The first time I ever ate chef Seth Caswell's food, it was through the mouth hole in a Mexican wrestler's mask.It was lamb Bolognese, and I was onstage at the Paramount Theatre, being watched by about a thousand people as I tried to fit forkfuls of pasta into my face without too badly staining the borrowed lucha libre mask of my alter ego, Eduardo El Magnifico. This was during the Voracious Tasting and Food Awards in April, where I was judging the Chef Showdown—a full-on Iron Chef spectacular with Caswell competing against Jason Stratton of Spinasse and all the pomp of the real thing: a secret ingredient (lamb), bewildered sous chefs, a bloodthirsty crowd liquored up and just waiting for someone to cut off a finger.None of this was the weird thing.The weird thing was how good Caswell's lamb Bolognese was, and how good the following dish of lamb chop over a potato-and-artichoke salad with pesto and red-wine demi was as well.Under the worst possible conditions, with little prep and no warning, with a sous chef he'd met five minutes before walking onstage, and at a time in his life when he really should've been focused solely on the smooth running of his new restaurant, Emmer & Rye, Caswell had cooked two dishes that were not just good, but great. The Bolognese was of a quality I would've expected from a sit-down meal at a proper restaurant, from a kitchen with its shit together, its mise in line, and its cooks well-versed in every step of production. The chop was even better.Onstage, I was hamming it up—drinking whiskey, jabbering with the evening's host, threatening to stab a runner who tried to take my plate from me before I'd finished. But in some quiet, reserved, walled-off compound in my head, the critic in me was thinking: "If this is what Caswell can do here, I can't wait to see what he can do in his own kitchen."With his own crew around him. With his own stuff. Away from the stress and pressure of crowds, timers, competition, and some jerk in a foam mask making jokes about his meat.On my way out of the quaint Victorian on the top of Queen Anne Hill that once was home to Julia's but since the end of January has been the sole preserve of Caswell and his crew from Emmer & Rye, there was only one thing I needed to remember exactly, one question I didn't want to forget:Why can't Caswell cook here the way he did onstage?I'd eaten farro fries with a sage-spiked yogurt sauce off a generous happy-hour board, a white bowl of clams in a garlic broth brightened by chiles and turned savory with bits of ham, served with a toasted slice of baguette like a flag planted by the kitchen to mark its well-trod territory. This was followed by a beef Bolognese with sausage over orecchiette that should've been a slam-dunk: a plain heir to the wicked, slapdash skills evinced by Caswell onstage; a better, more perfect, more considered relation, conceived in the calm and cool of a house not yet awake. By all rights and all rational accounting, this Bolognese should've been the idealized form, and the dish I ate onstage just a pale imitation done under fire, on the fly, out of short stock and knee-jerk reflex.Only it wasn't.The farro fries had looked like frozen grocery-store French-toast sticks on the plate—five planks of molded and fried grain, dosed with savory herbs, about four inches long and half an inch thick. By themselves, they were warm, dry, and dessicating, and the whole grains made them annoying to chew. Dipped in the yogurt, they were exactly the same—only with yogurt. The bowl of clams had been good, but the Bolognese had simply been a Bolognese, no more, no less: pasta with a graying meat sauce, some things that looked like pieces of tomato but tasted like pieces of red rubber ball, bits of sausage (or maybe beef), and a slick of oil at the bottom of the bowl. It had no markedly different flavor or texture than a thousand similar pastas. Onstage, there'd been the juiciness of lamb, sweetness of tomato, acid sting of a lace of pesto (or something similar) ringed around the top like a halo. In it somewhere, there'd been a flavor of speed, smarts, passion, and desperation.But on the plain wood table in the calm dining room at Emmer & Rye, there'd been none of that. It was just dinner.Emmer & Rye has been open for more than three months. It's seen busy nights and slow ones, gone through a couple menu changes, served thousands of plates to thousands of people already, and seen more than a hundred services come and go across the polished wood floors and through the warren of small, airy dining rooms placed where sitting rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms once were.Caswell—a food-service lifer whose roots go back all the way to his parents' deli, stretch to pastry school in Taos, N.M., then to three years spent as exec at the Stumbling Goat Bistro—has brought the full weight of his affection for Northwest farmers and producers to the board, crafting dishes around closely held notions of locality and seasonality. He is a man who named his restaurant after his two favorite grains, and who cooks with emmer (aka farro) a lot. The service on his floor is practiced and casual, unhurried, and talented enough to make dinner seem well-served without being overly formal.While I'm not crazy for the space itself (all whitewashed walls, raw wood, big windows, and cabinets full of grandmotherly tchotchkes), neither do I necessarily dislike it. There's something almost anonymous about the rooms when they're empty, as though someone had thought about setting up a restaurant in this space but then lost interest after the basic construction had been done. But this serves to focus the attention on the food in front of you, the people surrounding you, the friends with whom you've chosen to eat.If only the food were better. I walked out after that first night feeling fed, feeling as though I'd been reasonably well taken care of, feeling certainly like nothing about my meal had been bad—but, conversely, that nothing had been great about it either. Nothing had moved me as that onstage pasta had, or that chop born of pressure and necessity.I went back to Emmer & Rye, still chasing something from the kitchen that I couldn't quite describe—that ineffable, overwhelming, small degree of uniqueness or vitality that sets apart a mediocre dish from a truly excellent one. This time through I ate a goat-cheese tart topped with foraged mushrooms and caramelized leeks gone soft and sweet in the pan, paired with a salad of spinach leaves and sliced pears speckled with black pepper. Not the loveliest plate in the world, but tasty. The cooks in the back had stemmed the spinach by hand, which I appreciate as one of those details too often overlooked by cooks who never care enough to eat their own dishes to see what customers might be experiencing.I had scallops arranged around a pork-and-farro cake that worked far better for the addition of a little fat than had the farro fries, but which came with a side of rapini, slow-cooked like collard greens, that didn't pair with either of the dish's other two components. The rapini was good, if a bit basic, but the acidic tartness and deep, green vegetable undertones just kind of sat there, doing nothing to elevate or cool the flavors of the scallops (which were a bit dull anyhow, as scallops almost always are) or the peppery heat of the farro cake. It wasn't a thoughtless combination, exactly; but it was as though, once committed to paper, no one had bothered to actually taste the whole dish together.Finally, there was the seared pork belly with heirloom beans, chicory, and a chopped salad of field greens. It was one of the ugliest plates I've seen in a month: brown beans in a brown sauce mounded up beneath a mess of chiffonade greens with four slabs of slightly burnt pork belly laid over the top. Oddly, this one actually tasted very good; I liked the way the beans and the tart dressing and the bitter greens all worked to balance the fatty luxury of the pork belly.But flavor aside, it was a completely amateurish plate, with zero sense of style and some elementary mistakes in the prep. First, chopping greens that way makes them wilt fast. Laying something hot on top? That only speeds the process. And cut greens simply don't chew like whole leaves or even hand-torn ones do.Presented that way, it feels as if you're eating a plate full of garnish. And finally, who in their right mind would just bury a bunch of beans under a fall of chopped lettuce and call that presentation? It looked like a failing test dish presented by a first-year culinary student who hadn't yet internalized the common-sense rules of plate design. Again, it wasn't a bad dish on the whole, just one that seemed poorly thought-out. There was goodness in it, but buried beneath a fall of chopped salad and basic mistakes.For a second time, I left Emmer & Rye feeling cold.It would make rational sense to assume that a kitchen would do its best work when focused on creating one plate for one person once a night. With all appropriate resources at their disposal and all the time in the world, a crew should cook best when relaxed and focused.But because a cook is one of God's most irrational critters, that's not the way it works at all. A cook will in fact work best when forced to do 12 things at the same time, with short supplies, the rush descending, one oven broken, and his hair on fire. Massive, bloody, shrieking panic is a line cook's most natural environment, where he or she feels most at home. And a good chef is really no more than a veteran cook who's learned not only to embrace the heat and crushing pressure of a full-book Friday with walk-ins waiting, the owner's mother in for dinner, and a grillman MIA, but to love it more than money, sex, and liquor all together.Great cuisine, like great art, is born of stress and rigor and pain. It requires training. It can't be done at all without some basic understanding of the interplay among meat and heat and knives and fire. But a slow kitchen, a quiet line, a cook not working with six hands at once like Vishnu in a canvas jacket? That's a kitchen, a line, and a cook not being pushed to brilliance. Just as a diamond can only be formed under phenomenal pressure, so too a great Bolognese. The reason Caswell's pasta onstage was so much better than the one served in his dining room had nothing to do with ingredients, prep, or style, but everything to do with stress, pressure, and the absolute terror of fucking up in front of a thousand people at once.For reasons I don't entirely understand, Emmer & Rye doesn't have that drive in the back of the house. And so it doesn't have any cause to work above and beyond itself—to become something greater simply because circumstance requires it.Honestly, I don't know if this is something that can be artificially created. I don't know if it will come as the crowds do, as people discover Emmer & Rye, find they like it, and return with their friends. I certainly hope it does. Because I believe Caswell is a chef for whom stress equals passion, soul, depth, and happiness.Without that stress—that passion—his food might be good. But it is never going to be as great as it could firstname.lastname@example.orgPrice Check
Emmer & Rye 1825 Queen Anne Ave. N., 282-0680, emmerandrye.com. 5–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., brunch 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat.–Sun.
Farro fries $5
Garlic clams $12
Pork belly $12
Mushroom tart $16