ONE: "Gastropod" means "stomach-foot." To name your restaurant Gastropod is great in at least three ways: It recognizes that we are all just stomachs with feet attached, walking around looking for the next thing to eat; it makes fun of the terrible term "gastro-pub"; and it gives an embrace to the underclass of the snails, slugs, and limpets. The logo of the new Sodo restaurant Gastropod is a cute (but not too cute) drawing of a snail.
TWO: By way of beginning to address the best thing about Gastropod—its really great food—let me tell you about the watermelon gazpacho I had there recently. It was a hot evening, and I had transported my stomach to Gastropod by way of bicycle, and watermelon gazpacho served with roasted corn salsa ($6) sounded good. It tasted like magic—cooling and savory-sweet, mimicking its tomato-based cousin but besting it by far. The yellow kernels and sweet-sharp-oniony taste of the corn salsa brought out the gorgeous color and flavor of the watermelon. "How did you make this savory?" we asked chef Travis Kukull. He said, simply, "Sea salt." Alchemy!
THREE: Travis Kukull's resting expression is one of furrowed brow. When he asks you how your food is—which he usually does for every single dish—it is a serious question. He has worked at Brooklyn's Stone Park Cafe, Tilikum Place Cafe, and Elemental. He'll joke around a little bit, after a while, if he has a moment, but he is a man of gravitas. It is enormously reassuring.
FOUR: Gastropod is tiny. The place is two small rooms. The kitchen has three butane-powered burners, one induction one, and a convection oven. Sit at the counter, and Kukull will just hand your dishes across to you as he finishes them. Sometimes, like the namesake snail, the service slows, but you can see why—as he makes another phenomenal morel-and-chanterelle flatbread ($9) like the one you just ate for the couple sitting across the way, or briefly tells his colleague how to put together the panzanella salad to go with the fresh, lusciously fatty Neah Bay marble king salmon ($15), which also comes with a creamy-rich fava bean puree, also fresh and luscious, but in a different way. And like the namesake snail, the restaurant feels like a special little creature, focused on its food, carrying its tiny house on its back. The staff keeps track of orders by writing them on Post-it notes.
FIVE: The decor of Gastropod is nearly nonexistent: a print of an owl cocking its head, a print from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a brass porthole, a shelf of cookbooks. There is a TV, which is not necessarily turned on. The cash register is a miniature treasure chest stuffed with a wad of money. It feels like a clubhouse—the kids' kind. Someone cared enough to turn the wainscoting sideways and use rough-hewn trees as trim around the door. Be sure to wander the building, for you will find a trove of amazing neon signs.
SIX: Gastropod's menu is also small—the better for you to eat almost everything. A typical day's offerings include one or two $3 plates, a handful of $6 ones, one for $9, one for $12, and a couple topping out at $15. The menu might change almost entirely from one week to the next, which is great, except that the duck-fat-roasted potatoes for $3 that Kukull was carefully stacking up last time might not be there this time, and you'll be full of rue that you missed them. If you see something like rabbit-liver mousse profiteroles served with lemony French sorrel and sweet maple syrup ($6), you'd better get it. Gastropod's okonomiyaki ($12) seems to be a constant, but you'll want to get that every time you go, too: It's a fluffier, thicker version of the eggy, savory Japanese pancake, with fresher cabbage and (one day, at least) topped with a thick layer of spicy poke made with beautiful ruby-red cubes of Washington albacore.
SEVEN: Gastropod is the least brewpubby brewpub ever. It doesn't have the bro-down feeling or the tedious food of a brewpub; it does have well-priced, weird, often great beer, mainly from its partner Epic Ales, but also from a handful of other Pacific Northwest breweries. Epic's Partytime tastes like lemons and fun; the Tart Miso, made with actual miso, tastes like champagne and grapefruit. Kukull will help you choose what to drink with what you order, and six-ounce beers are only $2, so you can switch each time. Epic's Of The Earth—made with three kinds of mushrooms, including morels—was so good with the morel-and-chanterelle flatbread, I'm not even going to finish this sentence.
EIGHT: Gastropod is full of geeks. Maybe it's the innate geekery of people who love beer, or the geekiness of Epic Ale's founder, Cody Morris, or some sort of geographical geek vortex, but the people here really geek out. Two minutes after I noticed lots of glasses and a guy wearing a tie that had a circuit-board pattern, two people started discoursing on Star Trek. Moments later, two other people were dorking out about turntables and associated audio equipment. One of the servers quickly got in-depth with a patron about Irish music in general, and Irish harp music in particular. The clientele seems to keep its beer geekery fairly under control, but the food nerds are another story. If you ask Kukull what, exactly, sambal is, vis-à-vis the (awesome) sambal green beans ($3), you may discover there is an undercover expert on Indonesian cooking seated next to you. He might complain several times that his sambal green beans are not spicy enough, but, actually, they are perfect.