When chef J. J. Proville (Il Corvo, Art of the Table) and barman Zac Overman (Rob Roy, Sitka and Spruce) were dreaming up their collaboration, Proville originally thought Japanese izakaya. Never having been to Japan—he rethought. But a bistro, in keeping with his French upbringing…that stayed with him. Maybe a mashup of a classic bistro with the down-to-earth elegance of the New York restaurant that taught him to cook, Gramercy Tavern? Maybe…on the water? All Proville knew for sure was that their restaurant would not have a French name.
And so, in November, in the land-locked Central District—they opened L’Oursin.
“It’s a cute word, and not that hard to pronounce,” chuckled Proville of the name, French for “sea urchin.” With his wry wit, the former writer (for New York–based industry site StarChefs, where he met graphic designer Overman) explained how the spiny creature further served as metaphor for the restaurant biz: frequently painful for those handling it—but delicious inside.
And so, feeling literal on my first visit to the seafood-heavy L’Oursin, I ordered sea urchin, twice. In the first dish, its pale orange color and saltwater boldness added up to a throaty sauce that pooled beneath an underpoached hunk of steelhead. Pocked with sunchokes and orange salmon roe, the dish was a cool study in subtlety or tedium, depending on the bite. The better preparation, a tartine of swoony house-smoked bacon with onions and greens over slices of flavorfully charred brioche, featured sea urchin butter without much sea urchin flavor—a misstep in an otherwise fine dish.
If les oursins showcased a chef who sometimes gets his intensities wrong—as with the seaweed butter for the Columbia City Bakery bread, which tasted a little bit like it was scraped off a hull—L’Oursin, in the wider angle, shone. The affable Overman, or his cocktails, filled the bar seats. A half chicken braised with Gallic precision in a deeply reinforced stock was a masterpiece, in execution and visuals. A soupe de poisson en croute added up to Marseille in a lion’s head bowl, its fathomless rockfish bone broth studded with shellfish beneath an elegant puff pastry dome. An apple tart, flaky crusted but not precious, was more a satisfyingly rustic crostata.
Portions are small, as in France; the menu doesn’t capitulate to Americans, as in France. (No steak frites in this house—which, across from Seattle U, could prove unsustainable.) In his culinary restraint one can even faintly make out Proville’s Japanese dispositions. Yes, the menu could use more explication. The subtly fine porcini gratin was a side, not a starter; and here is a red wine description (from a careful list of natural wines): “You’ll find him at home in the kitchen—one big hairy arm kneading bread, while the other reaches out to pluck an eyelash from right off your face.” (Sheesh, when writers open restaurants…)
But even that communication fail reveals L’Oursin’s sure-handedness: It knows exactly what it is—from its fleet of grownup servers to its unfussy Parisian surroundings to its ultimate playlist of cool, the Clash to Serge Gainsbourg—and has no doubt that you’ll like what it makes you.