Lest anyone doubt that restaurant popularity is largely a matter of theater, let him come to Stoneburner, oh, around 7:30 on a Thursday evening.
You can’t not see the place, sprawling down a long and particularly iconic stretch of Ballard Avenue across from Bitterroot Barbecue, a Rudy’s Barbershop, the Tractor Tavern. You can’t not hear the place (especially when the walls of windows are open, as they were a lot this summer); it’s perpetually crawling with young professionals who are either here for a Screamers Anonymous meeting or whose voices react to the cladding of hard surfaces in roughly the way a roar reacts to a microphone.
And then there are those surfaces themselves: burnished Brazilian kingwood panels stripped from a decommissioned Italian embassy in Buenos Aires, sheets of shatterproof glass from an old Sherman tank factory in Upstate New York, swing-out wooden bar stools from a nineteenth-century diner, pendant lights from the old New York Times building. Most restaurants these days are opened by chefs showcasing culinary chops or business people fixed on bottom line. Stoneburner, by contrast, comes to us from aesthetes, two Seattle restaurateurs who by their own admission don’t know that much about food or hospitality—but who are matchless for crafting stage sets.
They are, of course, James Weimann and Deming Maclise—owners of the Ballard French restaurant Bastille, the Capitol Hill cantina Poquitos, the Ballard Scottish pub MacLeod’s, and the German Biergarten near Seattle U, Von Trapp’s. Each is not just decorated to its theme, it’s walloped by it—I’m thinking about the encrustation of tile and wrought iron at Poquitos; the sheer airplane-hangar-in-lederhosen immensity of Von Trapp’s. For Von Trapp’s, Weimann, a former opera singer, and Maclise, who worked in film, made a research pilgrimage to Bavaria, where they hit 26 beer gardens in five days.
Stoneburner, by contrast, is not a theme park. The historic decor gestures at early-twentieth-century New York City, but mostly as an attempt to inscribe a sense of place upon a brand-new building—a challenge these partners had never before taken on. The blond stone building that Stoneburner inhabits is home to the new boutique Hotel Ballard, whose owners approached the duo to create its off-the-lobby restaurant even before Bastille happened in 2009.
Neither is Stoneburner thematic about its food. The restaurant is named for Jason Stoneburner, the longtime Bastille chef whom Weimann and Maclise chose to helm the joint even before they decided a stone hearth would anchor its kitchen. (“It was,” Weimann marvels, “a comical coincidence.”) Having learned in four previous projects to hire good people, then get out of the way, Weimann and Maclise invested Stoneburner and front man James -Lechner with percentage ownership. Chef Stoneburner had already amassed an impressive resume—working with Jason Wilson in the ’90s at Jeremiah Tower’s Seattle outpost of Stars, Ethan Stowell at Union, Renee Erickson at Boat Street, and others—featuring strong experience with handmade pastas and fresh vegetables. The interests of Stoneburner the man thus determined the menu of Stoneburner the restaurant: a seasonal, Italian-leaning spot with heavy use of the stone oven and bushels of fresh produce, top to bottom.
It’s really notable how many vegetables the chef who calls himself “a middle man for farmers” can cram onto a menu. On a populist menu like this—with snacks (for the pulsing bar), small plates, veggies, green and grain salads, pasta, pizza pies, and large plates—I’ll even call it thrilling. Sugar snap peas, sliced on the bias into oiled little gems, arrive in a glistening heap with almonds for crunch: simple, fine. Another, a shallow dish of the grain farro, arrived in all its sublime chewiness, doused in (too much) lemon, along with leeks and roasted broccoli over a puddle of salsa verde. A plate of heirloom tomatoes (wedges and halved cherries) were a sweet and peppery romp, thanks to the complications of arugula and spicy basil, and bits of pickled watermelon rind for vinegary pucker. Lovely.
Stoneburner’s methods derive directly from the formal French technique he learned in former kitchens—but the composition here is more freewheeling; closer to how he says he cooks for himself at home. Whatever the reason, he’s better here than he was at Bastille. A plate of “supergood grilled octopus” featured bite-size chunks of curly purple tentacle, toothsome and tender, in a cheery Greek toss of cucumbers, potent olives, and green onion, with oregano and mint and a nice thrumming dose of chilies. A special main dish of Neah Bay black cod arrived on a bed of spring onions, chanterelles, and whorls of Romanesco broccoli, crowned with a mess of arugula. Every element indispensable, no flaws in execution. It was a corker.
My favorite of his vegetable ambushes—really: this guy ought to write a cookbook for desperate parents of mac and cheese addicts—was cauliflower he caramelized to a sweet puree, then encased between oversize silken layers of housemade pasta, flopping their elegant excess around the bowl like the sheets of an unmade bed. Dusted with Parmesan, each ravioli held lovely interplay—sweet and savory in flavor, chewy and creamy in texture. He invented this at Bastille for reasons of practicality—he didn’t want to freeze fresh ravioli, so he figured out a way he could make it to order—but it ends up being just a blast to eat.
Play ends up being one’s prime takeaway from dinner at Stoneburner—and not just because it’s lively and loud and staffed with happy people. (One or two ought to have known more about the food, or at least that panna cotta doesn’t always taste like butterscotch. They were, however, uninformed with a smile.) A lot of anxious trial and error went into the pizza crusts—Stoneburner settled on a nice blistered product with a good deal of chew and a three-day fermentation for softly sour flavor—but the potato-chanterelle pie is built for fun. A side plate comes with a sprig of crushable oregano, a pod of peppers, a heap of fresh Parmesan for doctoring. A waiter brandishes a little pitcher of melted cheese and swirls it over the pie, which is even more of a lark. “Fancy Cheez-Whiz,” cracks Stoneburner. “It’s a nice way for the waiter to engage the guest—a little bit of show.”
There’s that theater again.
Here is what Weimann and Maclise know: For the greatest number of diners, the key element to a restaurant they want to revisit is approachability. A place with a strong sense of place. A menu that sounds delish. Prices that don’t kill anybody. A sommelier who will come to a single table four times to discuss by-the-glass pairings, without a whiff of superiority. (Dawn Smith, late of Cafe Juanita, did that for us.)
Weimann and Maclise are Seattle’s reigning maestros of approachability, which explains the lines stretching down the block at the enormous Von Trapp’s, the loud crowds that continue to storm Bastille. Stoneburner was built by the same playbook. The fact that the food is so terrific is a swell surprise.
Published: October 2013