Steel Headed: With all the attention on Kevin Davis' new Blueacre Seafood, how's his first son holding up?

I have, for most of my life, been an advocate of the big move, the grand gesture. In relationships, I would often pull out of whole regions when my love for a single person went sour, and have abandoned entire cities like Churchill evacuating Dunkirk--leaving them to a past that I was determined never to refight. When things weren't working out for me in a job, I couldn't happily just move on to the next gig down the street, but would rather flee the neighborhood or the state, as though whatever breakdown or blow-up had made me need to leave in the first place had poisoned not just my affiliation with a single kitchen, a few guys, or one owner, but polluted an entire area--its width and breadth described by the megatonnage of my own personal Hiroshimas.I will never go back to Florida. Buffalo, a city I loved like a hot cousin at a family reunion, has become a distant homeland to me—one to which my entry has been forever barred. There are doors in Denver and Boulder through which I never again will walk for the weight of bad memories that each lintel supports, and others in Rochester (N.Y.), New Mexico, and Philadelphia that I can still see when I close my eyes and imagine stepping through like a prodigal son returning home.In the past 10 years, I have lived and worked in five states and seven cities. In the past century, my family has been in only one. I don't know where my urge for motion, my proclivity for squealing tires, middle fingers, and abandonment has come from. But change—retreat and return, movement in all its forms over the passivity of stillness—was what I was thinking about while I sat, my back to the bar, staring into the kitchen at Kevin Davis' Steelhead Diner.Late into my third night eating at Steelhead, there's a moment when Davis—buried in tickets, juggling plates, grouping finished orders for pickup, and surrounded by the smooth-running army of white-jacketed cooks that crowd and surround him like frantic doves beating themselves against the confines of the line—just stops moving for a moment. In that moment, he is not expediting, not tasting, not reaching for this or that, wiping plates, directing the troops, snapping at the waitresses, smiling for the friends and fans who approach him from the other side of the pass to congratulate him or thank him or just say hi. He isn't checking his cell phone. He isn't garnishing or plating or taking one of his cooks aside for a huddled conference.He is standing still, sweat running across the dome of his shaved head, and slowly scanning the room, from one end to the other, with unfocused eyes and shoulders that slump in something like relief. A thin wisp of a smile flickers across his face as he looks out from the kitchen that has been solely his for the past three years—his home and family business, the leap that he took and the place where he landed. And while maybe he's just surveying the floor, weighing the crowd in his mind, thinking about his prep levels, wondering where the Southern-fried half-chicken in front of him is supposed to go, or just thinking about his wife and partner, Terresa Davis, and the twins she's due to deliver in just a couple short months, I don't think that's it. I know that look and can feel the willful blindness of it as Davis subtracts every customer from the floor, every server, every busboy and bartender, and sees only the blank slate, the empty room—Steelhead Diner as it was in its first moments, before it was anything at all.Chef Davis is having a last look before everything changes again.On March 19, Davis will open a second downtown restaurant, Blueacre Seafood, in the space formerly occupied by Oceanaire, which Davis helped open years ago and where he and Terresa both spent years working. What was fascinating was precisely that: In the midst of all the million little things that a chef and owner has to see to during the run-up to an opening, Davis was standing a shift at Steelhead, same as he has done most nights since it opened.What I was curious about was how the restaurant would fare during the tumult, how it would maintain while Davis' attentions were split in those final, maddening weeks. After Blueacre opens, it will all be different; he'll be there, not here, focused on limping through those first weird weeks when everything can (and will) go sideways while Steelhead is overseen by his best lieutenant: newly minted chef de cuisine Anthony Polizzi, already a three-year veteran of this line.But he's not Kevin Davis. Not the man who wrote the menu, who knows, from the genes up, what the gumbo is supposed to taste like (because it was his grandmother's recipe, which he grew up eating in Louisiana), how the oyster po'boy or caviar pie is supposed to hit you right in the chest like a punch—a heady, fierce, and dangerous mixture of the highbrow and low-rent.I made three trips to Steelhead in the month leading up to Blueacre's opening. My last visit was just 10 days before his first scheduled friends-and-family dinner at the new place, the day after the last of the construction cleanup began. And I ordered and reordered, ate dishes straight from his hands, from those of his crew, from Polizzi. I came at prime time. I came at bad times. I did everything I could to trip the place up.I ate latkes that were terrible on multiple levels—too traditional to be considered modern, too modern to make any claim to authenticity, made too thick, with potatoes that were mealy in the center, served with a side of housemade applesauce that once tasted like apple-flavored whipped cream, another time like candy-apple cake frosting—and both times came burnt, once from a Polizzi-run line, once from right under Davis' nose.I ate beautiful fish and chips made from true cod jacketed in a batter of Kilt Lifter Scotch ale, cooked so perfectly that the big, golden pieces of fish only steamed once they were broken in half and cracked with a sound like stepping on autumn leaves. I chased that with poutine made with Beecher's cheese from just around the corner and more fried Beecher's cheese curds, done like mutant bowling-alley mozzarella sticks in that tightrope-walking effort to mix Americana diner standards with high-toned New American regional cookery—a trick that Davis seems to pull off with effortless grace most (or at least some) of the time.Davis serves his fried cheese curds with hot mustard just a couple degrees removed from the stuff you'd get in an Americanized Chinese restaurant. I loved it, thinking to myself, "Jesus, why haven't I ever done this before?" It was simple brilliance: the throwaway juxtaposition that makes a purely pedestrian dish sing. But then, on my first visit—after the poutine, after the cheese curds—I tried to order the pulled-pork sandwich and was told that it was so popular that it'd sold completely out. The kitchen was working on more, but, according to my waitress, it wouldn't be ready for a couple hours yet.That should've spiked my danger sensor, but because I was hungry, it didn't. A couple hours for pulled pork? The only thing that can be done with good pulled pork in a couple hours is to wish it were 10 hours later when the pork would be done. But later, on another night with Davis fully in command of his line, I had the very popular pork. The burnt ends mixed in with the shredded pig in sweet and tangy Carolina-cum-Kansas barbecue sauce were good. The rest of it was pap—the sauce masking the lack of smoke, the thick, fancy bread dulling the bite of the sauce, the homemade coleslaw adding a nice textural crunch but little else. There is a reason why a pulled-pork sandwich done right is sold straight out of the smoker, across a lunch counter that serves little else, and comes mounted on plain, generic white bread from the Piggly Wiggly down the street and topped with coleslaw made every day by the five-gallon bucket: because it's better that way. Some things only suffer from the loving attention of chefs trying to better them for a collared-shirt crowd. Barbecue is one of them.Gumbo, apparently, is not. No matter who staffs the line at Steelhead after the change, there is love living deep in that dish. There's a richness there, among the chicken, the andouille and spice, that belies the ingredients, something that comes straight from the Land of a Thousand Grandmas.Davis moves like I do. He is a man comfortable with change. New Orleans, Napa, Paris, Adelaide, Seattle—his curriculum vitae is more worldly than mine, but the bounce is familiar. And watching him stand in the busy kitchen on my last night at Steelhead, taking his moment, looking across the busy floor and back through three years, I wonder if Davis is worried, happy, frightened, freaked out, excited—or just all of them at once."I got on the tiles at 7 a.m. that day," Davis would later tell me. "Saturday—the day before—we'd spent all day cleaning Blueacre. But I'd been in the kitchen [at Steelhead] all day. And it was a busy day, too. That moment...I remember that moment. Around 8:30. It was the first time I'd had a minute. What you were seeing was everything behind me and everything ahead of me. I was just trying to breathe."From the kitchen come our appetizers. I watch Davis arrange them on the pass as he calls for service: the crab cake for which Steelhead has earned something of a reputation in a city full of crab cakes; more poutine; a plate of pan-roasted broccoli that actually arrives as a plate of pan-roasted asparagus with fried capers, Marcona almonds, and orange zest.Because nothing can ever go wrong with a plate of cheese, fries, and gravy, the poutine is as good as ever. The crab cake is a big thing, about the size of a hockey puck and made wisely with shredded crab meat of excellent quality pressed over fat pieces of whole crab-claw meat, the entire thing dressed in a crown of fried parsley and a restrained sauce Louis minus the peppers, the green onions, and probably the Worcestershire as well. It's gone almost before it hits the table. The asparagus is a bit of a surprise. I would've normally made fun of it for being a pile of stick-thin asparagus shoots except that, after my first bite, I couldn't stop eating—the asparagus tasting strongly of the nut-and-zest combination that is something like Davis' signature flavor, used generously across several different dishes.It isn't until the mains arrive, though, that I understand the weight and history of motion that Davis carries with him to the kitchen. He has said that cooking, for him, is about affecting people emotionally—inspiring in them comfort and memory and goodwill. Serving 100, 150, 200 people a night is, at its best, an exercise in cheering them and transmitting the things that he loves—good product and orange zest, regional preparations and fly-fishing—by way of the plate. The latkes didn't do it for me. The poutine was a pure, personal indulgence. The crab cake was, in a way, merely competitive, and the asparagus, while great, was not affecting.But the roasted salmon is different. This plate is where everything that is Kevin Davis comes together best—a shallow-welled white bowl lined with a Southern boy's dream vision of perfect white grits, swimming in a tarn of brown butter like liquid gold. On top, a single piece of salmon, Seattle's most ubiquitous protein, marked with a geometrist's quadrillage, tasting of sweet flesh and the butter it was basted in, its richness punctuated by exclamation points in the shape of whole, port-soaked cherries, the crunch of pecans, the slight sting of lemon zest.It is busy but beautiful—one man's private history written in food. It alone is the ideal expression of someone who has made change a lifestyle and a career out of chasing the flavors of a dozen homes. And, of course, it's delicious.Looking back toward the kitchen, I see Davis at work again—holding a pan in one hand, flashing pictures from his phone to two girls leaning across the service side of the pass. His moment, whatever it might have meant, has passed, and now all that concerns him are the guests, the pans, the crew that will stand here in his place when he is worrying over Blueacre, and the next check up on the slide.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check  Fried cheese curds  $9.95  Gumbo  $9.95  Fried chicken  $17.95  Salmon  $26.95/$17.95  Fish and chips  $16.95  Poutine  $7.95  Latkes  $6.95  

 
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