Crashing Corson

Tuscany meets Georgetown in a little farm with big flavors.

By Kathryn Robinson January 8, 2009 Published in the September 2008 issue of Seattle Met

The news last year rippled through Seattle’s foodie underground like wind across a wheat field: Matthew Dillon was making a new restaurant.

It would be called the Corson Building; it would open in time for summer solstice. The setup would be the latest “It” thing—family-style, multicourse, prix-fixe dinners to be held two or three nights a week for two-dozen-and-some guests—and prepared by the wunderkind chef who had seized the notice of the nation with his little Eastlake restaurant, Sitka and Spruce. I called for my reservation in June and found to my frustration that every foodie within 50 miles had gotten there first: Corson’s calendar was booked for months.

When a return message alluringly hinted at a cancellation, I pounced. “We’ll take it, party of two!” I responded—only to age considerably waiting for a reply message inquiring whether I’d like it, and for how many. At last, two days before dinner we sealed the deal with real-time contact. Corson clearly likes to discuss its idiosyncrasies with prospective guests: You will pay $80 to $90 per head for seven courses ($110 to $120 with matching wines), you will sup with strangers, and have you any food allergies? But by this time my annoyance wires had been fully tripped. Must a person really hold her life and her calendar in thrall to a… restaurant?

It’s the precise question I’d been gnawing on for the couple of years since Sitka and Spruce had opened. The tiny Eastlake Avenue storefront was an unlikely headquarters for a revolution, but it ignited one nonetheless, thanks to Dillon’s radical philosophy: Fine restaurants should not cater to high-paying diners defined by classist distinctions between servers and served. Rather, they should be hubs of vibrant community defined by shared passion for food.

So he furnished Sitka and Spruce with a long communal table and a stand-up eating bar. He cultivated farmers and foragers and fishermen and crafted exuberant new dishes from what they gave him every day. His cramped and crowded space helped keep prices relatively affordable; his utterly arcane reservations policy (one per night, for a party of five to 12, between 7:30 and 8pm) kept his growing list of devotees clustered on the noisy sidewalk, telling themselves they didn’t mind waiting an hour sucking exhaust to eat a meal standing up.

Sitka became the ultimate unrestaurant, the most vivid example of a movement that was beginning to gather around here thick as an autumn overcast. Across the Northwest restaurateurs were ditching the time-honored conventions of hospitality like last week’s lettuce: from reservations (Elemental @ Gasworks), to private tables (Naomi and Michael Hebberoy’s Gotham Building Tavern in Portland), to menu choice (Art of the Table in Wallingford), to regular hours (Michael Hebberoy’s randomly scheduled One Pot suppers in Seattle)—even to anything so bourgeois as a business license (the erstwhile underground “word-of-mouth” restaurant Gypsy), or an address (the nomadic Airstream trailer Skillet Street Food). “Kill the restaurant!” became at least one insurrectionist’s slogan.

And that’s about the time Matthew Dillon found the Corson Building.

It stood in industrial Georgetown, wedged hard between a railroad track and I-5’s Corson Street exit and scratching distance from the pale underbellies of the planes roaring out from Boeing Field. Built by an Italian stonemason in 1910, the noble edifice struck Dillon as a diamond in the very rough—just the place to contain his restless new vision: a community center for foodies. He had apprenticed at the Herbfarm, worked at Stumbling Goat Bistro and Supreme, then owned Sitka—but never had he had a place where he could host family-style suppers, visiting-chef demos, pig roasts, picnics. The Corson Building offered a garden that the underserved kids from Seattle Youth Garden Works might plant and harvest; a second floor that could make charming guest quarters. He contacted kindred spirit Wylie Bush, owner of Capitol Hill’s Joe Bar, and before they’d sufficiently consulted their left brains they acquired the urban plot they took to calling their “little practice farm.” Together they rolled up their sleeves and began polishing their diamond’s considerable rough edges.

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The effect, to one navigating the surrounding tenderloin and flinging open the property’s filigreed iron gates, is one of falling through the rabbit hole. Once inside I found myself in a magical courtyard of brick terraces and strutting chickens and raised beds riotous with herbs. Roses and nasturtiums and heady jasmine draped the majestic stone house, and there in front burbled the very fountain from one’s dreams of Tuscany. The bees that Dillon had raised for honey had expired during spring’s schizophrenic weather, but back by the chicken coops the doves he raises “for no good reason” cooed and scratched. Little practice farm, indeed.

We spied Dillon in his tweed cap serenely grilling baby onions, while the chattier Bush worked the gathering crowd with glasses of rosé and chickpeas deep-fried with chili, coriander, and cumin. These chickpeas, Dillon explained during the dinnertime tutorial (apparently an Herbfarm apprenticeship dies hard) were raised by the Alvarez family in the Yakima Valley. Of all the chefs now plying their trade in Seattle, Dillon owns the most recognizable signatures: produce so microseasonal it’s almost feral in its intensity; an improvisational enthusiasm, restrained and elemental and never precious; and always the emphasis on community. But his most appealing trademark remains his sincere belief that it’s not the chef who’s the rock star. It’s the farmer.

But just so we’re clear: Dillon is a rock star. Not for nothing did he walk away with a berth on Food and Wine’s prestigious national list of 10 Best New Chefs last year. Our meal opened with platters of grilled zucchini tossed with marinated sheep’s milk feta, slow-fried pistachios, and—o inspiration!—tart gooseberries. (“I grew these myself,” Dillon announced shyly.) A warm clam and mussel salad with tender butter lettuce and brazen anchovies came next. Big unctuous slabs of black cod were gothically offset by bitter treviso greens from Carnation’s Local Roots farm: a cerebral combination, endlessly fascinating on the palate.

Whenever a plane roared over the roof, everything trembled and we all lip-read for a minute. This may be Tuscany, but it’s Tuscany in wartime.

They all arrived on big glistening platters—a gratifying antidote to the reigning zeitgeist of scarcity—to be passed around the three long tables like at suppertime on grandpa’s farm. The interior of the Corson Building imparts an Old World dreaminess, with its arched windows and white stucco and revealed patches of original brick, decorated with sepia-toned photographs, and lit with the gleaming filaments of raw bulbs. Thanks to concrete floors, acoustics could not have been worse; as evening ripened and the candles threw longer shadows upon the stucco and the merriment grew merrier, nobody could hear a word anyone else was saying. Whenever a plane roared over the roof everything trembled and we all lip-read for a minute. This may be Tuscany, but it’s Tuscany in wartime.

Still, the convivial setup is predestined to succeed, since everyone here is a self-selected food nerd and the food is so stunning. Under the influence of shared victuals and glorious wine and all that yelling, an evening that had begun with awkward stiltedness had bloomed into a gabby love-in. At our table, six of the eight diners were old friends celebrating a birthday, leaving me and my friend as the two outsiders. We united in sincere admiration over the fava beans with pancetta, a sprightly preparation pocked with oil-cured artichoke hearts and fragrant with the mint, parsley, and lovage Dillon had just snipped outside; and the rabbit legs, braised with aromatics; and finally the rosebud slices of hanger steak, tender, marinated in sumac and cumin, and spangled with basil and Dillon’s pickled radishes and wedges of Tonasket farmer Billy Allstot’s heirloom tomatoes. But they were still the birthday party. And we were still the crashers.

“Remember when going to a restaurant was an event the diner could…control?” my friend asked wistfully, and I smiled at the irony. We were picking our way through the one failed dish of the evening—a dessert of mushy apricots soaked in amaretto with biscotti and cheese—and it occurred to me that everything from reserving our seats to occupying them in this earnest communitarian utopia, the project of a sincere idealist, managed to render the Corson Building the most exclusive foodies-only realm in the city. That’s the thing about unrestaurants: They elevate the shared culinary experience over the needs of the diner—and only the most rarefied brand of diner is going to like it. Suddenly a plane revved up, and the good people around our table held their collective breath. “These apricots just aren’t rrrRRRROOOAAARRR,” mused one, her pronouncement lost for all time.