Some chefs put their own names on their restaurants. Not Renee Erickson. The James Beard Award winner usually leans toward nautical names (The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Whale Wins, Bateau and others). But her new restaurant “Shirlee” — spelled out in large, lighted letters on the facade of what used to be St. Helens Café — pays homage to her mom.
In a personal note printed on the check covers at Bistro Shirlee, Erickson credits her own “passion for gardening, good food and cooking” to her mother, who also did “everything from baking to bookkeeping” back when Erickson bought her first restaurant, Boat Street Café, at age 25. Many restaurants later, her mother still keeps things “tidy and flowing,” but Bistro Shirlee tips a chapeau to those Boat Street beginnings.
On the dinner menu, you’ll find frites, Parisian gnocchi, asparagus with sauce mousseline, roast chicken and a chubby pork chop. At brunch, there is quiche and croque madame (plus General Porpoise doughnuts). They aren’t pushing the boundaries of a French bistro so much as defining them with superior local ingredients.
The restaurant radiates the clean, bright, French-country style that is Erickson’s signature. The ceiling joists have been painted creamy white, the other woodwork periwinkle blue. Pastel gerbera daisies on each marble-topped table tremble in the breeze from doors open to a sheltered deck and its distant firepit adjacent to the Burke-Gilman Trail.
The bartop is marble, too. Behind it, bottles glint in the daylight that sneaks through the windowpanes. At one end, a chocolate cake sits under a glass dome and baguettes stand tall in a heavy crock next to a bowl of whipped butter. Just when you think this place couldn’t get any more French, in walks a couple with a very small dog. Nobody blinks an eye when they settle at the bar.
Bar manager Tiffany Friday’s ability to shake with one hand while stirring with the other held me in as much thrall as the cocktails themselves. Her Ode to Spring unites two Seattle-made spirits — Oola Distillery’s Aloo gin and Letterpress Distilling’s Amaro Amorino — in a marriage of citrus and spice that’s light yet intriguingly bitter. The tart, dill-infused Quartermaster tastes like a Negroni gone rogue — or an Aperol Spritz that’s acquired some Parisian panache.
The Quartermaster makes a spirited companion for smoked black cod smothered in dill crème fraîche. Its luxurious moat of peppery olive oil and its crown of pickled beet greens gives you a good reason to spend $6 on bread and butter. The chunk of baguette from Sea Wolf Bakers is sizable enough that I took a couple slices home and when I opened the box the next morning, I discovered the waiter had tucked in the last bit of Larsen’s Crémerie Classique butter, too. Nice touch!
Halibut tartare comes with housemade crackers that are wonderful but so pungent with cumin, fennel and mustard seeds they almost detracted from the delicate yuzu-sparked composition of raw fish, cucumber, pickled rhubarb and radish. It was as close to a misstep as the kitchen came in three visits.
Credit for execution goes to chef de cuisine Ira Taylor. He was at the helm of Saint Helens Cafe when Erickson’s company, Sea Creatures, acquired the restaurant as part of a package deal with The Huxley Wallace Collective. Taylor’s background includes stints at Loulay and Luc and his passion for French food shows in the care taken with every plate, from appetizers to desserts.
Among the latter, don’t miss the luscious tart of lemon curd topped with frilly peaks of torched meringue on a buttery, sweetened crust. The chocolate-hazelnut olive oil cake could be the love child of a baked meringue and a brownie, but too bad the server chose to pour the dregs from the container of loosely whipped cream instead of asking the kitchen to whip more.
The kitchen’s pastry skills extend to Parisian gnocchi. Made from pate a choux pastry (think gougères) rather than potato, they are without doubt the daintiest I’ve ever had. Try them soon, while they are still cloaked in a nettle-and-walnut pistou that is lemony and emerald-green.
The gnocchi, along with the burger and fish and chips, are among the least expensive entrees — all under $20. The hamburger meat is the same dry-aged blend you can get at Bateau, though here it’s on a soft, poppy-seeded brioche bun with aioli, onion jam and Emmental cheese. The fish is true cod in a batter that’s clingy, crunchy and light. The fries served with both are salty, sturdy perfection.
Prices jump to $30 and up for more formal entrees. They include a bone-in pork chop from Pure Country in Ephrata that is pan-seared and oven-burnished, leaving the interior a juicy, pale pink. A finishing splash of ginger-coriander vinaigrette benefits both meat and veg — currently roasted turnips and radishes. The chicken, from Ephrata’s Mad Hatcher Farm, is also pan-seared and oven finished. The skin stays remarkably crisp even slicked with chermoula sauce.
The near-creamy texture of pavé potatoes — sliced and stacked like very thin paving stones — act as a sponge for the ruddy sauce in which cumin and paprika figure most prominently.
Those are high prices for what is essentially a neighborhood spot, but in line with the products’ pedigrees and the skill with which the kitchen operates. Two people could easily split that pork chop, or the chicken, provided they differ on white and dark meat preferences. The generously portioned green goddess salad is easily divisible as well. So is the bundle of asparagus draped in frothy tarragon sauce mousseline scattered with fresh mint and sesame seeds. If you have a mind to share something to drink, wine director Carrie Omegna has assembled some interesting, reasonably priced bottles from France and the Northwest.
St. Helens Café had a wobbly start three years ago but was getting its bearings even before Sea Creatures got involved. As Bistro Shirlee, it stands as a tribute that would make any mother proud.
Bistro Shirlee ★★★
3600 N.E. 45th St. (Laurelhurst), Seattle
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. daily; lunch 11 a.m.-3 Friday only; brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Prices: $$$$ (appetizers $12-$16; entrees $18-$40)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; French and Northwest wines
Credit cards: all major
Access: restaurant is on the second floor; elevator access from street level
Hours: dinner from 4 p.m. daily; lunch Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Editor’s note: Next month, Providence Cicero will put down her knife and fork as The Seattle Times restaurant critic to pursue other projects. Her final column will run July 12.