Hats Off

Follow the international food crowd to a hidden Seattle treasure.

ROVER'S

2808 E. Madison, 325-7442

dinner only, from 5:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat. May 22 was fairly typical for a sunny midweek evening at Rover's, Thierry Rautureau's restaurant on East Madison. About 20 customers sat down to choose between Rautureau's $70, $80, and $115 six- to nine-course menus d駵stations. Half a dozen of the diners were visiting from the East Coast, another three or four from Europe, the remainder from California and other points south. None were from Seattle. And that was fairly typical, too. Most people who eat out in Seattle know about Rover's—correction, know two things about Rover's: It's horrendously expensive, and its owner always wears a hat. But remarkably few know either of these things from personal experience; indeed, after 15 years in business, Rover's plays the role for 21st-century Seattle that Canlis played in the mid-20th century: a legendary oasis of culinary luxe too pricey and too rarified for any but the most sophisticated eater. The pricey part is undeniable. Though a full meal at Rover's doesn't cost any more than dinner at other local white-tablecloth restaurants, there's something about that up-front flat fee that can be daunting. And although "tasting menus" have proliferated like mushrooms of late, many diners feel uncomfortable letting a chef decide every last detail of their meal. Rautureau grants the price point without argument. "I can't afford to eat here myself," he jokes. But on the question of menu choice, he has never wavered and never will. "When I go to the doctor, I don't tell him what is wrong with me and what to do about it. I don't tell the man at the garage how to fix my car. They are professionals, and I am paying them for their professional knowledge. I trust them to do their job, and when I stop trusting them, I don't deal with them anymore." An admirable principle, but one which begs the question: How do you get people to submit themselves to your professional attentions in the first place? Word of mouth, of course; but in Rautureau's case, the word tends to put locals off rather than turn them on. The word that's kept him in business all these years, that earned him a Distinguished Dining award from his professional peers around the nation meeting in Seattle this week, is written: in awed, fulsome reviews in national magazines and newspapers and, above all, in the raves Rover's earns from the reader-reviewers of the Zagat restaurant guide. Which is fine for Rautureau and Rover's, where Zagat guides are seen on the tables almost as often as menus. But it doesn't help the locals know what's what, because people don't check out Zagat for a restaurant in their hometown. And that is a damned shame, because anyone who loves fine food owes it to themselves to dine from time to time at Rover's. There are other fine restaurants in our corner of the world, but none affords the kind of concentrated experience that Rover's does: a two-hour-plus immersion in taste and smell and texture harmonized into high art. That makes it sound like Rautureau's aiming for a food analogue to Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Not really; his food is way too French for that. Think more of one of those assemblages of musical miniatures French composers are so good at. Think Debussy's Preludes for piano or Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, where every short piece is a complete experience in itself but complements and contrasts elegantly with every other. The Rover's menu is constantly changing with the season, so no one meal can convey all of Rautureau's subtlety, but the form of the experience at least is constant. Let a meal I shared there Aug. 31 serve to illuminate his method. That evening, the grand menu d駵station began with a typical touch: Scrambled eggs topped with a spot of cream and a sprinkle of caviar is a simple but classic haute cuisine breakfast or luncheon dish. Rautureau's version is served in an eggshell with a tiny spoon to dip up the merest dab of frothed egg and minced chive through a topping of cr譥 frae (given an added tang with a dash of lime juice); instead of endangered wild caviar, eggs of farmed white sturgeon from California add the final spark of salty savor and color. Next up: "charred ahi tuna and potato salad with haricot vert and a lemon vinaigrette": a tiny, witty transformation of the robust French picnic staple salade ni篩se. Next, a cuplet of hot soft-shell crab bisque with a tender nugget of scallop amidships and a garnish of sea beans and toasted ground hazelnuts; then a thumb-sized portion of the most moist and tender lobster I've ever tasted nestling on a bed of saut饤 fennel, its anise-y fragrance accented by a dash of reduced Pernod. We went mad that night so far as wine was concerned, telling Rautureau and his wine steward, Cyril Frechier, to cut loose and astonish us. They did. The first courses were accompanied by tulips of Champagne Deutz and half-bottles of La Croix du Roy sancerre and Chassagne-Montrachet ($65—I said we went mad) from Burgundy. A chance remark to the chef before our meal led to an off-the-menu surprise: a single grilled lamb kidney topped with a delicate cube of barely done halibut. Then on to a Snickers-bar-sized wedge of salmon wallowing in an autumnal flavor symphony of stewed chanterelles, corn, and roasted garlic. A humble half-bottle of red burgundy (Pernand-Vergelesses, if you must know) accompanied these dishes; a '98 Chateau le Clerc-Milon from Pauillac sufficed to lubricate the sumptuous nugget of New Zealand venison with tiny turnips swimming in a tongue-prickling black peppercorn sauce. Dessert? Three 1-inch sweets, washed down with a mini-glass of Sauterne from Montbazillac. (Lubricated or not, we had the sense to decline the optional $17.50 cheese tray.) I hope the above catalog helps to convey why a Rover's meal remains in memory long after the details are forgotten, as one recalls hearing a great symphony without being able to whistle its tunes. Eating at Rover's serves as a reminder of why one goes out to eat at all, rather than staying home and cooking well for oneself. Some things a home cook just can't do. For those things, as for performances of the Liszt B minor sonata or the "Liebestod" from Tristan, one turns to a professional. Rover's is not for everyday any more than such musical experiences are. But I am already saving up for my next dinner there. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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