Eric Donnelly gets up really early.
By midmorning the owner and chef of RockCreek Seafood has already checked in with his fish guys—suppliers in Hawaii, on the East Coast, maybe Emerald City Seafood—and placed his orders. Exotics like ono and albacore. Finfish that don’t show up very often around here, like bream and haddock and bluefish. Rarities like cobia, a firm, white-fleshed solitary swimmer from careful aquaculture outfits that are improving fish farming’s bad rap.
Donnelly has already cruised Pike Place Market, sniffing out the best seasonal produce, envisioning combinations for the fish he just ordered. Earlier this fall when perfect tomatoes begged to be roasted into confit, he imagined them with oil-cured Calabrian peppers over seared monkfish, the braising liquids rich with sherry, smoked paprika, and the brine of Totten Inlet Mediterranean mussels. He’s picked up the day’s flat-leaf parsley and young basil and cilantro and onions and garlic and limes, and he gets back to his Fremont kitchen to prep for dinner and school the waitstaff. Every evening he gathers the crew to tell them why each of that night’s 20 or so varieties of fish is interesting. Because to Donnelly, each fish is fascinating.
The chef has packed serious experience into his 37 years, from the sleazy North Seattle diner where he washed dishes as a 16-year-old to the $7-million-a-year corporate seafood house Oceanaire, whose kitchen he helmed for seven years; from the Deadliest Catch fishing boat he briefly worked in Alaska to the fly-fishing he’s loved all his life. From gigs in Napa Valley to Seattle’s Toulouse Petit, Donnelly practiced Northern California’s light Mediterranean and the Deep South’s Creole styles; in lieu of formal training he was mentored by one of Seattle’s foremost fish gurus, Steelhead Diner owner and former Oceanaire boss, Kevin Davis.
But when time and space telescope down to the moment that finds you sitting at one of RockCreek’s wood plank tables, savoring your first bite of that cobia he just got in—its mild meat grilled to a crust, resting on a bed of chunked Marcona almonds and braised escarole blinding with lemon, topped with a jam of sweet Medjool dates—you understand that this chef brings more than experience to this party. He brings an uncanny sixth sense for how flavors will play against and resolve each other; how the lemon in the escarole will react with the sweetness of the dates, to mellow their individual overstatements into a single exquisite foil for this fish. Lemon and escarole and dates? Not every chef would know to go there. Eric Donnelly cooks like a chemist.
We arrived on a weeknight to find the Montana fishing lodge roaring with guests and a fleet of sweet, folksy staffers. (They didn’t always know the answers to our questions, but they always retrieved them with a smile.) The open-trussed room is airy and blond--timbered, with a dining loft in the rafters and below it more tables, the bar, the buzzing open kitchen, and a rollup garage door onto a patio. Also in the loft is a private dining room accessed via a sliding barn door, which slid so enthusiastically on one visit it nearly tossed my husband over the rail. Okay, not literally. But the place, which Donnelly helped to build—all raw beams and visible nails and unupholstered lack of airs—has the endearingly DIY feel of a vacation kit home. Behind the bar stretches a wall-size photo of a sun-drenched fly--fisherman’s dreamscape, lending more sporting informality to a restaurant that no one dresses up for.
Many dishes carry the same offhand imprint, as when Donnelly presents a whole grilled skin-on sea bream on a puddle of rich red romesco sauce, then lavishes it with oiled fistfuls of cukes and herbs and heirloom tomatoes. Or a chile relleno, stuffed with fat chunks of Dungeness crab, served between a smear of tomatillo salsa, bright and feisty and fruity, and a frisky toss of cilantro, radishes, and lime slices. Or in a salad where seared sardines, meaty ones, arrive in a buoyant chaos of fennel ribbons, basil strips, mint leaves, and multicolored cherry tomatoes, all over a smoky mash of eggplant. As you compulsively attempt to spear each of these elements onto every forkful—you realize that chaos is not the right word. Every molecule on this plate belongs here.
This chemist is having a ball with chemistry, in dishes—and with fishes—that roam the globe. But alongside Donnelly’s crack conceptions stands the kind of disciplined consistency that makes a fine restaurant a significant one. RockCreek is a big place peddling nearly two dozen changing fish preparations every night of the week—till midnight. Doing that many kinds of seafood well is a trick—one that notably few places in Seattle attempt, even fewer successfully. That’s what makes casual RockCreek the seafood showcase for your heartland houseguests, sure—but, much more tellingly, one that’s worthy of a local.
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Seattle Met.