WHEN I SEE what’s fashionable right now in restaurants, I can hear my grandmother cracking up from the afterlife.
Emmer and Rye looks more like a Snohomish antiques market than what it really is: the most hotly awaited restaurant to open in Seattle this year. Folksy vintage light fixtures illuminate the oak-encrusted Victorian at the crown of Queen Anne. The primary decorations in the cluster of cozy rooms are stained-glass windows and mason jars filled with grain. The place looks—and candidly, sort of smells—more like a ’70s-era falafel collective than the darling du jour of the hipster foodie set.
But what really has Grandma slapping her knees is the menu. Roasted Jerusalem artichokes and fingerling potatoes, creamy parsnip soup, cider-braised pork shoulder with root vegetables and collards. They’re charging big-city money for the suppers we fixed on the farm! Well, I doubt Grandma was dredging sunchokes through black truffle aioli or pan-roasting oysters down on the farm—but point taken. And the prices are more like small-town money…but more on that later.
Fact is, owner and chef Seth Caswell has in his five-year Seattle tenure become one of our fiercest proponents of the back-to-basics, farm-to-table, natural-and-sustainable paradigm that has revolutionized dining out. From gigs in East Coast kitchens with their own organic farmland, Caswell migrated west in 2005. He made his Seattle name sending earthy innovations out of the kitchen of the Stumbling Goat Bistro on Phinney Ridge.
The owner’s sale of that restaurant launched a prolonged period of suspense for deposed chef Caswell and his growing legion of groupies. “I wanted to open a restaurant that would dignify the farmer,” he says earnestly, a vision that ricocheted his dreams and those of his investors from downtown to South Lake Union. And then The Crash sucked the reality out of all those plans.
Amid a space that still bespeaks goopster cinnamon rolls comes the culinary whiplash of a raw-as-the-forest-floor aesthetic.
Caswell hunkered down, performed guest gigs in friends’ restaurants around town, and kept his radar up. When he heard that the folks who owned Julia’s on Queen Anne were in search of a new partner and a new profile, the stars aligned. Though it had evolved into a mediocre brunch joint, Julia’s had begun decades earlier as one of Seattle’s seminal natural food haunts. It closed its doors January 20, and Emmer and Rye—Caswell’s homage to an ancient grain and the beguiling whiskey—opened 10 days later.
And so, amid a space that still bespeaks Julia’s goopster cinnamon rolls and breakfast burritos, comes the colossal culinary whiplash of Caswell’s raw-as-the-forest-floor aesthetic. In plates sized as appetizers or entrees (both of which come in small and large versions), Caswell bejewels chunks of barely seared tuna with colorful, candy-sweet diced beets and swirls of sunchoke puree. He spangles dewy leaves of organic radicchio and mizuna with pickled rhubarb and heartbreak-tender mustard-marinated rabbit loin. He tangles toothsome ribbons of wild nettle pappardelle pasta with shreds of braised rabbit and ragged spring vegetables in a thyme-fragrant broth. (Wild nettle pasta! Divine!)
These dishes and others like them are soaring successes, fixing Caswell alongside the fraternity of Northwest chefs who comprehend the vagaries of our microseasonality and extemporize brilliantly within it. One whimsical starter, grilled sausage lolling on crostini with an herbal salsa verde and bits of rapini, looked like an open-face hot dog but featured an elaborate interplay of flavors meaty and brightly vegetal.
Turns out the rapini were the thinnings of overwintering broccoli Caswell sought from one of his organic farmers, rather desperately, when that winter week was yielding precious little in the way of produce. The guy knows how to shoot from the hip.
This spontaneous culinary style is not without its perils, however: Experiments sometimes falter. A few dishes lack virility, like the underflavored black truffle aioli for the homespun plate of sunchokes and potatoes, or a halfheartedly butterscotched pot de creme dessert. (If the apple galette with housemade brown butter ice cream is on the card, order that and thank me later.)
But the bigger pitfall for ingredient fetishists like Caswell is execution. Don’t get me wrong: Caswell’s obsession with and support for the pristine produce of small, organic farmers and foragers reflects the most radical and thrilling trend in restaurants today. But purity of the product alone isn’t always enough to carry the meal. Presentations can be homely: The pork belly with heirloom beans and the cauliflower toss with mushrooms and wild greens both tasted swell, but looked like things I might smush together in my own kitchen. Otherwise great dishes were marred by carelessness, like the burnt pancetta in an exquisite, chili-fired Penn Cove mussel dish. And consistency is a bugaboo. On our first visit we were served rubbery, desiccated farro “fries.” Those same polentalike rods of cheesy grain were delectable the second time we ordered them—properly crisped, benignly flavorful. It shows what Caswell can do—and that he isn’t always doing it.
This amounts to a petty quibble against the overall skill and vision in Caswell’s house. The skill extends to the servers, who, though seemingly overtaxed on both of our visits, work hard and know a lot about the food. And, most miraculously of all, to the tabs—which ought to be exorbitant considering the boutique farms Caswell sources from. Somehow he keeps his price tags in line with the frugality of the current moment, with no entree costing above $19 and most well below.
For this we can, ironically, thank the recession, which kept Caswell out of high-overhead downtown and plunked him smack in an old-fashioned house in a residential neighborhood. Kind of like Grandma’s.
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