Ooh La La, Loulay
Thierry Rautureau, aka the Chef in the Hat, serves up a cosmopolitan French treasure in the heart of Downtown Seattle.
To pull open the doors at the corner of Sixth and Union and behold Loulay is to understand, in the blink of an eye, how miserable the members of Seattle’s dining establishment have been until now.
Oh, they’ve had artisan foodie destinations to deconstruct their dinners. They’ve had undersize hipster haunts—short on ambience, long on vinegar cocktails and entrail entrees—and places, dozens of places, where pleasing the diner consists primarily of flogging the brilliance of the chef.
Gastronomic boutiques like those are the soul of Seattle dining, and some are admirable. But the poor fool who just wants to enjoy great food amid a stage set classy enough for impressing a client, or romantic enough for wooing a lover, or buzzing enough for running into someone—well that guy’s pretty much had…what? Canlis? Book Bindery? Maybe El Gaucho?
Now he has Loulay.
It is no exaggeration to claim that there is nothing remotely like it downtown. For starters, the former Alvin Goldfarb Jeweler space at the south edge of the Sheraton Hotel is vast. “Shit, what am I gonna do with this?” owner Thierry Rautureau blurted when he saw all 4,000 soaring feet of it; he’d flirted with a few Belltown addresses for his downtown brasserie, but none this grand. And grand was new territory for the seasoned chef, whose Rover’s—which he closed last year—was a hushed and intimate house in Madison Valley; whose Luc, its hopping bistro neighbor, remains a casual little boite, down-market in both pretension and design.
Walking into Loulay, by contrast, is like arriving at a Manhattan restaurant in full roar. To the right, the cosmopolitan bar, packed. In the center, a field of chattering tables rimmed by high-backed booths. To the left, the Sixth Avenue window seats. And above, up in thin air, a loft—its lineup of tables along the wrought iron railing the best seats downtown, with a separate enclosure in back for private parties.
Honestly the sheer spectacle is enough to make a person wonder if this is the restaurant that emerges when a city wakes from its Mike McGinn dream into its new establishment reality, its new postrecession downtown—the era of its new gay mayor. The room is an uncanny mix of long sight lines and intimate nooks—like the rounded corner table in the bar so seductively enclosing it ought to have a room number, or the table for one thoughtfully set up in the loft to overlook the kitchen.
We were greeted with that brand of host-station nonsense that parodies itself—“Table 12,” murmured one host to the next, who murmured, “Table 12” to the next, who walked us to what I guess was table 12—but the delay allowed me to take in the wall-size gilt mirror, the glittering ball pendants, and the surfeit of plummy finishes, from sleek dark woods to towering booths of tufted oyster-white leather to walls wetly rosy as licked lips. How long since I’d been to a Seattle restaurant without open ductwork ceilings, without mottled concrete floors? Without—take note, you whose Seattle dining experiences have left you hearing impaired—the slightest trouble hearing my companion?
Silly officiousness ceased the moment we sat down, as our busy waiter sustained just the right tension between warmth and down-to-earth efficiency. On all visits, Loulay reinforced the truth that the best service hovers at the edge of I-don’t-have-time-for-you—the slightly brusque hurry not only telegraphing competence, but cutting through the needy oiliness many servers seem to think is hospitality. Humor was unpretentious; menu recommendations frank.
And this is one great menu, itself appealingly forthright, divided simply as small, medium, and large dishes, with just a half-dozen well-chosen selections under each. (The wine list, by contrast, represents Rover’s fabled French-heavy collection, but groups them under headings so cutesy—“Exhilarating Whites,” “Provocative Reds”—as to be meaningless. How is a “Seductive White” different from a “Carnal White”?)
A grilled endive salad with frisee, caramelized apple slices, and a grainy mustard thyme vinaigrette held nicely polarizing bursts of fruit and bitterness, with plenty of vivid mustard. Another starter, crab beignets, arrived as an artful trio, each on a puddle of bold harissa aioli separated by little meadows of microgreens. These were expertly fried, big with crab flavor—a trick with that mild meat—and perfect with the aioli.
Not just a pretty face, this Loulay.
Turns out Rautureau stocked the kitchen with his old Rover’s team, foremostly his former top toque Rob Sevcik as chef de cuisine. This explains the deja vu—Rover’s famous organic scrambled egg with sturgeon caviar shows up as a side dish; its velveteen foie gras, seared to a swoony caramelized crust over orange gastrique between slices of slightly-too-dense golden raisin bread pudding, on the medium list.
Even more, it explains the Continental grounding of food that hasn’t fallen far from its classic Rover’s pedigree. Chunks of braised rabbit appear with wild mushrooms, arugula, and sheets of slick pappardelle in a lush pasta preparation, very surehanded. French onion soup, heady with veal stock, managed both depth and lightness; its float of baguette with gruyere nicely understated. A plate-filling rib eye, marbled to crying perfection and lavished with greens and an appealingly sour disc of fried goat’s cheese, was just right in its puddle of bone marrow demiglace. A hunk of clean, buttery Pacific cod, crackle-crusted and deftly arranged at the edge of a plate shaped like a cocked ear, arrived simply over sweet celery root puree. Just when it was wanting more salt my fork found the miso nage alongside…et voilà.
Lest you assume this dining room and its astonishingly capable kitchen are all nages and demiglaces, however—the shock at glossy Loulay is its accessibility. Thierry Rautureau has spent the bulk of his Seattle career attempting to shake off his formal, unpronounceably French reputation—first by adopting his goofy Chef in the Hat persona, then by giving us a drop-in casual bistro. (Alas, opening Luc at the edge of Seattle’s fat-cat residential district somewhat defeated that aim.)
With Loulay—ironically, his most grandiloquent space—he has finally done it: The place is crammed with down-to-earth gestures, from the nightly four-course tasting menu priced at just $49, to the flexibility he allows in letting guests order from it a la carte, to the joshing tone of the servers. Presentations are more rustic than composed, and both lunch and dinner menus proudly hawk a $12 burger. (Smoky ground rib eye in a brioche bun, bacon shallot jam, a civilized little ruffle of Bibb lettuce, optional gruyere or duck egg or foie gras, exquisite fries.)
Among the foofy desserts on the menu Rautureau even lists Chef’s Hot Chocolate, a nostalgic nod to his boyhood on a farm in Saint Hilaire de Loulay, sipping cocoa his grandmother would make straight out of the cow. Of course it’s very fine Theo’s chocolate, into which one dunks rods of toasted brioche spread with salted butter—but, candidly, for anyone who didn’t grow up on a French farm, it’s odd as a dessert. Endearingly odd.
Such a sweet absence of pretension coupled with small, careful grace notes—fragrant lilies in the ladies room, napkins refolded while you’re gone, amuse bouche before dinner, guest book for after—render Loulay a genuinely uncommon experience. Factor in the beautifully executed food, and what we’ve got here is a treasure.