Awards and Accolades

The 2017 Restaurant of the Year Is...FlintCreek Cattle Co.

In a moment where casual, familiar dining prevails, one chef transforms bison, boar shoulder, and venison into polished plates, served with easygoing grace. All this—plus a devastatingly stylish dining room—await at FlintCreek Cattle Co.

By Allecia Vermillion August 11, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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A view from the mezzanine.

Image: Amber Fouts

Eric Donnelly named his second restaurant the same way he named his first: after a great fishing spot. Except this one is a shrine to red meat.

The chef spent many a meditative midstream hour in the tributary known as Flint Creek over the years, line cast and eyes on the cowboys driving cattle across the green slopes of Montana’s Philipsburg Valley. During some of those sessions, he imagined a restaurant dedicated to game. Venison, bison, and boar have a relatively small carbon footprint, and their assertive flavors play well to Donnelly’s specialty: composed dishes in which every bite is symphonic rather than a standalone knife-and-fork production where starch and veg languish unhelpfully on the side. 

That’s how Seattle Met’s restaurant of the year came to be a game meat destination with cattle in the name, from a chef previously defined by fish. Of course a few things happened along the way.

Four years ago Donnelly gave us RockCreek, the sort of innovative seafood restaurant visitors long assumed lurked on every Seattle corner. Instantly essential, it kept him plenty busy. But when a landlord approaches you with a 1926 brick building wrapped in transom windows with the sort of bilevel grandeur that cries out for midcentury chandeliers and a showy central bar—who says no?

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Eric and Christy Donnelly at FlintCreek’s bar—one of the many distinct zones that make a soaring bilevel restaurant feel cozy.

Image: Amber Fouts

FlintCreek opened months behind schedule after the 2016 Greenwood gas explosion, its arrival a hopeful milestone for a battered neighborhood. The crowds came fast from day one, propelled mostly by love for Donnelly’s seafood rather than a particular ardor for bison and duck. Or maybe the restaurant’s name led some people to believe it was a steak house. 

Donnelly was ready, with dishes that present novel meat in familiar settings. Rather than “freaking people out with offal and guts,” as he puts it, he casts venison as a rich pate. The house game meat gateway drug is the shoulder of wild boar, tender after a long braise and commingled with gnocchi in a pool of sugo. Beef seekers hardly come up empty, though. The massive bone-in rib eye is grass-fed and every bit as showy and tender as its downtown steak house counterparts. Donnelly’s no minimalist—lamb sausage flecked with fragrant herbs shares its goldenrod-rimmed plate with truffled slaw, grilled fingerling potatoes, and a pool of melted raclette cheese. But he partners the outsize and dramatic with such skill, he could have his own matchmaking show on Bravo.

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Lamb Crepinette.

Image: Amber Fouts

Eleven months in, tables still fill up fast at FlintCreek. Except now people come specifically for that undervalued meat. Throw out Donnelly’s name in a game of free association, and most of his fans will immediately respond, “Seafood” (before RockCreek, he mastered fish at Toulouse Petit and Oceanaire). But he spent formative culinary years cooking rabbit and quail under Jan Birnbaum, the Paul Prudhomme veteran who opened Sazerac here back in 1997.

FlintCreek is the restaurant Donnelly originally wanted to open in the Fremont space that became RockCreek, but the timing wasn’t right (hesitant landlord, next-door burger shop, the great Seattle smoked-meat-and-whiskey-restaurant inundation of 2013). Instead it arrived at a moment when it’s an outlier in so many ways. While the city defends its “Most Construction Cranes” title, the restaurant occupies a nearly century-old building with a 150-seat capacity that’s enormous by Seattle’s cozy standards (though divided into intimately distinct zones). It’s not a poke shop. It’s not in South Lake Union. 

This town has a more pronounced shine than it used to, and let’s not even get into the national political tenor—no wonder this year’s been more about eating our feelings than exploring the unfamiliar. But for anyone tucked away in the mezzanine with a salad of crunchy endive with blue cheese and lardon and a pinot noir, both savvy recommendations from the most capable of servers, FlintCreek issues a reminder of a restaurant’s power to uplift, and deliver us, even for a few hours, from the buffeting realities of the world outside.

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Venison pate.

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