Chef Seth Caswell opened his restaurant Emmer & Rye in an old Victorian house on Queen Anne Hill. The venue is inviting, the food is good and the prices are moderate.
For 18 months after leaving Greenwood’s Stumbling Goat Bistro, chef Seth Caswell hunted for a home for Emmer & Rye. Downtown and South Lake Union were in his sights. He envisioned a fine-dining destination. He never thought he’d end up opening a neighborhood restaurant.
Then in January he learned that the spacious Queen Anne Victorian that housed Julia’s was up for grabs. By February he was open for business. More than a century old, with hardwood floors and stained-glass accents, the quaint building is a good fit for this staunch locavore who named his restaurant after two ancient grains.
Emmer, a type of wheat more commonly called by its Italian name, farro, turns up in many guises on a menu that’s versatile, approachable and affordable. The Methow Valley farmer who grows it grinds it to order for Caswell’s farro fries. At dinner those dense, crusty logs are dipped into sage-yogurt sauce. At brunch they form a platform for wild mushrooms, a poached egg and butter-rich hollandaise — a dish he first served to his wife as breakfast in bed (lucky woman).
Farro mimics risotto cake when pressed into a patty chunky with pork and shrimp, a starchy anchor for a plate of flash-seared scallops and bitter rapini. In a twist on arancini, the traditional Italian rice balls, the grain imparts a nutty chew to the deep-fried bread-crumb-coated spheres stuffed with creamy smoked cheese.
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“Asking ‘what else can we do with farro’ has become a kitchen joke,” Caswell says. But like Matthew Dillon, his predecessor at Stumbling Goat and now chef/proprietor of Sitka & Spruce and The Corson Building, Caswell is serious about his commitment to local, sustainable, seasonal and organic ingredients.
The two chefs share a similar knack for cooking deceptively simple dishes. But what looks like everyday food takes you by surprise with every bite because the locally sourced raw materials are so fresh, the cooking so carefully calibrated.
A small Washington farm supplies Wagyu beef that is prepared a different way every night. The charred, ruby flesh of a skirt steak dabbed with red wine jus came close to the flavor and suppleness of a prime New York strip.
Caswell doesn’t let animal protein dominate the plate; plant foods do, and they are varied and vibrant. Picking through a salad lightly dressed with walnut vinaigrette was like a walk in the woods. I found miner’s lettuce, wild cress and wood sorrel, roasted cauliflower — purple and white — and many different mushrooms.
Braised rabbit from a farm in Tenino, Thurston County, is pulled to tender shreds that float in a thyme-fragrant broth along with kale, carrots and broad, peppery noodles tinted green with nettles. Those slightly bitter spring greens also turn up at brunch folded into a fluffy omelet oozing ripe Camembert. Puréed with mint, they punch up creamy parsnip soup.
Almost every dish on the menu comes in two sizes. A cup of that rich, pungent soup was just enough, and it was only $4. Six dollars buys a petite bowl of mussels steamed with chilies, garlic and pancetta, with a slab of grilled bread on the side. A half portion of cider-braised pork shoulder ($11) included a saucy, fork-tender chop, a bundle of shredded collards and roasted root vegetables. Those scaled-down portions don’t strain the belt or the budget.
Rhubarb shows its sweet side at brunch, embellishing vanilla and rum-soaked brioche French toast. At night its tartness flatters a honey-sweetened semi-freddo. Brown-butter ice cream and dreamy butterscotch pot de crème are other noteworthy efforts by pastry chef Kathleen Callahan.
Emmer & Rye recalls Maria Hines’ Tilth: a renovated old house, a local and organic focus, two-tiered pricing. The difference: service at Tilth was polished from the start. Here, servers are eager to please but erratic in their grasp of the menu and attention to detail. Now that Amber Luton, who ran the dining room so capably at Enotria, has signed on as manager, that is likely to improve. Then Emmer will be more than a neighborhood restaurant, it will be a destination.
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