Bruce Naftaly is good at many things: Making incredible sauces. Embracing the Northwest seasons and the waste-nothing ethos, without hanging a bunch of trendy labels on these practices. Being a generally delightful person.
But the chef who pioneered Northwest cuisine and built his Ballard restaurant, Le Gourmand, into a 27-year institution, isn't very good at being retired.
He and his wife, Sara, closed Le Gourmand in 2012 in hopes of slowing life down a little. Now they are opening a restaurant—and a bar—in the prominent space in Chophouse Row recently vacated by Chop Shop. It's next door to Amandine, the lovely bakeshop Sara opened last year; when Chop Shop announced its departure, the building's developer, Liz Dunn, entreated the Naftalys to take it over.
The restaurant will be called Marmite, after the French cooking vessel, not the salty condiment made of yeast extract. It's a nod to the big soup kettle that will dominate the lunch menu, along with salads and sandwiches. No surprise, Amandine will supply the baked goods, including the bread, which is currently just a weekend offering at the bakeshop. The Naftalys are installing a takeout window for maximum daytime portability; that should be your first clue that Marmite won't be as high-end as Le Gourmand.
Bruce has a particular way with classic French sauces. Soup, he says, is simply another way to coax deep flavors from humble ingredients: "You just have to treat soups with the same respect you do a sauce. Except you can have a full bowl instead of a couple tablespoons." Marmite will have four soups on each day.
A narrow space in the rear will become a cocktail bar, called Spirit in the Bottle in homage to the old fairy tale recounted by the Brothers Grimm. Sara Naftaly will write the cocktail menus, just like she did at Sambar, the little jewel of a lounge that was next door to Le Gourmand, and whose loss is lamented perhaps as much as the restaurant's. "If people miss Sambar, at least that ethos will be back in the world," says Bruce.
Much of Sambar's charm emanated from its bar manager, Jay Kuehner. Most serendipitously, Kuehner now works in the very same building as the Naftalys, tending bar up in the Cloud Room on the top floor of Chophouse Row. "He's definitely going to help set the thing up," says Bruce of Spirit in the Bottle.
Marmite will also do weekend brunch; at some point, says Bruce, the restaurant will do a full dinner program, but for now look for a light nighttime menu that will also feed the bar.
A Sambar reunion? Soup? I could stop right here and this would all be very exciting news. But the Naftalys have a few more elements planned for Marmite. Bruce will run a side business selling stock. It's the basis of all his cooking, he notes, "and it's kind of a pain to make." The chef will also relocate his monthly cooking classes to Marmite's open kitchen.
The couple also set up a relationship with the Seattle Culinary Academy at Seattle Central Community College to assure some apprentice spots in the Marmite kitchen and a real world outlet for skills learned in class. Bruce Naftaly points out that between Amandine and culinary neighbors Kurt Timmermeister and Matt Dillon (whose Old Chaser farm will be a ready source of produce for Marmite's soups) Chophouse Row's occupants share a particular outlook on how to grow and treat our food. "We can work on training the next generation."
Marmite and Spirit in the Bottle will likely open in December.
"That never happened," Bruce says of his retirement plans. "If it’s in your blood you just can’t stop." Lucky for us.