Nettletown's Troll Cuisine

An Eastlake eatery that's a magnet for Hobbit enthusiasts.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who liked to gather ferns and mushrooms and berries. She roamed across lonely mountains and through spooky forests, filling her quiver with magical ingredients for Seattle chefs. Matt Dillon partook of the woman's bounty, and became her friend. When it came time for Dillon to move his Eastlake restaurant, Sitka & Spruce, to a bigger spot on the banks of Capitol Hill, he devised a plan to share the woman's foraging fortune with the neighborhood he was soon to leave behind. Dillon last year arranged for Christina Choi, a veteran chef as well as a skilled scavenger, to take over the space he vacated. His investment made him a partner in the enterprise, but the fairy-tale restaurant Choi has created in Nettletown is very much her own. The swirl of sometimes-contradictory culinary impulses, wild produce, and earnest Whole Earth Catalog charm leaves no doubt as to who serves as this compelling eatery's heroine. Choi, who co-founded Foraged & Found Edibles with Jeremy Faber, often speaks of her dual ethnic heritages when asked to articulate her vision for Nettletown. She's Swiss on her mother's side and Chinese on her father's, which putatively accounts for the spaetzle shaded with a soy-like sauce and the Alpine meats swaddled in wonton wrappers. But Choi hasn't just swiped a recipe from one culture and plugged in ingredients from another, as the sloppiest fusioneers do. Instead, she's yielded to a stronger influence, allowing the woods to rule her menu. It's a measure of Choi's talent that she's effectively sold her doting audience on troll cuisine. Diners whose stomachs don't rumble at the sight of The Hobbit's scenery, though, may be less adoring. Nettletown has a partially open kitchen, so I can attest there aren't any gnomes minding the paisley slow-cookers or sprites splitting crusty Le Fournil baguettes for sandwiches. But there's a basket of pinecones in the bathroom, a giddy toadstool mural on the pond-green wall (flourished with the phrase "Your smile is contagious"), and evidence of earth on every plate. For instance, if you pop open any of Nettletown's banh mi–style sandwiches for dissection, you'll find a fertile pasture of pickled carrot discs, strips of pickled onion, feathery dill weed, and whatever other herbs struck Choi as fresh and fragrant; the delectable spread could double as the base layer for a mastodon diorama. There's more local greenery on Nettletown's salad, much of which is so feral that a helpful staffer interrupted a diner digging into her serving to ask "Do you need help identifying anything?" She preferred to press ahead, enjoying the straightforward salad dressed so lightly that it recalled the old boozers' joke about waving a vermouth bottle over a martini. The menu at Nettletown changes as the region's various fruits and vegetables sprout, blossom, and wither, but there's an array of always-available side dishes, including pickles, crostini flecked with fennel, an ocherous shelled tea egg, and crispy ginger seaweed. As very dry seaweeds go, I'm sure Nettletown's rendition is highly competent, but I can't imagine habitually eating the kettle-black nori shards. I found the seaweed too savage: It tasted like it had waged a brutal battle with Mother Nature and lost. It reminded me of the sodden leaves left unraked at autumn's end and revealed when the snow melts in the spring. I prefer less-tragic side dishes, but assume some diners might be transfixed by a snack that smacks of mystery. For those who crave its brittle flake, reminiscent of decades-old newsprint, the restaurant sells its seaweed by the bag. The seaweed was the only item I encountered at Nettletown that was branded with an unpleasant flavor. Most of the other dishes that didn't work for me were frustratingly underseasoned. When Choi was plotting Nettletown, she told Seattle Weekly that "I don't like crazy spicy food," and her reticence shows. A tongue-and-kelp soup, with broth clear as moonshine and twirls of angel-hair noodles, should have rung with salt and funk. Yet it tasted mostly of nothing until it was generously padded with a scoop of chili oil. All the soups I sampled at Nettletown were monotonously calming, but the worst offenders on the flavorless front were the more elaborate entrées. The pan-fried knots of spaetzle (here known as knoepfli), tossed with cabbage and leeks, soaked up a torrent of soy sauce and remained bland. Scrawny egg noodles and scallions were fun to eat while there was still a hunk of tender, five-spice pork short rib nestled in the bowl. After it disappeared in a flurry of chopstick pokes, the dish's punch did too. The noodles are popular evening orders, along with a wonton special that's only available on Wednesday nights. The wontons I tried were limp and squashy, the broth so muted that it was initially impossible to discern whether our server had brought us the spicy soy-scallion sauce or the ginger-chicken broth. According to the menu, we had our pick, but the server hadn't asked. The first rule in fairy tales, of course, is not to venture out at night. That's a good guideline for dining at Nettletown, which keeps evening hours Wednesday through Saturday. Dinner crowds are noisy in ways that aren't compatible with the restaurant's storybook vibe, and service is remarkably disjointed. It's unclear whether customers are supposed to order at the counter or their table (Nettletown is a counter-service joint by day), and whether servers or customers are responsible for fetching utensils and clearing dishes (our server took our order and our plates, but left us to stalk menus and other accoutrements). Multicourse timing doesn't make any sense in the Nettletown context either: If our server had alerted us earlier that the only warm dessert available—an eggy huckleberry cobbler paired with tangy yogurt whipped cream—would take a long 20 minutes to produce, we wouldn't have waited until we'd finished our entrées to place an order. Between strategizing orders and seasoning food, it's difficult for a dinner guest at Nettletown to relax. So skip dinner and focus on lunch, when Nettletown shines. Communes are one of Choi's culinary inspirations, and the restaurant's decor picks up on the theme. The light-filled room is furnished with plenty of wood, books, and Scandinavian-style cushions where comfort calls for them. It's the perfect setting for weaving macramé, or enjoying Nettletown's terrific sandwiches. The sandwich selection includes tofu, tuna, chicken salad, and a jokey peanut butter, pickle, and bacon sandwich that would be better if the peanut butter didn't have the healthful flavor of the peanut butters churned at 1970s natural-foods stores. But the bacon is fantastic: For a restaurant firmly rooted in the forest, Nettletown does a fine job with cured and processed meats. I loved a sandwich of rustic roast duck slathered with mayonnaise. Bratwurst was dense and woodsy, while the superb lemongrass elk meatballs, pressed slim, were lusciously tender and suffused with rangy, footloose flavors. For dessert, there are cookie bars, many of which are dry and not especially sweet. But there are also bird's nests of chow-mein noodles that look very much like what a kid who calls his parents by their first names gets in his lunch box. The noodles are drizzled with peanut butter, smothered in chocolate, and dappled with ginger. Not bad for a fairy-tale ending. PRICE GUIDE (lunch/dinner) Green salad $5/$6 Knoepfli $7.75/$8.50 Noodles $12/$13.75 Wontons $9 Bratwurst sandwich $7/$10 Elk meatball $8.75/$11.75 hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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