Cafe Nordo Is Not Dinner Theater
But What Is It, Exactly?
Sometimes, Chef Nordo Lefesczki wants you to enjoy your food. Sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he and his Seattle collaborators, Terry Podgorski and Erin Brindley (writer and director, respectively; both of the late, great Circus Contraption), want you to understand what they're talking about; sometimes they don't. When he forces you to drink your soup like a college-bar shot, tasting next to nothing in the instant it takes to pass from lips to gullet, he's forcing you to eat too fast. He's daring you to enjoy it. When he presents what appears to be two lobes of glistening liver on a plate splattered violently with blood, he is daring you to eat them (Theo Chocolate panna cotta with berry puree, as it turns out) while thinking of anything other than gory viscera.
But when the salad arrives, you sense a chef who somehow intuitively understands what you want and is lovingly, slowly creating it just for you. This course's name is "In a coop of pine and wire our bird lies in a soft, ochre nest. Beside her, a speckled brown shell leans into a ray of early morning sunlight. Henrietta stretches for the first time." It's a perfectly poached egg in a crisp, savory Parmesan nest, served on a bed of greens with a goat-cheese béchamel. The béchamel is presented inside an empty eggshell, its top opened like a soft-boiled egg.
This is all part of Cafe Nordo's The Modern American Chicken, a six-week residency by Lefesczki, who the evening's producers insist is a traveling underground-restaurant culinary genius, with an attitude to match.
Before inquiring after a vegetarian option, please consider two things: Our chicken is a vegetable, if she is what she eats, and Chef Nordo carries a large knife. Dietary restrictions? Certainly you have a shrink who will care. Nordo Lefesczki is a man of vision, not compromise.
Slog, The Stranger's blog, pointed out last week that the previous reviews found at www .cafenordo.com all come from newspapers that mysteriously lack websites (including the oxymoronic Salt Lake Intelligencer) and that biographical information on the chef is oddly impossible to locate. "NORDO," it happens, is aviation slang for "flying without a radio."
Does Lefesczki exist? Either way, he and/or his emissaries are examining the life and death of a chicken by way of an $85 per person prix fixe evening. A temporary dining room has been installed in the warehouse of Fremont's Theo Chocolate (the same site that housed Circus Contraption), and its Oriental carpets and backlit scrims make a setting that's warm, elegant, and close to magical. Maître d' Dominic (Maximillian Davis) escorts you through your meal, and he overflows with a flamboyantly frivolous charm, quoting Victorian satirist Samuel Butler ("A hen is an egg's way of making another egg") and drunkenly expounding on the virtues of red wine. Sous chef Cochin (Opal Peachey) makes dramatic appearances, with varying results. When she candles, cracks, and separates eggs, her explanation of the symbolism (the yolk, the mountains; the white, the sea; the veins, the rivers) while beating the whites doesn't entirely connect with either the audience or the food.
We are warned by our server, Silkie Bantam (the charming Becky Poole; all of the servers are named for chickens and periodically peck and prance around), not to eat anything until expressly directed by her. There are specific instructions that will be obeyed. There is communal seating (with wine to erode any awkwardness—four glasses per person, including a decent sparkling Limoux and a rather nice barbera). There are musical numbers. There is a hand-washing ritual. There is tableside banter as servers play out their interpersonal politics in front of us. This may all seem like familiar dinner-theater ground, but coproducer Brindley maintains that Cafe Nordo is "a restaurant until proven otherwise."
It's an intriguing place to start, either as theater or a restaurant. But Cafe Nordo, while playing with all the right ideas, never quite follows those ideas through. The chef's fabled strictness is often referenced but barely demonstrated. The "carnal food movement" to which Nordo subscribes is, again, referenced but never developed. The atmospheric banter provided by the servers and staff doesn't emulsify; it feels more like a reference to ZinZanni-style tableside trickery than an attempt to actually do anything.
The various courses' success in living up to their lyrical titles, in evoking the various stages of Henrietta's life, is uneven. The shot of soup is a lovely amuse-bouche, a puree of fresh herbs and chicken broth, topped with crème fraîche. Even drunk too quickly—so that you completely miss a tiny "yolk" of lemon curd—it resonated with its verbiage ("In a field of bright green grass scattered with dandelions") and lit up the mouth. But the main course, a roasted chicken (raised organically and "with dignity" on a small Olympia farm) stuffed with peppers, onions, and sausage, was serviceable but uninteresting, ultimately outshone by the brightness of the habanero-spiced cherries scattered on the plate.
I'm fine with Cafe Nordo wanting to be a restaurant. I'm fine with The Modern American Chicken not wanting to be dinner theater. I'm more than fine with skewering haute cuisine's ridiculous chefs while, at the same time, embracing its delicious possibilities. It's just that this evening doesn't fully accomplish any of these things.
This article has been updated: Cafe Nordo runs for six weeks, not three as originally stated.