CHRISTINA CHOI, the owner and chef at Nettletown, set a dish of short ribs in front of her customer, then gave the plate a nervous quarter-turn. “I never know which way it looks best,” she fretted. “Bone toward? Bone away?”
The customer looked at her with naked incredulity. “Really, looks great either way,” he blurted, his longing gaze trained on the glistening meat and herb-lavished noodles and greens. “Really.” Her hand narrowly escaped his fork.
Two truths about Nettletown: First, it’s barely a restaurant. Seven tables, four counter seats, order-at-the-counter service—let’s just say the wee strip-mall storefront that housed the original Sitka and Spruce is not the kind of place with career table captains trained in where to point the bone. Second: These meals of hers are rapidly turning casual diners into fork-wielding addicts.
Take the Nettletown noodles with pork short ribs. Plump, chewy egg noodles arrived heaped over fragrant braised broccoli rabe and topped with savory wild mushrooms, half a seasoned Chinese tea egg, and a hunk of five-spiced short rib. In short: ferociously edible.
Although Choi’s lunch and brunch menus hop and skip across cuisines—baguette sandwiches, pickled sides, miso soup, baked egg breakfasts with chunky potato cakes—diners begin to identify Choi’s trademarks. The biggie is her devotion to wild edibles.
The daughter of first-generation parents—Swiss American mom, Chinese American dad—Choi grew up a city girl, attending elementary school just up the street from Nettletown. After high school she enrolled in Seattle Central’s culinary program, from which she landed a job at the late, great Bandoleone—just across the street from Nettletown.
There she fell in with a cadre of chefs who would go on to become the young Turks of Seattle dining: Justin Neidermeyer (Spinasse). His buddy Matt Dillon (Sitka and Spruce, the Corson Building). Jeremy Faber, whose wild food business, Foraged and Found, Choi joined in 2002.
Choi harvested all manner of Northwest wild edibles—sea beans and fiddleheads, wood sorrel and stinging nettles and ramps and morels and lovage—which she sold at farmers markets. Indeed, Nettletown’s menu reads a little like a botanical survey of the forest floor. Our salad of the day, bountiful and dewy with shallot vinaigrette, was crafted upon wild cress and miner’s lettuce. Winsome curls of fiddlehead fern showed up pickled, along with burdock root and onion, in a feisty side dish. Desserts are built on nuts and berries, such as a cookie delectably gnarled with oats and granola and dried currants and whole filberts and big chunks of Theo’s orange chocolate.
Choi’s other signature is her broad Asian streak. Sandwiches are riffs on Vietnamese banh-mi, constructed on chewy (I longed for crustier) baguettes from the French bakery Le Fournil —just down the street from Nettletown. One banh-mi, a shocker of a special listed as “peanut butter and turmeric salmon sandwich,” revealed a deeply knowing palate. How Choi divined that the local herbs and exotic turmeric would conspire with the gentle rootsy peanuts to create a Thai-influenced frame for the moist fish…let’s just say it was the first time in 25 years of reviewing that I can remember being surprised (happily) by a salmon preparation.
One might even mistake Choi’s occasional nod to her Swiss heritage as Asian, as in her knoepfli—a dish where the diminutive dumplings are scattered with leeks and cabbage and flavored with the Swiss condiment, Maggi, that bears a striking resemblance to soy sauce. Choi will toss in whatever other herbs are sprouting—lemon balm, fennel, oregano—which she’ll also throw into her fried rice. Order them both and you’ll get a sense of sameness that reveals Nettletown’s limitations as a restaurant. With such a small menu and such, well, seasonal seasonings, Choi can seem like a one-trick pony.
My only other quibble concerns service, which is well-meaning but not up to the task of this many hungry folks in this small a room. How Choi plans to add dinner is beyond me. But Nettletown, not quite a restaurant, is the kind of place where such pronouncements sound peevish. With its blond wood appointments and charming floral wall mural, it feels more like a pal’s dining room than a professional enterprise. So it’s fitting that Choi is about to start growing vegetables and herbs in her own garden.
Which is, like just about everything else in her life and a whole lot of foodies’ dreams…just down the street from Nettletown.
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