When the waiter at Stateside set down our fried chicken—fried chicken for God’s sake, the celebrity porn of dinner—I couldn’t take my eyes off the cucumbers. They were sliced with mandoline precision, on the bias, lining the perimeter of the dish like a regiment of crisply ordered soldiers. There was more careful intention in this vegetable flourish than one might see elsewhere across five courses. And while exquisitely cut cucumbers may not seem like much in the scheme of things, they nearly made me cry.
Had I known at that moment that this particular chicken had been poached in a stock chef and owner Eric Johnson has been using and adding to and adjusting since he opened Stateside in December—the Chinese invention known as a master stock, which stays edible, thanks to salinity and a daily boil, and which Johnson dreamily describes as taking on “the flavor of the streets of Hong Kong”—I might actually have cried.
Instead I ate, devoured really, and discovered that chicken cooked this way has a depthless intensity unlike anything I’ve tasted. Yes, there was the magnificence of the textures—meat that was moist, nearly fluffy, and wrapped in an irresistible crackly skin—but it was the flavor, heady with the layered potency of months of stewing chickens, that grabbed me by the collar and shook. The chicken arrived with a trio of dips—spicy chili, a blend of soys with a pinch of oyster sauce, lemongrass ginger—but we wound up eating it au naturel in its bed of frizzled onions along with those artful cukes. Turns out the streets of Hong Kong taste complex enough without sauce.
Eric Johnson misses those streets, having spent the first decade of the millennium quietly making a name for himself across New York, Europe, and Asia. The Long Island–raised, classically trained chef scored gigs with Michelin superstars Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opening restaurants for the latter in Paris, then Shanghai, and absorbing the ancient wisdoms of Chinese cuisines and their diaspora across Southeast Asia. “Living in Asia, I just always wanted to see what was around the next street corner, try that one dish in that one back-alley spot,” he reminisces. But when it came time to decide between permanent expat status or a return to the U.S., he chose the latter—with Seattle, home of extended family, his ultimate choice.
And a Vietnamese restaurant, the natural confluence of Chinese cuisine and French method, his ultimate vision. He didn’t want a destination or showy new construction—he envisioned a casual drop-in joint in a foot-trafficky neighborhood. He and his team found a storefront in Pike/Pine’s emerging gastronomic epicenter—down the street from Trove, around the corner from Mamnoon and Sitka and Spruce—and turned it into French colonial Indochina, with color-washed seafoam walls and paint-chipped metal chairs and bare filament bulbs, that minimalist cliche which in this room feels exactly right. A mottled antique-glass-backed bar is lined with rums and ryes and palmy greens; its stools lined with urban culinarians in place of the diplomatic -attaches and rum-soaked war correspondents. In a few months, there will be breezy sidewalk tables.
The tropical languor feels at once transporting and subtle, and it suits the food. Of all the global cuisines represented in Seattle, Vietnamese enjoys the most variation: You can eat it in the form of pho and bun thit nuong at holes-in-the-wall like Pho Bac and Huong Binh, or banh mi at bakeries like Tony’s and Q Bakery, or home-cooking-with-a-cocktail dinners at date spots like Tamarind Tree and Long, or upmarket Northwest-Vietnamese fusion like flank steak wrapped in la lot leaves or Idaho catfish clay pot from the astonishing Monsoons. You can even get bayou Vietnamese at the International District’s Crazy Pho Cajun.
Stateside fills a different niche, delivering an edible primer on the roots and branches of Vietnamese cuisine. Off a menu of small, medium, and large plates China shows up in a medium plate of pork ribs, moist and impossibly meaty, and ferociously crusted with a Hunan chili and cumin blend. (You didn’t need that layer of your tongue anyway, right?) France appears in the duck leg confit à l’orange, where flawless chicken lolls in an umami-rich broth, pungent with Vietnamese coriander.
The menu proceeds into classics of Vietnamese cuisine, like a little banh mi starter made on shattering Q Bakery rolls, the sausage perfumed with lime leaf and the sauce throbbing with lemongrass and the Swiss condiment Maggi. The Northern Vietnamese classic, green papaya salad, arrives as a happy chaos of the unripe fruit, brisk with lime, with chilies and peanuts and shreds of beef jerky, the way Johnson ate it across Saigon. His black cod preparation, for its part, was modeled on the cha ca la vong of Hanoi: a crusted hunk of the oily fish breathing gusts of turmeric and galangal and served on rice noodles with dill, cilantro, and mint.
Always elegant, reflecting the peerless execution of a pro whose kitchen cuts cucumbers as if they were diamonds, what these dishes may not always be is a thrill a minute. “I’d never use the word fusion to describe this restaurant, because of what that’s come to mean,” Johnson says, murmuring something under his breath that sounded a lot like blue cheese dumplings. “But I can’t tell you it isn’t fusion. Then again—I can’t tell you a restaurant anywhere that isn’t.”
Fusion is, in other words, knit into the very DNA of Vietnamese cuisine; knit, arguably, into the DNA of every cuisine. Still, if it’s thrills you’re after, opt for dishes where Johnson presses the playful interpretations further: embellishing shingles of amberjack crudo with tangy lime leaf powder and a perfumy ice of bergamot oranges, for instance, or pairing soy--lacquered beef short ribs with classic French sweet celeriac puree and a tart mix of green apple, ginger, and jalapeños—a textural and flavorful masterpiece, at once buoyant and down to earth.
Which brings me to service: as down-to-earth as exists in this town. Every server and host we encountered was adept, unaffected, kind, and funny without being hilarious. (Saints save us from hilarious waiters.) They were, in short, as careful as the kitchen. And that’s saying a ton. 300 E Pike St, Capitol Hill, 206-557-7273
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.