THE LAST THING Melinda Sontgerath needed was another restaurant.
The Vashon Island businesswoman was already elbow-deep in her first one, a sprawling Americana cafe she’d carved out of a 120-year-old Vashon Island hardware store. Her opening in 2005 of the rustic, raw-timbered Hardware Store fulfilled a 30-year dream: to create a gathering place for the community serving “great good food.”
In time the breakfast, lunch, and dinner house was churning out 10,000 great good meals a month; hearty crowd-pleasers like pappardelle stroganoff with roasted wild mushrooms, buttermilk fried chicken with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables, pizzas on crackling lahvosh bread. The place drew critical applause, but—even better by Sontgerath’s lights—it drew regulars.
One was Rob Andrews, a restaurant investor who’d held stakes in Wild Ginger, El Gaucho, and Waterfront. “He came to me and said, ‘Hey, if you’re interested, I’ve found a great restaurant space in a great community,’ ” recalls Sontgerath. But the former Vashon Chamber of Commerce president was not about to trade away her community-building bona fides just for a shot at the Big City. “I told him I was only interested in doing a restaurant if I felt the community needed a gathering place.”
So she checked out the bright corner space with the lofty ceilings, then wore out her shoe leather meeting neighbors and merchants in the Bryant/University Village neighborhood. The area not only needed a great good place, she concluded—it could support one. She partnered with Andrews, got to work on the interior—this overachiever is also a designer—and opened 50 North last December.
The menu at 50 North reads like a list of greatest desert-island hits.
It’s a shiny space, bright and glassy, with a persistent lime green and eggplant color scheme imparting a vaguely ’80s feel. A big hanging light fixture, big cushiony booths, a big upstairs private space, a big-screen in the bar—the place holds wide its welcoming arms. 50 North is not unsophisticated but its chipper accessibility gives it a genuinely populist vibe.
The menu reads like a list of greatest desert—island hits: crab cakes with roasted red pepper aioli, smoked bacon bucatini pasta, a thick ciabatta-bread -bacon burger. All around sit families with young children weighing the merits of fish-and-chips or pappardelle Bolognese; UW profs conferring over a thoughtful wine list and Anaheim chile rellenos; gaggles of girlfriends toting U Village shopping bags and chilling over cocktails with farro-beet salads. Everyone finds something to want on this menu.
Only when it comes it won’t be what they expected.
I ordered pomegranate short ribs assuming they’d be moist and tasty. What I got was moist and tasty to the power of 10: the meat complemented with a pitch-perfectly sweet pomegranate glaze; the ribs accompanied by the delicate pungency of creamy parsnip celeriac puree; the plate finished with a heap of cool shaved fennel and apple salad washed in a bright citrus vinaigrette. Real care went into each element, adding up to a plate that soared with big flavors—and a bushel of produce.
“We try to make everything just a little bit healthier,” understates Sontgerath. A special of golden chicken, roasted to a crackling turn, arrived with a garden of citrusy braised kale with radishes and a rainbow of baby potatoes. Crab cakes were packed with big buttery hunks of Dungeness, along with crunchy peppers and onions where the copious bready filler typically is, and aioli and greens for flourish. Pappardelle Bolognese featured the classic meat sauce, only brightened with a dice of fresh vegetables.
The beef in that Bolognese is local and grass-fed; the vegetables, 100 percent organic. More than half of the dishes on the menu designate dietary specs; “veg” for vegetarian, “v” for vegan, or “gf” for gluten-free; most, notes the menu, can be made “dairy/egg free” or—here’s a first—“anti-inflammatory.” (Must be what they serve the restaurant critics.) “Cooking that way is huge for us on Vashon, so it’s become second nature,” says Sontgerath.
It’s home cooking the way we would have eaten in the ’50s had fresh vegetables been invented yet. Salads feature great ratios and bright, substantial dressings; pizzas, robust toppings like fresh mozzarella and pesto oil on thin Armenian-cracker bread crusts; burgers, thick balls of boutique beef embellished with grilled shiitakes, jack cheese, and onion marmalade.
At its finest all this good nutrition tastes good and wicked, though it does occasionally dead-end into virtue. You want your buttermilk fried chicken to require some penance, after all; 50 North’s version—insanely popular on Vashon—is flash-fried, then baked, and therefore greaseless. The flour breading was wan; the mashed potatoes and gravy not decadent enough to lift the experience. When the most craveable portion of a fried chicken plate is the side of purple, orange, and yellow carrots over juicy greens—you know you’ve left the old paradigm.
In this way, 50 North is actually pioneering radical territory: presenting the rarefied foodie model of sustainable sourcing and vegcentric cooking in a package aimed at everyman. Its smartest strategy to that end is an unflagging attention to flavors and textures. Sustainably caught seared salmon was crusted with pistachios and served on organic leek and fennel sauce, then drizzled with a tart cherry gastrique. Seared sea scallops arrived on a bed of warm chard and kale, over a brisk, chili-seasoned ratatouille of carrots, squash, apples, purple potatoes, and onions. Good for you, check. But also…plain good.
Lastly, on the subject of enjoyment: 50 North’s desserts. On three visits we dove headlong into big square slices of fluffy banana cream pie with chocolate cookie crusts; gooey helpings of molten, not-too-sweet chocolate cake; coconut cream pies thickly topped with cream. “This apple pie was made this morning, with nine apples!” one of several great waiters announced proudly, setting a generous wedge before me.
The slice rested supine on the plate, a towering thing, with a thick and supple crust and—as billed—a lot of apples. I swear I could taste all nine.