Great Scott

Scott Carsberg is keeping it eel in a casual makeover of his fancy restaurant.

By Kathryn Robinson August 18, 2010 Published in the September 2010 issue of Seattle Met

Scott Carsberg: Very childlike.

SCOTT CARSBERG’S GOT a journalist on the phone and a produce guy at the door. “Door!” he barks at his cooks, half-shattering the journalist’s eardrums. “DOOR!”

“They’re looking at me like they’re scared or something,” he says into the phone, not exactly laughing. “Where were we . . . Oh yeah. My reputation.” For the uninitiated, Carsberg, the owner and chef of Bisato, is renowned for his volatility. “It’s bullshit. I don’t know where that shit comes from. Do I have high standards? Yeah. Do I think it takes the same amount of time to do a good job as a bad job? Yeah. Am I treating people bad? NO! Hang on a sec. GUYS! Front DOOR!”

The produce guy doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to be sent packing with the blueberries he brought. “That’s what I love about Frank’s Produce, they’ll take it all back if I say it’s not good enough.” Carsberg declares. He does buy 31 zucchini flowers, which he’ll stuff with squid ink for that night’s special—just as a few nights earlier he suffused a plate of sliced albacore tuna with the essence of mandarin orange, then a few nights later swathed two veal-and-pork sausages, made in-kitchen, in a startling porcini mushroom sauce pocked with droplets of pistachio oil.

Yes, startling: not a word typically used to describe food, but the one most fitting of Carsberg’s aesthetic. From the moment he arrived on the Seattle scene in the early 1990s, exploding like a grenade into the kitchen of the then-standard bearer of Italian food in Seattle, Settebello, Carsberg has redefined intensity across the board.

Personally he was the brash boy wonder, a working-class kid from West Seattle who had hit the jackpot apprenticing for world-class chefs—notably Andreas Hellrigl at Villa Mozart in Northern Italy—and then returned to his hometown somewhat fuller of himself than Seattle comfortably tolerates. Settebello was the scene of many apocryphal-or-not Carsberg tales, rampant with temper tantrums and screaming showdowns. One involved a deep-pockets Settebello regular whose immovable objective—to dine nightly on Caesar salads—ran headlong into Carsberg’s irresistible forcefulness against the appalling fate of providing them.

Clearly, this chef needed his own restaurant.

In 1992 he opened Lampreia, the first of two restaurants he would name after an eel, as a showcase for his particular brand of culinary intensity. In a hushed and spendy Belltown room he refined the style that would earn him national headlines and a James Beard trophy: that of a minimalist’s minimalist, big on purity of flavor, contemptuous of conformity. The multicourse meals there felt like pilgrimages to the Holy of Holies, where diners encountered the very essence of food as if for the first time. A filet of sous-vided halibut, offset merely with basil. Duck breast lacquered with potent grape must.

That same room has been recast as the casual drop-in Bisato, its tables scattered around a U-shaped bar with Carsberg in constant evidence. On a recent visit, as I sat practically spooning off the bone tender bites of blushing lamb chop draped in that same grape must, then practically drinking a moist tagine-steamed hunk of branzino crowned simply with meaty morels—Lampreia came back to me, in all its austerity. In spite of this restaurant’s more casual tone Carsberg still cooks in his arrogant classicist’s style—I say this with all admiration—even pulling the same arch tricks as at Lampreia, only now even trickier.

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Intensity redefined Small plates like smoked artichoke with robiolina cheese deliver startling flavor combinations.

Soups are his particular playground. One sweet-corn veloute is poured tableside from a pitcher over a dollop of pistachio pesto, a smear of parmesan cream, and a disc of tomato gelee. Another featured chilled mint-pea soup poured over olive mousse, bits of the cured European ham called speck, and a frozen pea-and-speck cream popsicle. The cream melted and the flavors swirled and married, the olives lending their weird almost-bitterness. Who would know that these flavors and these textures—ice crystals and cream, meat and puree—would complement so mutually?

And so vividly. Small plates being uniquely concentrated compositions of flavor, Carsberg’s skills turn out to be ideally suited to Bisato’s concept—small plates in the style of Venetian cicchetti (small plate) bars. (Bisato is “eel” in the Venetian vernacular.) Flavors on these plates redefine intensity. A slab of polenta is topped with a crust of dense meat ragu that’s more like ragu concentrate—wrung of its moisture, stripped to its essence. Or the halibut rillettes, stuffed into a skinned tomato and served over a brioche wedge with panzanella sauce. As if the rillettes weren’t already exploding with the briny essence of the fish, and the brioche already dense and buttery, and the tomato already flawless enough to get past Carsberg the produce gestapo—there was the panzanella sauce: the classic Italian bread salad, bright with basil and tomatoes, blended and strained.

Like I said: startling.

But something else as well. By the time dessert happens—which it absolutely must, in the form of a lush nougatty semifreddo or the justly legendary wedge of sticky orange confit with chocolate caramel mousse Carsberg wisely retained from Lampreia—it dawns on the diner that her meal was as lusciously satisfying as it was smart. In addition to this being affordable food from Scott Carsberg—remarkably, no little plate costs over $12—Bisato’s is, of all things, comfort food from Scott Carsberg. The maestro’s practically making Caesar salad.

Uh, not. But Bisato’s menu is more straightforwardly crowdpleasing than anything Carsberg has done before. It’s a response to economic times—when the economy tanked he went from drawing up plans for a fancier relocation of Lampreia to the downmarket reinvention that became Bisato—and to his own time of life. Now in his mid-40s, Carsberg admits to liking the steadiness of a less invention-heavy menu, only changing a special or two a night.

Resting on his laurels? I suspect that Scott Carsberg, genius-taskmaster, may be constitutionally unable. The only flaws I encountered in two Bisato dinners were bland, aging Macrina bread (that we, grrr, paid $2.50 for), and oddly stilted service from waiters who seemed . . . Well frankly, they seemed a little scared.


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