There’s a new restaurant-naming meme in Seattle, and it reveals as much about the namers as the times. The previous meme, one-syllable restaurants, was dominated by forceful action verbs such as Crush, Crave, and Smash. Owned and run by chefs, these restaurants didn’t so much invite you to take pleasure in their food as command you. The new meme is more aspirational: TASTE (run by Bon Appetit, a corporate catering company, at SAM), ART Restaurant and Lounge (at the Four Seasons), Urbane (at Hyatt’s Olive 8).
So when Seattle’s biggest caterer, Herban Feast, opened Fresh Bistro by Herban Feast in West Seattle a couple of months ago, owner B.J. Duft signaled a desire for legitimacy. By all accounts, Herban Feast is very good, but because catering is all about helping customers realize their vision, catering chefs don’t always attract the cachet that attaches to restaurant chefs.
The other aspiration that Fresh Bistro’s name blatantly wants to convey is that its food is—oh-so-important in these times—local, organic, fresh. It’s a restaurant for the times in gentrifying West Seattle, too, open for somewhat upscale lunches and for dinners that go well into the evening, as well as cocktails and weekend brunch. The room works well both for casual lunches with kids and date nights without, with high ceilings, a large open kitchen near the front, and walls painted in nature-like colors of algae green and rusty sand. The tables, ceiling lamps, and room dividers are covered in densely striated cork or bamboo pressboards, which all scream LEED certification. And the service has a neighborly care to it; on my first visit, our waitress wasn’t familiar with all the wines, so she brought us tastes of the glasses we asked after, and the chef, who was working the line that night, came out from behind it to wish us good evening as we left.
The kitchen is run by Dalis Chea (Herban Feast’s head chef) by night and Jeff Taton by day, both of them Canlis alumni. Their menu has lots going on—most of the dishes take two lines to describe—and the chefs are contemporary composers who incorporate everything from oh-so-hip kalbi and cheese from the foodie-adored Estrella Creamery to molecular-gastronomy touches like sriracha foam and sous-vide carrots.
Yet my first meal there was one of the worst bistro dinners I’ve eaten in months.
Truth be told, the appetizers did outperform the entrées. In the “bellies up” salad, an underdressed salad of greyish asparagus, red onions, and shaved fennel propped up three long strips of breaded and deep-fried salmon belly. The bland gush of fat from the unsalted meat as I crunched through the breading had a certain Pineapple Express appeal to it, but there was no seasoning, on either the salad or the meat strips, to illuminate or contain it. The soup we ordered alongside—the best dish of the night—was a carrot soup perfumed with wisps of curry and the evanescent anise notes of chervil. To savor the creamy soup’s velvet texture, though, you first had to crunch through coins of almost-raw carrots—apparently, and badly, cooked sous-vide (low-temperature poaching).
A dinner salad of picked-too-late greens with bacon, grapes, and a pallid vinaigrette was a complete fail. It attempted to reference a classic Parisian bistro salad with a poached egg, traditionally served atop prickly chicories dressed in a warm vinaigrette: The yolk coats the salad when you cut into it, blending with the vinaigrette and tempering the bitterness of the chicories. Here, the part of the yolk that wasn’t overcooked dripped into the bottom of the bowl of greens, where it became watered down by the poaching liquid slopped into the bowl. Grapes coated in watery raw egg yolk: not so appetizing.
A pan-roasted halibut fillet came with a pecorino-olive crust—a welcome punch of flavor for the flaky, undersalted fish. The fish levitated on a good five USDA servings of blanched and underseasoned “market veggies,” which I dutifully gnawed my way through; a barely-there fumet (traditionally a brothy sauce made from fish bones); and a dense spinach flan the size of a hockey puck. My tablemate took one bite of the emerald-green custard and grimaced at its mealy texture and intense vegetal flavor. For the next few hours, he kept trying to identify what the flan reminded him of. Finally, recognition struck: cud.
The dinner was a case of many creative ideas and no attention to detail. It made me think of a recent blog post by the Village Voice‘s Robert Sietsema complaining about the resurgence of overcomplicated dishes; he blames Top Chef for inspiring chefs to put together competition food meant only to sound good when described to the judges’ panel. Considering that Top Chef is the preferred soap opera for line cooks around the country, he has a point. I also think food fashion is once again cycling away from the simple and comfortable (dark side: bland and boring) toward the experimental and complex (dark side: off-kilter and shoddily executed).
Another visit, this one at lunchtime, confirmed my initial impressions of the restaurant, both in its successes and its failures. Two appetizers, which are on both the lunch and dinner menus, came off as good food wrapped up in busy-ness: the shiso-crusted honey-walnut prawns, for example, a play on the dim sum favorite. Once I blew away the cloud of bubbles covering the plate—a sriracha foam, though with none of the chile sauce’s flavor or spice—I found the prawns to be fat and delicately deep-fried, accompanied by a squiggle of honey mayo, a tiny slaw of chalky-tart green mango, and flecks of other things, none of which were shiso. Fresh also serves Herban Feast’s signature crab-and-sweet potato cakes. The quarter-sized cakes have dense, sweet orange fillings, well met by the dollops of smoky chipotle mayonnaise that bedeck them. The hallucinatory swirls of smoked-paprika and chive oils, as well as the scattered microgreens (what are microgreens for, I wondered for the hundredth time), I simply ignored. Meanwhile, a fregola (toasted pasta the size of ball bearings) “risotto” with goat cheese, truffle oil, and a portobello steak was flat-out tasteless.
It was the more modest dishes that pulled through. I don’t know what more you could want from a simple steak-frites—a thin, medium-rare strip of wagyu beef served with a simple pan sauce and shoestring fries barely misted with truffle oil. (Truffle oil’s a bit like a good perfume: The less you consciously note its presence, the more refined its wearer.) A pea and pecorino halibut salad turned out to be a thick slab of brioche mounded high with a light, spring-sweet fish salad studded with green peas, a clean note of lemon zest emerging from the creamy dressing. And best of all was the pork-belly banh mi. Yeah, you couldn’t taste any foie gras fat in the foie gras mayonnaise, but the sandwich didn’t need it, with a solid plank of braised pork belly in its center, a properly runny sunny-side egg smooshed into it, and cucumber shreds, sweet-tart pickled carrots, chiles, and cilantro—in short, a classic Vietnamese sandwich with more unctuous ingredients. What each of these dishes had in common was that they didn’t try hard enough to impress us with freshness, their timeliness, or vision. Which was why, of course, they tasted good.