It feels like each day we grow closer to losing the meaning of cities. That feeling, equal parts nature and nurture, that draws us together to live in tight conurbations and build culture. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls this the "agglomeration economy," the idea that we become more productive when "cast into the maelstrom of activity." In practice, it feels like some deeper thing inside us that says, you know what? Give me a city, take me there, make me part of someplace bigger.
You've been here, so you know that the past couple of years has wounded that citified urge. We live in an era where everyone's performance of everything is online, and Amazon can deliver every item to your home with a single click and a card on file. Each day the desire to fuck off from city life and settle down in, I don't know, a great forest or plain somewhere seems to grow more and more sensible, to say nothing of the hated suburbs, or worse, Spokane.
This cultural rethink, to be fair, is nothing new, but it's attained a new urgency during the pandemic. I had time to think about this—again and again—across the better part of two years spent trying to write about Off Alley, a microscopic, wildly ambitious restaurant located in Columbia City. In the era of investment group restaurants and parasitic delivery apps, this little place—where an ever-evolving seasonal menu allows a tiny team to focus on intimate and idiosyncratic food—feels almost anachronistic, a type of 20th-century retro.
"We got the keys on Christmas Day 2019", recalls Evan Leichtling, who owns and operates the restaurant alongside Meghna Prakash. He's the chef; she runs front of house. Leichtling has cooked at an impressive array of bistrot near and far, from Spanish Michelin star cuisine temples to Parisian spots with severe names like Bones and Dune to the now-closed Capitol Hill restaurant Lark (the first place I ever ate pigeon). Prakash is a former corporate lawyer turned hospitality savant.
The two met in Paris, got married, and together they run Off Alley, all six hundred feet of it including the dish pit, alongside a few close collaborators. The restaurant has twelve seats along a single bar framed by bricks and wood. There is no PR firm of record promoting the restaurant, says Prakash. "Everything you see on Instagram is just me whipping out the phone and saying, 'Right, hold still!'"
Lilliputian, diminutive, petite, minute—I can throw the whole thesaurus at you and it still won't capture just how different this space is, in terms of scale, compared to other restaurants in Seattle. Off Alley's footprint was a liability during the worst of the pandemic, forcing Prakash and Leichtling into a series of pivots. Those included half-capacity set menu dinners, beer and wine retail sales, and a recurring rabbit sandwich takeaway special that Prakash says still haunts her dreams.
"There was a lot of mental gymnastics," she tells me, "but the biggest advantage we had was Evan's depth of experience having worked in so many different kinds of kitchens. It made it possible for us to brainstorm and adapt."
"I built this restaurant to survive the apocalypse," jokes Leichtling. (At least I think he's joking.) "We know the story in Seattle with staff shortages, rent increases, landlords who pull the lease to build condos—setting up in space like this was a calculated move on our part. We want this to be sustainable long term, not just in terms of the products we use, but for the staff, and for us."
I visited in those rabbit sandwich days, eying obscure bottles of Haitian clairin and dreaming of the cocktail I someday hoped to drink there. It was hard to imagine, then, in 2020 and through much of 2021, how a little space like this would ever feel okay, even once things returned to whatever the fuck version of normal we were start-stop herk-jerk hurtling toward. There was no way to write about Off Alley then. ("Five stars for the rabbit sandwich, hop hop.”)
But now, thankfully and blessedly here in the thawing months of 2022, the restaurant is open and thriving, operating as the modular, ala carte version of itself Leichtling and Prakash always intended for it to be. "It feels like rock and roll now," says Leichtling, "it's busy and we have a great regular customer base who will try anything. Our regulars will explain the menu to new guests, and people will sit next to each other alone and become friends. We love seeing this."
My last two visits, once for dinner and once for a Saturday "adult lunch" service, felt fully realized, totally of themselves, unpretentious, and at times stunning. They write each night's menu on a chalkboard that moves around the restaurant from guest to guest—it's also posted daily on Instagram, perhaps the only hit of digitation creeping into an otherwise explicitly analog experience. The evening's wines by the glass are communicated verbally, buttressed by a handwritten cocktail menu and tight selection of beers.
It being cocktail time at last, I enjoyed a very good mezcal Negroni with house-made blood orange syrup, then small glasses of suggested wine pours, from obscure regions of Portugal and Spain, all with a natural bent.
Here comes the food. The chef, Leichtling, displays a particularly deft touch with sauces and emulsions: a Petrale sole ceviche plate comes dressed for tension in a juniper butter sauce; a dish of eel and farro bathes in a delicate cream. A pork and prune pate displays sonic, solar depth. A soft and creamy baked-to-order basket of brioche, layered with shaved pork jowl, essentially a bonded glaze of fat so delicate and thin and delicious.
Often there are dishes like air-cured bison, or fried lamb's brains, that speak to the open-mindedness of Off Alley's clientele and the restaurant's sourcing relationship with local purveyors like Preservation Meat Collective. Blink and you're in Paris, or especially London, at one of the excellent small bistros to have emerged in the wake of St. John, the massively influential millennium era project from chef Fergus Henderson, famous for being the late sainted offal-loving Gen x bad boy Anthony Bourdain's "favorite restaurant in the world."
Twice at Off Alley I found myself saying, to no one in particular, "Holy shit!" First, during adult lunch, when Leichtling served me a "Dutch Baby" style pancake with seared foie gras and apple butter, and then again, at dinner, over a dish of Marina di Chioggia dumplings with black trumpet mushrooms and a duck's egg. These are basically a sort of pumpkin pasta, regional to southern Italy, using a form of heirloom sea pumpkin to craft an amplified, steroidal gnocchi so overwhelmingly flavorful that the only response is to fucking swear.
I ordered mine and then the people next to me ordered theirs, and to my left a fellow solo diner asked what it was, and I cannot begin to tell you how comforting all this was, after everything else that's happened in the last two years, to sit amidst the din and clatter of a happy little dining room like this, to watch and be watched and gaze at other people's plates longingly and have my plate gazed at with gleaming hungry eyes.
"That's the point of this space," Prakash tells me. "It is on purpose. You are crammed into a little space, a sardine can, where we're all bumping elbows and sharing rib eyes and splashing wine, and you either love it or you don't."
It is the rhythm of city life, pulsing along in restaurant form, as though someone has put every synapse into keeping the beat.
At the very end of my dinner I'm served a goat cheese and Carolina Reaper pepper ice cream beamed in from its own consciousness: tingly and cool and hot all at once, a wild study in contrasts and textures, and a sort of microcosm for the restaurant itself, in a way. It shouldn't work but it does, and I'm thrilled that I got to experience it, can still taste it, in fact, writing these words, and yet I'm gutted to have missed what went up for dessert the next night, a spruce tip custard looking for all the world like God's own wobbly ambrosia descended frond by frond through the forest canopy. This is the sign of a truly good bistro, where something new goes up on the menu the very next day after your visit, cursing your luck, drawing you back.
This place probably should have fallen apart across the long fallow months of the pandemic: too small, too unknown. It barely makes sense, and yet here is Off Alley now, a room bursting with life and built to facilitate that thing, that city life thing, even if we're merely gathered around a dying fire, wondering about the long game for this way of life, damned and hopeful in the same bite.
As I pay the check, a couple in matching rain gear comes wandering in, asking, "Any seats?" Without missing a beat they are met at the doorway: "We've been waiting for you."