The two young women walked into Stateside on a weekday lunch hour, propelled, it appeared, by a force larger than themselves. “Do you have the Vietnamese iced coffee creamsicles today?” one asked at the door, a shade breathlessly. The host just smiled. She had seen this kind of desperation before. The iced-coffee-creamsicle people. The crispy-duck-fresh-roll people. God, the chili-cumin-pork-rib people.
She may have even known how the scene would unfold. The women would get their confections, pops of ice cream rendered impossibly smooth from liquid nitrogen and wrapped in an alluringly bitter skin of iced coffee, and while their eyes were rolling back in their heads the chef who made them—he with the Michelin-starred restaurants on his resume—would emerge from his kitchen to greet the diners, even inquiring earnestly whether they found the pops too sweet. “No! No,” they would assure him, perhaps embarrassed by the fervency with which they counted on this dessert not changing, ever, and he would smile modestly and discuss his difficulties getting viscous jackfruit the precise consistency to become his next flavor of creamsicle.
What, an observer might reasonably wonder, is this big-deal chef doing here at a weekday lunch? Does he spend a lot of his time on…creamsicles? Come out to greet all of his starstruck public? Discuss his culinary challenges with all of his guests? Observing this exchange, all you can know for sure is that the moment Stateside chef and owner Eric Johnson returns to his kitchen he’ll go back to work on that jackfruit.
Welcome to Stateside: a genuinely extraordinary culinary destination masquerading as a casual Vietnamese restaurant.
A newcomer walking in off of Pike Street could be forgiven, after all, for assuming she’d landed in just another pretty cafe. It’s appointed to the breezy specs of French colonial Indochina, all palm-frond wallpaper and creme de menthe walls and bare filament lightbulbs, its mirror barback seemingly mottled from years of humidity and high-octane rum. The bar stools and bare tables are packed, with everyone: tech geeks in earbuds, couples on awkward Tinder dates, middle-aged suburbanites on girls’ nights out, connoisseurs staring at their cha ca la vong—none particularly dressed, a few even rocking the shorts-with-long-underwear look worthy of any Portland coffeehouse. All under the gentle control of calm and seasoned front man Seth Hammond, whose crew radiates, to the last buser, that fusion of genuine care and offhand competence that limns gorgeous service. A tone so rare in restaurants it must be nearly impossible to pull off.
Like our last waiter, who answered our inquiry for a dish uniquely evocative of Vietnam by verbally unspooling a lyrical scene of the lazy Perfume River in Hue and the cafes along its banks, which gather up its freshwater clams and serve them steamed over rice. At Stateside it’s ginger rice, big flavored and sticky, with embellishments sectored in the bowl, a la Cobb salad. Rau ram (Vietnamese coriander). Frizzled shallots. Banana flower. Chopped peanuts. Curly pork rinds. To stir in: a beaker of clam broth with lemongrass; another of fermented shrimp paste, startlingly funky. For the uproar of umami and brine and crackle and pungency and plain herbaceous earth alive in this dish—exuberant is almost a big enough word.
With it we ordered Johnson’s master stock crispy chicken, it being roughly Day 235 of his master stock—a potion the Long Island–born Johnson learned to make in China, where he opened the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges for then-boss Jean-Georges Vongerichten. (Another of his bosses was Daniel Boulud. You get the idea.) Johnson’s not above modernist technique—just ask his immersion circulator, which can pull off a soft egg deep inside a sausage steamed bun—but he reveres the ancient practice of the everlasting chicken-poaching stock, which one never throws away but only adds to, thus transferring the potency of every chicken cooked before to every chicken cooked thereafter. “Depthless intensity” is how I described it on Day 60. Here on Day 235 I think I tasted every one of those ensuing hours, in chicken whose flesh was just as fluffy and whose crust was just as crispy—not to mention perceptibly darker. All that plus a garnish of cucumbers, cut exquisitely as diamonds.
A person could stew for hours over whether it’s exuberance or this exactitude that makes Stateside such a treasure. The obsessive care inherent in coaxing jackfruit into a creamsicle in the exactitude column, as against the gonzo thrill ride of grilled corn on the cob slathered with Maggi mayo, rolled in filaments of braised pork, and festooned with lime leaf and pickled chili rings. Buoyant, original, astonishing. Then chased, as one would expect in this thoughtful house, with a wet nap.
The extraordinary thing about Stateside is that it delivers both exactitude and exuberance consistently—a feat so momentous as to make Stateside the hands-down Restaurant of the Year in a year filled with more notable openings than Seattle’s seen…maybe ever. It renders that hackneyed Asian restaurant question—is it authentic or is it fusion?—gleefully beside the point. What is authenticity anyway, now that the world is so small and virtually every dish arises from something borrowed? And what is fusion, in its most meaningful sense, if not a plate of chicken, whose very cooking stock connects us across a table, yes, but also across time?