Street Food Heaven

Fremont claims a spot at the center of the fusion universe.

By Kathryn Robinson April 22, 2011 Published in the May 2011 issue of Seattle Met

THE STEAM RISING from my bowl of clam soup all but socked me in the nose with its wallops of scallions and shallots and Serrano chilies, sesame and basil and brine.

For a thin broth with Manila clams and wide green noodles, the complexity was insanely exuberant, and freighted besides with the sly global references that make fusion cooking such a blast to eat. The Thai basil noodles, hand cut and cooked to the tooth, recalled Italian pappardelle en brodo. The profusion of fresh shallots and thin-sliced zucchini struck reverent Gallic notes. Clam noodle soup is, in fact, a Korean classic. But now that I’ve tasted Revel’s version, I’ll never associate the dish with anything but the Pacific Northwest.

Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi’s cooking does that: It wings you around the world. It did at the late Coupage in Madrona, where four years ago the expat New Yorkers debuted their Continental-Korean fusion for an astonished Seattle. After Coupage closed, the couple, now married, opened a pretty Wallingford storefront called Joule, which remains the source of the most groundbreaking East-West innovation in the Northwest. And now comes Revel, the pair’s latest in Fremont, where the new parents (their son, Pike, is almost a year old) take all the verve and intelligence they put into their upscale fusion—and downscale it to comfort food.

Decor is downscaled, too, with white subway tiles and cement floors, bare wood tables and stainless pendant lights. The place buzzes from the long, open workshop kitchen and the lively alt-music soundtrack; color-splashed Warholish prints of Hulk Hogan and Mister Rogers fairly leap off the walls. Revel radiates youthful informality. Adobe techies amble over after work, to sit on hard chairs in groups and stab at each other’s food with their chopsticks—more later on sharing—or to perch amid the industrial-chic surroundings of the adjacent bar, Quoin. There they sip craft cocktails created by the sort of barkeep who knits his brow like a chemist while precision-dribbling lavender bitters. Later this month a deck will open out back, where diners and drinkers will be cooled by Ship Canal breezes and warmed by flames from an outdoor fire pit.

Revel may be the most aptly named restaurant in town.

But the food, the revelatory food, remains the biggest part of why. Yang calls it “blank canvas” cooking. They start with simple Asian street fare—dumplings, pancakes, noodle bowls—then embellish it across cuisines and cultures. When dumplings are stuffed with smoky Earl Grey tea–soaked ricotta and topped with delicata squash and candied pecans, they’re sweetly reminiscent of ravioli. When they’re yellow with turmeric and stuffed with chorizo and fragrant with jicama and cilantro, they’ve gone Mexican. Stuffed with sublime short-rib meat, their sturdy casings enriched with paprika that goes to gooey orange caramel when pulled apart—they mingle dialects from Eastern Europe to East Asia, and still make 38 kinds of sense.

A quartet of condiments arrives with each order. Besides a fish sauce and a garlic-ginger-soy sauce, a kimchee-based sweet chili concoction and a smoked chili bean paste are particularly fine on the short-rib dumplings. Or slathered across a luscious pork belly–kimchee pancake, loaded with bean sprouts and fire.

It’s Joule—only cheaper ($7–$15) and with a more stable, less restlessly innovating menu. Indeed, two standouts shot to the top of a city’s craving list inside of three weeks: a rice bowl topped with unctuous short ribs, cubed daikon flavored with the Malaysian chili sauce sambal, and a confetti of mustard greens; and a noodle bowl topped with kale and five-spice-duck meatballs. The interplay of five-spice with chilies lit up my palate like a pinball machine, the meatballs yielding lush shreds of duck meat for textural kicks.

Chirchi and Yang Reveling in fusion comfort food.

Weekend brunches feature global morning food: shrimp egg foo young, fried egg sandwiches, and a “pecan pie” pancake that arrives plate-size and golden and studded with whole pecans, then festooned with a chutney of pears and currants and a thick dollop of vanilla bean creme fraiche. A sunny bowl of broken rice porridge—topped with rummed-up raisins, brown sugar, and kabocha squash crescents to stir in for sweetness—ought to be the required starter for any breakfast here, to share around the table along with pots of French press coffee. Sharing dishes is a good rule at Revel, partly because even the most electrifying rice or porridge or noodle bowl can grow tedious by the bottom; mostly because you really don’t want to miss a thing in this house. The stuff that looks good on the menu is sensational. The stuff that looks weird is better.

Here’s the thing: Street food—comfort food—has no business being technically flawless, even less being groundbreaking. Revel’s is both. Every pancake, every noodle, every last morsel of succulent pork belly is crisped, shaved, and fired to a turn. (Yang and Chirchi: Give those line cooks a raise.) The trio of ice cream sandwiches that might seem a throwaway dessert are exacting and eye-opening, like the pair of dense, chewy coconut macaroons filled with a half-inch slice of bright kaffir lime ice cream, and served alongside a keen black cherry compote for dipping. Throwaway hardly. More like a novel marriage of flavors that once together seemed inevitable, with textures that played off each other to create moments of transcendent mouthfeel.

Culinary fusion, a bit like molecular gastronomy in the do-not-try-this-at-home department, has earned its sketchy reputation from the many restaurant chefs who regard it as license to “Crrrrreate!” Yang and Chirchi, by contrast, maintain impeccable control, right down to the last wacky cranny of the wildest invention.

As my fork skipped through a springtime profusion of baby arugula and tender radish slices and translucent-thin slices of musky corned lamb (corned lamb!), the lot dewy with the complicated charms of nuoc cham—I mentally ticked off the other chefs in this town who can layer flavors and textures with such nimble genius.

I did it on one hand. But that genius accomplished in the offhand vernacular of street food? One finger, folks.

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