Duck into a certain James Street storefront around, say, 12:30 on a weekday afternoon, and you’ll have a front-row seat for what’s going down right now in Pioneer Square.
Il Corvo is the reincarnation of pasta geek Mike Easton’s lunch-only popup on the Pike Place Hill climb; a cramped and narrow space with exactly 36 seats, every one of them occupied. Wage slaves and artists and government functionaries crowd onto church pews at tables the owners built to look rustic. “Not modern rustic,” Easton clarified. “Rustic rustic.”
Arrive any later than, oh, 12:46, and the pasta you came for—perhaps cavatelli with olives, lemon, capers, and Spanish anchovies; perhaps conchiglie with zucchini, ceci beans, marjoram, and pesto—will almost surely be history. This is the price regulars pay for the email blast that drew them. Easton sends it out every weekday morning around 11, with a description and a photo of the day’s special. People wait for that email. Some undoubtedly save it to an unmarked folder.
Because Holy Mother of Semolina…this is food porn. Bits of toasted walnut clinging creamily to thick ribbons of fresh pappardelle. A close-up of conchiglie seashells wet with meaty ragu, its Parmesan just starting to soften. It’s a pretty brilliant marketing technique for a strictly seasonal, lunch-only spot like Il Corvo. Easton and his crew make some three to five preparations a day, all from pasta cut, extruded, or hand-formed in their kitchen that morning; they almost always sell out of the photo-blasted one. Beyond that, Easton hasn’t spent a dime on marketing.
I arrived around 12:47 on the day when the emailed money shot was roasted-beet-and-ricotta-filled ravioli del plin in a gently yellow sauce of fresh thyme butter; you can guess how ordering that turned out. Instead, I ordered Easton’s pasta misti, in which a combination of pasta shapes wore an exuberant wash of parsley, mint, and basil pesto. At Il Corvo, one orders and pays up front, then finds a seat and waits for table delivery. My companion ordered a muscular Bolognese with tagliatelle.
Both were ravishing. Easton has many more unusual preparations in his repertoire, but these plainer ones didn’t suffer for familiarity; on the contrary they bore an iconic quality, from the luscious tooth of the noodles to the clean elegance of the sauces. The pesto in particular captured the nascent vividness of spring’s first herbs. Another visit’s beet spaghetti with aglio stracotto, or “overcooked garlic,” featured brick-red spaghetti noodles of real density—unusual in spaghetti—with a sauce breathing garlic’s slow-cooked transformation from sharp to softly, caramelly sweet. Transcendent.
Ratios are right, at last; at Easton’s original Il Corvo inside Procopio Gelateria, pastas were typically oversauced, even gloppy. Sides in the new place are less consistent: focaccia is a softly herbed foil for the sauces, but prosciutto-and-pickled-celery salad was not pickly enough.
But seriously—who cares about supporting acts. “I am totally a pasta geek,” admits Easton, who before Il Corvo helmed Bizzarro and Lecosho, and before that got seized by pasta during a trip to Italy. “I’d been cooking in kitchens since I was 16, but when I finally went to Italy I thought, ‘This is how I’ve been wanting to cook my whole life.’ ”
He now owns dozens of Old World pastamaking tools, many of which hang on Il Corvo’s walls like slightly menacing ancient surgical tools. “It’s amazing the way you put together two simple ingredients—flour and water or flour and eggs—creates thousands of different possibilities, thousands of different textures,” he marvels. “There’s so much intuition and instinct about pasta in Italy. I’ve spent hours on it. It consumes me.”
In a corner space a couple of blocks south dwells another chef consumed. Matt Dillon stands before his wood oven at Bar Sajor—it flames hotly within a soaring hearth of white bricks, the decorative and culinary centerpiece of the restaurant—wearing the expression Matt Dillon invented: obsessive, contemplative, quite possibly orbiting another sun. Like he’s not just preparing the food, he’s channeling the preparation.
The proprietor of Sitka and Spruce, the Corson Building, and Bar Ferd’nand had wanted to open a wood-fire restaurant since a pilgrimage to the restaurant Asador Etxebarri in Spain exposed him to what has become something of a global sensation: limiting one’s culinary range to that which is cooked over fire, and that which is served raw.
Another chef might be undone by the prospect of running a restaurant with no conventional oven and no stove top. Dillon, as close as we have in this town to a gastronomic savant, is artistically transported by it. He strains housemade yogurt, then wraps it in cheesecloth and places it in a pan, tucking into the embers beside a piece of charred fruitwood. It takes about a half hour for the wood to suffuse the yogurt with its smoky sweetness. (Sajor draws from many culinary traditions, but smoked yogurt is a common North African treatment.) Dillon smears the yogurt across a plate, then brings the flavors and textures full circle with pumpkin seeds in their oil and sweet, raw, very Northwest organic vegetables halved lengthwise.
A chunk of Alaskan halibut wears a crackling crust from the fire, which yields to impossibly buttery flesh piqued with a romaine–sunflower seed pesto and polka-dotted with papery radish slices. A chuletón de buey—a Spanish grilled rib steak, served here for two—emerges fork tender from the flames, its aged tang deepened with smoke, Treviso leaves and garlic adding bitter and pungent counterpoints, optional glasses of Basque cider (traditional in Spain) lending fruit.
These are perfect dishes—and no, not because wood smoke makes everything taste like bacon. Well, not just that. It’s that Dillon gets flavor on a profound level. At Sajor he makes copious use of fermentation, which he employs both because its tanginess makes a brilliant counterpoint to the smoke and because fermenting is one of the last remaining cooking methods in his arsenal.
As a result, Dillon’s may be the hardest-working bacteria in town. He pours kombucha on draft, along with a raft of vegetable vinegar drinks that, with soda and sugar, provide exquisite refreshment. (Carrot vinegar, bubbly and fruity with apple-cider vinegar, is now my official beverage of summer.) Vinegar-macerated parsnip and carrot slices adorn a simple cress and sorrel salad—offering, alas, the only interest in it. (Dillon’s salads always eat like you’re crawling across a forest floor with your mouth open; this dry melange must have been a particularly uneventful part of the forest.) Bread, baked in the fire, is a light sourdough with a black crust and a sublime thick and sticky chew, owing to a particularly wet recipe. Even the butter is cultured, its bacteria-wrought compounds meant to deepen its flavor. (For the record, I detected no such depth. But, as with all things bacterial, the intensity of the flavor is variable.)
And, as with all things Dillon, the food’s not flawless—evidence of an artist at play. Puget Sound silver smelt wrapped in air-dried ham, with tart lemon and rings of green almond, never added up to more than the sum of the parts. But here’s the thing with this maestro chef and master sourcer.
The parts are very often worthwhile on their own.
Bar Sajor is Dillon’s most hyperlocal restaurant, loaded with produce like the spicy radishes and juniper beets and tea-fermented apples and cipollini onions and fiddleheads that made a thrilling pickle plate. I want to return to try Quillayute River king salmon cured with Sitka spruce tips and poached and raw rhubarb, creme fraiche, and sour native rose petals. Or long-line lingcod roasted in buttermilk with “stinging nettles and trumpets of death.” Dig in!
I couldn’t figure out at first how this simple, earthy, woodsy food so befit this uberurban place. Dillon remodeled the space himself, admiring the feng shui of the corner door, the windows gazing out on the ruffly trees of Occidental Mall. Inside, aside from that roaring fire, it’s all Old World white: a lofty magnificence of wainscoting and bricks and wood joists and ticking, like an English farmhouse reclaimed by the Parsons School of Design. Clutches of blooming chives hang from hooks alongside big pots of fresh morels and vases of theatrical tree branches. It’s fairyland.
Fairyland, that is, in the hottest neighborhood in the city, one with a new train station that’s actually old and an old history that feels suddenly, brightly new. And that’s when I got it. Il Corvo and Bar Sajor aren’t just in Pioneer Square, they’re of it—and loaded with the singular aesthetic and regional integrity that lend a restaurant and a neighborhood that characteristic so heartbreakingly rare in either. A soul.
Published: July 2013