It’s 6 p.m. on a Saturday and we’re dressed in “nice dinner out” clothes. On the deck of Josh Henderson’s Laurelhurst restaurant Saint Helens Café (3600 N.E. 45th St., 775-7050), however, we’re surrounded almost entirely by cyclists in their riding gear. That’s because the restaurant backs into the Burke-Gilman Trail; it’s a beautiful evening, and the Spandex crowd is rewarding itself with a beer or an early supper.
While the bucolic trail is on one side, the front of the restaurant faces Northeast 45th Street, and the whoosh of traffic at times is distracting. Fortunately, though, the food and the overall ambience more than make up for that minor annoyance.
St. Helens Café is a rather misleading name. It’s not actually a cafe, though it does offer daily breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch. The two-story, all-wood exterior attaches to another new Henderson outpost, Great State Burger. Diners head right instead, up the stairs, and enter a long narrow room that’s half bar, half seating area, divided by a metal shelving structure with window-like cutouts, some of which contain lovely decorative patterns made of wood, while others act as shelves for blooming green plants. The effect is both charming and modern. The dining side features a banquette in an arresting and rich citrine-yellow that runs the length of the restaurant and butts up to white and gray marble tabletops. Other seating is white with blue polka dots and vice versa, also paired with marble tables. The bar is a long slab of marble as well, the floors hardwood, the ceiling wooden and lofty, and the walls a clean, fresh white.
Outside feels a little like a mini-version of Westward, minus the water, with its blue-and-white theme (the chairs and tables alternate between those two colors), the striped umbrellas, and additional seating around a small fire pit. And while there’s no nautical decor, there’s still a level of detail and originality that makes restaurants from Henderson’s Huxley Wallace Collective, to my mind, truly lovely and unique. Here it manifests itself in the gold cutlery, which sparkles in the sunlight; the delicate, unusual shape of the wineglasses, with a thin, gold rim; the vintage dishware that looks like it belongs in a small bistro in the south of France. And France is indeed the predominant theme here—though with Henderson’s own spin.
Take the room-temperature Niçoise salad from the menu’s Smaller Plates section. It’s one of a few items, including the burger, that is always available, at brunch, lunch, or dinner. Traditionally served with tuna, here it comes with smoked black cod—two sizable orbs of it, flaky to the fork and perfectly suited to the other elements, including fingerling potatoes, quartered cherry tomatoes oozing with summery sweetness, crunchy haricots verts, and frisée. It’s tossed in the lightest bit of red-wine vinaigrette, just enough to gloss the elements. Besides tuna, it’s also missing the black olives and hard-boiled eggs of a typical Niçoise, and I loved this version even better for its fresher, less astringent taste. I would have liked a little more frisée, however; there are just a few pieces of it, more a garnish than an ingredient.
The spring pasta is another expertly constructed and superb-tasting dish—from the Larger Plates section. Again, the kitchen plays with the concept of a mainstay, this time making a stop in Italy for spaghetti carbonara. The housemade pasta, which has that hard-to-achieve al dente bite, comes with flavorful strips of wild mushrooms, English peas that border on marble-size, watercress, and pecorino. A raw egg tops it off and, when mixed in, brings that lush mouthfeel without compromising the vibrancy of the seasonal goodies. Fittingly, this version has no bacon, which would overpower it. There is, however, a healthy dose of black pepper, which brought a brilliant blast to the mellow meal. For an extra $7 on top of the very reasonable $18 (we had leftovers for lunch the next day), you could add King crab, but I wouldn’t advise it; it’s just too perfect as it is.
The crispy pan-roasted chicken is on point as well. Half of a Mad Hatcher Farms chicken comes cut into moist pieces and topped with a salsa verde that isn’t at all spicy, but rather abundant with fines herbes—that canonical French mixture that includes parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil. In this one, I detected the tarragon perhaps the most strongly, and I was reminded of its enigmatic flavor, both woodsy and soapy. Raw radishes garnish the dish, and a side of puréed watercress, which resembles the salsa verde in color and texture, brings a piquant, vegetal little gift.
The St. Helens Chuck Roast was a delightful surprise as well. The chef works magic with this cheap cut, which shines like a new penny with its sheen of golden-reddish demi-glace. Cut into it and, while it’s not obviously as tender as, say, a medium-rare ribeye, it’s far from dry. It’s neighbored by a side of mashed potatoes that bleed into a blur of black garlic crème fraiche—adding an almost truffle-like earthy decadence.
This ranks up there with one of my best meals of 2016, and it reiterates to me how masterful Josh Henderson is at creating signature spaces with superlative food—and how much of a gift he is to Seattle’s growing culinary scene, giving it a makeover that still respects the integrity of the city and the Pacific Northwest. When I walk into a Huxley Wallace restaurant, there’s usually an initial trepidation of “Has he taken it too far?”, which is quickly subdued by the stylish, thoughtful design and well-tuned details that prevent it from going kitsch. He’s ramped up a lot lately, and while I haven’t yet tried Scout in the Thompson hotel or Bar Noroeste in South Lake Union, I’m hopeful that this restaurateur won’t spread himself too thin, but will continue to offer neighborhood treasures that play with ethnic flavors under a Pacific Northwest (striped) umbrella.