Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I try not to judge a restaurant by its location. But when that mis-matched location (fine dining in what appears to be a professional building) extends into décor and the ambience of a restaurant, I have to assume it's the reason that a place serving excellent food is completely empty on a Monday night. Unfortunately for Nell's Restaurant at Green Lake, great food can't overcome an awkward overall experience.
To close my eyes and imagine the crunchy filo-dough crust sweet onion tart--a study in the caramelization of alliums--served in the busy intimacy of the old Le Gourmand, or on the spacious and cacophonous tables of Bastille would not be a stretch. When it landed on our table at Nell's, there was just one other party dining on a recent night. By the time the steelhead main arrived, cooked impeccably to full pinkness, supple without translucence in the fish, alongside green beans, Meyer lemon, and caper brown butter, we were the only table. It was 7:15. The emptiness of the restaurant, combined with classic white tablecloths and serving ware gave the feeling of eating in a bygone era--not just back 14 years to when the restaurant opened, but to the late '80's, when Northwest-tinged French cooking was just starting to land in an upscale environment.
Expert waitstaff were able to guide us through the menu and through wine choices, and even more impressively, to serve a single table without feeling overbearing or as if they were ignoring us. The service, along with much of the menu, is clearly practiced in coping with an empty restaurant. The seasonal food offerings reuse certain ingredients and certain preparations (lots of celery root, a few risottos) making ordering and kitchen prep easy for a small service. But you have to wonder, as you enjoy the calamari with parsley salad, if it's really a pleasant place to eat on a Monday.
Not a single bite we were served, from yellowfoot mushroom risotto to duck confit, had a mistake. All of it used top-notch classic techniques with fresh local ingredients. And yet, I left the meal disappointed. I wanted to eat that meal in a room full of people enjoying it. A place where the server's wine knowledge could be heard being appreciated as glasses clinked in toasts, and where people, unlike us, wanted to order dessert, so as to linger longer over their meal.