Rock Creek is chef Eric Donnelly’s favorite Montana fishing hole. RockCreek in Fremont, his new, fish-focused restaurant and bar, is a place for those of us more inclined to wield a fork than a fishing rod.
No need to don waders to dine here. Woodsy mountain ease meets urban-industrial chic in the two-story, barnlike building. It convincingly evokes a Montana fishing lodge with life-size photographic murals of forest and stream in the lower-level bar and dining room to lend verisimilitude.
Dine upstairs in the cozy (and somewhat quieter) mezzanine girded with a sleek metal railing, and you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the exquisitely grained tabletops made from blue-tinted bark-beetle pine. Repurposed farm equipment adds a decorative flourish: the handle on the sliding door to the second-floor private dining room is an old, red tractor clutch.
Donnelly, who’d been cooking New Orleans-inspired fare at Toulouse Petit these past four years, at first envisioned RockCreek as a cattle-ranch brand with a meat-heavy menu. But after a lot of soul-searching, he realized what he really wanted to do was cook fish, something he did quite well for five years as sous chef at the now-closed Oceanaire Seafood Room.
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Donnelly cooks fish extremely well here, too. Deliveries of the freshest seafood he can find arrive daily, sourced from responsibly managed fisheries. He sells it at surprisingly moderate prices. Grilled Quinault River king salmon with porcini mushrooms was just $18 recently. The gorgeous hunk of fish, the size of a lady’s fist, was evenly cooked and lightly sauced with mushroom jus.
Other finfish were just as impressive. Beluga lentils, bacon and mustard-sharpened butter sauce flattered delicate Icelandic char, pale pink under crackling skin. Line-caught Columbia River sturgeon met its meaty match in pot-roasty red-wine braised beef cheeks, a gutsy surf-and-turf combo lightened with lemon-braised artichokes.
A mantle of fresh green herbs and a broth of Madeira and lime juice tempered the velvety richness of Neah Bay black cod. A grilled sardine sprawled across a lime-dressed salad of shallot, fennel, basil, mint and soft roasted eggplant.
Donnelly’s dishes have the acidic scaffolding to support these rich ingredients and vivid flavors. Shellfish and raw-fish dishes were every bit as well-structured.
Fennel, garlic and pastis butter melted into roasted Barron Point oysters. Tiny whole Calabrian chilies jolted Barron Point clams steamed with lemon and capers. Merguez lamb sausage from nearby Dot’s Deli put a garlicky Portuguese spin on local mussels dotted with fresh garbanzo beans.
Bonito, a type of tuna from Point Judith, Rhode Island, made a spectacular crudo embellished with soy sauce and lime, finely minced sweet onion, dime-size pickled cucumber coins and shiso. Tiradito, a rousing Peruvian ceviche, combined marinated Baja yellowtail jack with aji Amarillo chili paste and cumin-spiced cancha (roasted corn nuts).
There are options for nonfish eaters but, to be frank, with so much interesting seafood on the menu I never got around to the steak (Niman Ranch), chicken (local, organic) or campanelle pasta (from Lagana Foods). I do heartily recommend the current seasonal salad of frisée and arugula with fresh figs and creamy bleu d’Auvergne cheese basking in warm bacon-flecked vinaigrette.
Further confession: I was recognized on every visit. That may have been why our share plates and utensils were assiduously replaced between courses and our water glasses were always full, but it seemed to me that everyone else was enjoying the same smiling attention. Servers could stand to brush up on the menu and wine list, however. Kudos to the waitress, new on the job, not shy about consulting her cheat sheet.
Don’t leave without at least considering desserts, which tend toward updated classics. The smooth, pleasingly tart key lime pie comes in a canning jar just a bit too tall to easily access the graham cracker crust at the bottom. Ricotta and apple beignets taste so light you’d swear their bamboo skewers were all that was keeping them planted in crème anglaise.
RockCreek S’mores — dense, dark-chocolate mousse layered with caramel under a drift of smoked meringue — is like nothing you’ve ever had on a camping trip, just as RockCreek is unlike any fishing hole you’ve ever been to.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.