Chihuly’s Cafe and Collections

Seattle Center’s old Fun Forest gets a plateful of Americana, courtesy of Dale Chihuly.

By Kathryn Robinson September 11, 2012 Published in the October 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Seattle Center has traditionally been a terrible place to be caught with an appetite. Ever since I was a kid there’s always been something cheerfully awful about the food—the ’60s-sitcom quality of dinner at the Space Needle, the carny corndog-giness of the Food Circus. The place was generic and predictable in a hometown way, like the Fun Forest—so it wasn’t very good, but it was kind of great. 

My, how the Next Fifty changes things. The Food Circus at the Center House is now called the Armory, and it houses satellites of very admirable nosheries, among them Skillet, Pie, Eltana Wood-Fired Bagels. As for the Fun Forest, its pavilion is now Chihuly Garden and Glass, the pretty-darn--permanent exhibit of hometown glass artist Dale Chihuly that opened in May. Across its north side stretches its windowy commissary, Collections Cafe. 

A few things make the cafe important, not least a highly visible street-level location, which makes it as close as Seattle Center’s ever had to a main restaurant. Space Needle execs (the contractors for the cafe) hired Jason Wilson, the James Beard Award–winning chef and owner of Crush, to consult, which helps explain the grilled octopus plate on the starter list and the pickled watermelon rind in the green salad. Just reading through this menu—lamb-strawberry tagliatelle, speck-fig flatbread, ahi-tapenade sliders—is more interesting than 49 years of eating around here.

But being in the space is the most interesting of all. Dale Chihuly, artist, may be the subject next door, but in this sunlit shaft of a room it’s all about Dale Chihuly, collector—the Tacoma kid who foraged beach glass off the Puget Sound shore and made it his first collection before he turned five. Since that time the 71-year-old has assembled more diverse collections, 28 of which decorate the cafe. 

The first collection we encountered was the crowd of chipper hostesses in lacy skirts—well they looked like a collection—who cheerfully placed us on a wait list and asked us to take a seat. (Ten-minute waits were the norm on my visits, though reservations are available.) The room is as sunny as they were: cool blond wood with lime-green chairs and black-and-white checkerboard upholstery, brightened with backlit color-splashed panels of Chihuly drawings on one wall and long windows on the other. From the ceiling, naturally, vintage accordions. A whole mess of ’em. 

“If I had to pick only one instrument to hear, it would be the accordion,” Chihuly opines in a tidy little chapbook the Hostess Collection distributes at the door. Never mind your opinion of accordion music—the vintage instruments are a transfixing and elegant piece of design when suspended en masse from the ceiling. (He also writes, “I think just about everybody likes little ceramic dogs.” By the time you’ve settled into your table you probably will like little ceramic dogs, even maybe adore them, given how adorable they look in a little ceramic herd.) 

Most collections are fitted into the modified map tables at which diners are seated, like the alarm clocks under the glass of our table. “Aaoow!” screeched one elderly tourist toddling right into our conversation, “You gawt the alahm clawks!” (“Aaoow, you gawt the fishing…thingies!” we overheard as she passed the table with the decoys.) Such interruptions are the norm at Collections,
as when a staff photographer ambles by to introduce himself and offer a free photo.  

The Fun Forest may be history…but the spirit of the midway is alive and well at Collections Cafe.

The menu offers similar sparks of novelty. Fresh lemonades come brightened with pomegranate and basil, strawberry and lavender, or (the best one) honey and cucumber; there’s also wine and beer. A salad featured mixed greens and toasted pistachios as the straight men to sheets of milky ricotta salata, strips of pickled watermelon rind, and chunks of grilled watermelon oozing sugars—a genuinely innovative success. Nicely cooked tagliatelle pasta arrived tangled in mild braised lamb and topped with a toss of arugula and strawberries. “My first reaction was, that sounds nasty,” said Wilson of an idea from a fellow chef. “But then I tried it and it’s insane!” 

  We know what you meant, Jason—but it’s actually more like “a little nutty.” Occasionally you get the feeling that this kitchen is trying too hard to make up for Seattle Center’s insipid culinary past, as when short ribs promisingly done in chocolate stout arrived way over-peppered. Or when you spy that grilled Pacific octopus on the menu, prepared here with berbere-spiced fingerling potatoes and Castelvetrano olives.

Wilson fought for that octopus, wanting what he calls the Americana-themed menu to reflect uniquely Northwest ingredients. “I couldn’t imagine that the chairman and CEO of the Space Needle were going to say, Yeah, let’s go octopus,” he recalls. “But when the chairman tasted it he said, ‘You win. It’s amazing.’”

 And it would be amazing if it had the courage of its convictions. Two pink grilled tentacles curled prettily across the potatoes and green olive slivers—a good deal at either $8 for the small or $11 for the large. But the berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend on the potatoes, was uncharacteristically muted. 

Blandness is the besetting sin at Collections, afflicting the chopped salad and the speck-fig flatbread—the latter a particular shame as it creeps right up to the edge of interesting, peeks over, then loses its nerve. The crisped ham made beautiful music with the figs and sherry gastrique drizzle; all marvelous against the naan. But the ricotta, even herbed, was too flavorless a foil.  

I wish this cool joint would stop playing to the cheap seats—even elderly Iowans like flavor, and even Seattleites sometimes want to eat at Seattle Center. This kitchen knows that crowd pleasing doesn’t have to be boring: witness its dandy starter of beautifully seared prawns on frisee with salsa verde, its fine apple-slaw pork ciabatta sandwich, its big burger intelligently loaded with red onion jam, Beecher’s Marco Polo cheese, Peppadew pepper aioli, and bacon.  

Desserts generate further applause, especially that mother of all crowd-pleasers, two gooey brownies over Snicker brittle with vanilla ice cream, banana slices, and a drizzle of salted caramel. I was trying to figure out how I might lick my plate when I glanced up and spied a freaky looking character gazing disapprovingly down from his perch on the wall. Part of Chihuly’s collection of the early twentieth-century carnival prizes called chalkware, this dude looked like the spawn of a kewpie doll and that serial killer clown from Stephen King. I’m pretty sure he knew I was a restaurant critic. 

The Fun Forest is dead. Long live the Fun Forest.

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