Nettletown on Eastlake in Seattle offers comfort food that often surprises.
You don’t expect to find a James Beard Award-winning chef dining in a funky strip-mall storefront squeezed between a Subway and a teriyaki joint on Eastlake. But there was Eric Tanaka, corporate chef-exec for Tom Douglas Restaurants, cheerfully chowing down at Nettletown with his wife.
Eight-month-old Nettletown has the sort of lineage that attracts the fooderati. The tiny restaurant occupies the hallowed space where Matt Dillon opened the original Sitka & Spruce. The layout is much the same but the glowing moss-green walls are now duck-egg blue, fancifully embellished with flowers and the motto, “Your smile is contagious.”
Chef-owner Christina Choi once scavenged the forest with Dillon’s pal, Jeremy Faber, helping Faber establish Foraged & Found Edibles, the premier purveyor of local wild foods to Seattle farmer’s markets and restaurants.
Dillon is a silent partner in Nettletown.
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“I’m a semi-reluctant restaurateur,” Choi quipped in a phone interview. “Matt sort of threw it in my lap at the last minute.” But she’s no stranger to the business, having freelanced as a cook in many restaurants since graduating from Seattle Central’s culinary program 13 years ago.
Choi’s cooking is instinctive, inspired by her ingredients. Her food comforts and often surprises. What she doesn’t make from scratch is smartly sourced. She buys 90 percent of her produce from farmers. The excellent baguettes come from Le Fournil down the street.
A Berkshire pork short rib nestles among Chinese egg noodles fragrant with toasted garlic, haunted with star anise, rife with kale and tiny brown Foraged & Found mushrooms. Melrose Market’s Rain Shadow Meats makes the brawny bratwurst that accompanies dainty knoepfli, Swiss-style spaetzle seasoned with Maggi sauce and tossed with cabbage, leeks and butter.
Choi is Chinese on her father’s side, Swiss on her mother’s, hence the eclectic Euro-Asian menu. One of Nettletown’s two daily soups is always a soothing miso. What goes into the other soup pot depends on what’s at hand.
I sampled salmon chowder made with buttery fish stock loaded with chanterelles, chickpeas and prosciutto; as well as coconut curry broth dense with mushrooms and farro. Both were completely different and utterly satisfying.
Choi’s food whispers with flavor. Nothing shouts, not even the elk meatballs. Elusively laced with lemon grass, garlic and chili pepper, they go into a baguette bahn-mi-style along with crisp, house-pickled vegetables and sprigs of pungent, peppery herbs.
Need more oomph? Assorted Asian condiments are at the service station, along with flatware, chopsticks, napkins and water.
At lunch and brunch, orders are placed at the counter. Do consult the chalkboard specials. That’s where I found a superb BLT variation: a crusty baguette brimming with thick, smoky rashers of Nueske’s bacon, late-summer heirloom tomatoes and peppercress.
The chalkboard also details the contents of the voluptuous and variegated salads du jour, as well as the creamy baked eggs at brunch. It was worth waiting 20 minutes to taste the salty pop of salmon roe in each creamy spoonful of sake-spiked coddled eggs layered with matsutake and scallion.
There’s table service at dinner on Friday and Saturday, plus some heartier specials that recently included garlic-braised broccoli, pan-seared keta salmon, and beef stew with root vegetables that could have used more time in the pot, both to tenderize the meat and develop the promising marriage of the herbs, mushrooms and red wine.
The broccoli was a rare treat for brassica buffs. Florets of pale Romanesco joined bitter, kale-like leaves of Spigarello. The deftly cooked fish, flaunting crisp skin liberally coated with seasoning salt, came with a side sauce of horseradish cream topped with salmon roe, plus a huge green salad.
Choi has a way with desserts that’s not too sweet. Persimmon lent some astringency to a gorgeous frangipane short-crust tart; cardamom infused wild huckleberry bread pudding.
I can’t decide which is my favorite cookie: the lemony semolina-pistachio bites or the candied-ginger shortbread. So do what I do: get both.
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