Sitka & Spruce moved from a nondescript Eastlake storefront to its new, bigger digs in Melrose Market and has not missed a culinary beat.
Four years ago, Chef Matt Dillon opened Sitka & Spruce in a nondescript Eastlake storefront. The décor was rudimentary; tables were few, seating mostly communal. If you ate at the counter, you had to stand. There was always a wait. No one cared. The food was that good.
This summer, Sitka & Spruce, the sequel, arrived. Tucked into a corner of Capitol Hill’s barnlike Melrose Market, it’s twice as big and a lot slicker. The food hasn’t changed.
Handsome in that rustic/urban way Dillon blends so effectively at The Corson Building, the transplanted Sitka feels like a convivial, eat-in kitchen. Expect to converse with your neighbors whether or not you sit at the communal table, a stretch of butcher block where blue hydrangea poke from an earthenware pitcher and a bowl of blackberries sits next to a golden-crusted gâteau Basque poised for slicing. (Save room.)
At the end nearest the wood-burning hearth, cooks prep and plate, then tap a bell for affable, informed servers to come fetch and carry. Getting one of the dozen seats at the opposite end seems to be purely a matter of luck or timing or both. I failed twice. (The restaurant accepts a limited number of reservations.)
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Those willing to submit to an hour-plus wait (on a weeknight!) leave their cell numbers and belly up to a wine barrel table across the hall at Bar Ferdinand, also a Dillon enterprise.
There you may wet your whistle with wine, aperitifs or a crisp German pilsner, and whet your appetite with nuts, chips, olives, cheese or air-cured local albacore slices riding the backs of fleshy piquillo peppers. As time marches on, you may be tempted to just grab one of the paper-wrapped baguette sandwiches stacked on the bar and try again another night.
But Sitka’s food is so good I’m willing to persevere, even if that means eating at the counter facing the street overlooking an ivy-covered parking garage. At least this counter has chairs. They look reclaimed from a high-school science lab circa 1955, but they’re high and they swivel, affording a panoramic view. I grew to like this perspective.
And I loved the sure-footed gustatory bravado that pairs ham-like strips of fat-rimmed, salted duck with sweet doughnut peaches and bitter chicory spears; that anoints raw sockeye, tender, twiggy filet beans and tarragon with honey, lemon and oil; that stacks salted yellow watermelon, sheep’s milk feta and sweet ribbons of La Quercia ham then scatters sour purslane leaves over all.
A ruby river of juices eddies around an island of roasted red beets and tahini, making a pretty perch for half a young chicken, its brittle, burnished skin matted with herbs and crunchy with salt. Crisp-skinned black cod and sweet-and-sour cippolini was less picturesque but tasted no less riveting.
This is honest, unfussy fare that taps into a world of flavors and relies on ripe, ready-to-eat-now ingredients.
I didn’t love everything. Smoked sardines were mushy. Rye berries with roasted cucumber were interesting but oddly bland despite lots of chopped dill and fried pepperoncini.
Dishes tend to turn up one by one in the order listed on the menu, a roster that changes daily, and differs from lunch to dinner. Figure on two or three per person, and make sure one is the generous stack of Columbia City Bakery breads served with soft, salted butter by day or, at dinner, olive oil spiked with the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar.
Eavesdropping is unavoidable no matter where you sit. At lunch, the gentleman next to me at the banquette was having what I had, lamb kofte — marvelous herb and spice-riddled meatballs in a smoky stew of flageolet beans topped with a fried egg. A few bites in he said to his wife, “I could come close to something like this.”
Perhaps he could if he stopped at Rain Shadow Meats next door and shopped the Sitka & Spruce Pantry, stocked with spices, salt, honey, vinegar and more. They even sell the black-and-white logo T-shirts the cooks wear. Me? I’ll keep vying for a seat at the table.
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