THIS SPACE IS TOO COOL.
That was the thought bubble next to Sam Crannell’s head when he popped into Bricco della Regina Anna four springs ago. He and his fiance lived just behind the Queen Anne wine bar, but not until he had something to celebrate—landing the sous chef position at Capitol Hill’s Quinn’s Pub—did they stop in, taking seats at the end of the bar and admiring the high ceilings, the wraparound warmth of the small room, the urban cool of the sleek wood. By the time the bill hit the bar they’d resolved that if it ever came open, Crannell should snatch this spot up.
He thrived at Quinn’s, earning fawning notices for his upmarket gastropub fare—first as sous, then as exec. He jumped down the street to Oddfellows, then a year later got hired away to open Ballard’s ill-fated Five Corner Market. When that promptly tanked—huge room, neophyte owners—Crannell was ready to do what he wanted, when he wanted. Feed his own bank account and ego; not someone else’s. Cook what he wanted to eat. He found a space he liked on Capitol Hill, only to learn the building would be torn down.
That’s when he heard that Bricco was available.
It wasn’t perfect: one oven, four induction burners, no prep space. He cleaned and painted in shades of gray; hung black-and-white nature photos to augment the glossy wood. The point was to make diners feel like they were guests in Crannell’s home.
Which is how it might feel to you—provided Crannell’s home is staffed with a fleet of solicitous waiters. We walked in off quiet Queen Anne Avenue just atop the Counterbalance, amid a restaurant half-filled with sedate connoisseurs, and had our hair blown back by our waiter’s earnest attentions and the level of detail with which he described each plate. We did need help deciphering the menu, which hews to the current penchant for cryptic nondescription (would “rabbit, sweet-potato veloute, chestnut, Italian porcini” say rabbit ravioli to you?), and his knowledge of food and wine was impressive. But no, we were not in someone’s home.
We were somewhere better. LloydMartin, named for Crannell’s two entrepreneurial grandfathers, is a classy, romantic urban haunt, twinkling with candlelight and an idiosyncratic culinary aesthetic not far different from Quinn’s. Its vibe screams cocktail bar; on our visits it was still licensed only for beer and wine. Crannell promises booze—the good stuff—crafted into minimally fussy concoctions. “We won’t be making cocktails that need a lot of product to taste good ’cause they were done during Prohibition,” he sniffed. Unlike Quinn’s, unlike almost every new Seattle restaurant these days, it is not located on Capitol Hill; at this moment in time that renders LloydMartin practically exotic. It’s just the noshing and tippling post Queen Anne has needed.
We ordered a few of the menu’s small plates and a few of its mains; these are not labeled as such on the daily-changing card and vary wildly in number each day—all of which contributes to the sense of being in the individual hands of an actual person. “Focus? There’s no focus,” Crannell confessed proudly. “Delicious food, that’s the focus.”
Certainly his description applied to a romp of a frisee salad, dressed in a rich vinaigrette, savory with Oregon blue cheese and hazelnuts and chewy bacon, lavished with sheets of juicy pear. Housemade pork rillettes rolled like a red carpet down the center of a plate—very good—with a meaningful supporting cast of cornichons, mustard, and chard salad.
One thing Crannell’s diminutive kitchen does allow is fresh pasta; he makes it every morning. Tiny fists of cavatelli arrive in a hot little ramekin, gooey with smoked English cheddar, piqued with onions and leeks. Simple and fine. As for that stealth ravioli, it was revelatory: six round pillows stuffed with sweet, meaty rabbit shreds, served on a lush sweet-potato veloute with moist chestnuts and porcini mushrooms. He should serve this every night.
And he did, or something like it, all winter. This is a chef who loves him some game. “Our entire lives we eat chicken, pork, and beef,” Crannell says. “You’ll be more interested in what you’re eating if you eat elk, lamb, and venison.” So he crafts meatballs from boar and bison and sets them adrift in a camembert-thickened tomato sauce, alongside delicately crisped gnocchi. Or he fashions them from lamb, setting them pulsing with all manner of Middle Eastern spices, then serves them on a plate with kalamatas and crisped chickpeas, in puddles of tzatziki and hummus.
Elk showed up as the star of a brilliant Bolognese, with huckleberry sauce as a bright foil, and I was struck by the fragrance of the meat, almost perfumey in its intensity. This is Crannell channeling Charlie Trotter, guru of the slow cooker; he knows slow cooking releases the richest aromas and biggest flavor. So a chicken joint with hunter’s vegetables became moist and caramelly, in a sauce so herb fragrant it announced itself from the kitchen. A couple of oxtail dishes featured the gelatin-rich meat as beguiling as I’ve ever tasted it, one with cavatelli pasta and chanterelles; another with black trumpet mushrooms and (be still my heart…literally) a glistening slice of foie gras.
No focus? Uh, what does he call meat? “Oh, that will change in spring, when I start eating more vegetables,” Crannell explains. Like the man says: He cooks what he wants to eat. I’m guessing they will be the most comforting vegetables in town.
Desserts crown a rich experience richly: plates like a crusty-rustic apple galette with vanilla bean ice cream, or a home run of a Meyer lemon tart with Chantilly. A whopping brownie sundae with banana and huckleberry ice creams streaming with thick lahars of fudgy chocolate, among other diet products, was a masterpiece.
If it all sounds a little rich for the blood, LloydMartin in practice actually strikes a delicate note. By dessert the gale force of the waiters’ enthusiasm has either subdued a little or you’ve come to appreciate it, as we did. The crowd is genteel, the servings are moderate, the lights are low, everything’s served on pretty antique china.
Mostly—it’s not on Capitol Hill.