John Sundstrom’s Seattle classic makes a charming new home on Capitol Hill.
When Lark opened in 2003, it was an early settler on a stretch of 12th Avenue south of East Madison not yet known as a dining and drinking destination. Café Presse, Canon, Rhein Haus and Ba Bar eventually became neighbors.
Last December, Lark flew a quarter mile northwest, alighting in another developing pocket of Capitol Hill, behind an IHOP and the Silver Cloud Hotel, laying claim to 5,000 refurbished square feet in the nearly 100-year-old Central Agency Building. It’s a big change for chef John Sundstrom and co-owners J.M. Enos and Kelly Ronan.
Lark shares its roomy new nest with recently hatched siblings: Bitter/Raw, a sleek, second-floor venue for cocktails, charcuterie and crudo; Slab, a weekday takeout sandwich-and-pie shop; and Off The Record, a subterranean private dining room.
952 E. Seneca St., Seattle
Reservations: recommended for Lark; not accepted for Bitter/Raw
Hours: Lark dinner 5-11 p.m. daily; Bitter/Raw 5-11 p.m. daily, happy hour 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday (lunch and brunch coming in the spring)
Prices: $$$/$$$$ (Bitter/Raw: charcuterie and crudo $8-$18; Lark: starters $9-$22; pastas, grains and mains $16-$40)
Drinks: full bar; local beers and cider; wines from North and South America and Europe
Service: excellent but can be uneven
Parking: on street; nearest garage is on Broadway next to Silver Cloud Hotel
Who should go: Indulge in a multicourse meal or just grab a burger; downstairs has a romantic, special-occasion feel; head upstairs for a looser vibe
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles; elevator access to Bitter/Raw and downstairs restrooms
Approached by night, its lights aglow, Lark looks magical. The bar and dining room sit abreast on the ground floor under a galaxy of white bulbs in the rafters high above. The dining room is quieter and plusher, with cushioned booths and banquettes covered in sapphire velvet framing white-clothed tables.
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A pass-through along the back wall reveals Sundstrom’s “dream kitchen.” It’s bordered by tidy white shelves displaying spirits on the bar side, wine bottles on the dining-room side. Prices skew high, but aren’t exorbitant, on a wine list that is as quirky as ever. Some servers are more skilled than others at informing your choices.
On my visits last month, Sundstrom’s soulful cooking was nearly flawless, but service faux pas suggest how challenging it is, even for this experienced team, to manage four separate entities, two of them open seven days a week.
Lark’s menu is filled with old favorites. It’s arranged more traditionally now, with starters and mains, plus a section for pasta, dumplings and grains, but still weighted toward small plates that can be coursed or shared.
Petite portions are the norm, even for the pricier mains. Grits made of ground farro fried like a polenta cake accompanied veal sweetbread fricassee, as fabulous as it was filling, with Mama Lil’s peppers igniting a sauce creamy with goat cheese. A lamb duo comprising a dainty double rib chop and a crepinette with corona beans and black kale was more austere. Lacking the usual caul fat casing, the crepinette registered as a rather dull sausage patty.
A wonderful Wagyu hanger steak, served with lots of frizzled onions but not enough chimichurri sauce, lacked a starch or even legume. Consider it an excuse to indulge in a cast iron skillet of duck-fat-fried rosti potatoes topped with clabber cream (similar to crème fraîche) and chives, which you’ll find, oddly, under starters.
Other enticements in that category include Romanesco with pine nuts in a bagna cauda of anchovy, garlic and oil, and cauliflower soup with vadouvan curry, almost airy in texture and intricately woven with cumin, coriander, cardamom and garlic. Roasted eel brushed with tangy-sweet saba (reduced grape must) is elegantly mounted on finely diced, aioli-dressed potato salad. Seared foie gras potently glazed with a Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar reduction comes with bitter, sweet and crackling companions — chicory, charred onion petals and fried chicken skin.
You can’t say Sundstrom doesn’t have enough skin in this game. Pork cracklings are an ideal bar snack. Lark’s first-ever burger, a juicy blend of ground chuck and short rib with cheddar, pickles and smoked mayo, is a model of simplicity — except for the duck cracklings poking from its house-made brioche bun, and the truffle salted sunchoke chips on the side.
Bread-baking and pasta-making have expanded. Semolina gnocchi had just the right density for a butter-rich sauce accented with bits of guanciale, artichoke heart, pine nuts and lacy Parmesan crisps. Cavatelli and squid ink maltagliati were a tiny bit heavy but superbly sauced. Lamb and beef Bolognese, bright and intensely sweet with carrot and tomato, smothered the shell-like cavatelli. A briny wave of sea urchin, bottarga (cured fish roe) and lemon lifted the roughly torn maltagliati.
Cauliflower soup $10
Cavatelli Bolognese $19
Veal sweetbread fricassee $28
Lamb duo $36
Upstairs at Bitter/Raw, you can sip something bitter (try the Trident cocktail blending dill aquavit and sherry) while nibbling something raw, perhaps the stunning, ceviche-like octopus criolla with avocado mash and aji Amarillo sauce. Among charcuterie, the lush chicken liver parfait with Armangac-soaked prunes could almost be dessert.
A Meyer lemon parfait topped with kumquat-vanilla preserve actually is a dessert, and worth the indulgence. Four-and-twenty mini chocolate madeleines, wrapped in a white napkin to keep them warm, were lovely, too, but I wish the server hadn’t left the check before they were gone.
Crumbs left on the table, coats taken as an afterthought, customers unnoticed at the door; these are venial sins that matter more when a restaurant aims as high as Lark does. The old Lark earned 3.5 stars after its first three months. The new Lark is already doing double the volume and still growing; lunch and brunch are forthcoming. “We are still adjusting to the new normal,” Sundstrom told me in a phone interview. “After 10 years, we needed to grow. This is our 20-year plan.” They have kinks to work out, but Lark has four-star potential. I’m glad they are in it for the long haul.