Because It’s Tasty

Spring Hill elevates food to an art—and a science.

By Kathryn Robinson January 9, 2009 Published in the October 2008 issue of Seattle Met

WHEN MARK FULLER WAS HEAD CHEF at the Dahlia Lounge, his boss Eric Tanaka bugged and bugged him to put a particular dish on the menu: Veal sweetbreads with dipping sauces; one sweet, another barbecue, maybe a third like housemade ranch. Yeah, that ranch—Homer Simpson’s salad dressing of choice. At, yes, that Dahlia—big-deal Seattle chef Tom Douglas’s elegant flagship restaurant. “We’ll call it McSweetbreads!” beamed Tanaka. Fuller laughs at the memory and shakes his head. “I just couldn’t do it.”

So to find “crispy veal sweetbreads with three dips” on the starter list of Fuller’s own restaurant, Spring Hill in West Seattle, was an unlikely surprise—yet there they were, between the duck egg yolk raviolo with garlic chips and the apple-wood-smoky rib-eye steak with steak tartare and potato cracklings. And they made a most cerebral comfort food. The sweetbreads contributed their luscious mouthfeel and quiet almost-sweetness, the frying produced a perfect coat, the dips—fireweed honey, coffee barbecue, and, there it was, housemade ranch—delivered cool, satiny counterpoints. Why the chef’s change of heart? “Because,” he says, “it’s tasty.”

What “because it’s there” is to a mountaineer, “because it’s tasty” is to the insanely talented Mark Fuller. At Spring Hill, which he and his wife Marjorie Chang Fuller opened in May, I have chomped my way through a colossal half-pound burger that left the most delectable stains I have ever slopped down my shirt: teleme and Beecher’s cheddar cheeses, housemade bacon and feisty ketchup, and a unifying slather that gave new status to the term special sauce. I have sat in awe before fanned slices of blushing roast duck brandishing their orange mustard glaze the way a woman struts her favorite fragrance, as if they knew just how well their assets would match each wheaty, plainspoken crunch of accompanying quinoa biscuit. I have untangled a fleshy strand of handmade tagliatelle pasta and wound it around my fork, bits of cherry tomato and maitake mushroom and height-of-summer fava beans clinging to its glistening edges—and I have thanked the Supreme Being for Mark Fuller. (And no, I do not mean Tom Douglas.)

What is it about this guy’s cooking? One night two girlfriends and I sat in his restaurant and puzzled it out. Before us four grilled prawns lolled on a pond of grits with a poached egg and a puddle of shrimp gravy. The South Carolina grits had been shrewdly debauched with cheddar and crème fraîche; the shrimp gravy reduced from shrimp shells. One pierce of the fork and the shrimp, charry from the fire, burst with juice. Everything the egg yolk spilled upon got richer. It was a luscious combination, clearly the product of an artist. But also—every bit as clearly—the product of a scientist.

More than any other chef’s in recent memory, Fuller’s cooking bears the essential elements of chemistry. In his cold cioppino, a shallow bowl of freshest seafood (Dungeness, shrimp, mussels, halibut) arrives garnished with drops of basil oil and crunchy shards of crouton. Our waiter set the dish before me with a dramatic flourish. “Pouring the clarified tomato broth into the bowl activates the basil oil,” he intoned, pouring and activating. Traditionalists may miss the hot-tomato heft of standard cioppino, but the clear tomato broth, leeched of its color but fragrant with aromatics, refines and reinvents the classic into something purer and more precise. Activate it does.

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At Spring Hill, the menu lists the provenance of the meat and the fish, as menus today will—but it also tells us that the fries bubbled in beef fat, the Dabob Bay oysters (there is a lot of shellfish here) score “medium” on the brine-o-meter, that the sea salt hailed from Kauai. (But which shore? wondered my inner smartass.) Even the bar eschews jewel-bright trendy cocktails for darker, woodsier inventions: Douglas fir eau de vie, Bosc pear tonic, charred cedar bitters. Spring Hill was named after the pond that occupied the West Seattle Junction before a thousand storefront eateries did, which—considering the chef’s obsession with nature—renders the name uniquely fitting.

If headlining all these details on the menu seems affected, remember that paying attention to them in the first place is what makes food taste this fine. It’s not all perfection—sautéed Manila clams and lemon mayo and spicy cured pork belly make barely communicative bedfellows, and a beet salad with (too little) blue cheese and Bosc pear and smoked hazelnuts felt all wrong in midsummer.

Bigger problems afflict the front of the house. Servers, though informed, contributed arrogance, even bossiness, where hospitality should have been. Frankly we could have used the warmth, for Spring Hill— a minimalist room in tones of oyster and light wood, with unupholstered tables, concrete floors, and storefront windows—is elegant but chilly. (Booths feel less stark than the tables adrift in the middle of the room.) And the lack of absorptive surfaces makes the place louder than a tiebreaker at Qwest Field. By the time my friends and I plunged into the terrific desserts—a three-part meditation on strawberries, a molten fudge cake topped with salty peanut ice cream—we were hoarse from shouting.

Spring Hill was named after the pond that occupied the West Seattle Junction before a thousand storefront restaurants did.

Flaws aside, Spring Hill is a significant new player on the Seattle dining scene, and Mark Fuller a gifted chef whose clinical comprehension of food serves diners with a glorious aesthetic. To the extent he refined those skills under Tom Douglas, thanks are owed the big guy. One of the joys of covering restaurants in this city is tracing the career arcs of the stars that soar out of Tom Douglas kitchens—talents like Alvin Binuya of Madoka, Johnathan Sundstrom of Lark, Philip Mihalski of Nell’s, and Holly Smith of Café Juanita.

And Mark Fuller of Spring Hill.