Just one block north of Pike Place Market a destination restaurant—the kind with waterfront views, a coat check, even a personal farmer—sprouted out of nowhere in what used to be a concrete plaza. In December, Aerlume quietly unfurled its ambition in the heart of Seattle’s most hallowed acres while the rest of the city was busy saying farewell to the viaduct, which would soon fall away from the restaurant’s wall of water-facing windows.
A new era of waterfront is coming, and two captains of Seattle’s higher-end dining industry, Jason Wilson and Chad Mackay, have joined forces to embrace it. Aerlume occupies a low-slung, almost Prairie-style addition between a pair of forgettably beige mid-rises on Western Avenue, but its curb appeal packs all the self-conscious gravitas of a grand train station or very specifically inclined art museum. The name marches across the roofline in oversize neon typeface; waving grasses in long, angular planters usher you toward a wall of glass, the sparkle of Elliott Bay visible through Aerlume’s equally transparent back wall. When traffic ceased on the viaduct, says Wilson, “you could actually hear water” in here.
In 2017, the James Beard Award–winning chef formed a hospitality group with restaurateur Mackay. Aerlume is their first start-to-finish joint project, and you can diagram each man’s input like a compound sentence. Credit Mackay, the second-generation CEO behind all things El Gaucho, for the understated polish befitting a destination steak house. The luxuriously neutral dining flanked by a pair of event spaces that shape-shift from sit-down party to rowdy cocktail soiree to dining room overflow depending on the night. The rare host that offers to check your coat. The servers who arrive at your table completely briefed on any allergies or food aversions noted in the online reservation system.
Meanwhile, Wilson brought his fanaticism for top-tier ingredients and a menu that’s kin to the one at the Lakehouse, his stark and stylish restaurant in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square South. Snacks, salads, a few share-ready pastas, entrees balanced between meat and sea—it all manages to zero in on the specific marvels of each Northwest season, while also appealing to the broadest possible swath of diners.
Sometimes these visions harmonize, even on a menu that commits to no specific geography of flavor: Never mind the P.F. Changian name—order the dungeness crab lettuce wraps and you’ll soon be spooning delicate crab salad and layering shiso into a rainbow of endive, purple lettuce, and greens. Aerlume’s take on gravlax involves generous slabs of luminous citrus-cured king salmon, destined for grilled bread and a swipe of creme fraiche whipped with salmon belly.
As at the Lakehouse, dishes are built to pass around and share. Even the half serving of fried chicken can handily feed three people, its crunchy exterior nothing more than a secret handshake between really good bird and some flour, salt, and cracked black pepper. The accompanying bowl of ancient grain risotto might be a little soupy, but it’s so good you could base an entire restaurant menu off those complex, buttery depths. When servers rave about the crispy cauliflower starter, take heed; tender florets sit atop a pool of curried goat yogurt and beneath a salty-sweet cascade of golden raisins and, rather unexpectedly, some capers.
What doesn’t get mentioned: The florets are fried, not unlike the chicken, and resemble a classy vegetal spin on buffalo wings, in a room that exudes elegance. I certainly didn’t expect to see sangria—the nectar of ill-considered decisions made on beach vacations—on the house cocktail list between the Sazerac and the old fashioned. Was this, perhaps, a refined riff on your typical sugary sangria? Nah, our server replied. “It’s peach schnapps, apple pucker, and merlot.”
“The intention is not to be fine dining, but we keep getting classified as that,” says Maggie Trujillo, who left the farm-to-table Larks Restaurant in southern Oregon to become Aerlume’s executive chef. But fine dining isn’t such a crazy assumption given the viewy location, entrees that hover in the mid-$40s, and the name that piles on random vowels like Vanna White after one too many of those sangrias.
For all those reasons, it’s deflating when food isn’t as polished as the service. That’s partly menu semantics; the “pickled jardiniere” listed under the steak tartare is more blanket than garnish. The smoked bacon and prosciutto agnolotti entry puts “brodo” in quotes, but that doesn’t feel like sufficient tip-off that these crimped pillows come in a rich stock amped up with so much red wine, cream, and parmesan, it’s practically gravy. “It’s almost got these stroganoff notes,” Trujillo said in our subsequent conversation. Now that’s a helpful description. A busy kitchen sometimes sends out dishes with elements undercooked or underseasoned.
Aerlume has its own 10-acre plot in Fall City and essentially commits to buy everything farmer Amanda Marino grows there. This lets the chefs weigh in on what’s planted, but grants the farmer some license to experiment. In turn, Trujillo must figure out how to maximize every carrot and cabbage and pea vine that comes through the door. This setup could yield some cool and innovative dishes, if Aerlume’s tourist-heavy location didn’t mandate food with the widest appeal. It might also explain why plating sometimes goes haywire—perfectly cooked, if slightly salty scallops get strewn beneath a salad’s worth of peas, radish shreds, baby carrots, and unruly greens. Hunting goat cheese tortellini beneath a thicket of sprouts and leaves becomes a game. Still, I’m eager to see what these women can do once their arrangement has weathered a few seasons.
Seattle needed a place like Aerlume—a restaurant with a decorated local chef on the marquee that plunges you into our most essential landscape. The reality has lots of room for improvement, but also a slender patio that presents our waterfront sunsets at their most endless and breathtaking. Fine dining or no, Aerlume’s location and pedigree make it a de facto destination restaurant. What you come here for is another matter entirely.