Best Restaurants

Best Restaurants 2017: L'Oursin

The Central District bistro isn’t trying to please everyone. That’s why it’s such a pleasure.

By Allecia Vermillion August 18, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Chef J. J. Proville.

One thinks about the arctic char tartare at L’Oursin with the same lurid recall as a cinematic one-night affair—often and in wistful detail. Weeks later, L’Oursin’s radishes and rhubarb, diced so fine they could be flecks of red onion save the slight pop of sweetness, flicker in the mind on an endless loop. Topped with salmon eggs harvested just that morning, the dish stays cool and firm, even on a warm evening when the front windows are flung open to the sidewalk, like the Parisian bistros that inspired this den of wood wainscoting and curved brass chairs at 14th and Jefferson. There’s an art to making Seattle’s ubiquitous new construction feel warm; to evoke European charm, even slightly, is a miracle of good mirrors and great light fixtures.

That fantasy-haunting tartare is pretty much what American-born, Gallic-raised chef J. J. Proville does here: Recast classic French dishes with inherently Northwest players—dungeness, lingcod, coonstripe prawns—much like Netflix might reboot a great European TV series, but with more creme fraiche. As bistro menus go, this one swims upstream. No French onion soup, no oysters on the half shell. People stop commenting on the absence of steak frites right about the time they spoon sea urchin custard onto the housemade brioche. Proville is impeccable with seasoning and seafood prep but harbors a Julia Child–level zeal for butter, so it’s up to servers to help tables balance the squash and truffle gratin or lingcod in serious beurre blanc with lovely vegetable dishes, like a composed swoop of grilled asparagus, soft white cheese, and the thinnest shavings of raw porcini. 

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Adding the final touches on a smoked bacon tartine; poached char with roe and sea urchin sauce.

Proville and business partner Zac Overman developed an affinity for natural wine in their Brooklyn days; it’s the entirety of the list. Some restaurants pour this idiosyncratic style, free of flavor-shaping additives, quietly in case people take natural wine to mean “funky as hell.” These guys tout “Vin Naturels” on the sign out front. 

When L’Oursin opened in the final stretch of 2016, it had to weather winter’s slim produce pickings. Now Proville is in full thrall of late-summer abundance, Overman and wine director Kathryn Olson make the marquee-lit bar one of the Central District’s most urbane hangouts, and the general sense of self-assurance is thick as the butter.

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