Jerry Traunfeld's first restaurant, Poppy, is all blond wood, clean lines, and Northwest flavors united with the Indian tradition of thali. This week he quietly opens his second, Lionhead. It's right next door–but here the walls are teal and the bar is red lacquer. It's vivid. So, too is the menu–Traunfeld's take on the fiery, pungent flavors of the landlocked Sichuan province in southwest China.
Lionhead serves familiar Szechuan (aka Sichuan) dishes like ma po doufu, gung bao chicken, and dan dan mein. (These dishes see a variety of spellings in the US, so here I'm going with how you'll see it on Traunfeld's menu.) The James Beard–winning chef spent four years thinking about a Chinese restaurant; he's always been a fan of the cuisine and cooks it often at home. Originally Traunfeld figured he'd do some sort of fusion; "that's what's expected from a chef," he muses. But after a trip to China lead by esteemed food writer Fuschia Dunlop, he returned to Seattle seeing little reason to tinker with classic Szechuan flavor profiles.
Though a guy known for his masterful ways with both spices and herbs is bound to take a few liberties.
"I'm not claiming it's completely authentic," cautions Traunfeld. His version of the restaurant's namesake lionhead meatballs is served in an iron pot with noodles and clams. A tomato dish is reworked as a cold salad with Billy's heirloom tomatoes. The classic brisket and tripe dish known as husband and wife lung slices is listed on the menu as "man and husband beef slices." Seems appropriate. Lionhead even has its own version of Poppy's famed eggplant fries; these come fragrant with garlic, ginger, pickled chilies, and black vinegar.
Here's something else that's different about Lionhead: There is no tipping. And no fixed service charge. The cost of wages is built into the pricing. As the message displayed on the menu puts it: Our menu pricing allows us to pay an equitable wage to all our employees. You pay only what you see (plus tax). "It seems much simpler to do it this way," says Traunfeld. Instituting this policy at a brand new restaurant, he says, means every employee he hired walked in the door on board with this arrangement. It's an arrangement that will no doubt receive a similar level of scrutiny as Renee Erickson's new service charge.
And now, back to the food. Or, more specifically, the kitchen. The range here is built for woks, not pans. As Traunfeld tells it, the burner in your home kitchen is probably close to 12,000 BTU, a restaurant gas range in the neighborhood of 30,000 BTU. This wok range clocks in around 150,000. Running it you'll find Kenneth Lee, former owner of Shallots in Belltown and Provinces in Edmonds; he was also involved in training at Din Tai Fung and later cooked at Zhu Dang on Capitol Hill. "We're lucky to have him," says Traunfeld, who spent 30 years cooking on a wok at home, but was a newcomer to the professional-grade wok range.
Kyle Noyce is the executive chef both here and at Poppy next door ("he has a great sense of flavor," says Traunfeld). Similarly, the very talented Veronika Groth runs the bar program in both places, serving cocktails with ingredients like salted lime, five spice, and ginseng, plus a menu of six high-end teas from Smacha in Bellevue.
This week Lionhead is still in its soft opening stage at 618 Broadway E. It's just about 47 seats and doesn't take reservations, except for one large round table with a lazy susan. Ultimately plans call for takeout. There's no website or Facebook as yet, but the Lionhead Twitter account might see more life in the coming weeks.