Why Do Seattle's Hottest Chefs Want to Be the Boss of You?
A re you ready to submit?
They want you to give up control, to surrender to their will, in order (they hope) to please you in exponentially greater ways. They get vicarious pleasure (they hope) through what they impose on you: dictating what you're going to put in your mouth, who you're going to do it with, and/or how much you're going to pay for the privilege. In return for your submission (of your will, of the contents of your wallet), they promise things your average vanilla restaurant won't do.
Dinner at the Corson Building is officially known as "Evening at the Corson Building," which is a promise and a warning: You give Matthew Dillon your night, and he has his way with you. There's one seating per evening, no host stand, no menu, no tables for two; for your $90 a person (plus $30 for selected-for-you wine pairings), you sit cheek by jowl with whoever else happens to be there, eating course after course of Dillon and Emily Crawford's choosing. (Wednesdays and Sundays bring fewer courses and reduced prices.) Some of the obvious payoffs: weather permitting, sparkling wine and appetizers in the beautiful garden of the tiny estate, which is marooned in industrial Georgetown; the instant-European-vacation aspect of the elegant but anti-fussy interior of the 1910 Corson Building; the charming ministrations of handsome co-owner Wylie Bush; the food of a nationally renowned chef. The fetishization of the local and the seasonal that Dillon was inured to in his training at the Herbfarm is absolutely in force here, to diners' vast advantage—providing they're sufficiently adventurous eaters to enjoy what the local seasons have to offer. Dillon doesn't pull punches when it comes to meat, either, serving tongue, headcheese, whatever he likes.
One thing you don't get at the Corson is a stare-into-each-other's-eyes date, and unless you bring a crowd, there's no guarantee that the person next to you will be safely into what you're into. One couple who resolutely ignored the rest of their communal table incurred wrath from a commenter on Chowhound.com: "Stay home or... book a quiet table for two somewhere where your milquetoast personalities won't interfere with the dining enjoyment of others." (One of the accused milquetoasts responded that this electronic dressing-down had "totally ruined the experience and my birthday.") A reviewer in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently described being "sandwiched between" one party getting exercised about politics and another speaking Hebrew ("awkward," she wrote; "How about an icebreaker... introducing yourself and naming your favorite season and your favorite seasoning?"). The same reviewer upbraided Dillon for not providing enough food, as some platters were emptied before making it around the table. And everyone agrees: The seats at the Corson are unusually close together—you're practically in your neighbor's lap—and the benches are rock hard.
Dillon knows he's making people uncomfortable, and he likes it. "It's my social experiment," he says. It is indeed about who's in charge—he's the lord of the manor, and you're his guests, at his feast. "It was a strategic move by me to take control away and to take comfortability away. When people have too much of those two things, their assumptions and preconceived notions come too much into play." He feels entirely justified: "I'm the one who put all the money up, and I'm the one back there working." In the interests of depriving diners of what they're used to, throwing them off balance, he has "stripped it down—the restaurant became very naked. They either run, which is fine, or their senses are heightened." If you want control for your $120, take it elsewhere.
Dillon mentions Zen Buddhist philosophy, saying that the style of service is meant to create awareness of fellow diners, to underscore that the world doesn't revolve around you. "Everybody's different, that's the beauty of it—all these experiences put in one room is one big energy level." The diners are invited to visit the kitchen, too; Dillon sees it as an equalizer. "For us and the customer, we're all in the same boat here, we're all in this together." It's to diners' advantage, he maintains, that they're all getting the same thing, because it gives the kitchen more focus. "We're all working on one thing, which is dinner, not one plate at a time." He hopes that people would join in when it comes to dining-table political discussions, and he says everyone's told to police themselves, to have some self-control—platters have to go all the way around the table. Part of giving up responsibility brings new responsibilities with it, rules that look a lot like those of life in general: Don't be a drag and don't be a hog. The Corson is a luxury experience that seeks to re- define luxury, that refuses to go soft on you.
For the Corson, so far, so good. Online diners' reviews tend toward glowing—e.g., from www.thestranger.com: "Can't stop thinking about it... Matt Dillon's kitchen quietly pockets the Herbfarm torch. Honest and open to everyone, both humble and generous." And the romantic-daters and other-people-haters seem to be self-selecting out. But are there enough deep-pocketed selectors-in to fill the tables at premium prices? Will Dillon's substantial reputation make—and keep—the Corson enough of a destination, like the long-established Herbfarm, to weather the long economic winter that's coming?
Justin Neidermeyer's experiment in family-style communal dining on Capitol Hill, Spinasse, is less expensive than the Corson, less sweeping in scope, and has already been adjusted to better suit your desires. Much has been made of Spinasse's rustic charms: the white lace curtains, the candles picturesquely dripping wax on the long shared tables, both Neidermeyer's pasta-cutting tools and his kitchen on display as portraits in craft. The simple, wonderful Piedmontese cuisine has been the subject of the kind of labyrinthine analysis and elaborate praise that would make actual people in Piedmont laugh uproariously while they poured another glass of wine. (One reviewer compared a bowl of Neidermeyer's pasta to Edith Piaf, later bringing in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and authenticity versus simulacra.) What is uppermost in all minds right now is value: Is a $20 bowl of pasta, eaten in close quarters with unknown-quantity humans, worth it?
Spinasse served exclusively family-style set menus when it opened, requiring each party to reach consensus on what dishes to order: two courses for $32 per person, four for $47, or everything for $75. But people walked in wanting to have—expecting to be able to have—pasta and a glass of wine. The pushback was strong enough that Neidermeyer immediately and seriously reconsidered the value of his concept versus the value of giving people what they want. After only four days, he gave up: Spinasse began also offering everything on the menu à la carte. He had envisioned a quiet little place with customers obediently enjoying his European vision of service, but, he says, "The reality is we had to adjust really quickly. We don't live in a place where that's normal, and I don't want to be the cowboy that tries to make it normal.... It's how the culture eats.... In a perfect world, I'd love for all of us to be able to do these ideas and have it work. But in America, people are used to getting whatever they fucking want all the time."
But Neidermeyer is not giving up on communal seating, nor is he doing it because it's in vogue; with him, it's not a pretension. "I just like big giant tables," he says. "I think it's cool, and it's the best way to maximize the space, and it fits the style well. I'm not trying to push politics on people." When you can see and smell what other people are eating, he says, "You get more dinner out of it." He reckons that approximately 50 percent of customers agree. Spinasse is crowded and loud for a pricier place—Neidermeyer says he hears a fair number of complaints along the lines of "I'm from Madrona, and I pay a lot of money to eat here, and I can't have a conversation with my husband." But again, it's 50-50. "Half the people are like, 'You should do something about the noise,' and the other half love it." He's with the other half: "It's healthy, it's packed and smelly and loud, like a real trattoria." (Seats at the bar, with the prime view of the pasta counter and kitchen, fill up at 5:00 p.m., even on Sunday.)
Half is apparently enough. Spinasse is crazy-busy, and its praises are sung online with very few exceptions. Even those for whom it's a splurge happily sit next to strangers to eat Neidermeyer's food. The noise and turnover make the big tables feel natural—you're not lodged next to the same people all night, and the bustle can create bubbles of privacy. No one's focused on their neighbors.
It's true that all of this is nothing new in culinary culture. Prix fixe or tasting menus are as old as eating out itself, and no novelty locally: The Herbfarm, with its single seating nightly, has been doing it (and charging an arm and a leg for it) forever. After more than a decade as the only world-famous chef in these parts, Jerry Traunfeld left the Herbfarm's rarified Eastside confines to open his own restaurant, Poppy, at the north end of Broadway. (During Matthew Dillon's formative years cooking at the Herbfarm, Traunfeld was his mentor. And Dillon and Neidermeyer run with the same avant-garde young-chef crowd, making parties out of slaughterings, sharing purveyors, and pushing one another in new directions, including questioning the most basic assumptions about the restaurant as an institution.)
Traunfeld did not go the controversial communal-table route at Poppy, but long before the first dinner was served, speculation commenced about the viability of its menu concept: dinner served on a thali, a tray with many small-sized dishes meant for one person. In the Indian tradition, a thali is an all-you-can-eat affair, a sort of mini–Indian buffet with free refills; at Poppy, it's $30-plus per person, and you get what Traunfeld wants to give you, in amounts as he sees fit.
On food message boards prior to Poppy's opening, gourmands and restaurant insiders wondered many, many things—like how much of the contents of a thali would be premade each day and how much cooked to order, how the kitchen would deal with the challenge of not only putting the thalis out but making them pretty. Other concerns came from the gut: "What if there are really only one or two things on the Poppy menu that I like? At best I'm going to have to plod through eight or nine other things to get a couple bites of them." A couple months in, the master Traunfeld says it's about trust, flipping this equation around: "It's this idea that you're trusting that we're cooking what's best that day. And there are 10 things on there, so if you don't like one, you're still going to have a lot of things to enjoy."
Traunfeld says the thalis are, in fact, more labor-intensive than a conventional menu, as is making significant changes to the offerings every week (a goal of his, for customers who might come in that often). "We're trying to provide a great value, and I think it is," he says. "The amount of work we're doing in the kitchen...." His voice trails off. "And we're still using the ingredients we were using at the Herbfarm," meaning local and organic. (The most local of it all comes from the garden he created in back, quite a change from the rear exit of the former tenant, the gay bar the Elite.) "Some people expect Indian food, and that's not what I'm doing. It's Northwest food, with a little more spices."
Poppy's prototypically urban-contemporary space—exposed brick walls, simple furnishings, close-set tables, poppy-orange dots as whimsical woodwork and menu accents—is full every night, Traunfeld says. He's getting "lots of great feedback in the dining room" and seeing repeat customers there. "If I never read any of the online stuff..." he says, chagrined; diners' reviews online are decidedly mixed. "Obviously, some people want a menu with full choices—we're trying to accommodate them," he says. The two meat items on the thalis can be swapped out for vegetarian options, and there's also a list of bar snacks and a few more plates. But it's not the concept that the negative reviewers seem to have a problem with—it's that they're not loving very much of what they're getting on their thalis. An early review in the P-I recounted two positive experiences and one "completely underwhelming one," citing underseasoning and problems with cooking, and suggesting Traunfeld reapply himself to his tasting spoon—a serious call-out, especially for a chef of his stature.
The buzz around Poppy is prodigious, but for some customers, the concept isn't deconstructing expectations as much confounding them. Would the kitchen fare better executing a regular-style menu—one that would also give diners a better chance of selecting dishes they'll like? Traunfeld discounts naysayers: "It seems to be working for us." Poppy is still in its honeymoon phase, however—everyone wants to see what Traunfeld is up to. Is he concerned about a risk-taking concept—one that a significant proportion of online reviewers so far have failed to fall in love with—staying popular in a faltering consumer climate? He says, "Every restaurant owner has a concern about the economy now, so again, you just have to see how business is doing. And it's doing fine right now." But Traunfeld recently asked Neidermeyer how his switch to à la carte is working for him.
My father, a notably liberal man in almost every regard, reacted nearly violently when I told him about the restaurants in this piece: "NO," he said, then amended that with a curse. He's not alone. Many people are loath to relinquish control of their eating experience. You know them (and you may even be one): They hate shared plates, large or small; they do not think it's interesting or forward-thinking to eat with strangers; and when it's suppertime, they want it on their terms as much as possible. If it comes with a bill, there's no room for negotiation.
Then there are those who like being dominated at the table, who actively want it, who can't get enough. A woman I know (a very opinionated woman, a champion of critical thinking, of argument, of choice in all areas of life) loves it. She's happy to be released from decision-making at dinner, and the attendant helplessness—the idea that someone is going to anticipate and provide for her needs without her even having to select a seat or look at a menu—is a balm, an ecstasy. Elemental@Gasworks—where owner/waitperson/sommelier Phred Westfall has made domineering an art form—is her all-time favorite restaurant. "I want to be told what to do," she said. She's not yet been to the Corson or Spinasse or Poppy, but she's thrilled at the idea of more places that carry out her fantasy.
Most people, as usual, occupy the middle ground—they might like something other than eating out vanilla-style, but it's going to have to be really, really good (and not too scary) to lure them away from their familiar position. If you're going to take control away from people and require them to pay for the privilege, you've got to make them like it—you've got to shock them with how intensely good it can be. Even then, some will only want to try it once, especially when their dining dollars are fewer and farther between. Between the rock of people's natural resistance to change and the hard place the economy is going, Poppy and the Corson may well be doing some Spinasse-style reevaluation in the not too distant future.