In this occasional series, Nancy Leson introduces you to food folks you should know. They eat (at one of her subject’s favorite restaurants). They talk (sometimes with their mouths full). No one leaves hungry.
Say hello to: Shaun McCrain, chef at Book Bindery (198 Nickerson St., Seattle, 206-283-2665,
Why him? Because that contemporary fine dining house — in an under-the-radar spot along the Queen Anne shore of the Ship Canal — is one of the best restaurants in town.
Because McCrain’s a Redmond boy and a Seattle Central culinary-school grad who’s since worked in some of the world’s most highly regarded restaurants. Like Taillevent, in Paris. And Yountville, Calif.’s French Laundry. At Thomas Keller’s four-star Per Se in NYC, he rose in the ranks to executive sous-chef before coming back to the Pacific Northwest in 2010. At the Book Bindery — unlike all those trendy joints you’ve been hearing about — you can reserve a table, find a place to park, dine in comfort and drink house wine from Almquist Family Vintners (www.almquistfamilyvintners.com), the adjoining winery and tasting room. There, winemaker and Book Bindery owner Michael Almquist offers a “custom crush facility”(www.byobvintners.com), where you can make your own wine by the bottle, bucket or barrel.
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Where we’re eating: Thai Tom (4543 University Way N.E., Seattle, 206-548-9548), a popular lines-out-the-door, cash-only joint near UW.
Why here? Because chefs crave salty Asian foods, McCrain says. And for those, like him, who work in a spacious, spotless kitchen preparing Hudson Valley foie gras terrine ($18) and a Duo of Rabbit with bacon-wrapped loin and confit leg ($34), sitting at a funky 10-stool counter watching two guys cook for a packed house is a front-row seat to pacing perfection. It’s also a veritable ballet. If you could plié and pirouette with a wok in each hand in a space the size of a mop closet.
Zen and the art of eat it and beat it: Show up before Thai Tom opens for lunch and you’ll find the staff practicing morning meditation, then scarfing a quick meal. Then, McCrain marvels, “within five minutes they’ve pretty much taken all the orders and five minutes later” — give or take — you’ll have your food, and bill, in hand. That show of organization and perspiration, he says, is almost as entertaining as watching the entire crew stop short, leave their customers hanging and step outside for a smoke break.
What’s for lunch? Vegetarian fresh rolls ($6) because George Jackris, the Thai chef who runs the cafe with calm reserve (as he has for 16 of its 20 years) suggested it. McCrain’s pick: three-star coconut milk-infused Panang Curry with chicken ($7.50). “The sweet balances the heat,” he explains. Mine: Big Rice Noodle with Thai Sauce ($7.50). Those spicy wok-seared noodles tempt with caramelized edges, and I favored tofu over chicken (or shrimp, add a buck), having watched the cooks step out and schlep in buckets of fresh soybean curd from Northwest Tofu, the Central District tofu factory whose adjacent Chinese cafe (1913 S. Jackson St., Seattle, 206-328-8320) gets the big thumbs-up from me.
First job in the biz: “I was 18 and had a passion for snowboarding,” McCrain says. One that took him to the dish-pit at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, where he worked his way up to line cook. This Sunday he plans to be back at Timberline cheering on Seattle chefs Joey Serquinia (Harvest Vine), Joshua Theilen (Stumbling Goat), Scott Staples (Restaurant Zoe), Jeremy Ravetz (Quinn’s Pub) and Gordon Wishard (La Medusa) who go mano-a-mano with Portland chefs at the 13th annual Wild About Game competition. Headed to Oregon? You’re invited. Bring your appetite. The meaty madness starts at 11:30 a.m. Tickets are $65 in advance via www.strangertickets.com or $75 on-site.
How far you’ve come! McCrain, 38, recently bought a home in Wedgwood and he’s now hip to the ’hood — thanks, in part, to Book Bindery bar manager Ruven Munoz — a dive-bar fanatic and fan of the Wedgwood Broiler (8830 35th Ave. N.E., Seattle 206-523-1115, www.wedgwoodbroiler.com). After hearing their pal carry on about the liver and onions, McCrain and his girlfriend, Jill Kenney (GM at Book Bindery), treated him to brunch. “Next thing you know, we’re sitting at the bar at noon, drinking Manhattans and eating greasy burgers.”
Verdict? Old-school cool. They’ll be back.
Nancy Leson: firstname.lastname@example.org