Walk into Bateau any night of the week and the long window-lined room is at high simmer, its slate tables and spindle-back chairs and sweet quarter-moon bar loaded with revelers and romancers and business diners. Breezy on the longest days when those windows roll away, it’s bright against the shortest ones—November salvation for a Seattleite—with its white plank walls and white caged pendant lights. If “Euro-winsome” isn’t an existing design conceit, Bateau makes it one—right down to the delicate floral china.
But don’t let its beauty or popularity obscure the single essential thing about Bateau: What it pulls off is nearly impossible.
Renee Erickson (the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Whale Wins) threw open its doors last fall along the Union Street edge of Pike/Pine, the anchor between her British-inspired doughnut shop General Porpoise on one side and her oyster-filled Bar Melusine on the other. A love child of her first restaurant, the now shuttered French masterpiece the Boat Street Cafe, and her vision for a whole-animal steak house—Bateau opened as a place where a cut of, say, succulent rib eye would be seared rare in a steel pan and delivered with slabs of butter melting into its meat, yes, but also a place where Erickson’s team had raised, butchered, and dry-aged the cow it came from.
Dry-aging is, essentially, controlled rot—a means of allowing enzymes to break down flesh—and when you walk into Bateau you can spy hulking sides of that flesh through the window to the meat locker. Here, then, is the first bit of impossible: Erickson and her kitchen team, led by chef Taylor Thornhill, aren’t ordering boxes of tenderloins based on demand; they’re utilizing every bit from whole cows—on a timeline. Each night’s available cuts (by weight and price) are written on two wall-size blackboards, with the kitchen left to craft trim and offal into everything else, from the $18 Bateau burger to the horseradish steak tartare to a cleverly deconstructed Reuben of braised brisket and smoked beef belly.
It’s the oldest of old-school mandates, this thrift, and in Thornhill’s creatively restless hands it translates to genuine exhilaration at table. Yes, the stunning crispy frites are thrice fried and finished in tallow; yes, that’s bone marrow sexying up the butter. But he’ll also braise beef neck, piling it between bread with garlic scapes and neon dollops of turmeric aioli for a starter of wit and depth. After much trial and error, Thornhill even came up with a boozy beef liver pate recipe—homage to Boat Street’s famous chicken liver mousse.
“At times the whole-animal thing is exhausting for everyone—so much protein,” Erickson admits. They once donated $15,000-worth of ground beef to Food Lifeline—as mistakes go, a big-hearted one. But here the second bit of impossible kicks in, in the form of waiters who therefore must sell—and, first, must educate.
It’s a mighty tutorial load. Waiters must decode the hieroglyphics on those blackboards (they cross out ordered cuts on both boards with a long chalk stick), then instruct diners about sizes and offcuts and marbling and the rest of the soaring learning curve one must master at a steak house—from What the heck’s a chuck eye? (not unlike a New York, only smaller and leaner) to How many will a $200 Tomahawk feed? (the 2.5-pound long-bone rib eye will satisfy around four hungry diners).
Where the potential for tableside pedantry is this extreme, it’s to Bateau’s supreme credit that waiters maintain freshness and levity, with authentic warmth. So by the time you’re finished with your velvety cut of shoulder chuck called a Ranch steak, its flavor cranked to a potency just south of funk, whose six-ounce weight cost $17 but which tasted nearly as fine as a $73 New York—you’ll be thinking two things: Man, that terrific waiter steered me right.
And: Man, controlled rot tastes good.
As I lingered over a very French salad—supple baby lettuces, shreds of mint, savory Banyuls vinaigrette, paper-thin slices of the fragrant root yacón bursting with juice—it hit me that Thornhill’s globally tweaked mastery of classical French technique perhaps delivers the biggest impossible of all. How a kitchen this consumed with cow flesh can at the same time compose a plate of tenderest milk-braised sweetbreads, piqued with tart elderberry capers and pickled elderflowers and arrayed with heady beurre blanc like art on a canvas—well, it’s a balancing act that shouldn’t work.
But does. Brilliantly. And it’s these exquisite balances of yin and yang—a feminine steak house, where bloody beef shares billing with refined French, where a mere mortal can enjoy a $17 Ranch steak alongside a fat cat with a Delmonico, and where culinary gravitas coexists with liveliness of scene—that finally vault Bateau out of the realm of the ordinary and into that of the genuinely groundbreaking.
1040 E Union St, Capitol Hill