After opening a series of mostly Italian restaurants in neighborhoods across Seattle, Ethan Stowell segues from bistecca to steak frites at his new Madrona brasserie, Red Cow.
You’ll know the place — it was once Cremant, then June, then lately Restaurant Bea — but you wouldn’t recognize it. Bea’s flowered wallpaper has given way to a sophisticated urban monochrome of black, white and not-quite-50 shades of gray. A squat pillar candle on a plate is the sole adornment at each zinc-topped table, unless you count the modish men and women who regularly dine here.
They look good reflected in mirrors embedded in weathered wood paneling above high-backed, cushioned banquettes. Mirrors also trim the archway to the kitchen, visible beyond a cozy bar and lounge that is a haven for drop-ins and something of a refuge from the almighty roar up front. (The noise level is something that hasn’t changed. Management hopes to install sound panels soon.)
Steak frites is Red Cow’s raison d’être. The frites are fabulous, which bodes well for Chippy’s, the fish-and-chip joint Stowell debuted this month in Ballard, next to his flagship, Staple & Fancy. But the inch-thick, one-pound boneless rib-eye with them lacked a proper sear: no crust, no juice, in short, a bust.
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In that same meal, sea scallops were poorly seared as well. Browned only on one side, they were missing the crusty edge they sorely needed in a dish that, except for some hazelnuts, was all luxurious softness: puréed potato, braised fennel, nettle pesto, brown butter.
Another night, hanger steak was cooked just right. So was a fat pork chop, evenly burnished and tender to the bone. Roast chicken was perfect, mussels a delight.
Sweet parsnip purée and a potent demi-glace enhanced that chop. A light, lemony, green sauce flattered the crisp-skinned chicken. The mussels, simply steamed with white wine, shallots, butter and sprigs of fresh thyme, came with frites and aioli on the side.
A choice of four sauces is offered with steaks. Ask for a sampler if you can’t decide among a mellow red-wine reduction, bold horseradish cream, chive and shallot butter (my preference) or béarnaise, which was dense as sour cream one night, thin and frothy another. (Chocolate mousse pebbled with irresistibly crunchy “chocolate BBs” had similar issues of consistency: pourable as a milkshake one time; smooth and spoonable the next.)
Sharing is a great way to go here with appetizers, salads and sides. Just about everyone starts with charcuterie, six or seven items that will vary, prettily presented with baguette toasts, two mustards, plus pickled carrots, cauliflower and haricots verts. I was most impressed with satiny foie gras torchon, herby lamb terrine and pork rillettes packed in a jar sealed with fat.
Salads are a lighter way to begin. Brisk Champagne vinaigrette dressed tender leaves of Little Gem lettuce and crisp haricots verts. A softer version of that dressing moistened a warm salad of frisée, roasted potatoes and fork-tender morsels of grilled lamb tongue.
Roasted fennel and baby carrots were among the seasonal sides. They were beautiful vegetables, speckled with herbs and glazed with honey, but a little too firm and needing a bit more caramelization to bring out their natural sweetness.
Chef Thom Koschwanez, previously sous chef at Central Michel Richard in Washington, D.C., heads Red Cow’s kitchen. Manager Cameron Williams was at the short-lived Marché in Pike Place Market and a string of other Seattle restaurants before that, going back to Stowell’s first venture, the now-defunct downtown restaurant, Union.
Service at Red Cow is on a par with Union. There’s a demeanor and niceties you don’t always find in a neighborhood place. Wines by the glass, for example, are poured from individual carafes. Leftover boxes were placed in a bag. (Don’t leave a single frites behind, by the way. They reheat beautifully.)
Red Cow is a bustling place midweek and on weekends. Customers tend to overlook a meal’s weak spots when they are well cared for. One night our waiter looked aghast when he saw the entrees arriving before the charcuterie board and plates had been removed. He quickly righted things and brought fresh utensils, something they do for every course. If only he could have tamped down the noise.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.