WHEN I ARRIVED for my second visit to Sitka & Spruce, my companions were already seated—and a bit perplexed. The teensy space provides little room for waiting, and when they arrived the tables were full. “We weren’t sure whether to stand blocking the doorway or move in toward the packed bar.” The only seats to be had were at the communal 10–top stretching down the middle of the room, which at the time held a romancing couple at one end, a solo diner at the other. “Should we have just plopped ourselves between them?” When one of the five private tables became available, my friends were seated and given the wine list. Orally. “So we had to keep asking them to repeat the vintages…”
Welcome to Sitka & Spruce, the latest and perhaps least likely It restaurant to open in this town. The list of its idiosyncrasies is long and, among those who care about such things, infamous: Its middlebrow location in an Eastlake strip mall, its reclaimed decor (here a mirror and a tray hung on a chartreuse wall, there a cow skull and some LPs), its strikingly insufficient capacity, its arcane reservations policy (only one per evening—and only for a party willing to sit at the communal table between 7:30 and 8pm), its legions who consequently eat standing up, and chef–owner Matt Dillon’s penchant for dreaming up an entirely new menu every night.
Even Dillon, who himself admits difficulty remembering the wine list, agrees it’s weird. “We’re…kind of a different restaurant.” Different by a mile from the places the young Dillon earned his chops: the Georgian, the Salish Lodge, the Herbfarm, the Stumbling Goat Bistro. After working in these kitchens, itching for a place of his own, he envisioned something big, something expensive. Then he took a trip to San Francisco. “There’s a place on the Embarcadero, Boulette’s Larder, where you can go for a pastry during the day, or get all the ingredients for making your own,” he recalls. “In the evenings they do multicourse dinners for 10 to 20 diners. It was like a kitchen with a cash register.”
The “food studio” idea appealed to Dillon, who wanted a pastry–coffee–small lunch operation by day and whose ardor for fresh seasonal ingredients translated well to nightly improvisations on small plates for limited numbers. “Anything bigger than the space we now have might mean loss of quality,” Dillon muses.
I can’t remember if it was while I was savoring crostini topped with chicken and duck liver pate, a sheen of oil, thin–sliced radishes, and a whisper of Portugese salt; or a plate of tender smoky venison leg brightened with fresh wild huckleberries; or a hunk of black cod, sumptuous as butter, with Walla Walla sweet onions and fava beans frisky with mint—that I concluded that Matt Dillon just plain boils water better than I do.
He trolls the purest sources for seasonal ingredients, then improvises preparations around them. His method seems as mystical as wizardry, particularly when the result turns out to be, say, a wedge of gnocchi alla Romana topped with an egg over grilled frisée. A wild riff on hash combines—perhaps for the first time in history—chickpeas, oranges, buttery Castelvetrano olives, and bits of octopus, crispy without and tender within. Perfectly executed dishes whose very improbability heightens their perfection.
Each evening eight or nine of these innovations—a salad, some starters, and a vegetable or two among them—are scrawled on a wall–mounted chalkboard. Most of these à la carte plates come in two or three sizes, allowing small–plate or family–style—and therefore quite affordable—dining. This small–plates set–up constitutes an almost museum–quality experience of being in a chef’s hands. When that chef is Matt Dillon, this is a very good thing. Indeed the only generalization that can be made about the dinner crowd is that they’re food nerds, drawn by the chef more than the scene. As the evening matures a sizzling foodie energy begins to rumble through the room as strangers thrust into proximity begin comparing notes on their vaca frita and braised rabbit loin. My initial visit found me so giddy with this energy, we turned down a table so we could eat standing up.
Partly it was that standing in the close dining room allowed me a peek into Dillon’s domain. There he was in the back, practicing his alchemy in a kitchen that offered space aplenty. Comment, if you wish, upon the chef’s priorities. Then take another bite.
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