Brimmer and Heeltap's Unlikely Harmony
There’s a mismatched sensibility to this welcoming Ballard newcomer. But when chef Mike Whisenhunt’s in the kitchen, who cares?
Walking in through the corner doorway of Brimmer and Heeltap, what I spied wasn’t one restaurant. I saw dozens.
Le Gourmand, of course, which defined Northwest cuisine from this dark little corner of Ballard for 27 years. It’s dark no more; the first thing owner Jen Doak did upon acquiring the space was unblock its windows, lighting even further the whitewashed farmhouse look she was creating. Other restaurants show up too, in the form of lessons from Doak’s years in the industry: from Ray’s Boathouse, the significance of outdoor tables in sun-starved Seattle; from Taste, the importance of flow; from Tilth, that ineffable essential called welcome. Enter Brimmer and Heeltap, and Doak’s warm greeting will be the most genuine thing that’s happened to you all day.
Doak collected advice, like Hire to your weakness from Le Pichet and Cafe Presse’s co-owner Joanne Herron, and searched for a chef as strong in the kitchen as she planned to be in the dining room. She wrote down the qualities she wanted in a chef and partner and they kept adding up to her old pal, Mike Whisenhunt.
I could see him from the door, holding forth in the newly open kitchen, sauteing bits of octopus with root vegetables in chili oil perhaps, or unleashing a bonito flake snowstorm across a mizuna–pickled cherry salad. In short: rocking his own novel renditions of the Korean fusion he learned at the knee of his mentors Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, his bosses at Coupage, then Joule, and ultimately Revel.
There’s a whole lot of Revel in this menu, a concise roundup of appetizer snacks, vegetable plates, seafood dishes, meats, and desserts (most served as larges or smalls to create an affordable way to snack around). It’s so solid, I’ve dined here twice as a critic and still can’t call the best. Off the snack list, for instance, I could vote for the striking beet plate, with its halved baby beets, drizzled with sweet, fiery orange glaze, then topped with a caramelized slice of roasted fennel bulb and playfully scattered chives. Like all of Whisenhunt’s cooking, this was intelligent and entire; nothing extraneous, nothing wanting.
Or it could be the one-and-a-half-inch-thick slice of Grand Central Bakery Como loaf, drenched in butter and gilded hotly to a salted and peppered crust. You eat it with a knife and fork, like a bread steak; if it’s not the wickedest thing you’ve put in your mouth all day, then you’re living the dream. Maybe it’s the pickled oyster shooter preserved, with soy sauce and vinegar, to an improbably perfect just-softened texture. It comes in a shot glass, submerged in a boozy, sweet, spicy juice of soju and kimchi. Whooyah!
So flavorfully and texturally buoyant are these dishes, they ricochet across the palate like gustatory pinballs. A heaping plateful of English peas arrived blanched to the tooth, their softened crunch freshened with mint, then dolloped with creme fraiche and a curl of sassy pickled carrots: It tasted like sunlight in a garden. Another mouthfiller featured strips of decadently fatty smoked lamb shoulder with a saute of soy-pickled green garlic and charred spring onions and paper-thin daikon radishes in a black bean vinaigrette. Very Korean—except, of course, for the lamb, a meat one barely spies in that cuisine but whose gamey smokiness makes an inspired foil for the fierce fermentation. This was sublime.
Whisenhunt’s trick, lifted from the Yang/Chirchi playbook, is serving familiar dishes with a rogue element subbed in for fusion. That explains the bonito flakes lending umami to the exquisite mizuna-cherry salad in place of Western bacon. It explains the broiled pork shoulder with green apple kimchi—a sumptuous spectacle of brining and harmony, and an Eastern take on classic Americana pork and apples.
Sometimes all these elements will overshadow the star, as in a salmon special that tasted solely of its turmeric–brown sugar–chili lime vinaigrette cloak. That prime filet of bread is pretty much it for starches. Desserts are inconsistent: Witness a coconut meringue–key lime tart with tamarind caramel that was luscious on one visit, chalky and bland the next.
And that exhausts the minus column at Brimmer and Heeltap—unless you want to address the manifest disconnect between setting and food. Doak chose the publike name—brimmer being the Brit drinking term for an overflowing glass and heeltap for the last undrinkable dreg—to evoke all the richness that comes between. The decor—winsome and whitewashed with exposed studs in the wall openings, those openings lined with rows of bottle vases waving single chrysanthemum stems—looks ripped from a Real Simple photo spread. Across the vases, in the former quarters of Le Gourmand’s spinoff cocktail haunt Sambar, the floor is shellacked with pennies. Outside in the sweet sliver of a courtyard, sunlight through wisteria and climbing roses shifts patterns across galvanized patio tables.
None of which exactly telegraphs Korean fusion. But there’s a soulful surehandedness to both place and plate at Brimmer and Heeltap, and it proves uniting. We arrived on a warm summer night, warmed further by Doak’s greeting, and were led past a bar lined with chattering regulars, past Le Gourmand’s old kitchen (which she opened to eliminate the time-honored front-of-house, back-of-house divide), through rooms filled with sighing eaters—many of them Doak’s myriad friends and friends of friends whose multiple wisdoms literally built this enterprise.
That explains the penny floor. “One penny to each person is insignificant, but together they make something amazing,” she muses. “It’s the team it takes to run a restaurant. It’s about the sum of the parts.”