Rachel Yang's Revel Yell

Joule's founder starts a Fremont frenzy.

With exactly two weeks between my arrival in Seattle and the deadline for my first review, I figured I'd have to scramble to find sufficient meal slots for sizing up Revel, the Korean-accented bistro that's been the pride of Fremont since its opening late last year. I needn't have worried. Nearly every local food shark and friend-of-friend I rang up for a Seattle orientation session parried with a variation on the same suggestion: Can we meet at Revel? So we did, feasting on dishes so compelling that I've been touting them enthusiastically to all the hungry Seattleites who've prematurely asked me for restaurant recommendations. I may be new to town, but I'm quite certain you can't run aground when ordering from Revel's slender menu of feisty salads, pancakes, dumplings, noodles, and rice bowls. While much of the initial Revel fervor was rooted in reverence for the husband-and-wife chef team of Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi and their achievements at Joule (whose 2007 debut incited a similar collective drool-drip), the food at Revel is good enough to win over diners who have never eaten at the Wallingford restaurant and know little of the chefs' background. The vibrant restaurant is designed for socializing, and it grows lively after dark. While the airy dining room's centerpiece is a massive butcher-block counter that stands between the kitchen and eager eaters, most of the decorative elements are more whimsical: The walls are hung with modernist portraits of pop-culture icons, so you can devour short-rib dumplings under Michael Jackson's dispassionate gaze. Revel presents the same lineup card at lunch and dinner, an economical move that simplifies back-of-the-house affairs and ensures the restaurant's fans can get a favorite dish no matter what time they show. That's handy, since Revel's gently sophisticated renditions of workaday fare have a way of inspiring schoolgirl crushes. I've already made the acquaintance of several discriminating eaters who blush and stammer upon hearing the words "chili ice cream." As a relative latecomer to the Revel party, I feel somewhat obliged to stake out a heartthrob of my own, an impulse that's probably a vestige of being told by sixth-grade friends that Joey McIntyre was already spoken for. But I can't quite tamp down my overwhelming affection for Revel's deranged housewife's dessert, featuring a cylinder of assertively spicy whipped ice cream tucked between two brittle chocolate-chip cookies that would claim the blue ribbon at any bake sale. The remarkable two-sandwich plate is completed by a ramekin of tar-thick chocolate-caramel pudding graced with flakes of sea salt. While dairy products and chili peppers are frequent culinary companions, Revel's ice cream—pink as a salmon mousse—is an especially playful take on the partnership. For eaters who shirk at spice, Revel also offers stout ice cream pressed between thin slices of ginger pound cake and a wedge of buttermilk ice cream shoehorned between pliable fennel cookies. Each dessert is priced at a refreshingly reasonable $5. While Revel charges more for dumplings and noodles than its street-cart counterparts might, the difference is hardly startling: A couple could easily assemble a satisfying $50 dinner without much tableside calculating. In Revel, Yang and Chirchi have created a casual, carefree restaurant where food is all-important, a concept that seems unassailable on paper but which can be exasperating when you haven't seen your server for 30 minutes. I have no quarrel with a deliberate kitchen, but an extended wait for noodle soup is more bearable when someone's around to check on your drink. Revel is perpetually understaffed, a problem that might be the trade-off for low prices. While I had better luck at lunch, both my dinner servers seemed to have far too many tables to handle competently. And the stress showed. When I told my server I'd like a Manhattan, she responded sincerely, "So would I." My Manhattan, flourished with rhubarb bitters, was lovely, as was a staunchly autumnal cocktail of applejack and maple bitters that nicely suited early spring's lingering chill. There's an array of infused sojus on offer, most of which are unsurprisingly monochromatic and dangerously easy to drink. None of the five savory categories on Revel's menu are deserving of a dunce cap, but the dumplings are most in need of remedial attention. The leathery skin of a fried chorizo dumpling—served in a five-set and garnished with scant reeds of jicama—split into halves when hoisted by chopsticks, revealing a marble-sized nugget of mild ground pork. More perplexing was a ricotta dumpling that might have fared better if presented as dessert. The thin-skinned dumpling, jammed with a mush of Earl Grey ricotta and sweet golden raisins, recalled a breakfast blintz, and failed to harmonize with a tableful of dishes popping with soy, garlic, and miso. Revel's kitchen makes shrewd use of Asian ingredients, but guests are invited to make their own adjustments. If all the problems in the world were solved and humanity could concentrate on which condiments really belong on every table, ketchup and mustard would undoubtedly lose their seats of honor to Revel's crafty quartet of dipping sauces. One of my servers described them as salty, sweet, savory, and spicy, but the sauces deserve more personal introductions: There's soy sauce with coarsely chopped ginger, sheer chili sauce, fish sauce spiked with peppers, and a red-bean paste I giddily smeared all over my pancakes. Revel's pancakes riff on pajeon, the sturdy, eggy Korean pancake that Americans would probably identify as a cross between a pizza and an omelet. There's a sharp and salty kale-and-arugula pancake, embedded with plenty of pecorino-romano cheese; a terrifically crisp pancake built around curlicues of shrimp and edamame; and a knowingly lowbrow pork-belly pancake embellished with funky kimchi. Kimchi makes an encore appearance in one of Revel's rice bowls, an updated bibimbap preparation that takes warm, clumpy rice, greens, protein, and a raw egg as its formula. While the tuna that shared space with the kimchi was slightly overcooked, I was wowed by a tender, beefy short rib that drew verve from bitter mustard greens and sweet, tropical-tasting daikon. One of the most beloved dishes at Revel is the duck-meatball noodles, submerged in a smoked chili sauce. Yet the meatballs, much like the chorizo, were disappointingly bland, and the noodles I tried were overcooked. I found the dish too indistinct and murky, and preferred basil noodles in a marvelously clean broth. While the steamed Manila clams crowning the noodles were gritty, the adorning zucchini's freshness was irresistible. Revel is dedicated to using fresh ingredients, a commitment that's evident in its bright spinach salad, dotted with golden raisins and thinly shaved sunchoke, and an exhilarating corned-lamb salad that hollers springtime. The chewy, rustic hunks of meat are served aboard a bed of jade-green mizuna tossed with a pleasantly citric nuoc cham. Between the lamb and just-plucked greens, it's hard to ignore the sensation of biting into an English landscape painting. When I think about returning to Revel, my mind fixates on the corned-lamb salad. Perhaps the salad sits higher in my pantheon of Revel dishes because it made its way to the table before nagging service issues became a distraction, or because it celebrated the season in ways a dish saddled with an earthy sauce can't replicate. But I suspect what I liked best about the salad was what I like best about Revel: It was gutsy, unexpected, and nonchalantly delicious. I'm looking forward to having that salad again, and don't think I'll have any trouble finding someone to join me. Price Guide Corned-lamb salad $9 Pork-belly pancake $10 Chorizo dumpling $10 Short-rib rice $14 Duck-meatball noodles $15 Ice cream sandwich $5 hraskin@seattleweekly.com  

 
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