WHEN MARK FULLER WAS HEAD CHEF at the Dahlia Lounge, his boss Eric Tanaka bugged and bugged him to put a particular dish on the menu: Veal sweetbreads with dipping sauces; one sweet, another barbecue, maybe a third like housemade ranch. Yeah, that ranch—Homer Simpson’s salad dressing of choice. At, yes, that Dahlia—big-deal Seattle chef Tom Douglas’s elegant flagship restaurant. “We’ll call it McSweetbreads!” beamed Tanaka. Fuller laughs at the memory and shakes his head. “I just couldn’t do it.”
So to find “crispy veal sweetbreads with three dips” on the starter list of Fuller’s own restaurant, Spring Hill in West Seattle, was an unlikely surprise—yet there they were, between the duck egg yolk raviolo with garlic chips and the apple-wood-smoky rib-eye steak with steak tartare and potato cracklings. And they made a most cerebral comfort food. The sweetbreads contributed their luscious mouthfeel and quiet almost-sweetness, the frying produced a perfect coat, the dips—fireweed honey, coffee barbecue, and, there it was, housemade ranch—delivered cool, satiny counterpoints. Why the chef’s change of heart? “Because,” he says, “it’s tasty.”
What “because it’s there” is to a mountaineer, “because it’s tasty” is to the insanely talented Mark Fuller. At Spring Hill, which he and his wife Marjorie Chang Fuller opened in May, I have chomped my way through a colossal half-pound burger that left the most delectable stains I have ever slopped down my shirt: teleme and Beecher’s cheddar cheeses, housemade bacon and feisty ketchup, and a unifying slather that gave new status to the term special sauce. I have sat in awe before fanned slices of blushing roast duck brandishing their orange mustard glaze the way a woman struts her favorite fragrance, as if they knew just how well their assets would match each wheaty, plainspoken crunch of accompanying quinoa biscuit. I have untangled a fleshy strand of handmade tagliatelle pasta and wound it around my fork, bits of cherry tomato and maitake mushroom and height-of-summer fava beans clinging to its glistening edges—and I have thanked the Supreme Being for Mark Fuller. (And no, I do not mean Tom Douglas.)
What is it about this guy’s cooking? One night two girlfriends and I sat in his restaurant and puzzled it out. Before us four grilled prawns lolled on a pond of grits with a poached egg and a puddle of shrimp gravy. The South Carolina grits had been shrewdly debauched with cheddar and crème fraîche; the shrimp gravy reduced from shrimp shells. One pierce of the fork and the shrimp, charry from the fire, burst with juice. Everything the egg yolk spilled upon got richer. It was a luscious combination, clearly the product of an artist. But also—every bit as clearly—the product of a scientist.
More than any other chef’s in recent memory, Fuller’s cooking bears the essential elements of chemistry. In his cold cioppino, a shallow bowl of freshest seafood (Dungeness, shrimp, mussels, halibut) arrives garnished with drops of basil oil and crunchy shards of crouton. Our waiter set the dish before me with a dramatic flourish. “Pouring the clarified tomato broth into the bowl activates the basil oil,” he intoned, pouring and activating. Traditionalists may miss the hot-tomato heft of standard cioppino, but the clear tomato broth, leeched of its color but fragrant with aromatics, refines and reinvents the classic into something purer and more precise. Activate it does.