Vampire Weekend at The Night Kitchen

Its steak frites is just as improbable as the restaurant itself.

It is strange to see a restaurant open at three in the morning. I don't care where you've lived, what you've seen, or the level of your insomnia, there is just something in the human psyche—some conditioned reflex, pure as circadian rhythms—which revolts slightly at the wrong-side-of-the-clock sense of light puddled on a dark sidewalk, bodies behind glass at rest and in motion, and the hot neon of an OPEN sign at an hour when most such noble gases are cold. Diners are different, as are certain coffee shops and bars which have a somewhat flexible relationship with legal and temporal dynamics. There are expectations, in any civilized quarter of the world, that those with broken internal wristwatches might still score bourbon, pancakes, or a scorched, tarry drip without too much difficulty in hours when only cats, killers, and working girls are supposed to be up. But a restaurant—that's another story. Tables, silver, corked bottles, servers dressed in some approximation of house livery (black-on-black, eyes bagged with exhaustion and dull with a certain sense of having already seen enough), and a menu offering options that seem belied by the hour, the kitchen, and the crew. It's almost too much to accept at first blush, simply because such a thing is almost fantastical—like walking down the street and bumping into a unicorn trying to cadge smokes on the corner of Second & Stewart. Which is why, if you sit in the front room of The Night Kitchen at any wrong hour—which are, almost invariably, the right hours—and watch the door, you can see nearly every person who comes inside doing the same tiny dance. They will hang outside the door for an instant—a stutter-step, as though the ballistic course of their progress through the night has been altered by strange gravities—and touch the door lightly. They will pause, cutting their eyes at the OPEN sign burning and the bodies behind the windows, then walk carefully across the threshold, dip a shoulder, and look around suspiciously as though they can't quite believe the door has opened for them. Because The Night Kitchen is still relatively new (it opened last Dec. 31), some still ask whether the place is actually open, serving food. But almost all of them, upon first washing up on these rare shores, have a look on their faces like Maurice Sendak's Mickey falling naked into his own Night Kitchen. They're wondering, for lack of a more elegant phrase, just what this place's deal is. I ate the best fried cheese curds I've had in Seattle one night at The Night Kitchen. They were off the Late Night Snacks menu, which is not the same as the Dinner menu, which is not the same as the Late Night Breakfast menu, which is not the same as the plain old Breakfast menu. The Night Kitchen opens at 6 p.m. most days. It then remains open until nine the next morning, at which point it shuts its door, goes dark, and more or less disappears into the neighborhood like some kind of culinary Brigadoon. The four different menus cover four different phases of the night and bloody morning, serving as cushions for the differing circumstances that might lure people to this room at hours they're unaccustomed to dining. I ate my cheese curds at midnight on a Sunday—dead in the middle of my Saturday night—and they were so blissfully simple, dumb, and perfect that I ate a second helping at about 12:15 just because I was so pleased with the way the small order of beer- battered, crisp, melty and golden-brown curds had come out the first time around. They arrived, with no sauce (needing none) or garnish beyond a cursory sprinkling of chopped parsley, in a white soufflé dish on a white plate, and were exactly what I wanted (fried anything, delivered hot, after drinks elsewhere and an argument of pointless severity with a friend), like guilty desires read with laser precision. Hot cheese and cold beer (Old Scratch, off a list filled with American craft brews) at midnight—the only thing that could've made it better would've been if the banh mi at the bottom of the curled, water-stained, and roughly-used paper menu hadn't been made with seitan. Still, a man can't ask for everything. Or rather, he can ask, but no one will listen. So I sat happy at my annoyingly sticky glass-topped table (never a good idea, no matter how much it saves on the linen bill) under the wine-colored walls and black-and-white snaps of skulls in gas masks, ate my cheese, and shut up about it. The Night Kitchen has a dinner menu that seems doomed to failure in every rational way. Opening at 6 p.m. puts the place in direct competition with every other restaurant in the city, planting it smack in the middle of the prime-time sweet spot, up against everything from Canlis to Mickey D's. And nothing—nothing—on this short, strange, and jumbled board would make anyone flipping through menus or paging through websites go more than 11 steps out of their way to go there: a cheese plate, chicken wings, fries with custom sauces, three salads, tomato soup and a mini-grilled cheese sandwich, two burgers, mac and cheese. There's nothing here that's not done elsewhere more creatively, by chefs who bracket the comforting and classical core of any menu with all manner of baiting diversions to get the money through the door. The Night Kitchen doesn't do any of this. Its dinner menu—with no seafood, no safety-net roasted chicken, no crazy Froggy-Japanese fusion or pasta or salmon—is like the frame of a dinner menu before being filled out by some chef in love with squeeze bottles, figs, or themselves. It is as simple and pared-down as a menu can be before slipping into some kind of gimmick or Zen existentialist disaster, and has precisely zero magnetism. Nothing on it would draw anyone away from any other restaurant in the city. Except that, during prime time, I walked in and—sitting among a thin crowd of beautiful people eating French fries from paper cones and thick burgers presented like food-porn centerfolds in Hot Beef Monthly—ordered a steak frites that was better than it had any reason to be. A lovely lozenge of beef, about the size of my fist, perfectly seared and finished, rested on the plate, dressed only in black garlic compound butter, with a massive pile of thick-cut fries spilling over the edges of the plate, a small cup of aioli, and nothing more. I liked the beef for two reasons. One, it was done precisely to temp (mid-rare) by a cook who obviously knew how to prepare meat like most of us know how to breathe. Two, it was an uncommon, underutilized cut: the teres major, a shoulder muscle close to the bone that's tender as a loin but flavorful like a chop. To take an unpopular cut and make something delicious of it is the highest, most noble calling of a cook with blood under his or her nails. To do it without fanfare, in a place where maybe it wouldn't be so readily noticed, shows a humility that's incredibly attractive. Honest to God, just finding a grillardin these days who knows how to hit mid-rare without slicing and fanning his beef like a first-year culinary student can sometimes seem like running across that smoke-bumming unicorn now busking for change outside the market, tap-dancing and doing tricks for candy corn. What's more, the steak frites wasn't the galley's only good trick. The mac and cheese was made with New Moon and Valdéon blue and bacon, and could be gotten with a side of grilled asparagus, long mac and cheese's best, most faithful friend. When one finds oneself, on a Wednesday morning at 2 a.m., ingesting shots and scrambled eggs, it's either a sign of things gone terribly wrong or a life sliding in a decidedly Jim Thompson kind of direction. I like Jim Thompson a lot. And it warms a dark and private corner of my heart to know there's a place I can get precisely that without being judged by anyone but those in similar straits. It's last call, Wednesday morning. The bar is settled by scruffy guys in hats, inventing drinks with the bartender and plugging their phones into the stereo to blast shit-kicker country and rap through the small front room. The front door opens. The front door closes. A guy walks in fresh off the line at some other restaurant. Another staggers, drunk and weaving, for the bathroom. Then a server, still in her blacks and apron, comes in from the hotel bar down the street. She dips her shoulder and looks around. "You still serving?" she asks, wondering what, exactly, the deal is. The bartender smiles and nods. The Night Kitchen waitress directs her to the end of the bar. I colonize a table, open a book (not by Jim Thompson; that would've been too perfect), order a drink and some eggs and sausage. It's breakfast hour for a certain, unusual section of the population for whom any day's beginnings and endings tend to bleed together. And I'm hungry. The breakfast is not the best I've ever had. The homemade ketchup is a little sour, the sausage oddly salty. But it's available and the drinks make everything a little fuzzy anyhow. Some nights, walking into The Night Kitchen can feel a bit like intruding on someone's personal clubhouse, like stepping cold into a party to which you were not invited and where you are completely unknown. But that to me is another of The Night Kitchen's charms. There is no sense of discomfort here, no feeling that you don't belong. Simply being up and about, hungry, and in need of company is enough. It's the kind of place where just being there proves that you belong. jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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