As someone who had never traveled west of Kansas City, there were many culinary terrains that I had yet to forage and forge. So, even though I don’t care for airplane travel, I was excited when a conference brought me to Seattle this past March. With just three days in this largest city in Washington State, I didn’t have much time to explore, but I was struck by the similarities between Seattle and Portland, ME. Indeed, while Seattle is much larger, I couldn’t overlook the common ground between these cross-coastal landmarks; both are emergent culinary destinations with stellar shellfish and seafood. Walking through both cities, one is struck by the intrusion of nature into the urban landscape, evidenced by the many trees that live and breathe amidst the cityscape. Finally, and more annoyingly, both Seattle and Portland feature a dearth of nice restaurants that actually offer a lunch service. Fortunately, I learned that Sitka and Spruce, a restaurant that has attracted some attention from high-profile bloggers, offers a midday service and reservations were secured.
Sitka and Spruce offers a midday meal seven days per week. During the work week, this is lunch, which shifts to brunch on Saturday and Sunday. I mention this distinction because I don’t think brunch and lunch should be conflated; a lunch service typically connotes a fast-paced, often more corporate ambience, while brunch situates more firmly in the realm of leisure. Apropos of this simplistic categorization, I read Sitka and Spruce as more of a brunchy setting than lunch; the setting slows time, and it would seem in poor taste to conduct business transactions in the space. Lunching at Sitka and Spruce means exiting one’s daily affairs—this is welcome to someone such as me, intending to combine professional obligations with pleasure at an academic conference, but this wasn’t the power lunch vibe one finds at major lunch spots I’ve been to in Chicago or Boston.
If Sitka and Spruce resists the lunchtime vibe one finds in most urban settings, the space does feel very Seattle, which is neither a compliment, nor a deprecatory remark. There’s a second-hand vibe to the space, and the interior layout and furniture both look as though they enjoyed an earlier life in some other capacity. Clutter exists throughout, though it is strategically-placed clutter—the wine bottles strewn throughout the cabinet (below) are a case in point. Many were empty and, quite literally, refuse, although they confer a pauperish elegance.
Perhaps the defining aspect of the mise-en-scene is the incorporation of nature, a quality that is most appropriate for a Seattle eatery; this manifested through the many flowers situated throughout the space (note, in one of the photos above, that the chef was working just a couple of feet from a vase of flowers) and most prominently through the intrusion of sun, which infiltrated each corner of the environment. Sun, of course, is liable to intrude upon any restaurant, but I believe Sitka and Spruce courts it more willingly; my conclusion results from the fact that the windows are the aesthetic centerpiece of the restaurant, and if the sun hadn’t been so blinding (I also consider it tacky to wear sunglasses inside), I would have sat at one of the window-side stools. Because sunlight constitutes such an expressive motif here, the restaurant must carry an entirely different vibe at dinnertime, after the sun goes down. For those averse to sun, the dinner service might be preferable, but I feel as if going at lunch netted me the optimal Sitka and Spruce experience.
The setting might be photogenic, but comfort isn’t a priority. The stools had backs but little in the way of back support, and the chairs offered no cushion either. One might struggle through a 2-hour meal at Sitka and Spruce, and at this price point, it is surprising to find a restaurant turn a blind eye to diner comfort. The unforgiving chairs do function in the same spirit as the generally sparse décor, so they have that going for them.
Regardless of whether one dines at lunch or dinner, the menu structure is basically the same. The ratio of small plates to larger ones skews heavily in the direction of the former, and I suspect that many patrons share a series of smaller plates (at least, that’s what the pair of ladies seated in front of me were doing.) When he introduced the menu, my server expressed enthusiasm for the smoked salmon and an egg-potato-pine nut dish, so I ordered them both. One could also order a bread service ($5 extra), but this didn’t interest me, especially considering that I ordered two substantial plates.
Below we have the salmon, which was hot-smoked in-house and served with fennel fronds, baby lettuces, fiddlehead ferns, and a dill aioli at the base. I have photographed this plate from overhead in an attempt to do justice to the interplay of color and shape at work in this composition. At first glance, there appears to be too much green, but then one sees the shifts in color value between the fiddleheads and lettuces, for example, and the green nicely foiled the pink salmon. There were too many fennel fronds, but everything was otherwise quite balanced. Elaborate, but without going over-the-top. I like salmon with dill, and remember the two ingredients paired to great effect at Tru, circa April 2012. In this dish, the salmon was even better prepared, though, and I’ve never had salmon cooked to such a perfect texture. The Pacific Northwest is obviously known for its salmon, but the chef didn’t just rely on an outstanding product—that a semi-casual restaurant could cook salmon to such a precise temperature is remarkable, and this was possibly my favorite dish of the year.
Plate #2 featured pan-fried potatoes with pine nuts, pickled red onions, a fried egg, and some sort of yellow sauce whose name I can’t recall (it wasn’t Hollandaise or cream-based.) Where many egg-potato dishes might incorporate chorizo, here the pickled onions perform a similar role; this made everything lighter and with a bit of tang. This was, to my mind, definitely more of a brunch item than lunch; it was vegetarian and the onions kept things from getting too heavy, but the backbone of this dish rested in the breakfasty potato and egg combination. I would never have ordered this without my server’s vote of support and still don’t understand his enthusiasm, although some of this morosity may just be because it was impossible to measure up to the salmon that preceded it. In any event, the 3-dimensionality of this plate doesn’t reward the overhead gaze and so I went with an up-close profile shot.
Sitka and Spruce doesn’t seem to embrace pastries, particularly at lunchtime. There was only one item on offer (at dinner I believe there are three): chicory profiteroles with chocolate sauce and chocolate chips—something I’d never select out of a proper roster of desserts. My server endorsed the profiteroles, and the only alternative was to order a cheese plate. I took his suggestion and what I received was mostly pleasing. Of course my server was going to trumpet the lone dessert, but in this case, his recommendation was not unfounded. First of all, I was just pleased to find no powdered sugar—many chefs treat chocolate sauce and powdered sugar like bread and butter, which distracts from the flavor depth of high-quality chocolate. The only limitation was the omission of any of the promised chicory flavor, but there was enough going on here that its absence wasn’t an issue.
This meal was defined by the salmon, which remains one of the enduring memories of my short stay in Seattle. The personality of Sitka and Spruce I find less endearing, mainly because of its precious character and general disregard for comfort. Having said that, I am glad that I was able to soak up the sun at lunchtime, even if I’m not sure the dining room is a space I’d want to inhabit during nighttime. This meal was actually pretty expensive—everything costs about $5 more than one would expect—although at the same time, each dish probably costs more to make than one would infer for a restaurant that presents itself so casually. Rather than lamenting that the setting isn’t as refined as the cuisine, though, we might reward Sitka and Spruce for being one of many restaurants across the country that are demonstrating that a ‘precise casual restaurant’ need not be an oxymoron.