Vashon Island Is on the Ruby Brink of a Meat Revolution
Remember that hot minute about a decade ago when chefs posed for photos with pigs slung over their shoulders and the food media hailed butchers as a new, carcass-carving form of celebrity?
In 2020 a leading-edge butcher looks more like Lauren Garaventa, long brown hair wadded in a haphazard knot as she trims lamb ribs and stuffs casings to make salt and pepper sausage. She’s an outlier in her field not because, OMG you guys, she’s a lady butcher. But because she’s the sort of butcher who, with every mug of bone broth and snack plate of smoky bacon, encourages people to eat fewer animals.
“It’s just as important to not eat meat as it is to eat meat” is the philosophy that built the Ruby Brink, the bar, kitchen, and butcher shop Garaventa and her two partners opened last May in the collection of blocks that make up Vashon Island’s downtown. Protein propels the all-day menu here, but she and fellow owner and chef Rustle Biehn devise all the food and fill Garaventa’s butcher case using a single cow and just four pigs a month—plus a supporting cast of humanely slaughtered smaller breeds, like ducks and lambs, and the occasional fish caught by friends.
“In an agricultural sense, that’s not real, right?” Garaventa says of restaurants that promise endless supplies of cherry-picked cuts like rib eyes. “It’s totally false, like having tomatoes whenever we want.” Or, for that matter, any seasonal produce year-round. The Ruby Brink’s daily effort to buy, cook, and butcher outside America’s traditional commodities food system is at once retro and radical; the food mostly tastes that way, too.
Garaventa stocks her glass case with a very few steaks, assorted loins, sausages, and a rainbow of charcuterie. (I’ve seen plenty of customers request a paper-wrapped item from the butcher counter to arrive with their dinner bill.) But maximizing more austere animal parts thrusts braises and ground meats into unaccustomed starring roles. On the menu, as in life, bacon helps, too. Garaventa cures various cuts into crispy snack plates; three iterations—maple smoked traditional, a more savory beef, and salt pork—might coexist on any given day. As we sat down one evening, our server assured us, “This is a new approach to farm-to-table.” In an era where so many restaurants begin each meal with an overexplanatory preamble about share plates, her affirmation was the closest I got to somebody detailing all the ingenuity happening in the kitchen.
Comfort bowls like brisket atop polenta and a chunky tomato sauce or braised lamb on rice with roasted golden beets and a scatter of slightly funky soft cheese recall, in a great way, something you might eat at your mom’s kitchen table before homework begins. More importantly, they help stretch proteins and become richer, though not prettier, once you grab a big spoon and swirl those flavors together (also a good way to solve the occasional seasoning shortfall, like undersalted polenta). Garaventa cheerfully admits she and Biehn let convictions guide them more than any formal culinary training. “We’re not chefs; we’re straight-up home cooks.”
From within some rigorous self-imposed guardrails, these two non-chefs deliver an impressive range of humble hangout food that’s also inordinately beautiful; edible flowers and toppers of wee greens are as ubiquitous as the plaid cloth napkins that look borrowed from a farmer’s overalls. The meat, cheese, and pickle plate is a Technicolor surprise compared with most charcuterie boards, a pair of oblong emmer crackers tipped over a vivid carpet of bacon jam, soppressata, rabbit pate, pickled blueberries, beets, and carrots, like logs on an edible forest floor.
In changing the way diners think about meat, broth might be more powerful than rhetoric. The Ruby Brink serves it by the china mug, its shimmering brown contents shifting with each 24-hour simmer, depending on what combo of animal bones Garaventa needs to use up (seasons and farms matter too, she says: jalapenos from Walla Walla taste different than ones from Vashon or Bellingham). Broth also drives the Ruby Brink’s best dish: the Meat and Noodle bowl that takes its name from the popup Garaventa and Biehn ran for five years.
It’s a good avatar for this place, deeply meaty but deceptively light, with beautiful vegetables as a framing device—the biggest presence is neither the thicket of braised lamb (or, on some days, pork) nor the moderate tangle of noodles, but veggies in multiple hues: purple cabbage, a pair of tender carrots, and a chunk of pickled shallot. The soup comes with chopsticks, though there’s nothing particularly Asian about the flavors, save a soft-yolked egg that looks borrowed from a porny bowl of ramen. In a restaurant geared definitively toward Vashon locals, this soup is one of a few dishes that rises to the occasion of a ferry crossing from Seattle. So does the fat, finely ground lamb merguez sausage on a roll with a soft interior and satisfying crust. Each bite drips with its own juices, plus a spicy lemon sauce.
Much of the credit for the Ruby Brink’s lush menu goes to Vashon’s produce; this is the rare butchery with abundant vegetarian options, and Biehn has perfected its fancy toast game. On the “snack” half of the menu, ricotta and pickled strawberries, smoked garlic and honey, or tangy vache cheese or a fine chop of mushrooms with pickled fennel might top crunchy slabs of heritage grain sourdough.
The long, curved bar is the province of the third partner, Jake Heil. His part in the Ruby Brink’s quiet revolution is planting city-caliber vieux carres and sherry drinks on an island that mostly opts out of craft cocktail trends. The former manager at Portland’s Multnomah Whiskey Library translates his partners’ zero-waste principles into housemade quince grenadine and a bloody mary mix made with fermented carrots (like many hyperseasonal operations with a bar program, the Ruby Brink makes a resigned exception for citrus).
A growing body of chefs practice whole animal butchery and let sustainability dictate the menu. But doing it with day drinks, $18 entrees, and nary a word about the ethos that drives the kitchen? Now that’s revolutionary.