Two important things I look for in restaurants are in opposition to one another. On one hand, I want to be challenged, I want to be surprised, I want to eat the new, creative, and unexpected. On the other hand, I want to be wrapped in the warm blanket of nostalgia and familiarity—this second impulse is the reason we see set dishes with recognizable names repeating from restaurant to restaurant. There is comfort in the recognition of the familiar, and seeing chicken cordon bleu or a Salisbury steak on a menu means there are at least a few common starting points for the moderately educated diner. A restaurant that responds only to the first desire (the desire for the new) runs the risk of abstracting the experience too far; a restaurant that responds only to the latter (the desire for recognition) runs the risk of being predictable and boring.
Blue Onion Bistro, advertising itself as "Seattle's best comfort food," satisfies both desires, in beautiful balance. Their menu looks predictable enough—burgers, sandwiches, and fish 'n' chips for lunch; tuna casserole, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, fried poppers, and cheese fries for dinner. But the Blue Onion's inspired innovations on these American basics are delightful—for example, a creamy herbed Gorgonzola is the cheese of choice for the nancy boys cheese fries ($9), allowing the diner the comfort of the familiar model of cheese fry without having to suffer through the bland discomfort of Cheez Whiz.
The Bistro is nestled (even hidden) in a strip of mechanic shops and auto-parts stores on Roosevelt Way Northeast, housed in a reappropriated 1940s or '50s gas station. The plastic picnic tables and motley jumble of toys, tchotchkes, silly signs, and gizmos around the dining room lend it a functional and personal touch—this is not a re-creation of anything in the way that Friday's or Bennigan's is; there was obviously no interior designer involved in these choices. The owner wanders the room casually greeting guests. There's a very relaxed quality to the place, but that's the confidence that comes from having nothing to hide (the kitchen door opens straight onto the outdoor garden dining patio).
A plate of deep-fried poppers ($12 for a mixed plate of one smoked salmon popper and one mushroom popper) starts the meal off on one recent dinner visit, and this haute trash offering sets the tone for the rest of the meal—an immediately recognizable, even ubiquitous freezer-section appetizer reimagined by the chef as a dazzlingly upscale dish. The poppers' delicate centers are protected by a hard fried skin (and really, it's less a "popper" in the conventional sense and more of a fried egg roll), sliced and arranged beautifully in swirls of drizzled oils and coulees. The plating would have been at home in the most nouvelle of restaurants. But the overall sense of "popper" isn't ever lost; there's still the greasy deep-fried crunch of the shell and the warm moistness of the center to pay off the need for nostalgia, for recognition, for comfort. How rare is it that you come across a copy that's so much more interesting than the original?
The most iconic comfort-food dish on the menu has to be the tuna casserole ($14). Here the chef resists the temptation to go too haute crazy—one could imagine the dish with seared sashimi-grade tuna, handmade noodles, and exotic French cheeses. But it's simply fresh and light, if relatively straightforward; designed and prepared by someone who understands and cares about tuna casseroles.
The fish and garlic-vinegar chips ($10, from the lunch menu) is light, fresh, and crispy, arriving in a small plastic basket with a wax-paper lining, while the dinner version of the same, the fried halibut with mixed vegetables and sliced potatoes ($24), is juicy, perfectly cooked, and plated with, again, nouvelle attention to color and visual balance.
Blue Onion changed ownership within the last two years, when it was sold by its founding owners, prompting worries on several foodie blogs that its magic would be lost with the changing of the guard. But the restaurant still feels completely natural, confident, and personality driven; and only an owner who truly understands and embraces the core meaning of a restaurant can accomplish that. In two meals of intentional overeating, my guests and I didn't find a single dish to complain about. It feels like a homey neighborhood restaurant. I wish it were in my neighborhood.