When Heong Soon Park was scripting the followup to Chan, his Korean-fusion jewel box in Pike Place Market, he knew the restaurant he wanted to open. He just needed permission.
So he emailed Stuart Brioza, his friend of a friend who co-owns State Bird Provisions, the San Francisco sensation which applies the dim sum delivery model to small plates of East-West fusion. “I want to introduce a similar concept in Seattle, but I don’t want to be disrespectful,” Park wrote Brioza—who thanked him for the tribute but demurred on the permission. It’s not my concept, Brioza told Park. They’ve been doing this in China for some time.
To be fair—not precisely this. The cart at Tray Kitchen, which Park opened along Leary Way late last year, features little plates of things like kimchi falafel and deep-fried-pork-belly salad with beets and jalapeños and citrus—nary a dumpling in sight. Indeed the doughy excesses of dim sum are overridden by a clear bias away from starches (you can’t even get a bowl of steamed rice) and, for that matter, away from dim sum’s traditionalist directives.
For Park, seasonality and innovation are more important than strict cultural adherence; he even leases an Eastside patch of farmland so his kids can see that carrots get pulled out of dirt, not Whole Foods produce displays. The result at Tray Kitchen is a United Nations of seasonally sensible small plates, many of which are very nice, like beautifully marinated Moroccan lamb, a traditional preparation with housemade yogurt and sprightly puckers of preserved lemon. Those fresh carrots, pulled out of the ground, arrive roasted and served among chunks of French feta and toasted fennel and sunflower seeds; butter-poached shrimp, fat ones popping with juice, repose upon sauteed broccoli and red onion in a round Thai vinaigrette; Korean fried chicken wings, lacquered red as antique Chinese chests with fierce Korean chili sauce, are fried to maximum craveability.
Each of these we chose off a passing cart, which trundled up every 10 minutes or so on a crowded Friday night. In Tray Kitchen parlance this is a push, a term that can feel particularly apt if your server is avid. “This one’s awesome, you have to get it!” ours commanded, pointing to a small dish of kale salad—and indeed it was, redolent of a toasty sunflower-seed nuttiness along with juicy bursts of apple and chunky almonds and the luscious cream of sheep’s milk cheese. But the concept itself breeds doubt: Did the pusher just need to unload it? Whatever goes out on a push, after all, has only one chance to be sold before it’s deemed unserveable; a reality that in Tray’s early days freaked Park out. “I wasn’t sending out enough food, so we were getting complaints,” he said. “My wife sat me down. ‘You have to play the game! You can’t be scared to waste food!’ ”
He’s now down to “wasting” some 10 plates a night, for which he credits a restaurant design affording the open kitchen full view of the house for optimal pacing. The space is small, yet high ceilinged and barny, all contemporary blond grays and unupholstered surfaces, and about as loud as a restaurant gets. You can’t converse in here, really, which is okay once you realize you’re going to be interrupted all night anyway—and not just at pushing time. “Liking everything so far?” we heard, oh, eight or nine times that first night alone.
“Jeez,” my companion grumbled. “It’s like Nordstrom in here.”
Indeed, the concept has its limitations. My second visit, on a slow Tuesday night, featured just two pushes, which they reduce when numbers are low, and which effectively transforms Tray Kitchen into plain old regular kitchen. In lieu of the cart you order off a fresh sheet—an option even when the cart is rolling—and which yielded at least one dish we liked very much: fried rice enriched with duck confit and a soy-cured egg yolk.
But when nearly every dish attempts some sort of concept, there are lots of opportunities for going wrong, a phenomenon Park dolefully admits he’s learned reading Tray’s Yelp reviews. Among problems we encountered were overcooked meat, as in the generous hunk of brisket over yams and onions and the rubbery grilled Alaskan octopus over ancho chili aioli; well-meaning but unintegrated innovations like the pork belly salad melange mentioned above; and way too much blandness, from the smoked trout mousse with housemade potato chips (who’d think this would need salt?) to grilled spareribs bored out of their minds with tame sauteed kale and citrus glaze.
All that tepid conception, along with too little clever fusion, tells me someone in Tray’s kitchen is pulling punches, holding back on the intrigue and boldness and vision such a place can uniquely deliver. (Indeed, many of these dishes are thinly veiled recastings of dishes at Chan.) Desserts are a richly flavorful exception, especially stunners like the matcha green tea semifreddo and the chai creme brulee.
In the end, it’s a matter of expectations. Growing up in Korea, Park recalls his family would go to restaurants when their pantry was low. When he moved here, he was surprised to see that people go to restaurants to linger and enjoy themselves. Tray Kitchen falls into the first category. There are those interruptions. Dishes don’t always bring out the best in other dishes; diners are pairing flavors, after all, that would be best done by the wiser palates in the kitchen. Juicy things like Tray Kitchen’s steamed mussels in coconut milk or black cod over dashi broth are ill suited to the dim sum setup, being nearly impossible to split.
Alas, those problems beset nearly every other small plate restaurant, tapas bars to happy hours—of which Tray Kitchen is, for all its fanfare as groundbreaker, simply another iteration.
This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.