Back in 2012, chef Chester Gerl left his role at Matt’s in the Market, taking a job with New York restaurateur Marc Meyer to be closer to his wife's family. Now Gerl is getting ready to cross the country again, heading home to Seattle with plans to open his own place, Gracia, on Ballard Ave.
Diners who recall the market-driven Northwest plates Gerl cooked at Matt’s might be surprised to find him planning a menu that traverses the regions of central and southern Mexico. Gerl has long loved the country's cuisine (he did an immersion course with Rick Bayless in Oaxaca in 2004) and his most recent role opening Meyer's well-regarded Mexican restaurant, Rosie’s, in the East Village furthered both his knowledge and his travels.
Rosie's uses a molino or corn grinder to turn heirloom strains of corn into masa; this practice is far more labor intensive than using powdered masa harina bought in bulk, but packs a world of flavor. This process will be the heart of the menu at Gracia, thanks to a similar grinding machine coming up from California. Gerl's sourcing very old, very flavorful strains of corn from Masienda, a purveyor that works with small, biodiverse farms in Oaxaca and sells to chefs like Sean Brock. (Ultimate food diversity champion Dan Barber is an advisor.)
Masa will be the cornerstone of the menu of antojitos—little snacks like tostadas and tlayudas. There will be tacos and tamales, alongside lesser known dishes like Yucatan-based panuchos. Gerl is also planning a rotating list of traditional soups, or caldos, like the hearty caldo de res, made with beef and vegetables.
Gerl has plenty of other plans for Gracia—shellfish, posole, spicy birria stew from Jalisco, and a version of queso fundido made with green chorizo. Maybe menudo on the weekends. "The cuisine is so crazy infinite, you could go on and on," he says. He's also planning a rooftop garden; by springtime it should help provide hard-to-find Mexican herbs like epazote and Mexican purslane, plus purple tomatillos.
The bar will be stocked with Mexican (and Northwest) beer, plus plenty of tequila and mescal. The guys are hoping to sneak in a mini research road trip through Guadalajara before they open the doors. Which could happen before the end of the year.
Gerl's mom actually alerted him to the available space at 5313 Ballard Ave, the former JhanJay Thai restaurant. Atelier Drome is remaking it with plenty of clean lines, pressed tin, and some blue and white Talavera tile.
“I think eventually we would have come back,” says Gerl of his time in New York. “But a chance of ownership, of doing what I want at a chef-driven restaurant kind of sped up the process."
After so many years cooking in Pike Place Market, Gerl's looking forward to having a farmers market outside his door again, at least on Sundays. Stay tuned for more Gracia updates, especially as it gets close to opening in late December or early 2016.
Post was edited on November 5 to update staffing details and clarify Dan Barber's role in Masienda.