Sunday, November 8, 2009

Under the radar

I'd first heard of Art of the Table from my friend Rei on Monday afternoon. After poking around the restaurant's website, I was pretty excited about the small venue with a reputation for seasonal cooking and decided to brave the hills and rain that night to make the trek out to Wallingford to check the place out for myself. I mean, what are the chances that I should come across *another* deeply passionate local food devotee? (It is Seattle, considered one of the best cities for delicious, sustainably-produced food in the country, but even so there are very few eateries committed to exclusively local, seasonal sources.)

After some navigational mishaps -- a few wrong turns and a route that took me up what must be the most gigantic hill in the city (I don't know why I have any faith at all in the "bike" setting on the GPS, considering its track record, but I keep hoping) -- Ollie and I made it there. Not only that, but I had the good fortune to snag one of two seats at the kitchen window and treated myself to a glass of wine and a small plate (okay, two: I couldn't decide between the crepe and the flan, and even now I doubt I could choose between them) while I watched the two chefs at work. They moved about the small space effortlessly, gracefully, almost silently, as if they were two hands rather than two people, and as I nibbled I couldn't quite bring myself to interrupt the flow with a jarring, "So tell me, where did you find these amazing huckleberries?" or "Now, how exactly do you design the weekly menus?" I left with a happy tummy but a lot of unasked questions. Well, that wouldn't do.

The next day, I called to see if Dustin, the head chef, might be amenable to chatting with me a bit about his food philosophy and his connections with local producers. I got the voicemail and blathered on for entirely too long, and yet a day or two later he called back and nonchalantly invited me to drop by during Saturday's dinner prep. So I did.

I spent the better part of the afternoon entranced as Art of the Table's dynamic trio prepared for the evening meal. I'm not sure they knew quite what to make of me, perched on a stool by the sink, half the time simply transfixed by the smooth precision of the two men moving about the kitchen while Laurie got the dining space in order. When I wasn't rendered speechless watching Phil pat each individual squash ravioli into shape or Dustin meticulously remove tiny bones from a salmon fillet or check the marinating veal cheeks for the evening's supper club, I managed to learn a bit about the tenets behind the food. Dustin's training in the French culinary arts may explain his expertise combining flavors and textures -- and the food is truly exceptional -- but what I admire most about the quietly intense culinary artist is his fanatical adherence to using only local, sustainable ingredients. The evening meals he and Phil painstakingly prepare are all made from scratch and sourced within the state. (Except for beef, he admitted, which sometimes comes from as far away as... Oregon. Oregon! Whose border is a day's bike ride away!) He spends hours each week scouring the farmers' markets, even on his days off, and has built strong relationships with local producers of everything from salmon to bacon to chocolate. Dustin's the real deal, a locavore in the strictest sense (although my guess is he'd probably never use such a trendy term to describe himself).

His outlook on the culture surrounding food is imbued with European sensibilities, and it's something, he proposed, that has been largely lost in our modern American lives. Food appreciation is experiencing a revival a few evenings a week here, though. I learned from Laurie, who manages the restaurant's logistical details, that folks making reservations for one of the supper club dinners rarely know ahead of time what will be on the menu. They simply know the theme -- this week it was "Italy" -- and trust that the chef will delight them with local, seasonal inventions. And he does. (While I didn't stay for the dinner -- unfortunately it was not quite within the current ABF budget -- I did take a look at the final menu and will likely be dreaming about it for some time.)

Like Anne Catherine, the local food aficionado whom I'd spoken with earlier in the week, Dustin hadn't moved to Seattle with a plan to open a restaurant. After years of cooking on ships and working as a private chef, he'd been looking to do some catering. He came across the restaurant space and got to thinking and, well, the rest, as they say, is history. "I could do this for the next 20 years," Dustin told me, matter-of-factly. "Here, I focus on the food," he asserted, unabashed. "I don't advertise. People find me through word of mouth. They know what I'm about and they come here because of it. They appreciate it. I'd like to keep it that way. I'd rather be under the radar." A renegade foodie. I like it.

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