Just over a month in, Brimmer & Heeltap has already achieved what every restaurant hopes to: a full house by 7 on a Friday night, a few diners hovering in the doorway waiting for tables. The atmosphere is ebullient—an extension of the personality of proprietress Jen Doak, a bubbly but down-to-earth presence who’s scampered about the Seattle hospitality scene for years. We’re surrounded by what are obviously locals from the neighborhood as well as families and hipsters: the perfect storm of a clientele. The restaurant’s name, Doak tells us on an early visit before they open, refers to the first sip of your drink (The Brimmer) and the final swig (the Heeltap). So much can happen over the course of a cocktail, she explains: engagements, breakups, business deals . . .
Housed in the space made famous by the since-departed La Gourmand, the restaurant is far off the beaten Ballard path, situated instead on the residential corner of Sixth Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street, across from Slate coffee and Veraci pizza. Its bright, lively interior makes you want to run out and rent an apartment on the same block: lots of painted white wood, a shiny copper floor comprising pennies donated by Doak’s friends, funky white bar seats made from the ripped-up remains of vintage leather chairs, pine cones spaced evenly on shelves, and tables close together in that New York kind of way. You want this to be your neighborhood spot. But there’s more to that sentiment than its quirky, warm decor.
For starters, the menu from chef Mike Whisenhunt (Revel, Joule) gives a small and large option for every entrée, which means you can try many things and not break the bank. (This is one of my favorite dining trends of late.) There’s also a “Late Night” menu, available 10 p.m. to midnight, that includes items like pickled oyster shooters, steak tartare with daikon, sesame oil vinaigrette and nori rice crackers, goat with black lentils, and a “Family Meal”—read: whatever the staff ate that night.
The food itself is homey, but with just the right splash of sophistication and subtle Asian accents. Whisenhunt seems to have taken some of the best elements of the Korean influences at Revel and Joule and applied them to comfort-y bistro-style food. It’s almost its own category: Call it Korean fusion comfort food. Take the buns, for instance, a spin on the baked buns stuffed with pork you often find at dim sum. His, however, are packed with kobocha, glazed with sherry, and topped with walnuts and seaweed crumble. Served warm, they’re hearty, yet also showcase the really interesting flavor profile of the sweetish squash and the ever-so-slightly briny seaweed. You wish, like with cookie dough, that you could keep a stash of them in your freezer for late-night snacking or surprise guests. People in the vicinity, I’m sure, will come for a craft cocktail or local brew and an order of buns on a ho-hum Tuesday night. Or they should, anyway. Which leads me to another point . . .
This restaurant, with its somewhat disarmingly small menu, is really about staple dishes (like the buns). I expect trips here to be preceded not by the suggestion that we “go to Brimmer & Heeltap for dinner tonight,” but that we “go have the pork shoulder with caramelized kimchi at Brimmer & Heeltap tonight.” Diners may even come in just for the toast special, which is becoming the menu item du jour nationally. It changes often on Whisenhunt’s menu; we enjoyed a piece with housemade ricotta, anchovy, long pepper, lemon pepper, capers, and olive oil. For just $3, there’s what Doak likes to call “Texas Toast,” a super-simple thick slice of grilled white bread, well-buttered. It proved essential not only because everyone loves buttered toast, but because it can be used to sop up the juices from many a delicious dish. On one of our nights there, the browned bread was the vehicle used to savor every last bit of the Kashmir curry with salsa verde once the nicely cooked rockfish and poached prawns it was served with were gone.
The braised turnips with a warm apple-cranberry vinaigrette and pork cracklings is another “house” dish that’s worth a try. I’m a huge turnip fan, and the first time we tried it, it was incredible. The second time, it desperately needed some salt and could have used more cracklings. The chilled Dungeness crab trifle is popular too, and is what it purports to be—a savory take on a classic dessert. Crab and Brussels sprouts are layered among custard and brioche. While this isn’t my kind of dish—I’m not a fan of cold soups or cold, creamy things that aren’t sweet—I appreciated its delicate flavor, and can see how it’d be enjoyable on a hot day on the restaurant’s yet-to-open back patio.
The roasted chuck steak was both interesting and tasty: Served with a shio kombo (rehydrated seaweed) salad with truffle oil and mustard seed, the rare slices of meat combined with the mustard lent a pastrami-sandwich kind of flavor that grew on me. Unfortunately, the rabbit crepinette was a disaster. The meat is braised with onion and spinach and eventually wrapped in the caul fat. What resulted was overcooked rabbit and a greasy, gelatinous mess. Attempts to offset that fattiness with an arugula salad with grapefruit, served with a lemon to squeeze over it, couldn’t save the terrible texture. But back to my point about house favorites: This just isn’t one of them. Sure, they’re going to add new dishes; some will stick and some won’t. But no matter: Brimmer & Heeltap already has enough winners on the menu to secure a loyal following.
The dessert menu is notable —I’d even say commendable—for what it lacks. There’s no pastry chef, and Doak and Whisenhunt made the bold decision to serve only cold parfaits, obviously because they can be made ahead of time. Other restaurants with chefs lacking good pastry knowledge should take heed: Don’t try to get too fanciful with desserts if you can’t execute them well. Here they offer a chocolate mousse parfait topped with Earl Grey crumble that’s divine even though it doesn’t have any sugar in it (besides the sugar in the bittersweet chocolate). The ricotta parfait, too, is quite nice, topped with a kashmiri mandarin marmalade and some extra-virgin olive oil. The rice pudding parfait is the one fail. Rice pudding needs to be warm; otherwise it’s just a cold glass of sweet sticky goo. If you just aren’t into parfaits, there’s hot cocoa and a shortbread cookie. It’d be nice to see perhaps some other cookies or a couple more easily pre-prepped items join the über-curated offerings.
Bottom line: Comfort food has long been passé, or merely an elevation of diner favorites. Brimmer & Heeltap, though, is proving that it can be something altogether different and delicious, even exotic—and the dining room’s vibe perfectly encapsulates that idea. This is a restaurant to which you’ll find yourself often defaulting—whether because you’re craving, say, the flavorful octopus soup with a dashi broth, or the room that feels like a happy family reunion just descended upon it.
BRIMMER & HEELTAP 425 N.W. Market St., 420-2534, brimmerandheeltap.com. 5 p.m.–midnight Wed.–Mon.
Braised turnips $7/$13
Broiled pork shoulder steak $9/$17
Roasted chuck steak $9/$21
Chilled dungeness crab trifle $16
Chocolate mousse parfait $6