When Eric Donnelly opened RockCreek last summer, he had most recently created the menu and been the chef at Toulouse Petit—a Lower Queen Anne cousin of party-place Peso's that didn't spring to mind as a great Seattle restaurant. RockCreek's almost-all-seafood menu looked long, maybe too long, as in possibly not doing anything particularly well, and the preparations looked complicated, as in not trusting a great piece of fish to be its great self. The fact that RockCreek was offering "globally sourced" seafood was sort of courageous (carbon footprint be damned!), but also off-putting (carbon footprint be damned?). But after I wrote about where to find Seattle's best seafood a couple weeks ago—taking a holistic approach, from fish 'n' chips to sushi to oysters, including 20 different places—someone said, "What about RockCreek?" So I drove right over to Fremont to eat there. (The second time, as a feeble offset, I rode my bike.)
The first thing I ate at RockCreek was hamachi from Hawaii ($13)—a row of generous, palest pink slices, served quiveringly raw and cool and silky, with a sweet-and-tart Walla Walla vinaigrette, topped with crunchy miniature pickles and all resting on a deep green, minty-peppery shiso leaf. It tasted a little like rice vinegar, a little like sesame, but mostly just like great fish being its great self, in a perfect way for a warm evening.
This mini-paradise was interrupted by the nearly simultaneous arrival of the Carolina white prawns, served "St. Helena" style with brown butter, lemon, and rosemary ($15). The service at RockCreek, while unfailingly pleasant, did have a few minor timing issues; here we had to pull ourselves away from the hamachi to rescue the prawns from their hot broth, in a failed attempt to keep them from being chewy and overcooked. The broth missed its Southern spicing by a mile—it was strongly sour—and the Anson Mills grits were heavy, lumpy, and unappealing. (And fresh sharing plates and cutlery were never provided—at these prices, you might fairly expect not to have your different foods touching.)
But the next thing was one of the best fish dishes I've had the pleasure to engulf: yelloweye rockfish from the Olympic Peninsula's lovely Neah Bay, heaped with English peas, pea shoots, lemon-braised artichokes, and wild mushrooms. The bright-green peas popped in the mouth; the fish was firm-fleshed, golden-seared, and well-peppered; both the pea shoots and the small pieces of lemony-tangy artichokes were tender. The mushrooms, while a little lost in the mix, added a bit of forest to the sea and farm. This is food that makes you happy to be alive, right here, right now, full of color and springtime—and it's the least we can do for a fish that gives its life for us. (Those poor prawns!)
Then we had striped bass from Rhode Island ($27), with its rough silvery-striped skin still on, its flesh soft and creamy-tasting. It rested on a cushion of brown-butter-caramelized onion jam that was richly half-sweet, and there were pistachios for a nutty crunch, and pickled green garlic and sherry gastrique for tang. Italian parsley, for once, seemed necessary instead of an afterthought, lending freshness and a little peppery spice. It all sounded like too much, but it was just right.
If it is between 4 and 6 p.m. right now, and you are in Seattle, you should go to happy hour at RockCreek immediately and hope like hell they have a seat in the bar for you. Last weekend, the drink special was an extremely refreshing gin rickey for $8 (considering the lime shortage and its abundant limeyness, an extra-good deal). And happy hour also has $5 wines by the glass and a $25 bottle of crisp, very drinkable bubbly, Fleuraison Blanc de Blancs, which the jovial barman will place in a silver ice bucket, which stays happily by you with its chilling cargo inside.
A half-dozen happy-hour food selections range from $5—e.g., a pretty chioggia beet salad with arugula, ricotta, and hazelnuts, smartly tweaked with pickled onion—to $9, which gets you a sizable cornmeal-battered oyster sandwich with Nueske's bacon and sriracha aioli on a really good, challah-like roll. The hamachi crudo happened to be on the happy-hour menu, too, for only $7—who could resist? The slices were less precise, more ragged, and there was a stringiness to one piece, but still it was a happy thing.
From the regular menu on this trip, venturing into too-much-food territory, we had the chili-barbecued Alaskan octopus ($13)—just-right-spicy disks of bouncy octopus in a Mediterranean salad of olives, capers, and white beans (some of which were on the hard side)—and more hamachi in the form of a big, rare steak served in a lemon-garlic broth with escarole, plus the candy-spice of a mostarda made with chopped-up medjool dates ($19). Both verged on greatness.
One thing people say about RockCreek besides, correctly, that you should go there—it's no secret now, as Donnelly was one of 20 semifinalists for James Beard 2014 Best Chef Northwest—is that it's loud. And it's true, the sound bounces around the unfinished-chic warehouse space. An older couple next to us one night had to shout to hear each other, and unfortunately were talking about bathroom appliances and medical matters. But the room's huge airspace is also its charm—with its big garage door rolled up to the deck and the wall-sized photo-mural of a wooded river with rocks, it feels fresh and airy, like the right kind of place to find a great piece of fish.