Best Restaurants

Best Restaurants 2017: Marmite

In a most unexpected next chapter, Bruce Naftaly gives Capitol Hill a relaxed evolution of Le Gourmand.

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

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Bruce and Sara Naftaly in Marmite’s open kitchen.

Image: Amber Fouts

Dishes at Marmite are assembled at a long butcher block counter that could be the set of an unrealistically idyllic cooking show: potatoes and leeks piled in woven bowls, rounds of dark golden bread baked next door, an arrangement of stridolo, the parsleylike Italian herb, from Bruce and Sara Naftaly’s garden. Fruit, herbs, and berries from their yard make cameos throughout the menu; cold-smoking the flawless trout entree has so diminished the couple’s pine tree, Sara frets the neighbors might fear for their own conifers.

Back in 1985, Bruce Naftaly opened Le Gourmand and edged the term Northwest cuisine into our lexicon with three-course meals of classic French fare, ingredients ushered straight to his Ballard restaurant from small local farms—revolutionary at the time. The dining room was all pomp, pillows, and padding, but the restaurant’s 27-year tenure included many nights when it was just the Naftalys in the kitchen preparing those formal plates. 

Now Bruce oversees Marmite’s unstructured kitchen and a small crew decades his junior. We can thank them for the modern touches—sous vide, cold smoking, kombucha—that quietly influence the menu, and most likely the Holy Mountain on draft and ’90s-ironic En Vogue on the sound system.

In 2012, the weary Naftalys closed Le Gourmand. Sara opened a bakeshop called Amandine, where her macarons and croissants became a major draw at Pike/Pine’s Chophouse Row redevelopment. When its anchor restaurant, Chop Shop, closed, building owner Liz Dunn entreated the couple to take it over.

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Marmit's kitchen puts out rich, French-leaning plates like pine-smoked trout and blintzes in chive butter sauce (the cheese inside comes from Chop House neighbor Kurt Farm Shop).

Image: Amber Fouts

The Naftalys devised Marmite on the fly, its name a reference to the French soup kettle. Their goals were twofold, says Sara: Less fuss than Le Gourmand’s era, and “something where we could walk away occasionally and do something else.” They accomplished one of those things.

This haphazard reentry into restaurant life muddled the impact of a legendary chef’s return to the kitchen. Bruce’s original vision of a soup-focused menu holds true at lunch, but as dinner took shape, so did its resemblance to Le Gourmand. Some dishes echo old favorites, and Naftaly’s famed French sauces are, as ever, an infinity loop of savory flavor notes. Original plans included an embedded cocktail bar, Spirit in the Bottle; in a further stroke of confusion, the Naftalys decided to use that moniker on the entire restaurant’s nighttime persona. 

That persona has much to do with Sara, undoubtedly Marmite’s secret weapon. Dissatisfied with the gnocchi, she crossed a straightforward recipe with one for choux pastry used for profiteroles and eclairs. These hybrids—tinged green with backyard stridolo—can thank her for a texture so airy it seems perpetually on the verge of collapse, even as it holds its own with cubes of pancetta and a brown butter sage sauce with the soul of chicken drippings.

Weekend mornings mean rhubarb-dipped rice fritters that pack all the sugar-dusted appeal of fresh doughnuts. The lunchtime soup menu unites Bruce’s saucier knack for deep flavors and Sara’s elegantly sturdy bread. There’s even a happy hour; Bruce’s version of bar-snack potato chips are equally labor intensive and addictive. 

Clearly the whole “being around less” thing didn’t take. But they’ve weathered the confusion to succeed, absolutely, in translating their particular, meticulous magic into something updated and easygoing.

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