Madrona in the Spring
Style, Wit, and Miraculous Cuisine at Crémant
Can a person be in love with a door? Spring has surely made me weak of mind and susceptible to swooning, but it makes perfect sense to me—I am crazy about the front door at Crémant. One shouldn't be so enamored of an inanimate object, but this door, truly, merits reflection and adoration. In the tradition of a French bistro, the restaurant's information is painted in stately, elaborate fonts on the door's glass; the aperture itself, however, is but a corner of a giant caricature of a door, complete with a strictly decorative, oversized doorknob off to the side of the actual door itself. Designed by architect Roy McMakin, who's also responsible for the gallery space Western Bridge (and the big, weird, lovely front door there), it is absurd and postmodern and beautiful. It's also the portal to Seattle's best new restaurant. What's not to love?
Inside, stage-set Gallic décor—Taittinger posters, dark wood, zinc-topped bar—is thankfully absent; the tall, deep room has abstract French country wallpaper, but also postmodern pressed concrete and dormered angles and bare light bulbs high up like funny little epiphanies. Even the front windows make little in-jokes among themselves, with a preposterously long, narrow one squinting over panes in shades of green.
The maitre d', formerly found behind the bar at downtown's Le Pichet, sweeps back and forth reassuringly; he is relieved if you have a reservation, chagrined if not, but only because it will be difficult if not impossible to seat you. Crémant's only been open for three weeks, but everybody's crazy about it—Madrona neighbors as well as admirers drawn from all over town. Service, perhaps administered by a benevolently solemn, owl-like bespectacled gentleman, unfolds at a pace that enforces enjoyment; failing to begin with a glass of the restaurant's namesake sparkling wine seems idiotic. Local food luminaries dine, the ladies at the next table converse desultorily in French, a fellow in the tiny bar area wears an aquamarine sequined dress shirt with unbelievable panache, a waiter holds two entrees aloft with a small smile while the recipients finish kissing across their table. It's loud. The frisson is unmistakable—style to burn where you might least expect it.
Then again, if you know chef/owner Scott Emerick's background (Campagne, Le Pichet, Lark), your expectations, stylistic and otherwise, ought to be ratcheted right up. The rock-solid classic French cooking will not disappoint; in fact, it's wildly pleasing. A very traditional endive, Roquefort, and walnut salad ($10) is arrogantly crisp, with mustardy dressing that back-talks the spring-green leaves insolently, while a starter of tuna, eggplant, peppers, and olives ($9) to spread on grilled bread is merely exactly as it should be—cool, simple, good. Moules Crémant ($14)—mussels made with Crémant, garlic, oversized bacon bits, still-crisp celery cross sections, breadcrumbs, a little parsley—is meant to be a main dish but makes a splendid shared appetizer, except that once you've sopped up all the salty gold broth with the accompanying fries (and bread, and your fingers) you may not be able to go on.
You will want to be able to go on. Among a sampling of the main dishes, an outrageously excellent bouillabaisse ($20) edged out the rest; every piece of seafood was miraculously flawlessly cooked (scallops tender as sea marshmallows!), and its saffron broth was surpassingly delicious. A leg of duck confit ($14) served with two smashed-down jacket potatoes seemed austere by comparison, but the monochromatic golden brown belied the rich pleasure to be found in the dark meat and crackling skin and barest scent of clove. Salade niçoise ($19) took some winning liberties: light on the red potatoes and super-crisp, super-skinny green beans, heavy on big seared planks of ahi. No anemic tomatoes were included, thank god, but a couple silvery, tart boquerone-style anchovies were, and the hard-boiled egg's yolk was still oozy and bright. Steak frites ($14, with the same not-too-thick, nicely browned fries as the mussels) was just as it should be, perhaps having been set briefly ablaze to get the perfect blackened sear to the meat.
Desserts occupy their proper place; just a few classics and cheeses for those who are still able to contemplate another bite after the rustic-style portions. The best choice might be a fluted glass of fragrant cognac au chocolat ($4), a viscous, potent little reason to linger. You will want to linger.