Nettletown is where Sitka & Spruce used to be, in a tiny space between a Subway and a teriyaki place in an Eastlake mini-mall. (S&S is now in bigger, fancier digs at the Melrose Marketon Capitol Hill.) This particular Subway doesn't seem to extrude the "baking bread" smell as aggressively as most—they must not have it turned all the way up—which is good, because you don't want the scent of rotting Play-Doh in your nose when you walk into Nettletown and have one of Christina Choi's sandwiches.
To begin at the only logical point: elk meatball sandwich. It costs $8.50. This is $3.50 more than a Subway $5 Footlong, and it's approximately one billion times better. Is there such a thing as elk veal? These meatballs are so tender, it is not possible that they are made out of a giant antlery beast that charged around the forest getting all stringy and lean. Turns out the elk is farmed, not wild, from Rosse Posse Acres in Oregon (Choi denies the use of baby elk). The meatballs are thoughtfully flattened out, French-crépinette-style; they are subtly seasoned, barely gamey, completely delicious.
The elk meatball sandwich is on crusty baguette from Le Fournil (which is, conveniently, the closest bakery geographically and also excellent). Like all Nettletown's sandwiches, it also has a tangle of very fresh herbs, like dill, flat-leaf parsley, and cilantro, and a further tangle of skinny pickled vegetables, like julienned carrot and sea beans. (Technically sea beans are not beans at all; they're succulents, gathered along the shore. Choi started the gathered-food purveyor Foraged and Found with Jeremy Faber almost 10 years ago, so Nettletown has these, as well as all kinds of mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, nettles, and so forth, in season.) The effect is of a super-high-quality, more-filling, generally spectacular banh mi.
It's hard to tear yourself away from the elk meatballs, but the oil-poached albacore tuna ($9) is worth it. It's got "green sauce"—more herbs, all smashed up in more oil. The tuna flakes into buttery-soft pieces, foil to the baguette's and veggies' crunch; it tastes oceanic, not fishy, and pure, not tinny. As you eat it, green-tinged oil drips onto the plate; while it's already manifestly oily enough, try to resist pushing the sandwich through the herby oil-pool. Other choices: scallion fried tofu ($6), Rain Shadow Meats bratwurst ($7), organic roast beef ($9), and more. A special one day: Berkshire pork short rib with peanut butter ($9), a combination that brought to mind the chopped peanuts sprinkled over an Asian meat dish rather than an Elvis-style bacon/peanut-butter freak-bomb. It was slightly dry, though, and made me wish for the star anise jus that came with another sandwich special—the Saigon dip, made with Kobe beef tongue ($11). This braised tongue was so melty-soft, it seemed impossible that it used to be the strongest muscle in a giant beast's body, even one that was massaged daily and fed beer.
Besides having superlative sandwiches, Nettletown is adorable. It's order-at-the-counter, with shelves full of artfully arranged stuff: cookbooks, a vintage RyKrisp tin, a pretty sake bottle, tiny toys. The walls are a soothing dusty blue, and one has a stylized flora-fantasia mural with a changing message in white stick-on letters below it: "your smile is contagious," "i like you." Choi's mom is Swiss and her dad's Chinese (she grew up here in Seattle), and Nettletown's atmosphere reflects a little of both: the jigsawed wood shelves, the wool Swiss Army blankets covering the banquette cushions. The clean lines, the affirmative messages, the pure food, and Choi herself—smiling, her hair offhandedly pinned up, calm—give the place the feeling of the cafe at an unpretentious spa, maybe in Marin County, possibly run by some unusually well-organized and very tidy hippies with remarkably good taste. Early reports said that service could be slow, but on three recent visits, everything moved right along, with the only problem being the noisiness when people were lined up for to-go orders during the lunch rush.
Nettletown's open midday every day except Monday, and for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays with just a few specials available in addition to the regular menu. As the days darken, Nettletown will become a place for not just sandwich greatness but also soup salvation. The miso-based ones, like a red lentil with carrots ($3/$5), are rich and curative-tasting, just what the doctor ordered for a rainy day. (Also prescribed: a glass of wine from the very short but very inexpensive list.) Salads are simple and fresh; side orders are simple but interesting, like almost-eye-watering pickled beets and onions to clear your palate and your sinuses ($3), or a wedge of Seastack cheese with caraway crostini ($6), or a small bowl of rice with salty toasted seeds and sesame oil ($3). The two noodle dishes were both simple to a fault: One's a Swiss spaetzle called knoepfli ($7), admirably airy little squiggles pan-fried with cabbage and leeks, the other is egg noodles with wild mushrooms and scallions ($9), each with add-ons like a poached egg or pork. Add on all you want, and you're still going to be ladling chili oil and soy sauce on top; there's not enough garlic or seasoning in either. The leftover egg noodles were very good pan-fried and heavily doctored at home the next day. (Speaking of heavy doctoring, Nettletown also has a bottle of condiment-curiosity Würze, from the German seasoning empire Maggi. BEWARE OF THE Würze. It's brown and salty and protein-y and addictive, and that's because it's full of MSG. If you start putting it on your sandwich, you need to stop.)
Aside from the noodle dishes—which, please note, were fine, just bland—I have but one issue with Nettletown, and that is the desserts. A cornmeal cake was so, so dry and dense and unsweet; the elderberries on top were sour, and full of tiny gritty seeds, and looked like wet peppercorns. This was sand-cake with grit-berries. A huckleberry cardamom bread pudding: unsweet, too, like wet bread with some purple spots. A chocolate- covered chow-mein-noodle configuration looked as unappetizing as only a chocolate-covered pile can, and it tasted like dry (and stale?) twigs covered in unsweet chocolate. (Some ginger was deployed here, and also in the bread pudding's yogurt whipped cream; ginger did not help.) I'm not a proponent of super-sweet desserts, but these tasted like the work of the bad kind of hippies, the carob contingent. Le Fournil makes perfectly wonderful sweet things, and they're already delivering the bread... you could always stop by there afterward, if you're not too full of Nettletown's goodness, which you probably will be.