Flying Fish flew the Belltown coop and brought along its mood and food selections to a sprawling space in South Lake Union.
Chef Chris Keff made big ripples in Seattle’s restaurant pond in 1995 when she opened Flying Fish. Her hip, high-energy Belltown dining room had a then-cutting-edge, Asian-inflected menu of small plates, large plates and shareable platters showcasing seafood sourced from across the globe.
The James Beard Award winner made waves again when she announced in January that Flying Fish would migrate to South Lake Union, where it reopened in May. Fear not, Fish fans — the mood and the food haven’t changed much.
Flying Fish SLU sprawls like a river delta, though capacity is about the same, and so is the decibel level. Glass-paned garage doors recall the Belltown storefront, only here they back the bar and shelter the private dining room.
I felt like I was visiting an old friend who’s moved from a studio to a spacious loft and replaced her funky furnishings with a clean-lined, contemporary look: Chilewich mats on gleaming wood, framed photographs on the walls, and arty chandeliers dangling from exposed ductwork above.
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Boxy lamps line a low ledge between the bar’s booths and the dining room’s banquette. The young women swinging platform heels from kiwi-green, bongo-shaped bar stools at happy hour can see just about every corner of the restaurant, from the front door to the kitchen pass-through to the patio on the building’s windowed south side.
At full tilt, Flying Fish mimics the hurly-burly of a Chinese restaurant. Parents bring the kids; groups of six, eight or 10 are common. When the Sheraton called with a hungry horde of 14 on a busy Saturday night, the manager said “Send them down.”
That put noticeable strain on both the front and back of the house. As wait times lengthened, the collectively cool, long-tenured staff picked up the pace, placated diners. (Perhaps they need the adrenaline rush. On a less-busy night, service was desultory.)
Wine manager Nathan Barker crisscrossed the room like a whirligig, presenting bottles and pulling corks. His well-tuned global list includes more than a dozen choices by the glass and upward of two dozen half-bottles.
“You guys done with that?” a busser asked, eyeing the carcass of a whole fried rockfish. We had happily denuded it with chopsticks, packing moist, cornstarch-crusted shards in cool rice paper with bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and a spoonful of sweet, briny pineapple-anchovy sauce.
It’s messy fun dismantling these signature platters. “Sister-in-law” mussels, whole sizzling shrimp, grilled fish tacos, and wok-seared salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab are all still on the menu, which is printed daily, though much of it is boilerplate. The Thai crab cake, fried oyster Caesar and pepper-coated seared albacore bracingly sauced with wasabi cream are still on board, too, and still excellent.
Keff wasn’t cooking on my visits, but her confidence in current chef de cuisine Zack Foster is well-placed.
The restaurant has a famous affinity for Asian flavors, yet I was captivated by the all-American charm of pan-seared Rhode Island stripped bass, laid crackling-skin side up over tarragon-flecked creamed corn, roasted fingerling chips and broccoli; by grilled opah in a sweet cider glaze with frizzled bacon, grilled romaine and cauliflower-studded mashed potatoes; and by a lone seared sea scallop, sliced into petals set in a thimbleful of satiny sunchoke-parmesancorn “soup.”
It was shocking when a troll-caught Alaskan king salmon fillet arrived thin and desiccated. “It’s not what I expected,” my guest politely told the waiter, and he removed the $30 entree from the bill — a gesture both classy and correct.
When I ordered the same dish on another night, I got a fat center cut cooked a moist, rosy medium with sprightly tabbouleh underneath and a swipe of smoky charmoula on the side.
This week, Keff opened her adjacent retail and takeout shop, On the Fly, where pastry chef Jessica Campbell’s dainty cookies are sold by the bag. Those and the warm grappa brownie with espresso syrup and vanilla ice cream ringed in chocolate shortbread crumbles are more good reasons to check out an old friend in her new digs.
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