Lunch at Elliott Bay Cafe one day in late January was a disaster. When you try to order the chili verde and the counterperson says, "I don't think we have it... there was an accident," things have clearly gone awry. When he then backs away slowly, takes a look into the kitchen, and returns to confirm the unavailability, you can't help but picture the chili verde—which sounded so good ("chunks of pork simmered with tomatillos, green chilies, and cilantro, served with corn tortillas," for $8.50)—in the form of a great chili-verde lake on the kitchen floor.
After that, two out of three things ordered came out wrong: macaroni and cheese without requested-and-extra-charged-for chorizo, and a meat loaf sandwich gone missing, replaced by (coincidence?) a chorizo burger. The third dish was tepid, and it was the thing that should be least tepid in the universe: a bowl of regular red-bean chili. Friends who joined late had their order lost entirely; another man was overheard back at the counter (many trips were made) complaining that his food had failed to materialize, while his companion was close to finished eating. The kitchen and the counter looked amply staffed (overheard in a semidesperate tone: "LET'S GET IT TOGETHER, GUYS!"), and the place was less than half full. The food, when it all got sorted out, was fair to middling. Considering that Tamara Murphy—chef/owner of longtime Belltown favorite Brasa, founder of gourmet barbecue festival extraordinaire Burning Beast, and general local culinary heroine—had remodeled, reorganized, remenued, and reopened the place two months before, fair-to-middling was a big disappointment.
When I finally had the chili verde, almost two months after "there was an accident," the idea of that big pot of sheer goodness cascading to the floor took on an extra dimension of sorrow. The chili verde has garlic and cumin and green-chili heat that's not shy, but not overpowering; the tender, flavorful meat is from pigs that Murphy herself helps raise (as chronicled in her 2006 Life of a Pig blog—now seen as the beginning of a movement, still reviled by animal- rights activists). It's a limey, warming posole, its hominy with some hulls still attached, a strange but pleasant textural addition. There's the little luxury of a dollop of chipotle sour cream. It's served in a heavy, thick-sided rustic bowl, like the mortar got away from the pestle, and the tortillas are warmed, rolled, and sprinkled with paprika on their own white rectangle plate with an extra wedge of lime.
Murphy was not there the day of the accident (nor, as it happens, on either of my two entirely successful and accident-free visits since, though she spends time at the cafe pretty much every day), but on the phone she was entirely philosophical about it. Restaurants, she said, like you or me, have bad days: "It gets really hectic, and even when it's not busy, it's like dominoes—one thing happens, then another... There are always days that, for some reason, there just isn't a flow." (She later found out from her kitchen manager, Zephyr Paquette—who used to cook at Ballard's dear departed Dandelion—that on that day, the entire steam table collapsed: the accident. Murphy said, laughing, that Paquette said, "Oh my god, she was here THAT DAY?!")
Murphy doesn't sound like she's making excuses when she talks about getting the place up and running. The monthlong renovation included a painstaking removal of a dark blue permeating the concrete floor; it's now butter colored, as are the walls. With new blond-wood banquettes, it's like night turned to warm, sunny day in the subterranean space, and the old brick and vaulted ceilings look better than ever. (The bathrooms, formerly gross, are spick-and-span, with a new mint-chocolate-chip color scheme.) Then in adding the people component—staff and customers—"There were a lot of problems and a lot of kinks." She readily admits she made her menu too big, too fast; she says finding the kitchen's pace took a long time. "You have to be on it and be consistent, keep at it," she says.
The crew is still the same as when the cafe reopened, just a thousand times more comfortable, chatting at the counter and making wine recommendations. (Another hurdle: the loss in January, for more than a month, of the long-standing beer and wine license due to some fresh Byzantineness on the part of the liquor board. Never fear, drinks are back.) They now take your last initial if you're named, say, Dave, and they call your name over the speaker system, calm and godlike, instead of screaming it from the counter.
The food is now likewise assured, presented simply but beautifully, and very good to eat. Last time I went, I had an irresistibly messed-up-looking chocolate-chip cookie ($1.25) as an hors d'oeuvre; it was Frankenstein-squared-off, caramelized at the edges, distinctly made by an actual human (they'd just hired a baker, come to find), of the crispy instead of chewy kind, and excellent. If there's any pork on the specials menu, you'll want to get it: A sparerib-sloppy-joe special ($9.25 with chips or salad) was an exceptionally fine, tangy, pulled-pork-type specimen, with superfresh cabbage/carrot/cilantro/lime slaw. "The Italian" sandwich ($9.25): also great, overstuffed with a variety of Zoe's meats, muffuletta-like with oil and pepperoncinis. The macaroni ($7.50 with green salad) could use more cheese—it's more cream-saucy, under a bank of butter-glistening bread crumbs. Black-eyed-pea soup ($3.50/$5.20) only needed a little salt and pepper.
Also impressive: a crisp-crusted pizzetta ($9.25) with coppa, splinters of asparagus, Manchego, and (yes!) a poached egg; a chimichurri steak salad ($9.75) with grapefruit, avocado, Cotija cheese, and a wealth of skinny fried tortilla strips; a messy, superlative St. Jude's albacore tuna sandwich ($8.50) with julienned celery root and a couple white anchovies. Breakfast dishes are served all day, and the Greek eggs, baked in a little cast-iron skillet, looked so good, I wanted to commandeer someone else's order at the counter.
Over the last half a dozen years, the food under the creaking wood floors of the city's dearest bookstore was widely known to have gone far downhill and stayed there. Tamara Murphy is just what Elliott Bay Cafe (and Pioneer Square, and your stomach and wallet) needed.