The head of the Huxley Wallace Collective takes a more hands-on role at the company’s latest restaurant, Vestal, in South Lake Union.
When was the last time you heard Chuck Mangione’s fluegelhorn belt out “Feels So Good?” It played in the background one night at Vestal, along with songs of a similar vintage that I’m guessing came straight from Josh Henderson’s own mixtape.
Henderson is not only executive chef at this fire-focused South Lake Union restaurant, he’s head honcho of Vestal’s parent company, Huxley Wallace Collective. Its portfolio includes Westward, Scout, Quality Athletics, St. Helens Café and Bar Noroeste, but Henderson doesn’t spend much time in any of those kitchens. His chefs have a lot of autonomy.
Vestal is different. Vestal is personal. “I wanted a place that felt like home,” Henderson said in an email. “I wanted to have a place where I knew the prep lists, I knew the menu and had a strong hand in creating it.” He also wanted fire, his favorite cooking method.
513 Westlake Ave. N., Seattle; 206-456-2660 or vestalseattle.com
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: $$$$ (plates $9-$42)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails and mocktails; beer, cider and a short wine list with lots of variety
Service: young staff eager to show what they know, which is a lot
Parking: on street or in nearby garages
Sound: moderate, with pop/rock oldies soundtrack
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Henderson plans to cook here most nights. Sure enough, there he was, looking like a bearded, bespectacled wizard, silhouetted against a hearth rigged with cooking apparatuses he devised with the help of chef de cuisine Andrew Iacono and Huxley Wallace design director Matthew Parker. It burns apple wood and binchotan coal. Vegetables char in the embers. Fish is smoked at higher elevations. Henderson expects its capabilities will develop as they get to know it.
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Cooking with fire and its attendant smoke is hardly new, but they do it here with finesse and originality. The pace is so deliberate it feels ceremonial — even slightly experimental, as if the two-month-old restaurant is a laboratory for new ideas.
Not all of them involve the hearth. Pickled dehydrated corn powder sprinkled over popcorn was an irresistible opening snack one evening, offered along with a liquid amuse-bouche. The drink — a refreshing blend of cucumber, lemon and rose tea — was a mini-version of the “Cool Love,” one of two sans-alcohol sippers created by bar manager Ariana Vitale.
For something more stimulating, try her South Lake Union Sour. The honeyed rye cocktail, tart with yuzu, is poured over a frozen sphere of Lambrusco and red verjus that eventually morphs into boozy shave ice.
It’s a drink as inventive as anything on the plate. The menu’s dozen or so savory dishes range from light, vegetable-focused plates to pasta, seafood and meat ensembles. Most work. None are boring.
A creamy pool of cultured ricotta anchored a spectacular salad composed of a bitter, peppery mix of shaved braising greens studded with pickled sunflower stems. Salty specks of prosciutto-like cured duck and the crunch of dukkah (an Egyptian blend of spices, nuts and seeds) seasoned roasted florets of romanesco and cauliflower.
Whole, ash-blackened carrots could have used more time in the embers to soften and sweeten their startlingly orange flesh, but pickled plum aioli and little bursts of finger lime were brilliant accents.
I was mesmerized by spaghetti “lievito e pepe,” an ingenious twist on “cacio e pepe,” the classic — and currently trendy — Roman pasta sauced with pecorino Romano (cacio) and pepper. Here, toasted black pepper blooms in an emulsion that gets its depth and tang from three kinds of yeast (lievito in Italian).
Cedar-planked salmon, that archetypal Northwest preparation, has never been done better. The fillet smokes very slowly high above the fire. They torch the wood just before serving to boost the cedar scent and melt the blanket of butter and soy sauce that adds an extra layer of lushness. It’s served with fried salmon skin, puffed up like chicharrónes and given a big dose of yuzu kosho salt.
Contrasting textures and judicious amounts of salt and acid successfully harness other rich proteins. Dried apple chips and finely diced pickled celery do the trick for lightly smoked, sake-marinated black cod. The pink and white dots of pureed Honey Crisp apples and fermented crabapples that traipse across the plate spell out Fall in an edible Morse code.
Pickled kabocha squash and napa cabbage leaves fried into fragile chips rally around coppa, pork neck that is braised to melting tenderness then crisped on the grill. The dribbles of smoked raclette is a fine idea, but the cheese too quickly congeals and goes rubbery.
Charred eggplant agnolotti was the one dish that was trying too hard. The caramelized yogurt sauce was lovely and the pasta beautifully sheer, but the bitter, salty filling tasted like overwrought baba ganoush. Sheets of nori and shaved matsutake mushrooms appeared to have wandered over from another dish, if not another restaurant.
Henderson and his small cadre of cooks work on two sides of a broad, square counter. Six seats on the counter’s other two sides are set up for diners. A cluster of pillar candles in the middle are pretty, but don’t shed much light on the food or the menu’s fine print.
The fire’s glow licks the perimeter of the intimate, informal dining room. The fixtures and décor reference the same era as the music. Wood figures prominently in the design. A terrarium sits in the center of each marble-topped table.
On one of my visits, Henderson wasn’t cooking. He was at a table with friends, celebrating his birthday, I later learned. Iacono had the night off; sous chef Denise Emerson was in charge. Another cook observed as she carved a 36-ounce dry-aged rib-eye for the boss.
Those teaching moments aren’t just reserved for the kitchen staff. Servers are required to work a minimum of one shift a week prepping, a policy Henderson plans to roll out at his other restaurants. “I want [servers] connected to the food, and the cooks connected to serving.”
Servers, in turn, connect with diners. One was justifiably proud of the caramelized honey ice cream she had made that day. It was paired with a perfect apple cake, nestled in a pink puree of Hidden Rose apples, and topped with an oat crisp. Just the sort of comforting dessert you want to eat by the fire.