With the opening of Loulay in December, Thierry Rautureau finally has a restaurant where he can fully express his joie de vivre.
Rover’s thrived for more than 25 years. It was excellent, but off-the-beaten-path and always seemed barely able to contain the chef’s ebullience. He has much more swagger room at his Madison Valley bistro, Luc, but glamorous Loulay seems tailor-made for the irrepressible, self-styled Chef in the Hat.
Loulay — the word framed in rosy neon above the marble counter of the restaurant’s open kitchen — is named for the French-born chef’s tiny hometown of Saint-Hilaire-de-Loulay. But the windowed, tri-level downtown restaurant is built on a grand scale with enough razzle-dazzle to prompt some to say it reminds them of New York.
But no, this is Seattle-style dining in the new Belle Epoque. Here is a restaurant where stemware is stored in mahogany-and-marble sideboards, yet beverage director Scot Smith’s wide-ranging wine list offers many affordable choices. House wines — a versatile red and white from the Columbia Valley made by Piccola Cellars — come from the tap for $8 a glass or $25 for a full carafe. (Hey, big spenders: Make sure to ask for the lengthy reserve list.)
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A massive, gilt-ornamented mirror reflects a chandelier that dangles like rhinestone earrings above a staircase Ziegfeld would have loved leading to the mezzanine, yet the candlelit tables are unclothed. From cushy balcony seats, diners have a bird’s-eye view of the main floor, where tables are convivially tight, except for those in the embrace of tufted, white leather booths that offer seclusion and calm. (So does a semiprivate aerie on the top floor.)
While the indefatigable Rautureau roams up, down and all around, posing for selfies and charming guests, known to him or not, with a raconteur’s gift for gab, chef de cuisine Rob Sevcik keeps the kitchen operating at peak performance, just as he did at Rover’s.
The dinner menu segues from small plates (bite-size sliders made with morsels of duck confit dabbed with huckleberry demi tucked into choux pastry buns); to medium (clams and chorizo in a sumptuous saffron-fennel broth with smoky rouille toast); to large (perfect roast chicken, brined and browned, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprout leaves and sharp, whole-grain mustard jus).
The lunch roster is shorter and lighter; the all-day bistro menu is further pared down. “We don’t want this to be a commitment,” says Rautureau. “We want to be noncommittal, a place where you can drop in for a burger or come for Champagne and caviar.”
That burger is worth dropping everything for. Robustly flavored on its own, it’s sublime with seared foie gras mingling with the bacon-shallot jam. (You can add foie gras to any dish for $15.)
Loulay’s definitive French onion soup distills veal bones and onions into a dark, insanely delicious liquid upon which floats a raft of toast topped with Comté cheese whose fragrance accompanies each spoonful.
At dinner, halibut is wrapped in a thin potato spiral — part of a Rover’s-worthy presentation notable for the play of textures and flavors that come from caramelized fennel, the salty pop of salmon roe and capers, plus a vivid watercress purée.
Sauces often clinch a dish. Demi-glace enriched with bone marrow sent a sprawling, fat-streaked beef rib-eye into the stratosphere. I only wished the braised mustard greens, shallot confit and breaded goat cheese crotin had been plated next to the steak, rather than on top of it.
Ultrarich aioli accompanies fries. Madeira sauce made sweetbreads with tiny turnips memorable. A quenelle of mascarpone and black garlic melted like a sauce into sautéed beet greens that provided sweet counterpoint to savory, crusty sunchoke cakes, suffering from too much rosemary for my taste.
Pastry chef Corina Johnson’s desserts have an insouciant elegance in sync with everything else. Her tapioca brûlée with smoked turbinado sugar and dried tangerines is easy to love. So is Loulay.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.