Even if you have money falling out of your pockets, it's more and more difficult to spend it on fine dining in Seattle. Lampreia became Bisato, which is still lovely and absolutely delicious, but less ceremonious and less expensive. Mistral moved, and it now has "Kitchen" appended to it and is divided into sections, some of which permit the dropping of a proper stack of cash while others accommodate the hoi polloi (with a relatively downmarket menu). Campagne turned into, lamentably, just another French bistro. Now, furthering this first-world problem, Le Gourmand is closing forever on June 2.
Bruce Naftaly came to Seattle in 1976 to be an opera singer and ended up the head chef of Rosellini's Other Place. At that time, he says, the city's fanciest cuisine came out of cans; it was standard practice to have the restaurant supply company truck pull up and "disgorge stuff, then put it together and call it continental." He had to hunt down good ingredients ("You couldn't even get a leek in the grocery store," he says), befriending local farmers and developing nearby sources for wild game and organically grown beef. When he opened Le Gourmand on a nowhere Ballard corner in 1985, he grew vegetables in the back; in August, the Corn Festival involved him stepping outside to harvest ears to order. He and his wife, Sara, lived in the little attached apartment that's since become Sambar.
Twenty-seven years later, when you give your date a bite of your food at Le Gourmand, they're liable to get a look on their face as if something almost terrifying is happening, then laugh incredulously. That was the case the other night with my roasted local wild steelhead with sorrel and black trumpet mushroom sauce—the palest peach-colored fish imbued with the faintest smokiness of the oven, the sauce rich with crème fraîche and a little tart from it, too, or from the sorrel, or maybe from the champagne reduction. Naftaly put together two separate French techniques for the sauce, just something he thought up—the depth of knowledge and insight that Michelin gives stars to, in cities it bothers to visit. The boeuf a la ficelle—organic tenderloin poached in stock, almost butter-textured and as delicate as meat can be—made seared beef seem commonplace and coarse. It came with a quivering cylinder of bone marrow, housemade mustard good enough to eat all alone, and a sauce of cabernet pressings that was deep and sweet and savory and sour all at once. When you put this food in your mouth, everything makes sense, even the $40-plus entrée prices.
The sommelier at Le Gourmand, David Butler, regales the curious with thrilling (really) details about soil in France, tells sly little jokes, whispers descriptions like poetry—his expertise might fairly be described as hypnotizing. For added entertainment, you can watch him assess other tables, watch him see how his overtures go, watch him leave the boring people to each boring other. When Le Gourmand closes, he intends to open a wine bar, which will be approximately the best wine bar ever.
Distasteful people on a distasteful review site complain that dinner at Le Gourmand takes too long. Love takes time, and Bruce Naftaly is in the back, in a kitchen like a submarine's, making your dinner with love. Sara is doing the same with the stellar desserts. Between courses, there's wine to drink and anticipation to build and your cushioned chair to sink back into. The room is elegant, intimate, unstuffy—every bit as lovely as the sweet brick exterior of the building makes you hope it will be. There are also three arguably ugly puppets on one wall—there, possibly, to demonstrate the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi: the one wrong thing that makes the rest even more right. The menu says to allow three hours for the seven-course tasting menu, and you might as well. You only live once, and you'll never be able to go to Le Gourmand again.
Veraci Pizza is kitty-corner from Le Gourmand, and the latter gets its staff dinner from the former pretty much every Saturday. “They’re very nice,” says Le Gourmand’s chef/co-owner Bruce Naftaly. “I think they only deliver to one place, and that’s us.” You can actually get Veraci to come to you, too—they started out as a traveling operation, making their excellent Neapolitan-style pies in portable apple-wood-fired kilns, and they’ll still cater your party. But for single pies, you must find them at a farmers market or go to their Ballard pizzeria. They hand-mix their secret dough recipe, use local ingredients, and blister the pizzas for 90 seconds at around 1,000 degrees. Naftaly likes the pies with lots of meat on them; he gets pretty hungry on Saturday afternoons. (500 NW Market St, 525-1813)