BEFORE CHEF SHAUN McCRAIN returned to the Northwest of his youth, to take the helm at the restaurant that is going to make him famous, he had already put in two years at a Michelin two–starred restaurant in France, where he and his colleagues crafted fresh ravioli to order. He had already been called upon to create an entirely new seasonal nine–course card every day at New York’s celebrated Per Se, under celeb mentor Thomas Keller’s strict injunction against repeating a single ingredient in any of a night’s courses.

“I learned how to push myself,” the 35-year-old McCrain reflects. “And I learned that, if you’re given enough support, there’s no end to what you can do.”

Throughout his astonishing apprenticeship the Eastside native nevertheless longed to return to the Northwest, and one day his old chum Patric Gabre-Kidan called with an idea. Gabre-Kidan was Ethan Stowell’s restaurant partner and co–owner at Tavolàta, How to Cook a Wolf, and Anchovies and Olives; a popular and seasoned young front-of-the-house maestro who had been approached by a deep-pockets boutique vintner to open a restaurant in the former book bindery on the south shore of the ship canal. Gabre-Kidan had been looking for a project of his own; ideally one where he might install his talented buddy in the back of the house. And McCrain, given enough support, saw there was no end to what he could do.

He arrived in Seattle to find Gabre-Kidan hard at work in what looked like a low-rise warehouse, but was in fact one of the more fortuitously located dining rooms in Seattle. Waterfront restaurants being oddly rare in this waterfront town, ship canal restaurants are rarer still; the only other being Ponti just east. Gabre-Kidan was fashioning the interior of the Book Bindery to showcase that view—subtly. Creamy wainscoting, soft gray walls, fields of marble, globe pendants emitting romantically low wattage—it all formed an understated backdrop, refined with built-in bookcases filled with vintage books. And between them…the Seine. Or a piece of Seattle that glimmers uncannily like it.

Walking in from a snowy evening, stomping snow boots in the entry, we were welcomed by Gabre-Kidan with his signature wry hospitality—the man greets everyone with a shy, expectant grin, as if he just knows they’re about to tell him a fabulous joke. The warmth of the room owes partly to that impish charm, and partly to its situation between a well-stocked little bar on one side and windows to the barrel room of the winery on the other, and partly to the books, which make the place feel like the library of somebody’s mansion. Taken together the scene radiates pedigree. Etta James and Mama Cass croon from the rafters. Aristocrats dot the tables, giving the Book Bindery an establishment feel one hardly sees outside Madison Park or First Hill.

But here the contrast begins, for as dinner begins to unfold—as you’re sipping from your shot glass an amuse-bouche of frothy forest mushroom and Parmesan soup, say—you notice Gabre-Kidan is padding around in sneakers. A few of the waitstaff sport scruffy jeans, pierced young foodies sit alongside the bankers, and shuffling in and out among the Etta James is music of a considerably more alternative stripe.

Before long you discover that the same tension—establishment versus creative—drives McCrain’s culinary aesthetic. His menu is peppered with the buzzwords of the moment. Dashi gelee, check. Castelvetrano olives, check. Mysteries like sylvetta (a tiny cousin of arugula) and puntarella (a variant of chicory) left pretentiously undefined, check. But many of the preparations they’re used in boil down to meat and potatoes. Sometimes literally, as in the velvet cut of Mishima Ranch beef alongside twice-baked fingerling potatoes, a bone-marrow stuffed cipollini onion, and bordelaise sauce; a stunner created for the bankers but fit for any foodie.

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Rich in contrast Foie gras, hamachi crudo, and striped bass with satsumas.

More often the meat and potatoes homage is figurative, as when McCrain crowns a wash of white-bean puree with lacinato kale, serves it with a perfect cube of crisped pork belly and a blush–roasted pork chop, then sweetens the plate with maple-bourbon jus. Or when he masterfully grills a hunk of sturgeon and presents it with a little heap of black-pepper gnocchi enlivened with black trumpet mushrooms and sweet, diced red kuri squash. Or when he lavishes a gloriously unctuous glazed Cattail Creek lamb shank with a Nicoise complement of artichoke hearts, slow-roasted tomato, lamb jus, and dense, slightly sweet chickpea “croutons.”

It’s fascinating, how old school this all feels, and how satisfying.

No newfangled “small plate dining” here, or starchless plates of lonesome meat: The Book Bindery enshrines the glory days of dining out, when main dishes presented meat and vegetable and starch on a single plate. Desserts, even more nostalgic, forge no new ground beautifully, delivering doughnuts, cupcakes, pudding, and brownies in the form of beignets, carrot cake, Turkish coffee pot de creme, and a luscious chocolate sundae.

It’s fascinating how old school this all feels, and how satisfying. Of course McCrain’s plates are satisfying first because they’re rich. Binding the foraged mushrooms and pickled pearl onions and sylvetta to the handmade cavatelli pasta, for instance, is a fathomless foie gras emulsion. Delectable. But all this richness keeps portions on the small side, and prices therefore reasonable—the average price of an entree is only about $23.

That’s jaw-dropping in a restaurant where a chef of this level is executing with such consistency. One pays with the occasional glimmer of arrogance: Waiters can be condescending, there’s no salt and pepper on the table, and—what?!?—no decaf in the house. But if that’s the price for this kind of self-assurance, it may be worth it. Even the appetizer list, per usual the chef’s creative playground, reveals a sure hand one doesn’t typically find amid invention. Here presentations are more geometric and ingredients more show-offy—the rods of compressed cucumber in one minimalist salad, the miniature wine-poached Fuji apples in a plucky apple-pork melange. And here, as across the menu, homespun notes are woven in to form a truly elevating hybrid: the brown butter emulsion across the sweetbread ravioli, the celery root remoulade on a plate of pearly sashimi-grade scallops, recalling nothing so much as mom’s celery salad—only mom never had this great a source for black truffles.

This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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