There’s lots to love about Lucinda Grain Bar, the latest from Seattle superstar chef Edouardo Jordan. But, to put last things first, we must begin with the whole-wheat brownie. The Lucinda brownie isn’t just good for an arguably-healthier-than-white-flour, experimental dessert — it is absurdly, all-time-favorite-dessert good.
Jordan’s great-grandmother was named Lucinda, and it’s also his sister’s middle name. Jordan, who’d said as recently as last spring that he had no intention of opening another restaurant, originally intended the space next to his wildly popular JuneBaby as a kitchen for his pastry team. But you don’t become a James Beard Award winner — or score two in the same year — by leaving it at that. Why not make use of the tiny storefront part of it, too?
Jordan decided, with both the expanded pastry program overall and new Lucinda in particular, to celebrate whole grains — to “be more full circle … more local, wholesome and meaningful.” He says Lucinda is special “because the entire restaurant/bar is focused around these heirloom, ancient, local beauties.” The new spot celebrates grains both as used in making spirits and with a short, casual but au courant menu: a variety of grain bowls, pressed sandwiches on whole-wheat ciabatta and snacks featuring the likes of house-made Wheat Thins. And — why not? — dessert, starting with ice cream infused with the ancient grain einkorn.
Jordan asked Margaryta Karagodina for a whole-wheat brownie to go with the toasty-tasting ice cream. Karagodina — originally from Crimea, she baked at Macrina and in France before scoring a role at Jordan’s first restaurant, Salare, then becoming head pastry chef for all three — set to work. Starting with her own tried-and-true fudge-brownie recipe, she and her team subbed in different amounts of whole-wheat flour, eventually omitting white flour altogether. Then, Karagodina says, they realized, “This recipe is so durable, we can kind of do what we want with it.” Now, depending on what whole-grain flours milled in-house are leftover that day, the Lucinda brownie might also contain emmer, spelt or teff.
Served warm, this brownie achieves an extraordinarily luxurious smoothness, all melty-velvet-rich. (One of its secrets: coconut oil and butter.) It’s what molten chocolate cake always wanted to be. The ice cream complements, cool and lush, while toffee brittle bits — made, naturally, with toasted oats — act as caramelly-sweet crunchies, sticking perfectly in your teeth.
“It kind of end up hitting all the notes,” Karagodina understates. Even those who don’t always adore sweets are reduced to “mmmmm”-ing, while the spoon, as if of its own accord, works double-time.
BUT WAIT: THERE’S MUCH MORE to Lucinda. The room’s a small, convivial charmer — just a couple dozen seats, including a trio of tables pushed together communal-style, an L-shaped counter and a small bar. Right now, it’s warmly lit with votive candles, while summertime should be sweetly light and airy, given the big front window and high ceiling. Shelves up above hold jugs, bottles of liquor and jars of grains; the rail underfoot at the marble bar is held by the mouths of brass lions. There’s a little old-fashioned wallpaper, a little midnight blue, some black-and-white photos (not of Lucinda herself, they’re portraits Jordan found over time of other strong black women in the past) — nothing too overwrought or overthought.
Edouardo Jordan doesn’t miss an opportunity to provide an education, whether it’s providing an online encyclopedia of Southern food or speaking out about race and the restaurant industry. So the Lucinda website offers a primer on the category of grain (including legumes, cereals and pseudocereals), the history of distilling (and its “many levels of pleasures”) and more. The menu, the gluten-averse are reassured, contains options including rice, millet, buckwheat and amaranth, plus drinks involving the likes of rum, tequila and Calvados.
Whole-wheat ciabatta might give even gluten-glorifiers pause — sounds like it could get heavy — but at Lucinda, it works extremely well. Filled and pressed, it’s thick enough to hold up, but thin enough to act almost as a crisp shell. The braised pork — Cubano-style, with ham, provolone, bread-and-butter cucumbers and radicchio — makes a very tasty, well-balanced sandwich. But the meatball version goes above and beyond. The crunchy ciabatta is countered by the tenderness of both the meatballs and oven-roasted tomatoes, with the latter adding a little gentle acidity; then both berbere and harissa remind your mouth you’re (yay!) alive; and horseradish crème fraîche lends its own kick plus a creamy component. It’s a definitely-coming-back-for-this-along-with-the-brownie sandwich.
Another new favorite: the bowl with pleasantly chewy einkorn topped by super-soft, barely smoked trout, complete with pretty, pliant silvery skin — it’s a treasure-trove eating experience, with different bites bringing the umami-pop of salmon roe or an adorably tiny radish, some tartly pickled, some roasted to mellow. Alas, that one’s gone off menu, but hopefully will get subbed back in for the winter-night’s feast of stewy lamb shoulder and freekeh, almost too buttery-tasting, with Brussels sprouts and delicata squash nearly lost in the mix.
The bowl of buckwheat bucatini is a gem: Extra-long strands of pasta with an ideal firm bite are clingily coated with warmly spiced, slightly gamey merguez sausage ragu, plus lemon oil for a tiny brightness. Pluck off one or two of the fried sage leaves to eat whole, then toss it all together to enrich with the lovely glob of ricotta. A lot less lovely: a bowl of firm purple barley with also-firm cranberry beans and snappy calamari — a strange combination of textures, with neither the listed soy nor kimchee adding much savoriness or zing.
Does French onion soup need whole grains added to it? Lucinda’s version has purple barley, but they felt like a forced addition to the nice winey broth, oddly akin to soup-meets-bubble-tea. But elsewhere on the menu of snacks, an unimproved-upon chicken liver mousse was unimpeachably delicious, served with the house’s nutty, slightly sweet, smaller-size take on Wheat Thins. (Though note to Chef: The cute little jar makes it hard to spoon out the right ratio of mousse to huckleberry gelee.) Brining and applewood-smoking Spanish mackerel yielded silky, mild results to happily contrast hearty little slices of seeded rye bread. If you’re curious about the crispy rice, legumes, grains and chilies, you’ll have to try it — the salty-and-sweet mix didn’t make anyone sad, but some liked munching it with a cocktail more than others.
And in the cocktail department, Lucinda’s list offers smart riffs on the classics, by and large. Take the mezcal Manhattan, all boozy and smoky-sweet, excellent for removing any chill, or a smartly tart, extra-refreshing rhubarb daiquiri that instantly puts you in mind of warmer times. Just beware the long grain iced tea: With the very odd combo of gin, Calvados and moonshine, it’s as high-octane as its Long Island cousin, but doesn’t go down anywhere near easy.
One more thing, here at the end, about the Lucinda brownie — sorry, but it’s good news — turns out Jordan and Karagodina are willing to share the recipe. Stay tuned!
Lucinda Grain Bar: 2120 N.E. 65th St., Seattle; 206-457-8180; lucindaseattle.com
Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 4 p.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday 4 p.m.-1 a.m.
Cocktails $11-14; snacks $6-$16; sandwiches $14-$15; grain bowls $14-$18