Arts & Culture

After Midnight

By Angela Garbes March 25, 2010

At 3:45 on a Friday morning, there are seven customers inside downtown’s Night Kitchen (216 Stewart Street, 448-8810): a young couple sitting within whispering distance; another couple on a date, the man in leather pants, the woman in a velvet bustier, her Star Wars lunchbox purse on the table; two men dining solo, one at a table with his back to the dining room, and one woman, who would clearly be there all night, chatting away with a bottomless coffee cup in front of her.

“So, Jason,” she asked the bartender, “Do you have any accents you like to do for fun?”

I would like to say that this was more activity than I expected to find at Night Kitchen, but the truth is, I had no idea what to expect of Night Kitchen.

In my younger days, I used to complain about the lack of late-night dining in Seattle. Ten years later, things have changed: A handful of places are serving until midnight or even 2 am, and they’re not all serving classic greasy diner fare. Night Kitchen, however, isn't a 24-hour affair: Unlike Seattle's other late-night dining spots, they're open only from 6 pm to 9 am.

Late-night hours aren't the only curve ball Night Kitchen throws at you. It’s in a strange, out-of-the-way downtown spot; the hodgepodge décor looks like it was picked up hastily down the street in the housewares section of Ross Dress for Less; and no one working there looks a day over 24. Yet Night Kitchen sports a menu full of Seattle’s local/seasonal/organic offerings, right down to the requisite listing of ingredient origins: french fries made from Olsen Farms Cal whites, Painted Hills beef, Mount Townsend Cheese, Full Circle kale raab and heirloom Ozette potatoes.

Night Kitchen’s menu had me intrigued, even hopeful, but I never expected to eat one of the best dishes I’ve had in recent memory there. It was a simple plate of grilled spring onions that blew me away: crackly, papery, charred outer skin holding steamy soft, luscious and sweet shoots inside, served with a “Northwest style salvitxada,” a romesco-esque sauce of roasted red peppers, almonds, and lots of garlic made even more complex and slightly bitter with the addition of smoked peppers.

With one bite of spring onion, a dozen flavors flashed over my tongue and I was transported. Yes, I was still sitting in Night Kitchen’s jankily-painted maroon dining room with laser-cut metal sculptures of a salmon and Douglas Fir tree hanging overhead. And yes, the neon glow of the parking garage sign across the street was still very visible, but I was also standing in the middle of a field in Spain, just like Anthony Bourdain in that episode of No Reservations, dipping whole calçots into a bucket of romesco, tipping my head back, and gobbling it down with abandon. I half expected a handsome Spaniard to come in the door and pour red wine down my throat.

Night Kitchen’s food isn’t messing around: It’s good, mostly because they use solid ingredients, don’t fuss with them too much, and serve straight-up comfort food.

When I bit into my bistro burger ($11)—eight ounces of Painted Hills ground beef cooked to a perfectly pink medium rare, Beecher’s Flagship cheese, a dark, gooey, beautiful mess of caramelized onions on a Macrina brioche bun—I was genuinely taken aback by how fantastic it tasted. (Showing restraint at an hour when it is rarely shown, Night Kitchen serves their late-night burger  from 12:30 to 4 am, sans fries, for four dollars less than the dinner entrée served from 6 pm to midnight.) This is damn good burger, I thought, though I immediately began to question if my late night haze was influencing my opinion.

As I looked over at my dining companion, who was practically face down, cooing, in his country breakfast ($10)—a biscuit, sausage gravy, and an oozy fried egg,— I knew I wasn’t mistaken. The biscuit was as fluffy and buttery as you could want, with plenty of big chunks of what I suspect was housemade sausage, but the gravy was the real standout: Silky and viscous, with an unexpected hint of coffee flavor and plenty of black pepper, thoroughly deserving of a cat-like plate-lapping.

I liked Night Kitchen’s food so much, I wanted to check out the dinner menu. (I also wanted to see how the food fared at a more reasonable hour, 11 pm on a Tuesday night, stone cold sober.)

Chicken pot pie ($14), true to its billing, had an intriguing, simultaneously flaky and tender crust (I prefer mine on the thinner, flakier side) atop moist chicken chunks, diced parsnips, carrots, and mushrooms swimming in a velvety, rich Supreme sauce. The lamb burger ($14), a thick patty of Lido Farms lamb stuffed with an almost ridiculous amount of Rogue River Oreganzola, was satisfying, made better by that wonderful Macrina brioche bun and a slab of red onion to cut through all the richness.

With its innocuous décor, solid food and excellent service (the servers seem really happy just to have you there), Night Kitchen might, oddly, be one of the most inclusive places in town. But I worry about its viability. At 4 am on a Friday night, only three people walked by Night Kitchen’s door, none of whom appeared to be out on the street by choice. And during my mid-week meal, there were only four customers, one of whom was an off-duty bartender getting a cheap meal.

I like to think that this town that can support a place like Night Kitchen, but it’s going to  take some effort. By effort I mean, make it a point to be hungry and downtown at 4 am: Skip the big dinner, close down that bar, smoke that extra joint, linger at the party for another hour or two. Then make a night of it.
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