Bruce Naftaly, who has been a chef for more than 40 years, brings his expertise to Marmite, opened in Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row, right next to wife Sara’s Amandine Bakeshop.
When a restaurant has a kitchen counter, it is almost always my favorite place to sit. At Marmite, seven seats front a butcher-block expanse that looks like a teeming market stall. A tall bouquet of blossoming chives and a flat of frilly micro-herbs — oregano, cilantro and amaranth among them — await the scissors’ snip. Citrus fruits fill one round, slouchy basket, while others brim with vegetables destined for the soup pot that inspired the restaurant’s name (pronounced mar-meet).
On weekends, more baskets hold loaves of bread, golden biscuits and various Viennoiserie, including croissants, both plain and fancy. One Sunday morning at the counter, while I sipped a mug of smooth coffee from Dorothea, a small local roaster, and greedily devoured a twice-baked croissant filled with pistachio cream, I watched sous chef Jason Scherer pick apart those chive blossoms and scatter them over creamy eggs scrambled with asparagus. A touch of earl grey tea tinted the eggs mauve, almost matching the flowers. The earl grey (light on the bergamot) created a flavor bridge to the accompanying morel ragout, a dark, herby stew, buttressed by thick-cut, buttered brioche toast.
At lunch on another day, a bowl of radish soup blushed as pink as the raw ones heaped just an arm’s length away. It tasted no less vivid, with its pesto float of radish greens and hazelnuts. You think it’s a cream soup, but that dense, smooth texture results from high-speed blending.
1424 11th Ave., Seattle
Reservations: accepted for parties of six or more
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Prices: $$$ (dinner $8-$26; lunch and brunch $9-$16)
Drinks: full bar; unique cocktails; small European-leaning wine list
Parking: on street or nearby lots and garages
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Marmite’s executive chef and co-proprietor Bruce Naftaly told me in a phone interview he wonders why people don’t cook radishes more. He has them on the dinner menu, too, paired with fava beans and sautéed geoduck, sauced to great effect with a lemon-brightened chicken stock reduction.
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Naftaly, who’s been a chef for more than 40 years, going all the way back to Rossellini’s Other Place, says making sauces and soups is his favorite part of cooking. Many mourned five years ago when Bruce and his wife, Sara Naftaly, shuttered their renowned prix-fixe French restaurant Le Gourmand and its sexy little adjunct, Sambar. Since then Bruce has been able to devote more time to teaching, gardening and family life. Sara went on to open Amandine Bakeshop in Capitol Hill’s Chop House Row.
When Chop Shop vacated the space adjacent to the bakery, the couple was offered the opportunity to open a restaurant there. Marmite is a casual, communal kitchen and bar that is less like Le Gourmand and more like an expanded version of Sambar. The concept unfolded gradually over several months. They introduced a daytime menu of soups, sandwiches and salads, and later branched out into weekend brunch and dinner service.
Radish soup currently leads the dinner menu’s dozen or so offerings, ranging from charcuterie and smoked fish to a heartier fare. Small, medium and large plates encourage grazing and are designed to complement a cocktail list that rivals Sambar’s in originality and execution.
“Sara is the creative force behind the bar program, dubbed “Spirit in the Bottle.” She also drove the décor changes. Marmite is smaller and cozier than Chop Shop. Most of the seating is at counters or at the bar. If you prefer a table, there are only four; two of them are large communal tables that take up much of the dining area. Above them, a fishnet installation with twinkling crystal drops drapes a wood pergola. The eye-catching piece of art by Ingo Maurer is called “Tears of the Fisherman.”
Amandine makes all of Marmite’s pastries, crackers and breads. Their petite macarons are on the dessert menu. Dense rye bread was lightly toasted for a sandwich so generously packed with mayonnaise-dressed spot prawns and Dungeness crab I ended up eating it open-faced with a knife and fork. I watched another customer do the same with a baguette bulging with pork shoulder and chopped greens.
Sara’s expertise extends to dumplings. She raids their garden for stridolo, an herb that gives unbelievably light gnocchi its pale green color and mild parsleylike flavor. They are heavenly sautéed in butter with sage, pancetta and wide purple ribbons of spring onion, and topped with fresh chervil sprigs and grated Parmesan. Curry-coconut spaetzle are dainty, too, and just the right companion for pork boulettes (meatballs) that were a wee bit dry but animated with lime zest, lime leaf and asarum (wild ginger).
At the counter again one Tuesday night I dug happily into a jar of chervil-flecked salmon rillettes, piling luxurious amounts on buttery spelt crackers. I enjoyed peppery rabbit terrine pocked with pistachios spread on grilled mesquite sourdough (they had run out of baguettes), taking care to avoid the overpowering and heavily herbed mustard.
Naftaly and two cooks hovered around a large stock pot on the stove. Having sous chefs and cooks is new for him. At Le Gourmand he did it all himself. He doesn’t have to work the line, but he does a few nights a week. With his knit hat, closely trimmed white beard, and a full-length apron over a plaid shirt and baggy jeans, he looks like one of Santa’s elves in the offseason.
I soon realized I was witnessing the finale of a master class in sauce-making. They had started this one hour earlier making a broth from halibut bones. White wine and cream were added to the much-reduced fish fume and they let it reduce some more. Now they were carefully stirring in a few drops of mugolio, a potent pine-bud syrup, and tasting the result.
Of course, I had to order it. They drizzled the mugolio vin blanc over pinewood-smoked trout that was quickly sautéed to crisp the skin. Emerald green potatoes roughly mashed with sorrel, nettles and cilantro were served alongside. Scattered with pine nuts and a few fuzzy fresh buds scavenged from pine trees in Naftaly’s backyard, the dish not only expressed the essence of spring in the Pacific Northwest, it illustrated why Naftaly is such a legend in these parts.