Monday morning, quite without fanfare, Seattle's most ambitious new restaurant in years opened for business. Employing 80 people, including two chefs with 30 years experience

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Monday morning, quite without fanfare, Seattle's most ambitious new restaurant in years opened for business. Employing 80 people, including two chefs with 30 years experience in high-end cuisine, the operation sprawls over 46,000 square feet; when up to speed, the proprietor confidently expects to be serving 8,000 customers a day. The proprietor in question is the University of Washington, and the new eatery, filling most of the ground floor of the HUB—the UW's student union building—is called the Husky Den. If you attended the UW any time in the last 50 years or so, you've almost certainly dined—if that is the word—at the Husky Den. Last remodeled in the early 1970s, the Den deserved its name. It was dimly lit, spartanly furnished, and pervaded at all hours by the aroma of steam tables. Old alums won't recognize the place. Gone are the cattle-chute cashier lines. The redesign by Robert Mesher of Mesher Shing & Associates overcomes the gloom-producing low ceilings through bright lighting, comfortable colors, and long sight lines. Nine food-service stations loaded with state-of-the-art equipment surround the dining room, each devoted to a different focus group-identified aspect of the Way We Eat Now: a pizzeria; an Italian-style sandwich grill; a pan-Asian noodle bar; a taqueria; a soup, bread, and salad counter; etc.; Etc. (the latter Etc. being an in-house "convenience store" for the replenishing of depleted backpacks). Few commercial food courts look half as comfortable or inviting. But looks aren't the only change. The new Husky Den is the outcome of four years of research, planning, questionnaires, and the aforementioned focus groups, and for once "process" seems to have produced the desired result: nothing less than "the deinstitutionalization of institutional food." That's the motto of UW executive chef Jean-Michel Boulot, who began his apprenticeship to fine food at the age of 14 in his native Normandy and saw his hotel career at its apex in Bangkok with a 1997 banquet for the emperor of Japan. With qualifications like that, what's Boulot doing at the UW? Let Eric Lenard, the La Varenne-trained chef directly in charge of Husky Den operations, answer: "No matter how much you love cooking, 15 or 20 years working 16 hours a day, nights, and weekends gets a little old." For the time being, though, Lenard and Boulot seem to be working harder than ever. Goodness knows they have their work cut out for them. Mass-producing fresh, wholesome, economical food is tough enough, but good food too? For students? Will wonders never cease! rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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