Of the two entrances to Saint Helens Cafe—one of the nine restaurants Josh Henderson will open this year—neither is particularly welcoming: up a flight of stairs on one side, across a patio on the other. Clogged with clusters of Laurelhurst matrons and soccer families and first-daters and girls-night-out-ers who are waiting for tables—each entryway will be as awkwardly cramped as the other.
If you’re a restaurateur whose first restaurant was an Airstream trailer, however, an awkward room is a luxury problem. Henderson’s dealt with difficult spaces before—where to put all the waiting bodies at Skillet Diner (which he opened but no longer owns), how to make the weirdly shaped basement that is Westward feel like a restaurant—so he’s practiced, here using microscopic tables to increase aisle space in the skinny room split lengthwise between bar and restaurant. Mind you, those aisles remain narrow—so narrow a diner can’t take off her coat without sweeping someone’s beef carpaccio onto her lap.
Despite the sardining, however, Saint Helens spotlights Henderson’s great gift as a restaurateur: crafting a sense of place. Saint Helens is a crisp and breezy fantasy of a French bistro, filled with checkerboard rattan chairs and those diminutive white marble cafe tables, lit with sunshine on four sides. A broad patio off the sunny west end—part covered and warmed with a fire pit—welcomes denizens off the Burke-Gilman Trail for coffee and apple fritters by morning, a revolving list of cocktails and wines—negronis on tap!—and noshes by afternoon. This is Henderson at his brilliant best: Just as his Westward exploits the quintessentially waterside Seattle view toward his vision of a seafood house, Saint Helens uses Seattle’s favorite bicycle path as shorthand for a casually French joie de vivre. In its soul Saint Helens is as carefree and come-as-you-are as a bike ride on a sunny day.
But on the plate it reaches higher.
The menu is shorter than one typically finds in a bistro, with more formal preparations than that tableful of soccer kids in the corner might lead one to expect. Probably they’re not ordering the three (undercooked) scallops on the herby bed of white quinoa with pieces of crackling black cod skin—though if they did they’d undoubtedly like its simplicity, even as they were wishing it had been billed as room temperature.
Likewise upmarket is a plate of Mad Hatcher Farms half chicken, tender as it gets, over salsa verde with radishes and beans, and plenty of dill. (Fresh herbs are deployed with nuclear intensity in this house.) Vegetable plates are lush, like one that gilds green beans with bone marrow butter, then scatters them winningly with crunchy almond chunks. Or one with caramelized carrots over yogurt—a vegetable preparation I first tasted at Sitka and Spruce, and now see all over town. At Saint Helens the yogurt is blended with charred bread, a grace note Henderson picked up from San Francisco innovator (and Sitka and Spruce prototype) Bar Tartine—and the result is sensational, suffusing the yogurt with texture and smoke.
There are fails—the herbs overpowered a plum-tarragon-dill butter lettuce salad; desserts we tried amounted to hard cakes and watery chocolate mousse. Then there’s the crowd pleasing, which some might find overeager. Henderson is, you’ll recall, the man who gave the world bacon jam—and here he (and chef Josef Kothenbeutel) likewise steer gleefully into one wanton excess after another: lavishly overbuttered, grilled Columbia City Bakery bread; palate-lacquering housemade “American” cheese (a modernist tweak of Beecher’s) and umami-rich XO sauce for the Saint Helens burger; terrine richly unctuous as a meaty hash and nicely offset with bitter ramp pistou, pistachios, and egg yolk.
Saint Helens may seem like a French bistro, but what animates its kitchen is good old American, lip-smacking relish.
Service is similarly American, meaning every permutation of friendly, good or ill—from the obsequious bro who affably pats your shoulder, then delivers rocks when you ordered neat, to the detail-happy superexplainer who laudably reminds you that the gratuity is already on the tab. (That’s a vital heads-up in these times—and one that’s almost never verbally delivered.)
At any given moment a full company of these pros are dancing their constricted choreography through the narrow aisles, quickly and conscientiously clearing plates from the tiny tables—and one realizes what a surehanded operation Saint Helens is. As Seattle’s burgeoning cadre of empire-building restaurateurs inevitably find, there are downsides to nine new properties in a single year—uneven food, less-than-comfortable quarters. But on the upside—you could do a lot worse than seasoned experience.