AS IF BISCUITS and gravy wasn’t already going to be the giddiest part of my day.

When our chatty waiter at Fresh Bistro set down the heaping plate on a recent winter morning, I could see that lush amounts of cheese had been melted into the biscuit dough. Beside it, the “bowl”—itself fashioned out of a biscuit-was speckled with chives and brimming with gravy crammed with sausage. Between the halves of the smoky mozzarella—suffused biscuit snuggled a moist, feisty sausage patty; the bowl (that I had just begun to nibble) tasted of another cheese altogether. White cheddar, if you’re interested.

The point being: Has this much fun ever been packed into a plate of biscuits and gravy?

Fresh Bistro radiates glee. It’s not from the servers, though they’re plenty affable and merry. And it’s not from the space—a windowy, bilevel landscape of green walls and blond sorghum tables and stone cairns and curly willow arrangements—whose overall effect, down to the central stone hearth, is as calming and cleansing as a bath-and-body shop.

No, it’s the food that’s having the blast. Consider what else adorned our brunch table that morning. On a giant plate of sopes, a thick cake of fried masa held up a mountain of roasted pork, tomatillo salsa, black beans, Spanish rice, a fried egg, and a blizzard of cotija cheese. Across the table, a bowl of bibimbop, that popular Korean rice dish, was tossed with kalbi-marinated Wagyu flank steak, enoki mushrooms, kimchi, an egg, and (not quite enough) Korean chili paste.

Had we been really starving, we could have furthered the global whiplash with a Hawaiian breakfast of sweet-bread French toast, grilled fruit salad, and toasted coconut and macadamias. And maybe a braised pork belly banh mi sandwich, starring foie gras mayonnaise alongside the usual daikon and pickled carrots and cilantro. Foie gras mayo on a pork belly banh mi! Honestly, if Fresh Bistro wasn’t a restaurant, it would be a Florida theme park.

Makes sense, really. Fresh Bistro sprouted last year from Herban Feast—the catering business started 10 years ago by former Herbfarm cooking-school coordinator BJ Duft. He started out of a kitchen in West Seattle, then expanded to include an airy party warehouse in SoDo. Any catering service worth its fleur de sel, as Herban Feast assuredly is, knows that its prime mandate is crowd-pleasing. Hence the menu loaded with big-flavored classics—the honey pecan prawns, the Dungeness crab cakes, the kalbi-marinated flank steak. Most of the dishes are appetizers, every caterer’s foremost calling card. And hence the revisionist whimsy that Duft applies to those classics—see edible bowl of biscuit dough, cheesy—rendering them instantly memorable.

We returned for dinner and warmed ourselves beside the fireplace with plenty of this revisionism to eat, most of it sensational. The pork belly banh mi show up by evening in the form of sliders, in pillowy buns, and come with a haystack of addictive five-spice fries. The crab cakes were made with sweet potato, which compromised the crab flavor and contributed a generic texture, chipotle remoulade notwithstanding. But a frisee salad restored excitement with its novel, alliterative combo of pears, pluots, pistachios, persimmons, and strips of Serrano ham.

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Fun with food: If Fresh Bistro wasn’t a restaurant, it would be a Florida theme park.

And a plate of the honey prawns, crisp-fried in a bewitching crust flavored with the Japanese aromatic shiso, arrived alongside candied pecans and a shredded green mango salad. Man, it was fine. It’s true that the dish registered somewhat heavily on the sugar sensors. But young chef Dalis Chea, a Cambodian American who did time at Canlis, marries a facility for tweaks of pan-Asian intrigue with a classicist’s reverence for execution. The prawns were cooked sublimely, popping with juice.

And that’s the happiest surprise about Fresh Bistro: The food is fun, but it’s not only fun. It’s the giggling party girl with the platinum-striped hair and a brain. Yes, the rack of lamb was served with lamb sausage. Yes, its accompanying potato was the overwrought result of twice-baking and frying and stuffing with celery root puree. But I haven’t tasted lamb this good, this respectfully treated or carefully cooked, in ages.

The crowd pleasing continues all the way through to the French press. Spiced apple crisp with panko breading, cranberry—orange brioche bread pudding, ginger creme brulee—you get the idea. These aren’t desserts; they’re the fantasies of people who dredge Oreos through peanut butter, then dip them in sprinkles.

I’m thinking now of the s’mores, where a thick, fudgy brownie square was topped with two scoops of irresistibly gooey housemade marshmallow ice cream, beside a toasted marshmallow into which was speared a housemade graham cracker in the shape of a flame.

Let me repeat: a housemade graham cracker in the shape of a flame. With noise like this, it wouldn’t matter in the slightest if it tasted any good. Which is why it’s so winning when it does.


This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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