As we broke the news last week, chef Eric Donnelly is leaving his three-year perch at Toulouse Petit to open his own seafood restaurant. RockCreek won't be a fancy affair like Oceanaire--the place Donnelly made his mark as a seafood chef alongside Kevin Davis, who retired the kitchen to his young predecessor in 2006 when he left to open Steelhead Diner.
Eric's epic catch.
Build-out on RockCreek, named after a body of water Donnelly and his dad fish in Montana, begins in a matter of weeks. And before life gets too crazy, Donnelly is trying to fit in as many dry fly fishing trips as he can. It's undoubtedly his favorite past time.
I got to tag along on one of those trips recently, where in addition to showing me how to fly fish and making a mean lamb loin lunch (over a campfire), Donnelly talked about his new place, why it was almost a cowboy bar, and the biggest fish he's ever caught.
How did RockCreek come about?
About three years ago, I was at this point in my life, like, "What the f*** am I going to do? I can keep cooking or I could go be a fly fishing guide. That's all I want to do." Me and my dad were in Montana--we go a couple of times a year--and I remember just spacing out, drinking a beer and probably smoking at that point (ed note: he quit a couple of months ago), thinking about what direction I wanted to take my life. So, we were going to fish this stream called Rock Creek and I remember driving through and it was cattle herd time, when they start driving the cattle out of all the rolling hills. We were on this road and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of about 2,000 cows. And there were real cowboys and dogs and four-wheelers and all this stuff. I thought it was cool. I liked the feel of it. The cattle were happy, they looked good; it wasn't like they were being led off to slaughter. So, I started thinking, "What if I did a cowboy bar?" and instead of a name, it'd be a brand, a symbol.
Like Prince! I started thinking about that and after we came back home I started to develop on that idea and as time moves on, things evolve, and I started looking for spaces and found this space in Fremont and started to think it wasn't the best fit for an old-school urban cowboy bar. It was too sophisticated.
I love cooking seafood. I love the educational piece, the ability to teach people about fisheries. I want to just fish all the time, I want to be surrounded by fishing and the fishing industry. I thought, "This is it!" Over some time, there's been several models, but to get to the model at right now, what RockCreek is going to become is really cool: globally sourced sustainable fisheries and spirits. That's going to be our focus.
Do you have a specific type of fish you like to catch?
I'm kind of a fishing purest, which would be like dry fly fishing for trout. But, definitely steelhead. Getting into that is a commitment. Not only a time commitment, but a commitment that you probably won't catch a lot of fish. I've only landed one steelhead on a fly rod and haven't spent a ton of time doing it.
Is it more the act of fishing that appeals to you, as opposed to what you catch?
Definitely with steelhead. It's a lot of early mornings, cold winter days, fishing in the snow; it's very meditative almost. There are those times where you hook a fish and all of the sudden you lean into this 8-12 pound wild steelhead, and it's crazy! Just the feel of the tug on that swung fly--it's an amazing feeling.
What exactly is dry fly fishing?
Basically, you have a floating line and a clear section on the end of the line and the fly you use, the lure or bait you use, is basically this dry 'fly' that floats on top of the water. Trout feed on several stages of insect life. It starts as a nymph stage, and then as they start to develop into a fly, they go through another life stage. So, depending on what time of year or time of day, they'll be feeding on any particular stage of that life form. They're always eating like a dog; all you have to do is feed them. You just have to known the entomology of what they want to feed on.
It's an art. The casting and the act of making a fish come up to eat with various imitations of flies is a rush. You can see them come off the bottom and eat a dry fly off the top of the water. It's a super huge rush. It's so fun!
Did you fish with your dad when you were little?
Yeah, I did. I have this huge Montana family base on both sides. I was born in Washington, but there's this huge family connection to Montana and in our family [fishing] is almost like going to church. We're not a big religious family, but that time spent outdoors and that time spent together--and 99-percent of the time you're outdoors you better be fishing--it's our way to come together. My dad and I have a huge bond that we didn't have before because of fishing. Once your old man tells you you're a good fisherman, that's a really special thing in my family. My grandfather was a fisherman in Montana, so was his father. On my mom's side of the family, I have an old bamboo fly rod from the '30s that belongs to her dad. It's like a right of passage. Fly fishing is a tradition in my family.
What's your proudest fishing moment?
Last summer. There's these spring creeks in deep eastern Washington. They're pretty crazy. They're in the Palouse. I got kind of grandfathered into them by this guy I met fishing on the Yakima River. We started hanging out and he told me he wanted to show me something. Over time, I'm thinking to myself, "Man, this is weird. This old guy wants me to drive five hours to meet him to go to this thing I don't even know exists." I thought, "Is he going to axe murder me or what's the deal here?" I get to this gas station that's in the middle of God knows where. We roll out to this stream that's probably an hour away. We turn off a few roads, I'm talking there's nothing for miles, and we get to this bridge and all of the sudden there's water and it's this really beautiful Jurassic Park-like scene with prehistoric-looking land around it and this green belt. We hike in another three miles to get to this thing and we start fishing and all of the sudden we're catching fish that are steelhead-size on dry flies and tiny little rods. We're talking hot 7-pound trout that you're doing everything you can to stay connected to. We fished the whole day catching fish like that.
Towards the end of the day, I go to fish this one last-call run near where we had parked, throwing casts into this tight little spot, and I caught this rainbow [trout] and this thing is like a donkey. It's huge! This thing took me like 20 minutes to land. I'm by myself and I finally land it and I look at it and am like, "Jesus, this is the biggest fish I've ever caught in my life," so I measured it and it its close to 29-inches. As my adrenaline rush wore off, and my fly is beat to shit, for whatever reason I took one more cast and what looked like a whirlpool took my fly down. I lifted my rod tip up and I had hooked another fish that was ridiculous. It was a monster. Bigger than the first one I caught. All I could see was the tail. Finally, a half hour into this, I finally see this thing and it blew my mind. I netted it, managed to snap a couple of photos, and put it back. Hands down, the most amazing hour-and-a-half of my life. Two of the biggest fish I've ever caught.
My proudest fishing moment: a 4" smelt.
And what kind of fish were they?
The first one was a rainbow trout and the second was a monster brown trout.
There have been days you catch one or two fish that are 18-20 inches and you think, "That was awesome! Let's go drink some whiskey by the fire," but this day, I still don't feel the same about dry fly fishing. It was like the day of a lifetime as far as fishing goes.
In RockCreek, are you going to have any fishing paraphernalia?
For sure! The place is called RockCreek. Rock Creek is a super famous fly fishing river in western Montana. We're not going to play the hokey décor thing off of that, not a bunch of kitschy stuff, but definitely some elements of that stream--the colors, the river rock and things like that will definitely play into the feel of the place.
Best case scenario for an opening?
Is there any seafood you won't eat or don't like?
I'd definitely try anything once. I've never had a sea slug. I'm not a big monkfish liver fan. A lot of people think it's like this foie gras of the sea and I have doubts about that. I grew up eating seafood. Fishing as a kid wasn't' like, "Hey, let's go hang out and fish," it was like, "We're going to catch salmon this weekend and we're going to eat them." It was less of a sport venture at that point.
Getting out there and being a restaurant that gets into fisheries and products that come out of those fisheries and what they are besides mahi mahi, tuna, halibut, salmon, and whatever else falls into that generic Northwest seafood experience. I feel there isn't any opportunity there if you're a diner, and that's really what I want to bring to the table. I want a place that has the knowledge to stand behind the fisheries that it represents, the know-how to take care of those fish besides drowning it in some kind of pineapple-mango salsa with rice pilaf. I want to really get adventurous with the preparation. I want to get into the global scheme of things, not just what we would consider a Northwest dish--some Asian, South American, Puerto Rican, Cuban dishes. Having that diverse scene going on with fish I think is going to be really exciting. I hope to continue this into other restaurant ventures, not just this sole venture.