Seattle restaurant critics tend to speak about any project of husband and wife Vuong and Tricia Loc in a somewhat reverential tone. Perhaps it's because Vuong, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is dedicated to French technique. Classic preparations have become increasingly rare in a city whose tastes have shifted toward chefs who combine disparate influences in casual settings (see: Asian-influenced everything served in hip, acoustically challenged environs).
Portage, the Locs' beloved Queen Anne restaurant, which was open from 2006 to 2013, was hailed as a paragon of French cuisine and technique. And June, the Locs' short-lived (and much-grieved) Vietnamese-oriented restaurant in Madrona, which opened in 2010 and lasted just 19 months, is still spoken about wistfully.
So it's not surprising that Pomerol, the Locs' latest venture, which opened last July in Fremont, quickly accumulated reviews. Having never been to Portage or June, I was eager to finally taste Loc's food (and specifically, food cooked on the restaurant's wood-fired grill).
Named after a small wine-producing commune in Bordeaux, Pomerol is somewhat oddly located on the outer edge of Fremont, where bro bars trickle off and give way to industrial shops and facilities. But the space, a former rug shop, is lovely and inviting, with cold concrete floors balanced by cozy details such as a low ceiling of exposed beams and honey-colored wood tables. Most notable is Pomerol's tiny open kitchen, the focus of which is the grill. Slabs of marbled short rib dangle enticingly above it, absorbing the flavor of smoke. Also dangling high above: a duck leg, aging, no doubt, for some noble future purpose.
The menu is filled with classic, indulgent, and rich ingredients: foie gras, marrow bones, béarnaise sauce, lardons, short rib, pork belly, and goose-fat-roasted potatoes. The food is ambitious, in both the prep work required and the number of elements in each dish. But Pomerol's food lives and dies by its many details—sometimes triumphantly, sometimes tragically, often within the span of one meal.
A starter of raw hamachi ($13)—sturdy and lush, precisely sliced—was balanced nicely by a bright slaw of shaved fennel, lemon juice, and ruby-red grapefruit (although the menu said blood orange). Drops of chili oil amplified every bite. A coddled duck egg ($13), white and quivering, was set atop a rich pool of dark demi-glace along with black trumpet mushrooms, sweet delicata squash, grilled toast, and two small bits of foie gras. It was almost unbearably rich, but it was expertly tempered by the gaminess of the foie gras and the char on the bread. The kitchen was generous with the demi-glace but strangely stingy with the toast; two tiny slices were woefully insufficient for sopping up so much sauce.
Although pushed heavy-handedly by our server as one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, a small plate of chili-rubbed octopus with aioli and mint ($15) was disappointing. The octopus was deeply savory, rather than just spicy, and had been braised before it hit the grill. Unfortunately, it was braised past the point of tenderness to mushiness. Instead of retaining its characteristic chew, the meat was mealy and stringy. The golden, garlicky aioli was fantastic, though, and left me yearning for something else to eat it with.
Entrées suffered from the same scattered focus. The "slow grilled" short rib ($26, also pushed aggressively by our server), cooked bone-in then laid in slices atop the bone, certainly benefitted from its time hovering above the grill; it was imbued with a smokiness that played well off the accompanying sweet confit shallots, sharp whole seed mustard, and buttery cauliflower purée. But the plate was thrown off by the presence of a wholly unnecessary thick cauliflower steak, marked on the grill but still raw and crunchy inside.
The pork flank steak ($22) didn't fare much better. While the meat itself had great flavor—the thin cut absorbing the best of what the grill had to offer—it lacked the crispness that comes from a good hot sear, leaving the texture one-dimensional. It was served with a breaded, deep-fried nugget of pork belly, but what could have been a playful addition was marred by overcooking: The pork belly, rather than being unctuous, was dry and crunchy. (I never even knew that was possible.) The "bitter greens" mentioned on the menu turned out to be the world's most unappetizing-looking pile of vegetables: wilted pale-green frisée, a tangle of black trumpet mushrooms, and large, awkward chunks of steamed carrots and brussels sprouts.
When the kitchen gives every component of a dish the same amount of careful attention, the results are wonderful. Grilled steelhead trout ($27), dusted with fenugreek (a spice whose flavor is vaguely maple-syrupy, but without any of the sweetness), was cooked to a soft, perfect medium rare. Underneath it was farro, stewed into unexpected richness, and a mild, sweet carrot purée. It was all topped off with another deftly used fennel-citrus slaw—this one made with Meyer lemon—that gave the whole dish brightness. (But, given Pomerol's problematic relationship with details, I feel the need to mention that the menu promised celery-root purée.)
While it's easy to imagine that Loc's food can be great, Pomerol was a letdown. Both times I ate at the restaurant, Loc was not in the kitchen. During my first visit, a month ago, he was chatting with a few patrons in the bar, but wasn't expediting or checking dishes as they went out. Last week, he wasn't in the restaurant at all. It's a shame; what Pomerol needs most is a chef's exacting eye.