Makeover on Melrose
What Matt Dillon learned on the way to the table.
IT’S EARLY YET for retrospectives, but allow me to nominate 2010 as Year of the Restaurant Do-Over.
Lampreia became Bisato; Julia’s became Emmer and Rye. Mistral, Flying Fish, and Marjorie reemerged in shiny new quarters. And Sitka and Spruce showed us that sometimes a move isn’t just a change of address. Sometimes it’s a coming of age.
The original Sitka and Spruce, which young chef Matthew Dillon opened four years ago after cutting his teeth at the Herbfarm and the Stumbling Goat, was a dark, architecturally blank 22-seat storefront in Eastlake’s Circle K strip mall. Dillon didn’t accept reservations so patrons milled about in the doorway, waiting—sometimes hours—for a table or a spot at the communal board, to eat whatever Dillon cared to cook (there was no printed menu) in the company of whomever he cared to seat beside them.
The fact that this method of dining enjoyed the support of a miniscule subset of the eating populace was mitigated by the fact that Dillon is a culinary maestro. Soon after Sitka opened, he picked up a Food and Wine Best New Chefs award, then launched, to great fanfare, the Georgetown food salon the Corson Building. Both restaurants broadcast Dillon’s ability to transform what is freshest from local growers and foragers into dinners that shimmer with vision, rootedness, and wit.
One of the finest forkfuls I have tasted was an herby Dillon invention of chickpeas, oranges, mild Castelvetrano olives, and chunks of crisped octopus. The dish, at Sitka 1.0, showcased not only his brazen, why-the-hell-not style—but the fact that such a style can work.
And so I sat in the new Sitka scanning for another such triumph, off a (printed!) menu as sunlight gushed through vintage panes and radiated off whitewashed brick and stamped-tin walls. To say Sitka’s bright new perch in the lofty Melrose Market is a step up from its old location is a laughable understatement: The move Dillon made when his lease ran out last year took Sitka and Spruce from what felt like the darkest cranny of this town to its most luminous height.
Melrose Market is Seattle’s Les Halles: a raw-raftered warehouse for foodies with a butcher shop here, a cheese shop there, some wine perhaps—and how about a sandwich? The L-shaped Sitka embraces the southwest corner like open arms, its counter seats and dark-wood two-tops and butcher-block communal table surveying the whole European sweep of the Market through more of those atmospheric paned windows.
Dillon considered leasing the whole schmear for his Sitka, but he’d been overwhelmed before—when the weird little strip-mall “food studio” he’d envisioned as a neighborhood restaurant caught the hungry eye of a nation. “The old Sitka was a big learning process for me, very adolescent and immature,” Dillon now says. “I felt a desire to force myself into maturing as a chef.” Diners don’t want to wait in line, he learned, so in addition to nearly doubling the seats he’d need a system for reserving them. A big walk-in refrigerator, so he could buy whole animals. And an open kitchen, reflecting his acquired interest in transparency. “I wanted people to see, this is how good our tomatoes are! This is why we ask $24 for this dish!”
And so as we entered the new Sitka for lunch, an uncommonly welcoming host handed us cards listing the compositions of the day, then encouraged us to wander up to the kitchen where the raw ingredients sat on display. Bowls of pickled rhubarb, braised green beans, and emmer grains with preserved lemon and cherry tomatoes. A dish of the Egyptian fava bean mash called ful. A plate of oil-poached tuna. These Dillon and his cooks assembled into hearty seasonal noshes: sweet whole carrots served warm over cold chickpea puree explosive with harissa and fried mint. Big steaky slices of heirloom tomato topped with crumbled feta and sprigs of fresh dill.
This is Dillon at his finest; he is above all else a simplicity savant. “I’m not into unnecessary techniques, doing something new and crazy—that doesn’t interest me at all,” he explained later. “I’m interested in what our grandmas did and what old Berbers in Morocco did.” His method is to find the best ingredients, grant the producers rock-star status by crediting them on the menu—then stand back. His green salad, a startlingly spare assemblage of buttery lettuces from Local Roots farm in Carnation scattered with mint and chervil, glistened with a sherry vinaigrette elemental as dew, only several thousand times tastier.
As for those Berbers, Dillon remains rapt by the cuisines of the Near East and North Africa, which have influenced his other restaurants. We sampled his delicate Turkish dumplings, manti, filled with minted lamb and topped with his house-made yogurt, which deepened the intrigue of the dish as the tart cream melted into the broth. At dinner we ate a chicken joint, fiery from both the Moroccan spices and the hearth he had installed in the kitchen, and stewy with tomatoes and cucumbers. So besotted is Dillon with local produce that one sometimes gets the idea he’s gone a little blind with it: Roasted cucumbers lent little but moisture to an otherwise delectable production.
Turns out adoration of the pristine ingredient is Dillon’s culinary Achilles’ heel. Many of the dishes we tried at Sitka featured solos where harmony would have served. A dish of smoked mussels with fennel and lobster mushrooms was overwhelmed by smoke. A plate of local poached albacore arrived over sliced tomatoes and a walnut puree—with puckery gooseberries and pickled onions for kicks—but the disparate elements didn’t cohere. Salt cod with smashed fingerling potatoes, preserved lemon, and paprika was a wild ride of overeager flavors which could’ve used another hour or four to marry and mellow. And while we were fascinated by a plate featuring grilled squash, their blossoms, fat sprigs of fresh purslane, a brick of feta, and a heap of anchovies—it ate like a bunch of separate elements that hadn’t learned to play together. Just to compose a forkful required more concentration than a person should have to bring to a restaurant.
In short, this would not recall those perfect bites of octopus salad. I never did find the equal of that dish at Dillon’s new and improved Sitka. Yet improved the restaurant unquestionably feels, with its evocative setting and considerate service and sincere new emphasis on accommodating the diner.
As I walked out considering the conundrum, I passed the young chef, deep in thought. He had just asked one of his staffers to change the record (yes record—he has a thing for vinyl) and was staring so intensely at a peach I wondered what it could be telling him. Matt Dillon is a gifted chef, a communitarian visionary, and now an admirably striving restaurateur. But mostly he’s an artist. If his brazen, why-the-hell-not experiments didn’t knock my socks off this time . . . it probably means he’s just one visit closer to doing it another.
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