History will remember 2014 as Seattle’s year of the microrestaurant, the unrestaurant, the neighborhood restaurant. Restaurants that didn’t so much have bars as were bars. Restaurants that proudly limited their purview to down market, or daytime, or dessert.
And then there was Loulay.
Sprawling, soaring, lushly appointed, luxuriously open day and night, pinned to a prime corner of downtown real estate—Thierry Rautureau’s three-level showpiece launched late in 2013 to buck nearly every ascendant trend. Each of its 4,000 square feet stood as visual affront to the receding recession: its classy high-backed oyster-white booths and lipsticky walls, its proud gilded mirror and pink neon name check over the kitchen, its center-of-the-universe outlook onto a pulsing Sixth Avenue, or—from the loft seats on weekend nights—onto something even more exhilarating, a crowded restaurant.
Rautureau had done popular before: For 26 years Rover’s, his highbrow French destination in Madison Valley, was on the city’s special-occasion speed dial; his Luc down the street remains so beloved of its neighbors it’s hard to walk from one end of the bar to the other. But those restaurants were limited in scope compared to Loulay, which churns through four menus a day, seven days a week, with curtain rushes for three downtown theaters. We’re talking 350 covers a day. Every day.
Loulay is Seattle Met’s 2014 Restaurant of the Year because it’s terrific anyway.
And I mean terrific. A plate of spring lamb two ways over polenta with Castelvetrano olives and flawless meat—some grilled to tender, some braised to melting. A marbled beef rib-eye with a fathomless red wine demiglace and pitch-perfect goat cheese counterpoint. A plate of fire-edged foie gras that would be plenty lush on its own—even before you taste its textures and flavors braided into harmonies with balsamic caramel, sea salt, a bright rhubarb turnover. A trio of Dungeness beignets with harissa aioli, crisp and vivid and redolent of fine frying oil, gently hot chilies, and—whaddya know—crab, whose buttery subtleties are so often overwhelmed in lesser kitchens. That sweet Dungeness flavor makes these beignets one of the superstars not just of a stellar menu—but of a city.
Loulay chef Rob Sevcik had originally envisioned them as lobster beignets. Rautureau’s chef de cuisine from Rover’s, after all, had received his informal culinary education almost entirely in French kitchens. But when he presented the dish to Rautureau (every dish goes through Rautureau), the elder chef looked up from beneath the brim of that omnipresent hat of his and regarded this chef whose calm kitchen management and stunning level of execution he trusted implicitly—but who on this dish had foreclosed the obvious locavore opportunity. “Great,” Rautureau said. “But where’s the Dungeness?”
Rover’s sealed Rautureau’s rap as a formal chef—much of which was warranted, given the composed platings, the amuse-bouche prelude to every dinner, the $25 organic scrambled egg heaped with white sturgeon caviar. And indeed, the Chef in the Hat brought every one of those connoisseur elements to Loulay. (The platings are particularly winning; slightly more rustic than at Rover’s but still prettied with dots and splashes of sauce.)
So the great surprise of Loulay is that it is—as its ethos, to its core—the kind of restaurant that serves Dungeness rather than lobster.
Of course this is true for local and seasonal reasons—Rautureau so inhabits the farm-to-table sensibility he famously rejects the term, as a descriptor of something so obviously essential no worthy chef should have to call it out. Local Dungeness would absolutely win out over imported lobster.
But it’s also true on a more symbolic level, for Loulay maintains a down-to-earth accessibility I’m consistently surprised to find in a room this grand. I was thinking about this on my last visit, savoring one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted—a smoky masterpiece with bacon-shallot jam and fries. On the one hand, it’s all house-ground rib-eye and brioche bun—duck egg and foie gras optional. On the other, it’s a $15 burger. When we sought help with wine, our otherwise elegant sommelier described a particularly muscular red as a “two-by-four to the face.”
No putting on airs in this house. It costs less than you’d expect in this space, in this part of downtown, abetting an overriding sense of accommodation for everyone: main floor tables for those who dressed up and want to be seen, booths for business deal makers, a wraparound chamber in the corner of the crackling bar for trysters—even a table in the loft with a view of the open kitchen, sensitively designed for solo diners. In its open-armed, come-as-you-are welcome, Loulay splits a very fine hair: Legitimately democratic in its hospitality without sacrificing the quality of the food.
Of course it is food that, quibblers will quibble, doesn’t break new ground so much as riff regionally on the classics. True enough. In the last half decade, Seattle has become a gastronomic innovator’s laboratory, from the modernist technique being forged at ChefSteps to the primal cooking methods—fermentation, fire—Seattle stalwarts like Matt Dillon and Jason Wilson are throwing back to.
By contrast, Loulay’s softly reconstructed French menu and traditional service setup can seem like the ultimate throwback—to a time when restaurant kitchens were more about pleasing diners than making statements. Both paradigms can be worthy—but, in Seattle circa 2014, only the first is a novelty. And when Thierry Rautureau comes by your table to doff that silly hat of his in welcome—and he will—he’ll exude his signature blend of culinary gravitas and everyman irreverence that makes you see that Loulay, similarly blended, was the restaurant he was born to have.
That he was born to have it in our city is Seattle’s great good fortune.
This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.
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