All You Can Eat
Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.
February 11, 2009 6:15 AM
Posted by Nancy Leson
Don't go to Elemental@Gasworks. Unless you are smart enough to show up late at night, there won't be room for you. And don't bother calling, either, since they don't take reservations. So what's the point in telling you about it? Because I can't remember the last time I fell so hard for a restaurant. If you can call this offbeat, out-of-the-way haunt in a North Lake Union condo-complex a restaurant. Elemental -- which has no apparent signage and little street presence -- is more like a dynamic dinner party. One where you drink what's poured, the decor screams "Ikea!" and your hosts are a pair of thirtysomethings whose mission in life is slapping your tastebuds around while making you feel right at home.
Well, they're still at it with the slapping. Only now they've got a second venue adjacent to the original: a seductive little wine bar and private party space called Elemental Next Door (E.N.D. for short). I stopped in Saturday night for dinner, and afterward headed over to Elemental No. 1, where, when the clock struck midnight, I had the opportunity to wish Phabulous Phred (no longer a "thirtysomething") a happy 40th birthday. Laurie took a moment to shower her birthday boy with a little affection:
While I was visiting at Laurie's four-seat counter chatting up a friendly regular named Tony, you'll never guess who walked in. Ryu Nakano: another Elemental-regular, who sits high atop my list of Seattle's best sushi chefs, as he has for years. He'd made his way over after a busy night behind the sushi bar at his nearby restaurant, Kisaku (that's Tony, a charming a well-fed attorney, on the right):
Nakano-san was parched and hungry, and soon joined friends for a late-night dinner. I thought about leaving but was waylaid when another regular -- Mike Easton, late of Bizzaro (and soon to be found making charcuterie at the new 35th Street Bistro), stopped in for a nightcap. Laurie set him up with some piping-hot arancini and insisted I eat one of those crunchy fried risotto-balls, too. Not that I was hungry or anything, seeing as I'd just come from a phantastic dinner at E.N.D. (but since when has that ever stopped me?). Delicious!
That's the way it goes at Elemental, where Laurie cooks and Phred plays "I'm the boss of you," pouring whatever beverage strikes his fancy -- from aperitif to digestive and who-knows-and-who-cares? in between. At Elemental Next Door you get to choose your booze. There's a wall full of wines, and it's fun to peruse them. Every bottle costs $30 and if you need any help, feel free to put yourself in the hands of waiter Geoffrey Arcand, seen here uncorking a Chatter Creek cabernet while my friend Kim O'Donnel and her husband Russ Walker prepare to dig into a plate of pork confit with Brussels sprouts, pancetta and chestnuts:
Kim has "A Mighty Appetite" -- as her Washington Post blog-readers well know. And though she's leaning over this pork confit with a gleam in her eye, she always makes it a point to offer her readers a weekly "Meatless Monday" recipe.
So, you know how you can go into some places with a big menu and find "nothing to eat"? I took one look at this modest list and immediately wanted everything on it. We settled on several memorable dishes and I silently vowed to come back, soon, for the family-style four-course dinner ($32 per person):
We loved the escarole salad with kalamata olive vinaigrette, whose candied blood-orange garnish was cleverly brulee-ified with a blowtorch:
These Manchego cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers are a hot-seller here, and now we know why:
The venison terrine with dried cherries wasn't chopped liver either, and its accompanying Seville orange jam was even better than my own homemade version thanks to the fresh ginger that made it zing. (And what was it "zinging"? "How sweet it is to be loved by you," natch):
So, if Laurie's busy keeping the home-fires burning in her open kitchen at Elemental No. 1. . .
. . . then who's minding the kitchen Next Door? Well, that would be this charming young miss, Allyss Dillon, who not only cooks but also tends tables:
And the very good news is there are a lot more tables to tend. In addition to a semi-private 12-seater, there are also several tall tables like the one we sat at, plus a four-seat counter fronting an open kitchen, just like on the "old" side:
Which means now that there's an Elemental Next Door, perhaps the wait for a table at the original won't be never-E.N.D.-ing. And I'm betting those of you who may have come to Elemental and been put off by its Ikea-industrial decor will find its more spacious sibling far more physically appealing. It's perhaps best described by our waiter, who was awfully busy Saturday night, but not too busy to appreciate his workplace's "post-industrial, urban, upscale, Amish look."
By the way, as everyone knows, it's a tough place to find -- if you don't know where to look. So here's a little tutorial. Imagine this: You're driving north over the Fremont Bridge into the heart of Fremont. Turn right at "Waiting for the Interurban." Continue driving north on North 34th Street till you come to the Varsity Inn (you know: that little breakfast-joint that's been there forever-and-a-day). Park your car:
And there, just off the corner of North 34th Street and Wallingford Avenue North, between the Varsity and a hulking condo-complex, you'll find a quiet cul-de-sac overlooking Lake Union. Walk toward the water. Keep walking till you can't go any farther and you'll find the door to Elemental and its Next Door-neighbor. By day it looks like this:
But in the still of the night, especially this time of year, you're likely to see this:
If you're lucky, you'll find Phred standing outside holding the door. If not, go in and keep your fingers crossed in hope you'll find a vacant seat on either side of the house. If you're outta luck, well, go someplace else. But come back later for some cheese. . .
. . .because, having looked at Elemental from both sides now, I'm here to say it's great fun. Besides: late of an evening, you never know who you're going to run into.
UPDATE [2/11/09 2:35 p.m.] Hey gang, Laurie called me to say thanks for the write-up, and to point out an error (since removed) in the above story. Though he loves her crazy, Phred has not yet proposed to Laurie -- or vice verse. So they're not hitched, as I erroneously reported. What made me think they'd tied the knot since first we met? Beats me: must have been the Love Potion No. 9 Phred was pouring.
Listen to Nancy at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. during Morning Edition, at 4:40 p.m. during All Things Considered and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. during Weekend Edition on KPLU 88.5.