After opening a slew of restaurants in the past few years with his Huxley Wallace Collective, Josh Henderson has decided it’s time to settle down next to the fire. And, no, I’m not talking about relaxing in front of one with a book and a snifter of whiskey. This fire is the one that blazes at the chef’s counter at Vestal (513 Westlake Ave. N., 456-2660), one of his new restaurants in South Lake Union, and that “touches” almost all of the menu items, from meats to veggies. Here, Henderson, who is not only the owner but executive chef, moves lightly, adding a log to the fire when necessary, turning a piece of fish over the Japanese binchotan coal (which burns hotter and imparts a smokier flavor), quietly, sagely whispering to the three chefs working next to him, all of them impressively calm despite the proximity of the literal heat as well as the figurative one: being watched so closely by customers and their boss.
No detail seems to slip by Henderson—like when one of the chefs brought us a pasta dish without a serving fork and spoon. Before I even had the chance to beckon our server, Henderson made a subtle, quick motion to the chef, and instantly the implements appeared. For a birthday celebrated by a neighboring couple, he came out himself to deliver a cake with a candle. In other words, he seems fully comfortable with his role in this kitchen, where he now cooks two to three nights each week. His presence is clearly a positive one.
Vestal may be the least “designed” of any of Henderson’s restaurants, which are known for their quirky, sophisticated themes, from The Life Aquatic-inspired Westward to the campfire chic at Scout in the Thompson Hotel. Vestal is lovely, a huge open room with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows dressed with long velvet drapes, and low lighting. But the space is also thoroughly minimalist; the most noticeable feature, besides the roaring fire, is the massive hollowed-out log that acts as the hostess station at the entrance. Perhaps that’s because Henderson himself is the real reason to come, and why detract from that? It’s refreshing to see a good chef return to the stove and not just coast down the path of restaurateur. It is also, certainly, a wonderful opportunity for the chefs who get to learn beside him.
The prices at Vestal are on the steeper end of any of Henderson’s spots, but the food is well worth it. Inspired and impeccably executed, two of the five dishes I had are ones I’ll be gushing over for a while. From the lower portion of the menu, where there are four entrée-sized dishes, the sake-marinated cod was the best piece of fish I’ve eaten all year. Prepared sous vide before getting its time on the coals, the filet is marinated in both sake and thyme oil, the latter of which infuses the flesh with incredible succulence and flavor. Rounding the dish out are dabs of Honeycrisp and crabapple cream, a provocative play of sweet and sour that brings a perfect autumn punch. Dehydrated apple slices finish the plate.
The other extraordinary dish—and the one perhaps the hardest to describe—is a pasta, lievito e pepi: spaghetti with cracked pepper and toasted yeast butter. Though portioned as a medium-sized dish, the caramel-colored tangle of al dente noodles is plentiful, and the taste imparted by the toasted yeast butter is probably the most authentic example of umami that I’ve ever experienced: truly that elusive “fifth” flavor that is a mouthful of exquisite savory sensation. Along with the bite of the black pepper, the sauce becomes both intensely lush and slightly bitter in the very best way. This is a dish that’s going to get a lot of press, and people will either love it or hate it. Despite its simple ingredients, it has the richness and exoticism of, say, foie gras or uni, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Though we didn’t try the duck, that nearby birthday couple insisted we try theirs (I love sitting at a chef’s counter for just this reason), and it was every bit as fabulous as they promised, the perfectly cooked breast served with a foie mousse and tart cranberries, rather than predictable sweet cherries.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the tortellini stuffed with Dungeness crab and bone marrow, I’d have liked at least one (even better, two) more of the four dumpling-like pasta pieces submerged in an assertive crab broth with wilted greens. Though considered medium-sized, it really is more like a small starter, so as good as the pasta was, it felt like a tease.
The squash custard, on the other hand, though a small plate, is sizable. A perfect rectangle of custard is topped with a negligible amount of salmon roe and some sliced raw matsutake mushrooms; when served, a warm matsutake dashi sweetened lightly with maple is poured over it. I loved the signature musky cinnamon flavor of the mushrooms, but the custard itself wasn’t my favorite—in part I think because it wasn’t warm enough and there was an ever-so-slight graininess in what should have been a silken texture. Dessert, though, was above criticism—the apple cake not, thankfully, deconstructed. Instead, the pudding-like cake is subtly flavored with smoked rose apples (yes, even the dessert gets the fire) and served alongside caramelized honey ice cream with a substantial oat crisp on top.
It’s truly all about the details here, from the lovely small glass of cool cucumber rose tea that starts your meal to the tiny mug of digestif that ends it, served as a bitter compliment to the sweet dessert.
Even the cocktails are interesting. One in particular, the South Lake Union Sour, bears explanation. Made with rye whiskey, honey syrup, and orange bitters, a dark brownish-red spherical ice cube planted in the glass is made of lambrusco (a sparkling red wine), which slowly melts into the drink, turning it into a slushy, spicy, delicious mess. When the glass drains to just below half full, the server comes around and tops it off with more lambrusco. It’s a small thing, but it feels special.
Though there’s ample seating in the spacious room, definitely consider the chef’s counter. Not only do you get to watch your food slowly cook in the smoldering embers, but you’re part of a camaraderie among the other guests, and even the chefs, that elevates the meal. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll hit a night when Henderson is there, humbly working, but sparking magic nonetheless.