Should good restaurant food challenge you? Or should it comfort you by reflecting what you already like to eat?
Sitka and Spruce, a restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, is the first restaurant that I’ve visited in a long time that fully embraces the former strategy. The food, while very delicious, challenges you while you eat it. It makes you ask questions. It reveals your prejudices, your fears, your secret desires. And it does so in a beautiful environment.
Located in the back of the Melrose Market, a nifty enclosure that contains a gourmet butcher, a cheese shop with a clever name (“The Calf & Kid”), a wine bar and various other stores, Sitka and Spruce seems to float there, way in the back, like a restaurant you might visit in a dream world. The light is hazy and gray, moody yet warm:
If you turn your head to the left, you’ll see the whole kitchen there–open–like you’re in someone’s home:
Spread out on the work surface are assorted bowls and trays and trivets, plates and mugs and bottles filled with mysterious ingredients, some of which are identifiable (like the cookies) some of which aren’t (like the orange mash in the middle):
As you settle into your seat (and I recommend sitting where I sat, at the long communal table closest to the kitchen so you can watch them cook) you’ll begin to study the menu and you’ll probably have a question or two. I had several which I Tweeted:
Thankfully, my followers came through for me:
At a place like Sitka & Spruce, even the menu is a challenge!
But we faced the challenge head-on and ordered up some food that enticed us. We started with cheese and it came with a condiment not unlike a chutney:
The cheese was creamy, almost like a brie. The chutney was deeply flavored, both spicy and fruity with a subtle hint of curry. Together, the combination worked in the way that dried fruit and cheese often works; yet it pushed the envelope slightly and made you think.
Next up came bread and butter:
The bread, as befits a place like Sitka and Spruce, had all the qualities you’d expect in an excellent bread: crusty exterior, fluffy, slightly sour interior. And the butter was creamier and fresher-tasting than your typical butter. As an extra grace note, it was sprinkled with Maldon sea salt.
The meal gets more challenging as it chugs along. Next up, a kale salad with beets and Asian pear:
Now study that kale. That’s not shredded kale like you saw in my kale and Pecorino salad from last week; that’s rabbit food kale. A big, leafy pile of it.
In your mouth, the kale feels like a scrub, a periodontist’s tool to rid all soft surfaces of bacteria. Combined, though, with the beets and pear and cheese, and cut carefully with a knife and fork, the kale becomes surprising, fascinating. It’s a texture you’re not used to but it’s not one you can easily dismiss. It’s a kale salad to think about and consider; it doesn’t matter if you love it or not. It’s a prompt for discussion.
Then there was this salad of toasted bread cubes, chanterelle mushrooms and pumpkin topped with an egg and pumpkin seeds:
When I saw this salad described on the menu, I knew that I wanted it. But my motivations for ordering it–something sweet (pumpkin) paired with something earthy (mushrooms)–were almost entirely defeated when I took my first bite. This salad was intensely bitter. The pumpkin was bitter, the radicchio was bitter; shockingly bitter. But intentionally so. It was a bitterness that one doesn’t normally associate with pumpkin, but a prominent feature of this very specific pumpkin that the chef (Matt Dillon) sought out. Again, it was a dish that didn’t come to me the way a dish normally comes to you in a restaurant; it was a dish that asked me to come to it. And after a few more bites, I surrendered.
Then, finally, there’s the dish you see at the top of this post: leeks and potatoes and smoked fish (forgive me, I thought the menu would be online but it’s not the same menu: I think it was sable?) with a soft cooked egg on top.
There were many unexpected aspects of this dish, most notably the temperature: it was very, very cold. And creamy.
This was our least favorite dish overall but at the same time, looking back on it, I can’t help but think, like all of the food at Sitka and Spruce, it’s a work of art. It’s clearly trying to capture a thought or a feeling. The temperature is a big part of that; it’s almost a meditation on cold food the way that the pumpkin salad was a meditation on bitter food and the kale salad was a meditation on texture.
The food at Sitka & Spruce is the opposite of a fried chicken filet on a bun slathered in spicy mayo; it’s unfamiliar, off-putting at times, but intense and thoughtful all the same. The ingredients are top-notch and the techniques are sound. Mostly, though, it’s inspired. Chef Dillon is clearly hearing voices in his head and those voices are telling him to make the food that he’s serving to customers. It’s a restaurant I’d go back to mostly to learn, but also to eat. It feeds you in more ways than one.