Chef Mark Schroder learned lessons well at Joule, Revel and Trove but also looks to Midwest roots for inspiration.
An opus is an artistic effort done on a grand scale, but Opus Co. is very, very small. Chef Mark Schroder’s Phinney Ridge restaurant has 17 seats, fewer than a dozen plates on the menu and a staff of five. The restaurant’s décor is minimal but totemic: a chalkboard listing source farms, jars of house-pickled produce, logs stacked behind a banquette and a large painting of the restaurant’s namesake Opus, a much loved, now departed tuxedo cat Schroder acquired as a sophomore at the University of Illinois.
Schroder’s cooking draws inspiration from his mid-American upbringing. He doesn’t build elaborate compositions. He likes to group things in threes. But he fiddles with flavors and techniques he didn’t encounter growing up in Odell, Illinois, a tiny town along old Route 66 where his folks still live. His medium is fire. His fuel is applewood. He employs smoke and char, sweet and sour, salt and sizzle with restraint and finesse. The results are impressive.
He sauces crisp-skinned Neah Bay salmon with “kasu risotto.” It’s made by adding aromatics and a little fish sauce to a reduction of the leftover sake lees from downstairs neighbor Cider River Brewing Co. Pickled blueberries, charred bok choy and a corn emulsion contribute tart, sweet and bitter elements that disrupt the combined richness of the fish and the sauce. It’s a trick he no doubt picked up working with Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi at Joule, Revel and Trove.
Opus Co. ★★★
7410 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle206-420-8360 opuscorestaurant.com
Prices: $$$ (plates $5-$23; chef’s choice tasting menu “Feast” $50 per person)
Drinks: limited list of Northwest wine, beer and cider, plus a few pre-mixed, small-batch cocktails
Service: thoughtful, attentive
Parking: on street
Sound: convivially noisy
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Schroder grew up fascinated with The Food Network. His dad was a forager who was always grilling. Both parents pickled and preserved. Though he worked in restaurants back in Illinois, Schroder seriously pursued cooking as a career after moving to Seattle in 2009. He talked his way into a stage at the original Joule, was hired at Revel, helped open the new Joule and finally became chef de cuisine at Trove. Paolo Campbell, a former sous chef at Trove, and Carl Mofjeld, previously at Revel, are part of his Opus Co. team.
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In his five years with Yang and Chirchi, Schroder said in a phone interview, he learned “500 times what I learned in the eight years before that.” At Revel, he acquired the butchering skills he puts to good use here. Beef isn’t on the menu because he doesn’t have enough room to bring in half a cow, but he buys whole pigs, lamb, chicken and fish.
You can detect Yang’s Korean influence in banchan-like little dishes of spicy, pickled vegetables that accompany chicken, smoky to the bone under skin blackened with a malt vinegar and caramel glaze. But that plate wouldn’t be so out of place in central Illinois either. Another trio of terrific condiments — sweet and tangy black bean molasses, tart pickled chow chow (corn relish) and fiery sambal — accompany slices of tender pork belly edged with crackling, flame-licked fat.
The animals dictate the menu, especially when it comes to the “Opus Feast.” The six-course chef’s choice menu allows the kitchen to efficiently use all parts of the animal. The variety (you never know what you’ll get), creativity and generous portions make this magnum opus a value at $50 per person.
The auspicious beginning to one feast was lamb “spam,” made with cured lamb belly mixed with trimmings. The pate-like square of grilled meat had as its escort an equally delicious salad of slivered pig skin, crunchy as jellyfish, in a dressing that exploded with pickled spring garlic and chili paste. The feast pressed on with salad, salmon and slices of pork loin with green tomato relish and a hazelnut-sesame sauce. The highlight was a lamb rib — rosy meat, crusty with char and dripping with rendered fat. As so many dishes do here, it had condiments (smoky eggplant yogurt, spicy pickled fennel) and companions: a tuffet of rice unmolded from a buttered, cast-iron baker, its edges golden and crisp, its top adorned with coriander seeds and salted radish; and soft-cooked chunks of summer squash cloaked in caper and parsley chimichurri.
Vegetables are cooked as skillfully as meat. Maitake mushrooms delicately singed by fire shared a plate with soft zucchini pancakes and tangy crème fraîche. Sliced fingerling potatoes were roasted to a decisive crunch and served in a bowl lined with smoked oyster rémoulade — a new take on chips and dip. The only botched effort I encountered was a dish that got nowhere near the fire at all — a beautiful late-summer tomato salad marred by mushy, chewy salt cod.
The thoughtful dining-room staff — Corynn Youderian and Sidney Uroda — perform niceties often overlooked in more formal settings. They might surprise you with an extra nibble if they feel you’ve been waiting a little too long for the chicken that requires “extra time.” They wipe up spills between courses and before dessert. They hold your leftover boxes out of sight, mark them with your table number and bring them with the check.
Youderian offers informed wine suggestions. I only wish the list was longer and more varied. There is no room for a bar here, but they do offer three cocktails, pre-made in small batches, including an excellent bourbon and amaro Manhattan.
Opus Co. is an already popular neighborhood restaurant with breakout potential. I hope the inevitable demand won’t strain its high level of hospitality. I hope they continue to accept reservations, despite last-minute cancellations and no-shows that especially disadvantage a small restaurant. They like to leave room for walk-ins, who generally end up on saddle stools at the counter, four of the best seats in the house.
Schroder’s aspirations are as modest as his restaurant. He wants to provide people with a decent wage and diners with an affordable meal. He wants to enjoy going to work every day. He has a five-year lease. “If I’m here for five years, I’ll learn a lot,” he says. And we’ll be lucky.