basque cider is the traditional drink for chuletón de buey, a well-aged rib-eye of incredible richness and heroic proportions. (Sad to say, it will be on the menu only from January through May, as is customary in Spain.) We preferred to drink wine, so the server tasted us on several reds, determined that we should find just the right glass for this extraordinary steak ($42 for two).
That level of engagement was rare here. Most servers were attentive but aloof. The front-of-the-house staff doesn’t yet work as a tight cadre with a common goal of pleasing the customer. Still, I came away from every meal at Bar Sajor not only content, but yearning to return.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.