The first time I saw the menu at Book Bindery, I was unimpressed. It was dishwater dull, common and so full of standard customer-friendly dishes done elsewhere that it seemed, even when brand new, already faded on the page—a copy of a copy of a copy. There were sweetbreads with brown-butter emulsion, a duo of pork (a roasted chop paired with the ubiquitous pan-seared hunk of belly), and an apple salad with more pork belly—a dish so indicatively Washington 2010 that it might just as well be salmon. Their seared, striped bass went in half a dozen directions at once, with Spanish piquillo peppers, pine nuts, olives, and satsuma—the Japanese fruit mutant, like a nerdy little orange that'll bruise if you look at it cross-eyed. And then there was hamachi crudo, the ahi tuna carpaccio of the new millennium—a dish so overserved that there's probably a class at the Culinary Institute of America dedicated solely to its study and production: Apps for Tedious-Ass Bastards 101. I was bored with the menu before I ever made my way to Book Bindery's nearly invisible location, attached to the Almquist Family Cellars in a boxy, office-park-looking building almost beneath the Fremont Bridge. I was uninterested simply because the board seemed so uninspired, but I went—soon enough after the October 1 opening that the signage hadn't yet been hung and there were still discussions going on in the dining room about menu covers and tilework—mostly because, just two days after that opening, I got a letter from the restaurant that seemed to be baiting early criticism. "Back in the old days, no self-respecting restaurant reviewer would ever review a restaurant before it was at least a couple months old," the letter said. "But despite our best efforts, the press has already descended upon Book Bindery, infiltrating our intimate friends and family gathering last Tuesday night, the first of two nights we used to rehearse our crew. Were we worried? Pissed off? Not really. We've been eating chef Shaun McCrain's food for weeks now. We're convinced he's cooking some of the most quietly amazing contemporary American fare in the Northwest. After just two days of official operation, McCrain's kitchen has already produced several destined-to-become-classics. The food, quite frankly, is fantastic." The note went on to discuss all the bloggers who had already been in for dinner—and the possibility that the house might ban flash photography just to keep them at bay—and then offered faux-grudging acceptance that the world is a different place now, and that since every restaurant has to be review-ready from Day One, why don't all the critics just come on down and have a look-see immediately? I figured that if this place was going to be so deliberately provocative, I might just as well take them up on their offer. Between the menu, the unfinished room (half the seating area hadn't even been completed yet), and the untested crew, I figured it would suck in the way that only the overhyped, overproud, and underpracticed possibly could. I could not have been more wrong. McCrain's kitchen offers only 15 plates, on a menu that is both OCD tight and as restrictive as a fatwa: two salads, one soup, two fish, one pasta, one chicken, one pork—no room for repetition, no reaching, no space for weakness. If McCrain blows it in the design of the pan-roasted chicken with chestnut purée, grilled puntarella (a green, kind of like chicory), and black-currant jus, he's not going to get a second chance with grilled or fried chicken elsewhere on the menu. There is a kind of fearlessness to that which I appreciate. The menu is small, the kitchen is close, the dining room (in its current incarnation, anyway) seats about two dozen (with a handful of extra seats at the bar), and is almost always booked solid. Book Bindery is a hidden restaurant, existing under the Almquist winery umbrella and the ownership of Mike and Sumi Hahn Almquist (the latter a former Seattle Weekly restaurant critic). But the moment you sit down, the place becomes huge. Three plates on Book Bindery's menu define the work being done by McCrain and his crew, three plates which both explain my initial response to the board and the reasons why I was completely and totally backwards in my reflexive, jaded assessment. Yet these plates don't just define McCrain and his kitchen, but offer an angle on cuisine as a whole. McCrain is one of the smartest chefs I have run across in some time. His seven-Michelin-star resume—with stints at Les Élysées du Vernet in Paris, Michael Mina in San Francisco, and Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, from which he obviously lifted more than one trick—is the kind of thing that makes other chefs want to kill him and dress in his skin just to see how it feels to be able to make something like . . . Plate 1: Autumn Apple Salad Here's what I expected when I ordered this on my first visit to McCrain's workshop: a mess of crappy, unstemmed field greens out of a bag, topped with mangled slices of apple already starting to brown along the cuts, with a mound of chunky pork belly piled in the center. I expected this because it's a plate I've seen about a thousand times before and eaten somewhat less often—a lazy chef's placeholder, almost always topped with some ham-fisted fruit vinaigrette and possessing just enough "local flavor" to make it attractive to a certain demographic of craven and health-minded foodies. What I got was something entirely different—a pirouette on the grave of that wheezing classic, a 180-degree re-envisioning. On one long, white plate, McCrain had placed thick, fresh, and perfectly cut slices of Granny Smith apple, salted, spiced, and grilled briefly. Between them, like insulators against healthy eating, were big cubes of seared pork belly, topped with two sticks of crossed, batonnet-cut Honeycrisp apple and each topped again with a single, tiny leaf of upland cress about the size of my pinky nail. For punctuation there were ripe, red balls of compressed Fuji apple as sweet as candy and drooling juice; small candied walnuts; a smear of Granny Smith purée; and twin bars of peppered Honeycrisp syrup. On this single plate were almost countless opportunities to fail, to do too much or too little or just to choke on an incredible amount of focus and technique crammed onto a few inches of china. But McCrain and his crew did not choke. Every element—from the grill marks on the Granny Smith slices and the texture of the purée to the almost die-cut perfection of the batonnet Honeycrisps—was perfect. In its entirety, the plate was singularly amazing, combining tricks and gimmicks from a century of hard-won cooking knowledge and lore and bringing them together into a fussy, twee, and ridiculously overwrought but beautiful, unique, and delicious whole. I had the chicken to follow the apple salad. In any other restaurant, it might have been a star. Here, it was only the thing I had after the apple salad. Plate 2: White Beans and Clams If the apple salad is an example of McCrain and his crew at the peak of their smart, persnickety, robotic perfection—an illustration of their leaning heavily on the Thomas Keller Playbook of confounding expectations and, either subtly or severely, altering the way one looks at comfortable, common things—then the bowl of clams is the opposite of that. It is Book Bindery at its rough and rustic best. Sitting in the dining room early on what would become a very busy night, relaxing into the dark-wood-on-light-wood simplicity of the decor, the clean lines, the almost grandmotherly whiteness of painted moldings, bookcases, and cabinet doors, I was brought a mess of a bowl: a tottering stack of clams, hinge-popped and packed with mashed white beans, bits of damp basil, flawless little cubes of chorizo brunoise, and quartered tomatoes, all swimming in an oily broth swirling with the colors of red lights and traffic cones. It was as chaotic as the salad had been precise, but, having already experienced the care of McCrain's vision, I had no doubt that all this jumbling was absolutely deliberate. The smell was evocative of oceans and comfort on cold afternoons, all heat and steam and spice. The white beans were tender and had soaked up the flavor of the buttery wine broth like sponges. The chorizo added spikes of salt and heat to every bite. The clams were done beautifully, and when I asked my server where they'd come from, he pointed out the big window to the side of the bar—out toward the waters of the Ship Canal and the small boats passing bigger waters beyond. "There," he said. "They come from there." Plate 3: Handmade Cavatelli Nobody is perfect all the time. A double shot of pork is good, but its internal excellence is almost a foregone conclusion. It's tough to go wrong with a pork chop, pork belly, white-bean purée, and some hearty greens dripping with pork fat. All a kitchen needs to do is get out of the way. The cavatelli, meanwhile, was a kind of New American catchall: handmade, rolled pasta; pickled pearl onions (some halved, some delicately sliced into bright pink rings); foraged mushrooms, likely taken from even nearer than those clams had been; and sylvetta arugula, sautéed into the dish and placed like a green crown on top. The mushrooms were black trumpets and tender little porcinis, and the sauce was tomato-based, smoky, silky, and mounted with a foie gras emulsion—all fatty luxury and smooth, gentle flavor. It should've been a wonderful dish, and it really did, for a bite here and there, flirt along the edges of greatness. But in the end it was unbalanced—too heavy on the earthy, woody muscle of the mushrooms without enough bright spikes of acid or blunt, muting pasta to play against it. Though still a perfectly decent plate, it was the only one of all that I tasted which was actually underwhelming. Yet it was still a defining plate in that it stood as an (admittedly rare) example of carelessness, a moment where focus was lost. To work at the level McCrain and his crew are at right now, focus is what's most important. All the other stuff—the grilling and the sautéeing, the actual cooking part of cooking—must at that point be second nature, as easy as breathing. But to cook the way they do at Book Bindery requires concentration like a surgeon's—an ability not only to do one big thing right, but to do a hundred small things perfectly a hundred times a night. That this early in the game the kitchen excelled on all but one plate is truly remarkable. The only thing more impressive is that Book Bindery, as good as it is now, still has room—and time—to grow. Price Guide
Book Bindery 198 Nickerson St., 283-2665, bookbinderyrestaurant.com. 5 p.m.–close, Mon.–Sat.
Apple salad $12
White beans and clams $12
Roasted chicken 24
Duo of pork $26 firstname.lastname@example.org