Years ago on a meandering road tripfrom Louisiana to North Carolina, I drove slow and ate well, and formed a belief or two about Southern restaurants. One: that their delicate aesthetic showcases the pretty and the proper much more than the restaurants of the down-to-earth Northwest. Two: that road-houses and barbecue joints were another story, gruffer and growlier than anything I was used to, oozing a bluesy, bourbon-soaked virility.
Now, as part of its ongoing Southern invasion (see Toulouse Petit, Kickin’ Boot, Bitterroot, the Sexton, the Wandering Goose, Bar Sue, Witness), Seattle has a prototype of each. Matt Lewis opened Roux in November, out of the husk of the infamous Buckaroo Tavern on the Fremont Avenue hill. That biker bar was Seattle’s one bona fide gruff and growly (uh, scary) roadhouse—so the irony is that Roux exemplifies the delicate model.
Between its high ceilings and mottled concrete floors, Roux radiates a rustic sweetness lit with a windowpane mirror and plenty of streaming sunlight. Spring blossoms brighten every shellacked wood table and red tufted booth; water glasses arrive with civilized little cucumber slices. The space—intimate bar on the left, exposed kitchen in the center, restaurant on the right—is at its best by day, since watery light from wan pendants under soaring ceilings leaves one cold after dark. Many would argue the food is also better by day, with the addition of Lewis’s famous po’boy sandwiches.
It would be tough to overstate the appeal of these overstuffed beasts. Lewis is a trained high-end chef and he’s done time at the likes of Canlis, under mentors like Alabama legend Frank Stitt. But what vaulted him into the Seattle stratosphere was his food truck, Where Ya At Matt, which he launched in 2010 after leaving Toulouse Petit.
There Lewis, with the kind of dazzling charisma you want smiling out of a truck window, peddled the po’boys he grew up with in New Orleans—a dozen or so of which one can order at the daytime Roux. The best of these are effortlessly spectacular: shattering baguettes crammed with fried chicken livers or Creole pork (very popular) or fried oysters, my favorite for their crunchy breading and minerally finish, the brightly pickly tang of the shredded lettuce mix, the soft burst of fire in the aioli.
I’ve also, it must be said, sampled one with cruelly overcooked fried shrimp. All is not perfect at Roux, even at night when lights go down, pretensions (and music volume) go up, the mixologist revs up (the talented Ian Cargill, late of Tavern Law), and prices gently rise to $15 to $19 per large plate. A small plate of ribs with root beer–barbecue sauce and carbonated grapes was overcooked, and cloying to boot. Proportions were also screwy in an intriguing apple-maple salad where the oil and maple didn’t get along, and a chestnut agnolotti overwhelmed by the intensity of its filling.
It’s telling that the chef Lewis has installed at Roux, Mike Robertshaw, errs on the side of boldness, as boldness delivers his successes across this classic Creole menu. His shrimp and grits on the small plates list were a full-throated triumph, enriched with New Orleans’s Abita Amber lager and topped with bursting in-shell shrimp. But the braised rabbit leg with mustard greens was the menu’s uncontested superstar: savory meat shrugging off its bone onto a pool of the most lick-the-plate--delectable puree of corn bread and topped with mustard greens. A masterpiece.
In the manner of New Orleans itself, this kitchen knows its way around
fried dough, producing honey-kissed jalapeno--cheddar hush puppies of addictive flavor (though, on our visit, slightly raw texture) and the finest beignets—light, fluffy, never overcooked, never oversweet—this side of Cafe du Monde. Lewis grew up on this iconic dessert and after much behind-the-scenes trial and error he nailed it, first (improbably) in the truck and now at Roux. Other desserts here are both fine and a world away from these.
Across Fremont and four states, at an undersize roadhouse (late Anita’s Crepes) with bluesy Americana music pumping out the door, chef Mike Law stokes the applewood smoker inside his smoke shack and tends his brisket. Law’s a North Carolinian born and raised, but this is Texas-style brisket, whose 18-hour smoking schedule requires Law to hire a guy to come in at 3am. When it runs out, it’s gone.
And when it’s good, it’s great: moist, break-your-heart tender, suffused with heady smoke, and ringed beneath the bark crust with a rim of pink—the smoke ring that tells you it’s been cooked long and slow. Alas, sometimes the brisket isn’t good at all. Sometimes it’s dry, even on the same plate with the good stuff.
Bourbon and Bones is that kind of unpredictable.
All black walls and raw timber, adorned with ’70s records and skulls of goats, jars of pickled vegetables and bottles of brown booze—in addition to 100-proof moonshine—Bourbon and Bones is the kind of place you want to come with a half dozen of your loudest friends, cramming into a couple tables or along the bar. That brisket, along with North Carolina slow-smoked pulled pork shoulder (very solid), housemade Andouille sausage, sweet ribs (outlandishly good), or smoked pork-belly bacon can be ordered by the pound or, in some cases, by the plate, the latter of which comes with two sides, pickles, a cup of exquisite vinegar slaw, and a couple slices of soft white bread.
Or you can order the fried chicken—a more floral version than Law produced as chef at the Wandering Goose, with plenty of herbs and unexpected lemon and a kick of pepper in the finish—and marvel that one piece can be greasy, another overbreaded, still another just right, with plenty of crackle in the crust and tenderness in the meat.
And whether you order as your sides the sweet collards with ham hock and a welcome vinegar tang, or the mustard–brown sugar baked beans, or the blandly velvety mac and cheese, or the nearly liquid mashed potatoes with their mild gravy, or the grainy grits lush with cheese and such subtle flavors only a dog can detect them—I mean that as a compliment—you can’t go far wrong. One night our order was cheerfully and entirely botched (somehow in this place you expect that), and we enjoyed the wrong stuff just fine.
Keep in mind too that if the sides trend classically bland, Law lets fly on his daily specials, including surprisingly terrific salads and officially insane desserts: a dense wedge of chocolate mole cake, a bourbon cream pie that hits the palate like the love child of a pecan pie and a still.
Like Lewis, Law has a culinary pedigree and owns strengths, like ingenuity and culinary verve, more suited to a chef than a careful pitmaster. The problem at Bourbon and Bones is, like the problem at Roux, steadiness. The dudes at the helm are capable of great things; they just don’t consistently produce them.
Maybe it’s a Southern thing?