Pork rinds from the snack menu.
Evan Leichtling and Meghna Prakash had big plans for this tiny shotgun space, a glorified corridor between two old brick buildings in Columbia City’s historic district. They set out to recreate the sort of bar where the couple hung out (and where Leichtling cooked) during four years living in Paris and Spain. A place where customers jostle convivially against one another at a long counter, over glasses of low-intervention wine and delicately arranged bites.
Clearly, though, convivial jostling hasn’t been a thing since March.
Instead, Off Alley crept open in August with a new plan for that counter, which runs the length of the narrow room. Two parties at a time sit down, yards apart from one another, for a five-course menu that feels like finer dining, but with an eminently reasonable $50 price tag. If this little place debuted during normal times, I’d be heralding it as one of the year’s most exciting new arrivals; food writers would be inflicting terrible headlines like “Up My Alley” and “Offal-ly Good.”
The food should look familiar to fans who frequented the Fowl and Offal popup Leichtling launched when the couple returned stateside to Seattle in 2019. Since then, he says, his motto has been “How much offal can I get away with, and are people going to go for this kind of thing?”
Underappreciated organs and whole animals may provide the marquee menu items, but Leichtling balances bites of grilled venison heart or lamb tongue atop sweet summer tomatoes with meticulous fish and vegetable compositions, like the thinnest slices of golden badger flame beats topped with crème fraiche and salty pops of roe. Next might come three types of cucumbers, prepared three different ways, in a broth that manages to make coriander feel subtle. A ceramic Kamado Joe smoker, perched unconventionally atop the kitchen range produces a smoked butter that dresses a wedge of grilled cabbage next to crisp-skinned Neah Bay cod.
The matchstick-size restaurant has no outdoor space, no sidewalk seating. Prakash and Leichtling, a married couple, are the only staff, so a party of diners interact with two other households max. They eat facing a wall of aged brick as a fan moves air through the perpetually open door—dynamics that might, for some, factor into the comfort level calculus that’s become part of daily life. Prakash pours and pairs low-intervention wines and manages to exude chill hospitality, even from behind a mask. For those who stick to takeout, Off Alley handwrites a “snack” menu each day on a specially constructed pane of frosted glass, a more industrial take on Europe’s classic chalkboard menus. Prakash in turn posts a picture of that menu on Instagram. Consider it a hyperartisanal version of a QR code menu. On here you might find pork rillettes, anchovies on toast, the occasional lamb brain Rockefeller, and big curls of pork rinds dusted in a green powder, Leichtling’s more dignified, allium-centered take on a packet of sour cream and onion dip mix. The chef has also built an impressive ice cream side hustle, and sells pints in flavors like sour cream and blackberry, rye, and grilled peach sorbet.
In booming pre-Covid Seattle, the city saw more and more restaurants that felt like unambitious grabs at an affluent population’s disposable income, rather than anyone’s singular vision. Potential restaurateurs who view this endeavor through a spreadsheet lens backed away slowly (or quickly) months ago. The weird bright side: The restaurants opening mid-pandemic are almost exclusively personal projects like this one. Leichtling grew up on Whidbey Island a self-described “little punk shit” who ended up in the kitchen at Lark, absorbing Jonathan Sundstrom’s motto of deeply local sourcing before he left to cook in Europe. That’s where he met Prakash, who was an attorney in India until she made wine her profession.
At some point, the couple says, Off Alley will become the bar of their original dreams. Until then, it’s hard to imagine a more suitable 2020 survival plan—for them, but also for all of humanity—than ice cream, wine, and pork rinds.