Renee Erickson's brand-new the Whale Wins reminds me of a Chinese restaurant. Not just any Chinese restaurant—not even a real Chinese restaurant. It reminds me of the full-scale fake Chinese restaurant that Seattle artists SuttonBeresCuller installed inside a gallery in the International District in 2006.
Called Three Dragon Restaurant, that "restaurant" was at first mystifying. Why would anyone do such a thing? It seemed to have an innate sense of humor; it was charming, it was absurd, it had ducks hanging in the window. There were dozens of real Chinese restaurants within blocks of this stage-set one. Was it just experiential, ironic eye-candy for the art set? What did it mean to install a Chinese restaurant inside a former warehouse, now an art gallery, in a neighborhood formerly known as Chinatown? The piece silently brought up cultural appropriation, commerce, gentrification, simulacra. Art doesn't feed your stomach; what does it feed?
The Whale Wins feels like an art installation, and it also mystifies. It's a French-country-chic bistro—white paneled walls, marble tabletops, a picturesque wood-burning oven—that's been dropped into the middle of a former warehouse. It has walls, but they don't reach the soaring warehouse ceiling; in places, you can see right into another restaurant, Joule, or catch glimpses of an upscale snowboards-and-outdoors retailer that also shares the enormous space. It's in the middle of nowhere on Stone Way—or it used to be the middle of nowhere; it's all called the Fremont Collective, and it is "quickly changing [the] Fremont/Wallingford Stone Way corridor with a unique mix of businesses and top Seattle operators." When you sit in the Whale Wins and look up at the distant rafters or into the neighboring "operators," you feel like you're on a stage set. When you sit across the street at the creaky, great old tavern the Pacific Inn, you feel like the Fremont Collective must be a mirage. (Much more real: the ample portion of some guy's behind that's exposed on a nearby barstool, the back of his pants descending in the classic plumber's style.)
But if it's a stage set, it's a very pretty one, airlifted from a European dream. It's got a sense of humor, too—hanging light fixtures spell out "HELLO," a godlike greeting acknowledging that there's no real ceiling. A row of Jeffry Mitchell's lovely, lumpy sculptures sits along one high shelf; he's a longtime friend of Erickson, and he has waited tables at her restaurant Boat Street Cafe to keep his art afloat.
The food has all the goodness that everyone who adores Erickson's restaurants has come to expect (she also runs the Walrus and the Carpenter). Pretty much everything is local and organic, and pretty much all of it goes into the wood-fired oven; as your striped-apron-wearing server will tell you, this means dishes come out at their own pace, so you'll probably want to share everything. To get started quickly, order some of the roasted vegetable dishes that the menu kindly notes are served at room temperature—like sweet, blackened-edged carrots with fennel and an actually eye-watering amount of harissa, plus swaths of yogurt to cool it down ($10). More North African flavor can be found in the caviar d'aubergine ($9), a sort of lemony, baba ghanoush–ish eggplant puree with blasted cauliflower and pine nuts. (You'll want some bread; it's from Columbia City Bakery and costs $4, but there's an off-menu smaller portion for $1.)
You can also order Erickson's beloved house-made pickles ($8) or other "pantry" items, an herby salad ($10) or hummus on toasts ($8), but let's get to the trout ($16). It's served whole, thoughtfully deboned, and it is as delicious a fish as you could hope to find. It's got crisped skin and tart rounds of roasted lemon on top, and it rests on a bed of what's called walnut sauce: walnut puree, lemon juice, and garlic, with, the server said, bread pureed into it as a binder. She also said it has a bit of cream, but its tang is more like crème fraîche or yogurt, with traces of (possibly imaginary) Moroccan spice. The Whale completely wins when it comes to this fish.
Also winning: Alaskan spot prawns ($16). They're served in their shells, the menu politely informs you (and the server brings damp napkins for the mess)—you get a good-sized heap, and the night I had them, they all had roe attached to their bellies for an added little treat. A dish of clams ($12/$18), though, was a draw; they'd gotten dry during their stay in the wood-fired oven, and the cream sauce was thin. Braised pork shoulder ($14/$20) with apples and a stone-ground mustard sauce was a peasant's wintertime dream, rich with melting pork fat, salted liberally. And if you like bone marrow, you should go to the Whale Wins immediately: You get three big bones' worth ($12), standing on end and sizzling hot, with slices of hearty brown toast to smear it on—plus a gorgeous little salad of flat-leaf parsley and pickled chanterelles (rapture!) to cut through the fat.
Erickson says that the food at the Whale Wins is prepared simply, that the space is lively and cottage-like. The food next door at Joule is more complex and more interesting, and the Whale Wins is not so simple.