Seattle's most reliable address for a casual, of-the-moment meal may be the Fremont Collective—a warehouse in the Wallingford neighborhood (about four miles north of downtown) that was revamped to industrial chicness in 2012. Two adjacent restaurants front the complex: Renee Erickson's The Whale Wins and Joule, the new location of a local favorite run by husband-and-wife chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi. A kitschy, sky-blue neon sign hanging over bar near the entrance telegraphs the style of food: It advertises jewelry (the "ry" blacked out to emphasize the word play) in English letters and in Korean characters, a nod to Yang's heritage.
The couple originally opened Joule in 2007 in a small storefront not far from the new space. Following Joule's success, three years later Yang and Chirchi opened Revel, a cafe serving refined takes on dumplings, pancakes, noodle dishes, and rice bowls. And just last month they unveiled a massive project, Trove, which combines Korean barbecue tabletop grills with a noodle counter, a frozen custard window, and a bar/lounge area under one 4,000-square-foot roof on Capitol Hill.
It's a testament to the strength of Joule's kitchen crew that Yang and Chirchi's flagship is sending out such on-point food while the duo has their attention stretched in so many directions. (They also have two boys under five years old.) Their twist on kalbi, Korean grilled short ribs, became a signature even before the move. The marinade blends sake, mirin, and pureed Asian pear with garlic and soy sauce, and the infusion of complex sweetness in the meat tangos lithely with gochuchang (Korean chile paste) and a bed of grilled kimchi in ways that keep each bite compelling.
You can also order hanger steak accented with fermented soy beans and a flat-iron cut crusted in earthy long pepper, but this is no attempt at an Asian chophouse concept. (Although if that angle appeals, begin with the wholly reworked "Shrimp Cocktail 2.0," where pork belly, ginger beer, and fresh herbs round out the usual cocktail-sauce flavors.) The food is meant to be shared family style, with an emphasis on smaller plates. Oval versions of tteok, Korean rice cakes, arrive crisp-edged yet chewy—somewhere on the dumpling evolutionary spectrum between savory mochi and gnocchi. They're all about texture, so the pickled mustard greens and browned hunks of chorizo tossed among them can run untamed over the taste buds. The restaurant makes its own tofu, gently smokes it, and then adds a confit of hon-shimeji mushrooms scented with thyme and a bath of soy-truffle vinaigrette—the one usage for truffle oil that I don't find offensive. A dessert like the "Joule box" (tapioca pearls in coconut milk with grapefruit panna cotta and toasted flecks of coconut) sees the chefs' individualistic style straight across the finish line.
At the tail end of last summer, Josh Henderson (whose other restaurants include Skillet, Hollywood Tavern, and the new sports bar Quality Athletics in Seattle's ever-transforming Pioneer Square) and his partners opened Westward on the northern fringe of Lake Union. Does it serve oysters? Of course, but that's technically a section of the restaurant called Little Gull, and this isn't the typical waterfront seafood hangout. First there's the decor; the owners looked to Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for the twee, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic. Behind the bar they built a vessel-shaped shelf and hired Seattle artists to fill its cubbies with dioramas—some nautical and some, like a tableau of a yeti, simply quirky. And notice the wall with portraits of famous ship skippers: Captain Stubing from The Love Boat is among them.
The food doesn't follow the expected route to the Pacific Northwest coast. Not exclusively, anyway. To lead the kitchen, Henderson hired local chef Zoi Antonitsas, who wanted to honor her family by serving Greek dishes, and not only ones that harken to the sea.
It is refreshing to find a restaurant with a view not relying on its panoramic roost as the primary draw. And the location can certainly be hypnotic. It was a warm, clear, Indian summer Saturday when I ate at Westward last month. Winding through labyrinthine back streets to reach the place, I glimpsed snow-capped Mount Rainier rising mythically in the distance. On the restaurant's patio, people sat in Adirondack chairs with cocktails or beers in hand, gazing at the water and the city's downtown skyline beyond. My friends and I arrived around 5 p.m. and snagged the only seats available—bar stools along an inside counter facing out the windows.
The surroundings exhilarated, though the experience that day didn't quite match the glory of the weather and the vista. After a round of cleanly shucked oysters, the kitchen backed up and there was a gap of almost half an hour between courses of small plates. Our server apologized distractedly. Dishes with Mediterranean flavors often proved more engaging than those that leaned local. Among party dishes, I'd take the halloumi saganaki flamed tableside in ouzo (which rekindled memories of a recent trip to Mykonos) over a bland, monotonous clam dip (which flung me back to my Middle American suburban childhood). A pretty salad of farro, goat cheese, pine nuts, caramelized ribbons of onion, and smoked nectarines came unevenly seasoned. But sweet and pungent ras el hanout, the North African spice mix, gave fried oysters with aioli some electric jolts. Mussels in a potent broth fueled with cider, ham, Serrano chili, and tarragon satisfied; braised lamb shoulder with pomegranate molasses and tzatziki thrilled.
One advantage to the kitchen's unconventional fortes: In Seattle's drearier months the balmy Greek flavors still entice even when the setting proves less appealing.
MA'ONO FRIED CHICKEN & WHISKY
Rarely in our age of conceptual monikers does a restaurant name pack in as much useful information as this one: Yes, the fried bird is worth a detour and the brown liquor selection impresses. And ma'ono is Hawaiian for "flavor," a reflection of chef-owner Mark Fuller's roots and menu grace notes like Spam musubi and ahi poke. To be accurate, Fuller and his wife/business partner, Marjorie, did some tinkering to arrive at his West Seattle restaurant's current tag. It was previously called Spring Hill and served upscale-ish feats like wood-grilled prawns with poached egg, morels, grits, and shrimp gravy. But after the neighborhood stormed the dining room week after week for the Monday night Friday chicken special, the Fullers caught on and went more casual.
Begin on the light side with a butter lettuce and radish salad or sesame-flecked roasted carrots with artful dollops of coriander-coconut chutney, goat's milk yogurt, and shards of puffed rice cakes. But reserve most of your appetite for the key attraction. Call a day or two ahead to reserve an order of half or whole chicken; the kitchen makes a limited amount each day. This is a laborious recipe that involves brining, a buttermilk soak, a spice blend favored by Fuller's grandmother, and double frying.
As a fried chicken obsessive, I was a little stunned to rate this among the finest examples I've found across the country. I didn't come to Seattle looking for superlative gospel bird, yet here it was. The chicken was dipped in buttermilk and egg and dredged in seasoned flour, and the rippling, crackly crust marries the meat but wasn't overly thick. White and dark meat appealed with equal succulence. For his own spin, Fuller serves the platter with chili sauce, heady kimchi, and rice garnished with nori seaweed. Sure, these were pleasant ancillaries, but the bird stood alone.
But even in the Pacific Northwest, take drinking cues from the Southern playbook: Skip the cocktail and sip a bourbon or rye (alongside the chicken or after) neat—or perhaps with two ice cubes at most to smooth the flavors.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison