Seattle's food scene is about to become a little less interesting. Travis Kukull, chef and co-owner of South Lake Union's Mollusk, is leaving the restaurant.
"The neighborhood has proved difficult for my style of cuisine," Kukull told the Seattle Times' Bethany Jean Clement. His last day will be Tuesday, June 21. He'll cook in Alaska for the summer, then (hopefully) return to Seattle this fall.
Since opening Mollusk in late October 2015, Kukull's weird and wonderful menu has introduced diners to unfamiliar ingredients and flavor combinations. It's also challenged them. Back in November, I enthusiastically devoured Kukull's version of "fish & chips," made, not with deep-fried cod and potatoes, but a massive, oily, cartilage-rich grilled hamachi collar, and thin chips made from lotus roots and sunchokes.
During the same meal, I looked around the large dining room to see several tables of customers who were thoroughly confused by his "Nachos Picasso," made with delicata squash chips, smoked avocado creme fraiche, padron peppers, and bleu cheese. It was clearly not the platter of nachos they were expecting.
I've always thought Kukull's food was strong enough to win people over—and I believe that Seattle food lovers remain hungry for truly creative food. But you can't win customers over if you don't have many which, according to Kukull, was also part of the problem. "While he had loyal regulars, residents of the surrounding brand-new buildings just weren’t coming in," wrote Clement.
I ate at Mollusk just three days ago (during their happy hour, brilliantly called "Gavage Hour"). As I wolfed down a sloppy, excellent "Seattle Dog"—housemade curry-spiced lamb sausage with smoked paprika cream cheese, pickled fresno chilis, sauerkraut, curry ketchup, and sweet Kewpie mayonnaise—I overheard the bartender telling some customers that she was hopeful that the recent opening of the building across the street ("The Juxt," where a 496-square-foot studio will run you $1815 a month) would lead to more business.
I've always intended to review Mollusk, but as a general rule, I wait between three to six months before reviewing new places. Restaurants function on smooth systems and teamwork. Having worked to open new restaurants, I've seen how it can take months for the front-of-house and back-of-house to find their rhythms—and how customer feedback during those first few months influences things as well. (When I sat down to interview the owners of Queen Anne Beerhall, a full six months after they opened and just a couple of days after my last meal there, they showed me a completely revamped menu they had just adjusted based on customer input.)
Restaurants make many crucial adjustments during the first year, and Mollusk is no exception. In January it eliminated lunch service and cut staff. ("Lunch was killing us," Kukull's business partner and Epic Ales brewmaster Cody Morris told Eater Seattle. "The neighborhood just wasn't dense enough to support a lunch program.") Mollusk opened as a tipless restaurant with a 20 percent service charge, but went back to a traditional model in April, also citing lack of foot traffic in the neighborhood.
With all these changes, it never felt like quite the right time to review Mollusk. And, considering that it received attention from the Seattle Times and Seattle Met, I figured I'd wait a little longer so I could add something new to the conversation. People are always interested in the latest restaurants, but restaurants also need media attention months—and years—after they open. Sadly, now it's too late.
To be totally honest, I've never fully gotten over the closure of Gastropod, Kukull and Morris's tiny Sodo restaurant and brewery, which they closed in order to focus on the much larger and ambitious Mollusk. While you gain a lot in scaling up from what was essentially a cubicle with a few butane burners and a convection oven to a full kitchen with eight burners, a grill, and a deep fryer, you lose a little charm and scrappiness along the way. And now, according to Kukull, the menu at Mollusk will become "more conventional and more approachable."
While I can't help but be sad about all of this, if a more traditional menu helps keep Mollusk afloat and allows Morris to continue brewing his inventive, oddball beers—the current tap list includes a delicious, dry green tea lager called Biru Sencha, a sweet-and-sour rye farmhouse ale called Grit, and a potent stout brewed with oyster shells called Briny Deep—I'll take it. We need to support Seattle's culinary creativity however we can.