The tilapia breaded in fried masa sure sounded intriguing. But when I ordered it as my entree, our server, already gracious in the extreme, tuned his internal diplomacy dial to velvet guardrail mode. “That is…just a salad? Is that okay?”
In retrospect, the mention of “gem lettuce” in the dish was probably a clue. But the menu at Petite Galerie is rather like a matrix; dishes are categorized as Land, Sea, Earth, and Heaven—yep, that last one is dessert. Plates generally get larger as you go down each column, but not consistently: It’s also rather like The Matrix, in that it requires your full attention to understand what is even happening.
Or maybe I’m just rusty on menus that aim beyond family-style dishes that arrive from the kitchen whenever they’re ready. When you dine at this restaurant in Madison Valley—secreted in plain sight in an upscale gray retail complex just beyond the arboretum—deciding what to order is the last effort required of you for the next few hours. Petite Galerie, in every way, is a richly upholstered U-turn from the city’s prevailing restaurant tropes.
Forget concrete floors and communal tables—this dining room makes no apology for its elegance. Twinkly chandeliers illuminate tables topped with actual linens and high-backed chairs you sink into like a bed at a really good hotel. Most plates are not, in fact, meant to be shared, but if that’s your preference, servers in dark dress pants will graciously comply, then make stealth visits with crumbers between courses, even top off your wine by way of apology when a dish takes a little longer than expected. Dinner begins with an amuse bouche and concludes with a plate of mignardise. It’s a great fit with Madison Valley. The rest of the town may pulse with newly arrived millennials, but here you might overhear a conversation about the silver screen—era actress Irene Dunne happening one four-top over.
Chef Rob Sevcik knows this area well. But he swears he wasn’t trying to dovetail with the neighborhood where he once prepared fine-dining fare at Rover’s, just up Madison. Before his years cooking for Thierry Rautureau, aka the Chef in the Hat, Sevcik formulated a vision of his own place. And unlike some chefs, his vision extended beyond the kitchen. “I wanted a restaurant that was quiet, and I wanted a restaurant that was warm,” says Sevcik. “In Seattle they’re loud and cold.”
If service seems preserved from a gentler era, Petite Galerie’s menu reflects the mind of its owner: restless and nimble. It evolves just about daily. Sometimes it’s subtle; the perfectly cooked halibut, reposed in white wine butter with a dainty round of sweet pea flan, might come with two perfect clams on Thursday or a pair of equally perfect prawns the following Tuesday (flawlessly cooked seafood is a theme here). Nothing is off limits, says Sevcik, as long as it’s elevated. His longtime sous chef, Sam Thompson, floated the idea of barbecue quail with potato salad, a homespun—well, except for the quail—proposal that evolved into the best dish of three meals here, a quartet of tender, smoky drumsticks atop cubes of potatoes confited in duck fat. These cubes have one job: soak up the sauce, which Sevcik describes as a nod to American barbecue’s kicky-sweet sidekick condiment, but its deep, endless flavor feels more French: I’ve yet to meet a barbecue sauce I want to eat with a spoon.
That’s why the ling cod comes plated atop a flawless tonnato, Italy’s punchy anchovy-tuna sauce, but also bears sunny shavings of cured egg yolk, the current “it” umami vehicle, particularly beloved among chefs who serve only what can be grown and foraged locally. This combo was only slightly less successful—aka more salty—when swordfish subbed in the following week. Sevcik’s French training began at Portland’s late, lovely Fenouil. In Seattle, he ran the kitchen at Rover’s, then Loulay for Rautureau, our city’s eminent Gallic gladhander, himself a man who built a career on food slightly more elevated than Seattle was expecting. Petite Galerie’s menu bears evidence of those eight years under Rautureau, and Sevcik’s preference for dishes that are legitimately composed. But in his own kitchen, the chef wanted license to experiment, free of stylistic constraints.
Naturally, a chef who digs dining niceties and Sinatra on the sound system is also a fan of foie gras. One of the desserts in the Heaven column is topped with foie and inspired by breakfast’s bacon-egg-muffin template. But you can also add a fat lobe to any dish on the menu. We took our server’s recommendation and put foie gras on the croquettes of creamy yellow finn potatoes, which look like mozzarella sticks and taste like tater tots that rained down from mashed potato heaven. Seattle does opulence best with a dash of irreverence, and the near-comical indulgence of eating foie gras atop glorified tots was well worth the $18 surcharge. However the ramekins of romesco and garlic aioli alongside the croquettes weren’t quite flavorful enough to keep pace. Highs and lows are a given in a kitchen that experiments, but Sevcik’s skill level means even the dishes that don’t feel as finessed are still perfectly nice. The best bet at Petite Galerie is the one that lets you avoid the matrix’s mental overload: tasting menus. You can offer a little input, but mostly you’re in Sevcik’s hands for four, six, or 10 courses.
In summer, diners linger as long as the sunsets, but Petite Galerie’s first night of service was Valentine’s Day, one sure formula for restaurant madness layered atop another. Still, Sevcik found a moment to step out into the dark, cross Madison Street, and stand on the opposite sidewalk, facing the wall of streetside windows that first drew him to this space. Chefs aren’t generally in the habit of taking a walk midservice, he allows, but hey, “You only have one birth.” For a good 10 minutes, he took in his own dining room as if he were a stranger—the servers in motion, the print of soft pink roses his wife Megan selected to fill up the entire back wall. Actual strangers get an eyeful of this room as they pass on Madison; anyone who sets foot inside the front door gets a view into the mind of a chef whose embrace of classic dining feels downright avant-garde.