"Hello...” Lionel Richie softly croons from the speakers, a warm if eerily timed greeting. To walk into Opus Co. is to land, instantly, in the midst of a dining alcove, thrumming retro soundtrack and all, where a scant two servers glide to and from tables, and around each other as in some telepathic flight pattern. They pollinate these tables with plates that issue forth from the open kitchen anchored behind a chef’s counter comfortably seating four. “Hello!” echoes our server; she guides us to our table two whole strides away.
In rhythm with Seattle’s ceaseless growth, the dining scene, too, has boomed. In an almost Oprahlike fashion, developers have doled out new spaces like “You get a freshly built-out restaurant! And you get a freshly built-out restaurant!” But rather than a flashy grand opening in a sweeping room, Opus Co. went a different path entirely. It’s old-school Seattle bootstrapping in the utmost—if only rubber chef’s clogs had straps by which to pull. Still, with his footwear thoroughly secured, chef and owner Mark Schroder has outfitted a tiny space with a custom wood-fired grill and produced a worthy dining destination inside a former sandwich shop in Phinney Ridge.
No matter the size, it’s not easy to run your own place; luckily Schroder learned from a pair of the most legit teachers in town. He worked for Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi at Joule, Revel, and then later as the chef de cuisine at Trove. For five years Schroder refined his way with fire and fermentation, his vegetable mastery, and whole-animal skills under the tutelage of mentors who evolved Korean fusion in Seattle. And long before learning the juicy ins and crispy outs of rice cakes and dumplings, Schroder’s first lessons took place on his family’s Illinois farm. His dad would forage for wild asparagus and then take to the grill. They’d eat asparagus for two weeks straight. Then it was squash. This allegiance to the seasons informs Schroder’s food too.
Now the chef’s dishes subtly flit between midwestern upbringing and Korean-inflected training. His menu consists largely of shareable platters plus a few small plates, but even those who shy away from tasting menus should step up for the Opus Feast, a family-style parade of six or so courses for $50, a good value considering the operatic series of dishes. It might start with pork jerky and two slices of lamb spam—a successful spin on such a beloved (and maligned) processed meat product—touched with nori, a good sign that this coursed meal is going to be fun. A salad of lacinato kale, pear, and peanut-chili relish is a beautifully tart acid trip. Then come little bowls of squash in paper-thin shavings, a crispy white rice with fermented bean topping and salted radish. Next up, pickled root veggies with yogurt. This is banchan with a farmers market fanboy flair. The restaurant’s whole-animal program proves the grill game here is strong, from a flame-licked half chicken coated in malt-vinegar caramel, all tangy and sweet, to a slap-yourself-good pork belly or tender Neah Bay steelhead with poached pear and grilled treviso.
For all the lovely meats that are plucked off the grill here, vegetables at Opus are magical. Maitake mushrooms, huge and lush, are lightly roasted, served alongside cornmeal squash fritters and a modest amount of creme fraiche—proof that veggies need not be doused in dairy and butter to be one of the best things on the menu. Then there’s the sorcery that is the cauliflower from the “to add on” section. It adds everything. The cauliflower, which is kissed by smoke, joins vinegary spring garlic and elderberry-pickled red cabbage, all laid atop a spicy-rich mole sauce created from squash innards. After coming down from this mole-induced high, though, it seems to come a bit out of a left field in Mexico.
Perhaps it’s all to plan. There’s always someone who brings the curveball dish to the family cookout; you scratch your head over it, then ask for the recipe. When Opus opened last summer Schroder had picnicky vibes in mind, “like if an Applebee’s were seasonal and small.”
While barren of Applebee’s-style sports ephemera, Opus nails the neighborhood grill spirit, one that begets some meat-fueled camaraderie. A genial couple, sitting at a minimally styled blond-wood table by the neat stacks of shelved firewood, easily chat up a couple beside them. “Where are you from? The East Coast? Us too!” But they’ve lived “just over there” for years, she says, pointing across and beyond Greenwood Avenue as Aretha Franklin demands her propers in the background. Conversation comes as easily as a plate of brussels sprouts with spicy apples and smooth sunflower-seed tahini—exciting yet pleasant.
At Opus, there’s no such thing as behind the scenes in such a tiny open kitchen. Schroder’s manning the grill one minute, power washing some dinnerware the next. Meanwhile Paolo Campbell, Schroder’s right-hand man and fellow Revel and Trove alum, deftly plates and sauces and smears that tahini, Nike swoosh style. Next, he’s bringing dishes out to tables. On the other side of the kitchen counter, service is just as down to earth. A cumin-spiced lamb shank came with what our server, without missing a beat, called “fajita pickles.” The staff crumbs the table between courses; leftovers are doggie bagged and tucked away until the check comes. It’s attentive but not overbearing.
Alas not every dish here sings. Pork sausage on its own is nice; with pickled apple and triangles of herby flatbread on the same plate, though, it all seemed not very composed in comparison with other shared dishes. The pork tenderloin was also solidly satisfying, if a smidge too dry. Cocktails, while ice cold and nicely herbaceous, border on cloying.
Still, Opus is astonishingly good. Flavors are bold—they whizz at you like that mole home run—and well executed, especially given the fickle tendencies of cooking with fire. The food sways with subtle Korean influence and dances with the season’s offerings. Aretha had a point: The funk and soul of Schroder’s food should likewise command your r-e-s-p-e-c-t.