With good ideas, a lot of hard work and experts in the kitchen, these five new restaurants are adding spark to an already sizzling Seattle food scene.
Every restaurant success story starts with an idea, yet between inspiration and taste sensation come consternation and aggravation.
Just ask Matt Dillon, who, after introducing Seattle to his strip-mall sensation Sitka & Spruce, spent a year and a half-million bucks to get back to the land at The Corson Building.
Or Jerry Traunfeld, who ran the four-star kitchen at The Herbfarm for 17 years before being struck with an idea for Poppy, where he flirts with flavors of the subcontinent while keeping his roots firmly in the Northwest.
Lucky in love — and in snaring a turnkey lease — Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi worked fast to seamlessly segue their much-admired blend of French technique and Korean firepower into a bold new bistro, Joule.
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Meanwhile, Mark Fuller set his sights on West Seattle and turned a florist’s shop into a citadel of creativity: Spring Hill.
And on Capitol Hill, Justin Neidermeyer’s passion for pasta allowed him to re-create the trattoria of his dreams — not in his beloved Piedmont but on a Pike/Pine side street.
What made these new restaurants red-hot before they even opened? Join me in the kitchens of the chefs behind the buzz, watch them work, hear their stories and you’ll learn.
THE CORSON BUILDING
5609 Corson St., Seattle
Step into Matt Dillon’s world and feast your eyes on what defines him: jars of pickled currants, trays of drying mushrooms, piles of fresh herbs he’s busy mincing, his esoteric cookbook collection. “It’s what I’m totally consumed by,” he says. “It’s my art.”
Dillon graduated from O’Dea High School and dropped in and out of culinary school before returning to continue his education. He’d cooked as a child “out of desperation, not inspiration,” got his first gig at 12 (prepping at a gourmet takeout shop), opened Sitka & Spruce at 33 and thinks New York chef Mario Batali — with whom he’s gotten falling-down drunk — is “totally brilliant.”
At his latest venture, the century-old Corson Building in industrial Georgetown, Dillon has gone back to nature, offering a sit-down meal as social experiment, where daring diners pay $100-plus a head with well-matched wines to play “Guess what’s cooking for dinner?” That finances a culinary learning center for classes and food-focused gatherings.
Here in the shadow of an Interstate 5 offramp, diners sit with strangers eating whatever Dillon deigns to serve: sautéed chicken livers and flageolets; fresh sardines strewed over the ripest tomatoes; tender pork sliced from a ravishing roast. “People food,” he calls it.
It took a half-million-dollar investment to turn a crumbling hellhole into this rustic retreat. He did it with the help of business partner Wylie Bush, owner of the Capitol Hill coffee shop Joe Bar, spending more than a year cleaning tar-stained bricks, clearing brambles and building a spacious kitchen. There’s still much work to be done.
At this funky urb-farm the chef grows his own (plums, herbs and “vinegar mother”), raises chickens (for eggs) and ambles into the vestibule between dining room and kitchen to introduce guests to his hours-long meals. Bush tends tables. If this sounds like that other Herbfarm — where Dillon worked under Traunfeld — banish the thought. Patrons pass food family-style, reclining on hard wooden benches at a trio of communal tables while the chef retreats to his kitchen.
Here, apple-cheeked Emily Crawford provides a steady presence at the stove, where Dillon nods to the “houseless, not homeless” riding the rails just beyond where he stands, cursing the horn-heavy engineers who drown out the revelry in his candlelit dining room.
Cooking is “another world,” says Dillon. One where hours are spent brushing dirt from forest-kissed mushrooms.
Long after his 2 p.m. takeout coffee has been traded for a tumbler of Jameson’s, Dillon treats himself to a spoonful of housemade ice cream — his favorite food — infused with bay from the garden. “I have a mean desire to never step foot in a grocery store again,” says the Food & Wine magazine cover boy, a “Best New Chef” in 2007.
Today he’s ambivalent about the critical scrutiny and constant pressure that restaurant ownership and celebrity have wrought, and swears he’ll never turn his back on his kitchen. When he does, it’s to engage in more solitary pursuits: hunting game birds with his dogs or rereading “Auberge of the Flowering Hearth,” a classic that espouses the modern-day mantra: Eat local, seasonal.
Dillon heeds that advice, but never to a fault. Of the “100-mile diet,” he says “it’s stupid.” He’d rather drink wine from a Frenchman who tends his own vines than from a local vintner he doesn’t respect. A map of Washington is tattooed on his wrist in honor of its bounty, yet someday this native son envisions working on a farm in the French countryside.
For now, he’s settled into the rhythm of life here. Last summer, the many figs on his ancient tree failed to ripen. His bees dropped dead before producing any honey. Less-than-satisfied customers failed to get what he’s doing. No matter. Dillon continues to welcome strangers who know him only by reputation.
622 Broadway Ave. E., Seattle
JERRY TRAUNFELD celebrated his 48th birthday on Monday, Sept. 15. On Tuesday, he opened Poppy on Capitol Hill. And less than 48 hours later, the award-winning chef and cookbook author stood in the ladies room at his new restaurant giving his blood pressure a workout.
A mirror had fallen off the wall, a slender paper-towel receptacle proved way too small for the job, and as far as Traunfeld was concerned, the standard-issue locks on the toilet-paper dispensers were ugly as sin.
But back in his sprawling kitchen, Traunfeld relaxes, aware that — give or take a few design flaws — the restaurant he built in the husk of the old Elite Tavern looks like a million bucks. What’s more, in a few short hours, he’ll be hosting a full house. Again. “It’s all good,” he says. “Want to see my tandoor?”
It was a trip to India — and a light-bulb moment in its aftermath — that spurred Traunfeld to leave his post as The Herbfarm’s executive chef. There, he’d become nationally celebrated for his nine-course themed menus. Today, at the restaurant he’s (nick) named for his mother, he’s serving just as many courses. Only at Poppy they’re presented simultaneously, for $32. His theme? The Indian-inspired thali — a tray as blank canvas for a changing array of small dishes meant to be savored solo rather than shared, as at every other fashionable restaurant in town.
“It’s like a giant TV dinner,” Traunfeld jests. Sure, Jer: If Swanson served braised pork-belly, chanterelle croquettes and watermelon-lime pickle. In the bar and lounge, tipplers sip Douglas fir eau-de-vie and diners nosh on mussels fried and sprinkled with lovage. They wrap chili-rubbed tandoori chicken in warm naan. (“That’s our burger,” says the chef.)
It takes many hands to make many plates, and Poppy’s kitchen houses a small army of restaurant veterans, including Herbarm alums. “When you think of all the details, it’s a monumental task,” says sous-chef Toby Kim as he rolls rye pastry for a leek tart. Scraping the pith from blanched lime is Jason Stratton, who was cooking in Spain when Traunfeld hired him.
“There are no divas,” he says. It was Stratton who came up with the idea of serving chickpea-coated eggplant fries, says Traunfeld. And it’s Stratton — after five years at Kirkland’s Café Juanita — whose expertise he depended on when it came to learning line-cook lingo. “Order. Set. Fire. Pick up. I didn’t even know the language,” Traunfeld admits.
As for Poppy’s computer-generated tickets calling for curry-leaf vadas, anise-hyssop shortcake and cinnamon basil ice cream? Let’s just say it’s been a learning curve, too.
Traunfeld’s not the only one learning. His domestic partner of 28 years, Stephen Hudson, left his job in the image lab at Corbis to help wherever he’s needed. At home in Ravenna they grow flowers, but here in Poppy’s backyard, they’ve planted raised beds to supply fresh herbs. “This is lemon thyme, and here’s some pepper cress,” points Traunfeld, standing behind his restaurant in early fall. “Oh, and this” — he smirks, nodding in the direction of the minimart next door, “is our gas station.”
1913 N. 45th St., Seattle
“I never thought I’d marry a cook,” says Rachel Yang, “because I know how hard it is.” “It” is a life that finds Yang and her husband, Seif Chirchi, at work by 11 a.m., sharing banh mi at their kitchen counter, preparing for a day that lasts well into the night.
Theirs is a dance tuned to kitchen time — a Wallingford waltz that has Chirchi stepping to the left — straining curds to make fresh ricotta for shiitake lasagna, while his wife leans to the right — lighting a hunk of pressed fruitwood before tucking it into a pan of warm bean curd. Poof! “It’s a smoker!” she says, illustrating a simple way to add intensity of flavor to tofu.
Tofu and teamwork are part of Yang’s nature, one developed in Korea and expressed at their year-old restaurant where the culinary conversation has a brazen Korean accent that matches her own. Intent on her work, she leaves the schmoozing to her more personable teammate.
At 30, the couple look back on a career that had Chirchi waiting tables, studying at Western Culinary Institute in Portland and working briefly for a caterer. Meanwhile, his wife learned her craft at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education and refined it feeding New Yorkers foie gras burgers at DB Bistro Moderne. And at Alain Ducasse, where they met when Chirchi was an unpaid apprentice.
Today they revel in the casual comfort of Seattle, and the restaurant they re-envisioned as their crowning Joule — redesigned with help from Chirchi’s father, Ikea (for tabletops and spice jars) and the demolition of a wall allowing an unobstructed view of guests from their galley. Unlike the cloistered kitchens he’d worked in before, says Chirchi, “Here there’s music, sunlight, windows, interaction. It’s heaven.”
To open, they’d hired a small staff that followed them from Coupage in Madrona. There, Yang garnered raves for a menu long on French technique and Korean culinary influence. A professional divorce later, she transferred those techniques and talent to Wallingford, where Joule was an instant success.
But as the closure of Coupage and other restaurants attests, “nothing’s guaranteed,” Chirchi says. “I’m scared daily.” To ward off the fright, they keep labor costs low and menu prices reasonable.
On busman’s holidays they eat at Korean restaurants where kimchi and other side dishes are complimentary. At Joule, those pungent, made-from-scratch pickles are the chefs’ signature. Side dishes like rustic roasted potatoes flavored with bagna cauda and wild-boar bacon set diners back a fiver.
A menu that nods to a variety of cultural influences is a natural extension of their personal likes and childhood taste-memories. Chirchi’s father is Tunisian, and as he uses his hands to toss roasted cauliflower with currants and dukkah (an Egyptian spice-and-nut blend), he notes he was raised with the edict, “Everything tastes better with your hands!”
Which helps explain the whole fish presented, another signature dish, meant to be enjoyed with your hands. “The flavor of fish served on-the-bone is more intense, more aromatic,” says Yang. The roar of kitchen fans here is loud enough to induce a screaming headache, but Yang seems unfazed. Perhaps because it beats doing what her parents expected when she arrived from Korea at 15: learn English, become a doctor or lawyer.
In college, she says, “I felt like I’d never get back to being myself, to being what I used to be.” What she’d been was confident, a trait she’s since found in the kitchen alongside the man she calls, with no pun intended, the yin to her yang.
1531 14th Ave., Seattle
Justin Neidermeyer is practicing his craft, alone behind the bar. He stuffs agnolotti with rabbit, veal and pork and hand-cuts tendrils of egg-rich tajarin. “Cinto was my maestro,” says the young pasta maker, his floury hands introducing the man in the photo above his shoulder. Cinto Albarello taught him well. “If you’re a cook making pasta, you’re aware of your elements,” Neidermeyer says. “There’s wind in here. It’s cold in here. It’s understanding the process.”
Were he alive today, the maestro might sip an espresso with his former apprentice, sitting an arm’s length from the wooden tools of a Piemontese pasta-maker’s trade, proud to see what his tutelage has wrought.
At 23, Neidermeyer moved to Italy to work in a “one-street town” in exchange for lodgings. That town was Barbaresco, home to world-class vineyards and to Antica Torre — his mentor’s trattoria. There, “you’re making the same 12 items over and over,” cooking not for imagined riches but “because you care.”
Eight years later, he’s essentially doing just that at Spinasse, a cramped Pike/Pine storefront that feels as if it’s been transported from the old country.
At night, his pasta board is set for dinner and drinks, and he’s retreated to the stove, preparing coniglio al forno (roasted rabbit) and vitello tonnato (cold poached veal with house-cured tuna), offering uncomplicated antipasti — anchovies with crumbled egg, prosciutto with melon.
Those lucky enough to cadge a seat at the bar can peer into his sensualist’s sanctuary, where the chef expresses his love for a career that began not in Barbaresco but at London’s Bakehouse in Bellevue, where he was the “300-sandwiches-an-hour guy.” He later worked at Bandoleone and at Brasa where, promoted to pastry chef, he says he learned to fake it till you make it.
By the time the Redmond native returned from Italy to become the pasta maker at Café Juanita, he was no longer faking it. He’d become the amazing pasta-guy whose fresh, handmade wares would soon have a fervent farmers-market following, sold under the label Pian Pianino (“nice and slow”). But making pasta was not enough.
“I missed cooking,” says Neidermeyer, who later presided at private dinners in a rented loft at Via Tribunali, at Sunday suppers for paying guests at Sitka & Spruce and at another, less above-board operation before opening Spinasse in August.
In his kitchen, an ancient butcher block is the first thing you see, though look again and you’ll find a clutch of friends as serious about cookery as he is. They use the back of wooden spoons to crush garlic, rub the skin from roasted beets with a dishcloth, and hope to someday roast birds in a wood-fire hearth.
Out in his dining room, crowded onto mismatched chairs at communal tables, guests can eat a la carte or enjoy food the way he thinks they should — sharing large platters of everything the menu offers, paying $75 each for the pleasure.
In the U.S., Neidermeyer says, we’re more attuned to “the Disneyland factor, the imported Italian feeling of a place that says, ‘Experience Italy, tonight!’ ” But that’s not what he’s trying to do.
“I’m interested in inspiring people by translating the inspiration I’ve absorbed . . . It comes from not trying too hard. By just doing what you do.”
4437 California Ave. S.W., Seattle
Mark Fuller is down two cooks, moving like a man on a mission. In a white T-shirt, he’s a living echo of the spotless expanse of stainless steel in which he works, wasting no time as he readies his kitchen for service.
Fuller consults a checklist whose handwritten entries are as clear and bold as the food that has made his restaurant a critics’ darling and a West Seattle destination.
On this midweek evening, Spring Hill will be packed with people who don’t flinch at the words “veal sweetbreads” and “steak tartare.” They drink clever cocktails with designer ice. And wines — like the majority of the menu’s ingredients — that are notably Northwest. Last spring, they’d never heard of Mark Fuller, but now they’re talking nonstop:
Yes, he worked for Tom Douglas. Yes, his assistance on “Iron Chef” helped bring Douglas a win against Morimoto. Indeed, he’s charging for bread and butter — served with Makanui sea salt — precious grains sold to a precious few who have access through Hawaiian bloodline. (“Thanks, Mom!”) Fuller’s aware he’s going against the grain of some of his neighbors.
“Everything is cooked when you order it, and some people don’t want to wait 25 minutes for their food. We walk a fine line,” he says — between fine dining and neighborhood bistro. One that has him offering thick rib-eye steaks that break the $30 barrier and a burger made with organic chuck, ground twice, by him. “Loose meat is the secret to a perfect burger,” he says, lightly dropping the ruby raw beef into individual plastic tubs.
Later, he’ll grill the burgers — crowned with Beecher’s cheese and house-cured bacon — over apple wood, serving them alongside squat fries cooked in fat he’s sliced from the rib-eye and rendered. When the place opened in May, Fuller charged $14 for that burger. Now it’s $17. “I really don’t want to be flipping burgers all night,” he explains.
He’d rather show what he can do with seafood: Glorify a plate of grits with smoky shrimp, a poached egg and mushrooms; deconstruct cioppino into a sexy shellfish sensation whose tomato water packs a powerful punch. Seeing the look on his customers’ faces when they light into those dishes is his favorite part of working in an open kitchen. Working the floor at night is his wife and business partner, Marjorie Chang Fuller, who has a degree in construction management and a day job that takes advantage of it.
It was Marjorie who persuaded him to take on the challenge of a restaurant nearly three times the size of the 20-seater he’d initially envisioned, and she who found the former flower shop they’ve since transformed into the sleek, spare setting where the food sets the mood.
Though Fuller managed Duke’s Greenlake Chowder House before he was old enough to drink, as a nascent chef-restaurateur he’s still learning the ropes.
When locals complain about his prices, he bites his lip, longing to show them the bill for his first hood-cleaning — $1,000. He’s working as manager, line cook, prep cook — trying to keep his nose to the meat-grinder while watching the bottom line.
“When you open a place, no one says, ‘It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.’ ” But no one had to tell him that opening a restaurant is exciting.
It’s when “everybody digs in,” creating a magical mojo. “But down the line is where people get more lackadaisical,” he says. “And that is really when you become a manager, by trying to maintain what you had in the beginning.”
Nancy Leson is a Seattle Times food writer. Mike Siegel is a Times staff photographer.