In a city where tourists come expecting great seafood, it’s a dirty little secret that Seattle’s seafood scene has—dare I say it?—gotten rather stale.
Sure, we have waterfront seafood houses like Ray’s Boathouse and Salty’s, where you can always find Pacific Northwest favorites like halibut, salmon, and Dungeness crab. Ditto venerable but staid grand dames like The Brooklyn, where you can choose from those same usual suspects or steak and lobster. Expensive, special-occasion options like Aqua by Gaucho may include Chilean sea bass or Hawaiian swordfish, but they tend to be masked with rich, unctuous beurre blancs and cream sauces. Chowder houses abound, but they serve a simple purpose: a place to grab a filling bowl of soup or some fried seafood. And while we do have superlative sushi choices, and restaurants like The Walrus and the Carpenter have taken oysters to a new level, there’s been a noticeable lack of seafood innovation as a whole. Instead, the city’s love affair with all things pig or locavore has dominated the scene. That may be about to change with the opening of Rock Creek (scheduled, at press time, for July 31).
The love child of romantic and business partners Eric Donnelly and Christy Given (former executive chef and pastry chef, respectively, at Toulouse), Rock Creek is a large, two-storied, modern-yet-rustic affair located on a corner of Fremont Avenue North. The new restaurant will focus on “seafood and spirits” —specifically, finfish from around the world and lighter, brighter drinks like aquavits and piscos, as well as interesting white and sparkling wines from Europe instead of Washington. While Donnelly likes barbecue and dark liquors as much as the next guy, referring to the predominance of pork belly on menus, he laughs and says, “We’ve beaten on that animal for a long time now.”
I sat down with Donnelly and Given in the unfinished space—on benches of reclaimed fir beneath a skylight in the soon-to-be-private dining room upstairs—to talk about their vision as construction workers drilled and sawed around us. “We want to let people experience great fish from around the world—tropical, Mediterranean, from Fuji, South America,” says Donnelly. This approach indicates a clear break from the locavore trend that dictates only local fish like salmon and halibut belong on your plate. But, Donnelly says, that doesn’t mean Rock Creek is disregarding healthy ecosystems in its quest for adventurous cuisine. “There are many well-managed fisheries in these places, and a lot of finfish besides catfish and black cod that we can feel good about eating.”
Snapper, fluke, hamachi, black bass, grouper, and pompano are just some of the fishes he’s planning to serve. And while Asian-style sauces on fish have been done to death, Rock Creek will try more Latin approaches, like a Peruvian tiradito—sliced raw fish similar to ceviche but with a more delicate, less tangy flavor—served with corn nuts and a chili sauce.
How does Donnelly determine what’s well-managed? For wild fish, “it’s about something that has a large bio-mass, that’s replenishable.” For farmed fish, he says, it’s “ocean ranching,” which can mean raising them in large, open cages in flowing water—not in back estuaries where waste can be an issue—and letting the fish feed on a natural diet, as opposed to being physically fed. It can also mean raising fish in open cages, releasing them and then catching them when they come back. These methods are all part of the aquaculture movement that’s grown considerably in the last five years.
Donnelly is also focused on line-caught fish that are “boat-specific,” noting that “I have relationships all over the world with day-boat fishermen.” For instance, he works with a guy in Baja who literally dives daily for scallops. “They aren’t dredged up with all that stuff from the bottom of the floor, which is really damaging.”
But while responsible, consciously sourced fisheries are a big priority for Rock Creek, Donnelly doesn’t want to get to get too bogged down in characterizing his restaurant by a choice that he says is “really something that any good restaurateur should be making.”
ROCK CREEK 4300 Fremont Ave. N., 557-7532, rockcreekseattle.com.