Walking into 94 Stewart is like finding out your blind date is really, really cute—and has an accent. I was thoroughly prepared for disappointment. I hadn't heard anything about the place in the four months since it opened, which is never a good sign. The location in the Pike Place Market (in, frighteningly, the former home of the Garlic Tree) spelled potential tourist trap. The info I finally uncovered—that it's a family affair, and that said family, the Nortons, had previously run a restaurant in Longview—meant it wouldn't be generic or corporate-feeling. But would it be good? I felt weirdly anxious about the whole endeavor.
The space, wedged in the side of the hill, is low ceilinged, dim, and hideawayish. The décor is common enough Euro-bistro style—black-and-white checked floors, tile trim, mismatched prints and mirrors—but it's done with genuine charm and even romance. Tables are well spaced and lit by their own lamps; it's easy to be in your own little world, even if your neighbors are, in fact, tourists from New Jersey. Dahlias in little glass pitchers, Riedel stemware, and candles strike the right note; crayons to draw on the butcher paper covering the white tablecloth don't, but are easy to push aside. In general, you feel like maybe you've been coming here for years and just have temporary amnesia.
When a restaurant is in the Market, the food ought to reflect the benefits of its location. 94 Stewart's New American menu does, changing almost every day. Produce is from Frank's, fish from Pure Foods, and so forth. Our slightly goofy server (who brought us more crayons, calling them "the most important part") said that all the appetizers were great in a way that actually inspired trust, so we ordered both the oddest and the most familiar.
The former, panko-crusted fried avocado ($14), had big wedges of the fruit—crisply coated, lush, warm-fleshed—in a margarita glass with a pile of delicate crabmeat, slices of tomato, chive oil, and corn so fresh that some of the kernels were still stuck together like little rows of teeth. The setup was a little hard to deal with—we extracted various things from the glass and assembled bites on our plates—but it was weird and plentiful and delightful. The latter was a fancied-up take on pea salad ($8), with teeny, super-fresh peas, basil aioli instead of mayo, shallots, and proscuitto rather than bacon. It's how you'd remember this from a picnic long ago, better than it possibly could've been, idealized; that said, it could have used a little more proscuitto (as could life in general).
As a local, I've eaten enough salmon for one lifetime, but my friend wanted the Alaskan king ($24), and we were informed that the chef would sear it quickly prior to poaching it with champagne, a fine-sounding plan. It turned out to be perhaps the most perfectly cooked salmon I've ever seen or tasted. Each layer flaked apart without the slightest dryness, and the flavor and texture were light and delicate. Marionberries gave it something to do, and elephantine, firm-fleshed, lovely fingerling potatoes accompanied.
My pork ($20) kicked the salmon's ass, however. Two giant-sized, inch-high medallions of loin, pan-roasted (again with eerie perfection), rested in a densely flavored Madagascar vanilla and bourbon potion (described as a glaze but a bit runny for that); creamy mashed potatoes and peppery, blackened summer squash each played on the sauce amazingly.
Dessert—maybe eight different huge slices of cake, all made on premises ($6)—was displayed pornographically for us. (The reaction of someone at the table behind me had been an audible "OH CHRIST!") Though entirely full, I chose one with Madagascar vanilla and bourbon (and toffee, Marcona almonds, and god knows what all) because it reminded me of my entrée; my friend opted for the Drunken Irishman (a chess-pie type concoction with hazelnuts, Irish whiskey, and Irish cream). This is serious, dense, why-not-I'm-on-vacation stuff, and the one thing at 94 Stewart that I wasn't infatuated with. But who cares about dessert when the rest of the date's gone so well?