Strong Safety

Flying Fish is unremarkably remarkable.

Shoved away in a drawer somewhere is a list of things I wanted to accomplish before I turned 30, with almost nothing on it achieved. I have a plan for what to do when zombies take over the world, and I have a list of favorite restaurants. Actually, I don't have just one list, but several—most of them highly situational, organized by geography or keyed to certain events. The last restaurant I'm going to eat at when the zombies come? Johnson's Corner in northern Colorado. The first place I'm going to eat when they get that time machine humming? The French pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair.Knowing where to get food is probably one of the oldest, most hard-wired of human instincts. In their sloping, hairy noggins, our caveman ancestors kept lists of where the berries that wouldn't kill them grew and where the woolly mammoths cavorted. A million years later, I, the inheritor of that impulse to always know where to get a taco in a hurry, always keep lists. The most useful has always been my list of Safety Restaurants—those places you go when every other plan falls through, when you don't really want to think about where you're eating tonight, or when you need something dependable and decent and don't care much for specifics. Safety Restaurants are to modern dining what Safety Schools are to the college-application process: names you keep tucked in your back pocket just in case all your wildest dreams are dashed, but you don't want to end up studying automotive repair through the mail (or eating at Olive Garden when your parents are picking up the tab).And this week, I have a new name to add to my list of Safety Restaurants: Flying Fish.Before you get to thinking this is a backhanded slap at Flying Fish, let me tell you why you're wrong. A Safety Restaurant is not, by any stretch, a bad restaurant.It is, in almost all cases, a good restaurant that is just not great in any specific way. It's not where you go when you're looking for the most mind-blowing meal of your life. It's not the place you nominate when your wild friends want something weird and different and risky. It's where you go when you simply want to be taken care of—seated easily, presented with a menu full of things worth trying (even if none of them are jump-off-the-page intriguing), and served a fully satisfying meal that you can completely forget about five minutes after paying the bill. In a day and age where all dining is entertainment and all chefs are rock stars, that kind of thing—the simple ability to eat and move on—can be incredibly attractive, even if it's not something that generally finds its way into any restaurant's ad copy.Chef Christine Keff opened Flying Fish in 1995 in the middle of Belltown, back when the area was busy and popular but not quite so busy or so popular—or quite so jammed with hat-boy bars and last-call survivors wandering up and down First Avenue horking Jäger into the gutters. For 15 years, it's been a dependable spot for seafood in a city that's never really lacked seafood places, but it's managed to rise above much of the competition by focusing almost completely on seafood, and playing up the world food/fusion angle back before that was such a completely overdone gimmick.Recently, Keff—whose remarkable career has stretched from New York City to the Pacific Northwest, with stints at the Four Seasons, the Hunt Club, and McCormick and Schmick's (as their executive chef), and included standing before Manhattan crowds in 1999 to receive her James Beard Award as Best Chef Northwest—decided that she no longer saw herself or her restaurant as fitting in with the neighborhood that had grown and changed around her. She started looking for a new home for her tried and trusted concept, and found a spot in South Lake Union that was nearly perfect: the first floor of a shiny new tower, all wrapped in windows and with a ready-made neighborhood clientele just aching for something new to fall in love with.I never knew the old Flying Fish; it was before my time in Seattle. But after speaking with those who did, I understand the risk Keff took in pulling up stakes and moving. What she had was that rarest of restaurant life-forms: a going concern—a popular, respected, occasionally beloved restaurant still moving considerable numbers after 15 years in business. And even if she was no longer crazy about her neighbors, the thought of killing something like that and essentially starting over in a new location is just insane by most rational restaurant-world standards.But she did it, buoyed perhaps by the 10 years she'd spent in New York opening and closing restaurants, or maybe just by the confidence that comes from truly knowing what you're doing. The new Flying Fish is busy. It draws a decent crowd on traditionally slow nights and a heavy one during prime time. And the how and why of that are written into every square inch of the space and the menu.Even if you've never been to the new Flying Fish, you've seen it. It is a perfectly designed restaurant space—big, bright, and airy, with sherbet-colored accent walls, dark wood booths, and a bar with stools that are like giant ice-cream cones for your ass. Private dining areas (which can be opened for overflow seating on busy nights) flank the main floor. The open kitchen is tucked away in the back. There's good spacing between tables. And everything—from the oversized hanging lights and simple table settings to the exposed duct work in the ceiling and the expertly angled flow of the room—is so obsessively, smartly generic that it should be used as a classroom illustration at culinary schools: How to Design a Successful Restaurant Space.The new Flying Fish space is pretty without being cloying, wonderfully scalable, perfectly comfortable. I felt at home there the first minute I stepped inside. And the staff is the same: competent, friendly professionals honestly concerned about their customers' wants and needs. They're there when you need more bread. They're there when you drop a fork (with a new one seemingly conjured out of thin air) or need a drink or want to pay the bill. But otherwise, they're invisible—a mark of superior training somewhere down the line.And then there's the menu, a document which is both a history lesson and a guide to the many moods and influences of Christine Keff. There are dishes on here that she's been serving for years—old standbys like the iced platters of oysters, bowls of straight comfort mussels, little Manila clams with sausage, and whole fried fish. There are dishes that change every day. Fifteen years ago, Keff was instrumental in introducing rarer fish and odder cuts to the people of Seattle, and what she loved (and served) then, she still loves (and serves) today.Keff and her crew mess with a lot of classics on their board—making chowder with smoked salmon and chives, for example, or serving Hawaiian tuna poke with sweet potato fries and tobiko—and lean heavily on the Asian fusion. But all these tropes, while maybe stale to the seriously jaded what-have-you-done-for-me-today kind of foodie, still make a ton of sense. You know why seafood restaurants (that aren't just straight-up chowder houses or grills) focus so much on Asian flavors? Because Asian flavors go with seafood like coffee goes with donuts; the reason chefs have been turning in that direction for so long is because it works. People love crab cakes with a little Thai juju to them, so Keff has Thai crab cakes on her very long and comprehensive appetizer menu—and charges top dollar because she knows the plate's a winner. People love clams, sausage, and potatoes together because on a cold day or a hot one, in summer or winter, there is simply nothing more comforting in the world than a big bowl of brothy clams, spicy sausage, and potatoes—which Keff provides by combining Manila clams with Spanish chorizo and fried fingerling chips.Flying Fish's ever-changing menu is not so much keyed to things people like as wired straight to the collective pleasure center of the broadest possible swath of the dining public. There's a half-pound of Gulf shrimp, served simply with a little garlic, parsley, and red pepper. There's scallops over risotto, which within days became striped bass over risotto with green peas; opakapaka mounted on a black-bean cake; and salmon that goes two ways: a bit Middle Eastern with vegetable tabbouleh and a chermoula sauce, or Japanese, resting atop a nest of udon noodles (the size and consistency of thick spaghetti) and dressed with miso broth and green peas.In comparison to the rest of the menu, the list of entrées seems short—offering many kinds of fish, all in various international formats, and one lone red-meat dish, short ribs. But it's bracketed by a huge spread of appetizers and salads, then a brilliant addition: cocottes. These are small sides, each cooked and served in their own little individual cast-iron pot, which add a sense of depth to what might otherwise be a one-note symphony of things that live in the water.My first time through the dining room, I ate clams and sausage and the Japanese salmon/spaghetti soup mentioned above, and rounded things off with a lovely gratin of potatoes and mild cheese, like something that might've been served by tiny little French people living in a tiny little French farmhouse. The second night I had the Thai crab cake (which was overworked and therefore a bit pasty, but otherwise OK) spiked with cilantro and dressed in a lemongrass remoulade; some fried calamari with sweet/hot honey and jalapeño mayo; oysters presented with nothing more than a lemon and a little horseradish; and a morel-and-asparagus flan. As a matter of fact, of all the things I ate at Flying Fish, the flan was maybe the only one that I hadn't seen done in a hundred other places.But that's just fine—because that's what being a Safety Restaurant is all about. It's about being dependable. Consistent. Remarkable mostly in how completely unremarkable everything is. Had I been served a single plate at Flying Fish that wasn't good, I would've easily been able to write off the place simply as old and tired, slipped from the once-high status it held in the regard of its Belltown fans. But I wasn't.Nothing was incredible. Nothing was unique or brilliant or groundbreaking. But everything—from the room and its layout to the staff to the menu, the service, even the bar (unique only in that it didn't offer a list of custom cocktails)—was so rigorously and deliberately smooth and solidly plotted that I couldn't escape the feeling that every step Keff has taken in her career, every moment in every kitchen and dining room, every restaurant she's opened, and every menu she's ever written for anyone have all led here, to this perfect expression of What the People Want.Flying Fish is as egoless an operation as I have ever seen. And therefore it is the ultimate Safety Restaurant.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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