Elliott Bay Cafe and the Gravity of Lunch

A great food city needs more than five-star evenings. It needs the midday manna of Tamara Murphy.

You may get sick of the endless repetition of cereal and milk or eggs and bacon, but to me breakfast is a ritual that stretches back to elementary school and is not to be messed with, even if I have brunch plans: toasted homemade bread, too much butter, and a thin veneer of jam, slowly eaten in the glow of my laptop screen.Lunch, however, is a meal for gulping, one that always begins with the sorry ding of the microwave, the forlorn crinkling of the sack. After all, if you work in downtown Seattle, what are your options? A dreary ham and cheese from a deli, always with too much mustard and inbred tomatoes? A $30 sit-down meal that necessitates a few bumps afterward to get you through the afternoon? Pallid greens that drip dressing all over your keyboard? A few centuries ago, the meal we scarfed down in the fields to keep us from fainting was called nuncheon— which expresses onomatopoeically how I feel about lunch.Tamara Murphy has been thinking about the meal best forgotten, too. As you read this, the chef and co-owner of Brasa—longtime chef of Campagne, winner of a Beard Award, profiled in dozens of publications—may be calling out sandwich orders in the basement of Elliott Bay Book Company in Pioneer Square. And the fact couldn't make me any happier.With Elliott Bay Cafe, Murphy is diversifying her portfolio, so to speak: For almost a decade, Brasa has been a dinner destination, with the happy hour in its bars one of the best midpriced meals in Belltown. Now she's conquering the low end of the range, serving soups, salads, and sandwiches for $6–$9. (She's not the only restaurateur upgrading a bookstore cafe, by the way. Thomas Soukakis, the owner of Capitol Hill's Vios, has taken over the restaurant connected to Third Place Books in Ravenna, where you can now lunch on tzatziki and roasted squash or eat braised lamb with orzo for dinner.)Tuna salad, to Murphy, means a baguette with flakes of St. Jude's albacore, topped with threads of shredded celery root anointed in creamy aioli, all for $7.75. Some tuna salads use mayonnaise to drown out any taste of the sea, but Murphy punctuates the sandwich with the fishy tang of pickled white anchovies. Shove a sandwich like that down your gullet and you're insulting your tongue. I felt the same about an "Argentinian" steak salad (really, it seems more pan-Latin): hunks of juice-beaded beef, tipped from the pan onto the greens, set at play against the bite of grapefruit and shaved tomatillos, salty white cotija cheese, and finely cut tortilla strips dusted with salt and smoked paprika. If Murphy served that at Brasa, I bet she'd be charging far more than $9.50.The other radical change Murphy made was to create a space that people actually want to eat in. I made a pilgrimage to Elliott Bay Book Co. on a trip to Seattle years ago, and even then I remember feeling as if the dingy cafe with indifferent service was a wasted opportunity. I met people there for interviews a couple of times, but stopped because I felt like I was luring them there to steal Sauron's ring back.It's amazing what a little light will do. To set off the exposed bricks and arched ceilings so central to the cafe's charm—but which also make it feel like a wine cellar—Murphy and her crew repainted the plastered walls and the poured-concrete floor a buttery cream, echoed in the blond wood tables and chairs they installed. They also doubled the number of track lights gleaming down from the ceiling, so that every corner feels clean and welcoming. The kitchen has a working hot line now, and above the old espresso station, Murphy has hung a vintage "COFFEE" neon sign, blazing white.Now a place where you used to hurriedly down your thin latte and stale Top Pot is one of the best places to find a cheap lunch downtown. Word of the transformation has spread quickly, too; by noon the line can get 20 deep. But it moves relatively fast, and in all my visits I haven't seen anyone standing around glaring at packed tables, though you can see the toll the rush takes on the sweating, twitching cooks.Is everything great? Does the universe owe me a 28-inch waist? Idealism says yes, reality has other priorities. A "classic" reuben came on rye that was barely toasted, and the fillings weren't anything to talk up, either. Brown stripes on a grilled-cheese sandwich filled with goat cheese, fontina, and cheddar suggested that it actually had been cooked on a grill, and not long enough—only half of the cheese had melted. Plus, the cooks had skimped on the tomato jam and Mama Lil's peppers listed on the menu. A bean-and-chard soup with the lilting fragrance of fennel was crowded with white beans whose centers hadn't quite hit the creamy point; there's only so much pleasure I can take in chewing my soup.It also has been a while since I've gotten excited about a plate of scrambled eggs at a restaurant; fluffy and moist, the ones I ordered enrobed fat lumps of smoked trout and flecks of bacon, with scallions crunching here and there. And it's rare to find that the side dishes that come with every sandwich—your choice of mixed greens with a shallot-dense sherry vinaigrette, a bowl of kettle chips, or an orzo salad—aren't halfhearted gestures.Some of the sandwiches seem like full entrées, like a "Cuban sandwich" packed with pickles and pulled pork marinated in a tomato sauce—it spurted out all over the table, but tasted fantastic—and a Moroccan steak sandwich rolled into pita with an herb-spice chermoula sauce, minted yogurt, and feta. As she does at her other restaurant, Murphy sources most of the ingredients locally, makes most everything in-house (potato chips and some baked goods are the exception), and even raises the pigs that end up in the cafe's chili verde.A third of my guests were vegetarians, and yet four visits didn't exhaust our options. There was a vegetarian pan bagne, with the loveliest press-grilled semolina bread—almost as caky as a brioche—filled with a chunky herbed chickpea mash, goat cheese, and thinly sliced roasted vegetables (I thought it could have used something sweet or piquant to finish it off, but the friend who ordered the sandwich talked it up all day). There was a pizzetta that was hard to eat daintily but worth every sleeve stain, covered as it was in slippery golden caramelized onions, sugary acorn squash, clouds of goat cheese, and a bouquet of arugula leaves. And an "almost raw" plate of julienned raw kale and greens, a few roasted vegetables, toasted pumpkin seeds, and grains of farro (spelt), all lightly dressed in lemon and oil, practically conferred sainthood on the person who ordered it; his asceticism was undermined only by the fact that he'd ordered the large.To most of us, Elliott Bay Cafe may just be a place to grab a good sandwich. To me it's a symbol of a restaurant scene growing into itself. Becoming a food town—which Seattle most certainly is—is not just about having a critical mass of high-end restaurants, celebrity chefs in all the national magazines, or 20 farmers markets. It's about being surrounded by cooks who invest serious love into a simple sandwich shop—about spending $6 for a half-sandwich with a few handmade chips, and walking out thinking you're a wealthy man. And if the cafe provides me with one more weekday's respite from the tyranny of Tupperware, I'm a fortunate guy indeed.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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