Of Meat and Men
Jason Wilson of Crush goes all caveman at Miller's Guild. Did we mention they butcher whole animals?
By nearly every measure of what’s trending in Seattle restaurants this instant, Miller’s Guild hits it. Project of well-known chef, check. Food cooked over big freaking flames, check. That food being meat, check. Those flames being downtown, check.
So trendies should proceed directly to Miller’s Guild off the lobby of downtown’s Hotel Max, the latest project of Jason and Nicole Wilson (of the sleek Capitol Hill culinary temple, Crush). Who should join them? A handy guide:
Manly men Two decades ago the fashion in restaurant design was airy and conventionally feminine, the thinking being that women choose restaurants more than men do. Studies show that’s still the case—75 percent of the time—but Miller’s Guild suggests that women’s tastes may have taken a turn for the rugged.
It’s like if Martha Stewart designed a cave: lights low, lines classic, walls putty gray, firewood stacked at the entrance, casks above the bar, flames leaping brightly out of the custom-built, nine-foot Grillworks Infierno grill in back. One of four such grills in existence (developed in part at celeb chef Dan -Barber’s famous Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York), this badass beast features stations for virtually every heating method, even a hearth for baking bread.
And there before it looms Wilson, holding forth in the flames like the alpha caveman, surrounded by an audience of diners to the thrum of blues and ’70s rock. Other chefs buzz about, including chef de cuisine and old Wilson chum Kelly Gaddis (of the late Porcella Urban Market in Bellevue), but Wilson is the main event. And no girly-man chef’s whites for him, like at the foofy Crush; here he’s probably wearing something besides muscle and beads of sweat, but not so you’d notice. (Perhaps women willchoose this restaurant.) Far be it from me to speculate that 10 years arranging sage-scented baby carrots around pools of puree at Crush compelled Wilson to uncork a fifth of 190-proof testosterone—but Miller’s Guild is about as subtly male as a crotch grab.
Did I mention they butcher whole animals?
Foodwise it all translates to meat, off a daily list of steaks and chops with dazzling pedigrees. An $80 plate of 75-day dry-aged prime Niman Ranch bone-in New York steak came straight off the fire to the table on a wood slab—the restaurant equivalent of a big cat dragging its kill back to the pride—then got hauled back to the kitchen for slicing and serving beside a dollop of mustard. A $64 hunk of Wagyu rib-eye had all the right mouthfeel—think butter—along with good acerbic complements of arugula and radish.
Servicewise, the guy aesthetic translates to an earthy frat-house charm, marked by frankness and, at times, a sort of feral hospitality one might call “cavemanners.” “You can put your coat here!” a host offered, motioning to a small shelf behind my booth onto which I could fold it. Apparently caves don’t have hooks.
Tourists Being the commissary for the Hotel Max, Miller’s Guild is open for breakfast and lunch and weekend brunch too, with a groaning board of coffee cakes, quiches, fresh fruit, juices, and so forth for guests to take away by day. Some of the pastries were better to look at than to eat—including a $6 jelly doughnut that didn’t rise above Dunkin’ level—but some must be great, if desserts (including an obsession-worthy lemon chess pie) are any indication.
Hotel guests might also want to eat here because the strong cocktails and attention to wine make it a good candidate for an elevator ride home.
Lovers of smokiness I’m not just talking about bacon—though smoky pork is in evidence throughout this menu, from the house-cured jowl trailing its salty savor across a fine salad of grilled romaine and crab, to a boldly sure-handed mussel and squid stew, deepened with chorizo. (The seafood was undercooked and the promised grilled bread nowhere in evidence, alas.)
No, just as Metropolitan Grill is all about beef and Sutra vegetables, Miller’s Guild—thank you Infierno—is the restaurant smoke built. That ups the primal allure of the cave, which smells as beguiling as a beach bonfire—but it doesn’t reliably do the food any favors. A starter of coal-roasted golden and red beets with horseradish cream and caraway didn’t taste of anything but horseradish and smoke, which turns out to be a less-than-winning combination.
Worse, the fire producing all that smoky flavor appears challenging to control. Wilson’s a chef’s chef, so an inedibly tough pork chop was a hugely unexpected screw-up. My Wagyu burger—a Neanderthal-worthy two-fister topped with cheese, mushrooms, onions, a ton of bacon, and an aioli flavored with the drippings of roasting meat—was also overcooked, tasting fine and undoubtedly adding a hair or two to my chest, but served in a bun that disintegrated entirely by the third bite. Amazing how few chefs consider the frustra-
tion of this for the diner.
Middle Eastern connoisseurs With the burger came fries dusted in Middle Eastern spices, when what my palate really craved with that busy beast was something more palate-cleansingly plain. Wilson disputes that eastern Mediterranean and subcontinental cuisines are a Miller’s Guild motif (“This is very much an American restaurant!”), but cumin and coriander and cardamom did deliver a consistent backbeat, from fried Brussels sprouts with harissa aioli to beautifully sweet sunchokes in chermoula spices to a shaved kale salad, pocked with currants and hazelnuts in a Middle Eastern dressing. Inoffensive all; just tedious. Even dessert was a cast-iron skillet of pear-berry crumble, spiked with garam masala and anise. Sigh.
Steak house people For all the big flavors, other dishes barely registered on the interest scale. Steak tartare, dolloped on grilled bread, seriously wanted flavor. Thick squares of focaccia, though smoky (surprise!), tasted like 1995. Sides of gruyere mashers and cheddar roast cauliflower were solidly meh.
This dispiriting absence of nuance may be what we expect of a steakhouse—it’s just not what we expect of Jason Wilson. Crush dazzles because this chef is a maestro of refinement and subtlety, two words one would not choose to describe Miller’s Guild. The place, though adept enough at hunks of beef and clearly filling Wilson’s hunger for a man cave, simply isn’t playing to his strength.