One of the wildest things about Mbar, the new rooftop Jason Stratton restaurant from the folks who brought us Mamnoon, is how the chef constructed the menu not in the usual way—along a theme, like cuisine (like Syrian) or food type (like steak) or level of formality (like trendy or formal)—but rather, across the high water marks of his own resume.
“When we were conceptualizing Mbar, I felt like I was diving into my own influences,” Stratton told me by phone. “Diving into how some of the best chefs in Seattle have dealt with [Northwest] ingredients.”
Take Mbar’s salad, on my visits called “local lettuces…a la Naftaly.” That’s Bruce Naftaly, the founder of the late, great Le Gourmand and godfather of Northwest cuisine. (And proprietor of the new Chophouse Row lunch house, Marmite.) He gave the 16-year-old Stratton his first dishwasher job, then schooled him in the ways of fiercely local ingredients, handled with a featherlight touch. “I don’t know how many salads I made, but I made them the same way, every day,” Stratton recalls. “A salad is one of the most technically difficult things to master, and almost every diner [at Le Gourmand] ended with one.” Stratton has reprised that salad for Mbar, with tenderest lettuces and a slightly punchier vinaigrette.
Then Stratton ricochets us to Kirkland and Capitol Hill. “Holly Smith was one of the biggest influences on my career in the way I shape food,” he mused, recalling his tenure in her Northern Italian kitchen at Cafe Juanita. So was Jerry Traunfeld, Stratton’s boss at Poppy. (Are you starting to get an idea of why you want to go eat at Mbar, stat?) From those two, along with Naftaly, Stratton learned “how to focus on simplicity and minimalism.” Specific dishes? “All the dishes,” he laughs, making particular note of the herbal instinct Traunfeld seems to have in his bones. “The way Jerry uses and thinks about herbs…bringing out surprising flavors, with a synergy like a tone you haven’t heard before.” At Poppy, Stratton made a roasted cauliflower hummus that he then did at the Italian aperitif bar, Artusi.
And he now does at Mbar.
Honestly, the references to his own past work fly so fast and furious, restaurant geeks might want to make a game of it. Bring a “culinary influences” bingo card. The polenta bake starring rabbit and mascarpone, in a white Bolognese? Cascina Spinnase! Grilled trout with labneh, sumac, and fenugreek? Mamnoon!
Sure, a menu like this lacks focus, such that even the geekiest restaurant geek will not know how to quite describe Mbar's food. I've heard more than a few carp that its lack of culinary focus is a fatal flaw. I say it's a small price to pay for a greatest hits survey of some of Seattle's finest chefs.
I say a bunch of other stuff too, right here in this month's review of Mbar.