MagoGuide bussed into Seattle’s Freemont neighborhood to check out its famous troll and support a Montana homeboy who recently opened his first restaurant in this food-obsessed metropolis. Chef Eric Donnelly named RockCreek after a stretch of trout water in the Bitterroot valley south of Lucullus’ home town of Missoula. The notion of a fly fishing chef spoke to fair Fulvia’s heart, but it was Aristippus who located RockCreek on the web using his copyrighted and secret hedonistic search algorithm.
RockCreek Seafood & Spirits
Telephone: (206) 557-7532
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri 4PM-12AM, Sat-Sun 9AM–3:00PM, 4PM – 1AM
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Rostra rating: 4.5
Team Mago was duly impressed from the moment we entered the cavernous post-industrial template of an eating space that had been seemingly fleshed out by a scavenging Frank Lloyd Wright. To begin with, it was a Tuesday night and the ninety-seat joint was jumpin’. Secondly, the hostess was not only de rigeur hot but actually nice and helpful.
We had reserved late in the morning of the day we intended to dine. Overkill for a Tuesday, one would think, but it turned out to be a late placement and the table we got dealt was right by the door in pretty dismal light. We asked for a table on the upstairs mezzanine (research had indicated that it was quieter, the restaurant being loud by Boomer standards) and our hostess said that it would involve only a short wait, which also turned out to be true.
While Aristippus and Lucullus perused menus at the bar, Fulvia started taking pictures of the open kitchen. As she did her “Montucky hick chic takes pics” act, one of the agonizingly young cooks, dripping with Q factor, froze-posed for her. She returned burbling about him just as the hostess whisked us upstairs before we even had time to order a drink from the massively planked bar that looks like it was designed and built by a Sorbonne-trained chainsaw artist.
We were dissecting the menu, which is an extensive and quirky ode to the lowly comma, when the youthful poseur appeared tableside. He allowed as to how we seemed particularly interested in the menu and wanted to know if he could be of help in explaining any of the dishes. Lucullus asked about the Calamari Kari-Out and was treated to a rapid fire and extremely detailed description of the preparation.
“You’re the chef aren’t you?” asked Fulvia.
Chef and owner Chris Donnelly introduced himself and engaged us in a brisk conversation about Montana, fly fishing, and MagoGuide until his virtually twitching demeanor told us that the guy needed to get back to his kitchen. Upon release he enthusiastically allowed as to how this Tuesday night crowd was the size of one usually encountered only on the weekend, but that there had been a big pick-up in weeknight attendance since the Seattle Times had given RockCreek a positive review less than a week prior.
Team Mago was impressed. The chef clearly wanted to keep his kitchen out of the weeds that can sprout in the afterglow of a good review, but he also singled us out for his attention based on our observed interested in his food. This was no cheffable drive-by consisting of brief pauses at each table to ask a general question, smile, and move on regardless of the answer. Chef Donnelly had come to our table alone amongst some 90 covers, delivered high bandwidth culinary information, and then returned to the line.
It was not long until we started to learn what all the fuss was about on a foggy Tuesday night in the Emerald City. In order to maximize the number of dishes we could sample we ordered from the starters, small plates, and dessert sections of the menu. Our waitress was also very good. Undaunted by the chef’s appearance in the midst of her service, she boldly declared that unless we wanted things otherwise, she would orchestrate the arrival our order to maximize our culinary enjoyment.
“You go girl!” enthused Fulvia.
The oven roasted Barron Point oysters with toasted fennel, garlic, and pastis butter were plump umami pillows with intriguing licorice notes. The accompanying lemon wedges should not be ignored, however, because a squeeze from them adds a refreshing layer of acidity that elevates this dish above the level of Louisiana dive bar good to Pacific Northwest really good. This was only the first indication that chef Donnelly is serious about citrus in his flavor layering.
Our waitress presented a trio of spicy hot dishes next. Chili barbecued Alaskan octopus festooned with cannelini beans, oil cured olives, tomato confit, and chile vinaigrette was the most unusual treatment of the cephalopod mollusc that Lucullus has ever had, and he’s had octopus all over the world. It was basically a form of chewy liquid smoke that was perfectly offset by the soft Mediterranean comfort food accompaniments.
The calamari Kari-Out came in a Chinese take away box with escarole, radish, carrots, M-80, and toasted sesame. It was a very popular entree to judge by the number of boxes flying out of the kitchen all night long. In fact, it was the first corn meal battered version of calamari that Lucullus has ever really liked. A squid snob since he was six years old, Lucullus would have automatically heaped patrician scorn upon any chef so all fired stupid as to take wonderful fresh Pacific squid and weigh it down with a heavy gritty coating of corn meal, but Chef Donnelly’s Asian version worked–crispy, hot, salty, slightly sweet, and fun to look at in its retro packaging.
The plat de résistance for our fiery triumvirate, however, was the Dungeness crab chile relleno served with bright tomatillo salsa and a cool radish and herb salad. The cheese, layered heat, and succulent crab produced a “hurts so good” mouthfeel that again was elevated by very thin slices of lime–to repeat, the citrus ain’t for decoration, its integral to the dish.
It was at this point that Lucullus decided that he not only liked the food at RockCreek, but of equal importance, he liked the way Chef Donnelly thought about food. A good and kind of strange example is the table water served up in faux old timey stoppered bottles (something of a Seattle restaurant motif for reasons that escape MagoGuide). The first time Lucullus tasted it he found it funky. Fulvia termed it “organic”. We finally asked our waitress what we were tasting in the water. She said that RockCreek’s water was steeped with sliced cucumbers. Lucullus retasted, thought about it, and decided he liked it now that he could identify it. Weird, psyched out by the water (and the chef).
OK, the stop gushing and write an objective review light has just changed from a blinking yellow to red and the MagoGuide klaxon is sounding throughout the Seattle Love Shack. RockCreek has been open less than a year and a promising start is still well short of perfection. So lets look at some of the rough edges. Yo chef, how about some tentacles in that killer calamari? They are the best part of the beast after all. And good as your Austin meets Athens octopus is, it could be tenderized just a bit more (more stew less chew). Or how about using fresh baby octopus in the preparation, assuming they can be sustainably acquired, or actually even if they can’t (Lucullus is quite taken with the notion of moscardini bubachew).
More importantly, Chef Donnelly needs to rethink the entire Starters section of RockCreek’s menu, which is basically a salad section with a couple outliers. This is a foodie restaurant in a foodie town, thus one is not going too far out on a limb to opine that most of RockCreek’s clientele are not going to view salads as appies. So why not put them in a salad section where they belong and kick things off with the small plates?
Also, in and of themselves, the salads may need some upgrading. Our roasted beets, tarragon, pistachio, ricotta salata, and broken vinaigrette dressing was a touch bland. The salad could have worked off if a peppery wild arugula of the sort found in Roman markets during the spring and early summer had been utilized, but not the blander US version, no matter how organic and fresh. The beets clearly needed more ricotta salata and a gutsier vinaigrette.
Speaking of attention to detail, Lucullus is definitely not in the ranks of Urban Spoon morons who seem down right offended when asked to pay for decent bread (how do you spell c-o-p-e-r-t-o Twitter twits?), and the bread at RockFish was quite good by the way. But the bright herb butter (note to chef: this adjective seems somewhat overused on your menu) could show up a little softer.
OK, objectivity has been satisfied so lets talk desserts. Aristippus concisely summed up our experience: PFW. The table went into multiple simultaneous foodgasms sampling and contrasting RockCreek s’mores with the ricotta apple beignets. The deconstructed s’mores came in a large glass containing Valrhona chocolate mouse topped with smoked meringue, caramel, sea salt, and graham tuille. Addephagia was doing an end zone victory dance from the first bite on.
And yet we argued down to the last molecule of powdered sugar as to whether the etherial beignets served with a caramel anglaise weren’t the better dessert. Chef Donnelly honed his Louisiana culinary skills for four years at Seattle’s Toulouse Petit before opening RockCreek and these babies would dethrone Cafe Du Monde in a Big Easy heartbeat if he ever decamps for NOLA.
RockCreek’s concise yet well constructed wine list is heavy on French and Washington state wines with smaller additions from Italy, Spain, and Oregon. We asked for the somm to break a tie between pinot gris and chablis, but he was tied up (perhaps the oenophile Ahab had a table of whales in his sights?). Our resourceful waitress buttonholed him, however, and returned with enough information to steer us towards a 2007 Trimbach Reserve Pinot Gris whose core sweetness went with every one of the quite diverse set of dishes we tried. Fulvia, true to form, quaffed the draft Fremont Harvest Ale, which also turned out to be an excellent pairing for RockCreek’s eclectic fare.
One final suggestion, which is in no way critical (that particular vein having been exhausted above). The open kitchen simply cries out for a “chef’s table” a la Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat in Chicago. She has built several seats into a counter right in front of the line and next to the pass, which makes for a unique dining experience. From what we saw on a Tuesday night, people would fight over such a vantage point at RockCreek.
MagoGuide would like to close with the rarest compliment we can bestow: an open-ended invitation for Chef Donnelly to our undisclosed Montana culinary laboratory. It would be our pleasure to host this versatile young chef at our three kitchen venue replete with trout pond and several cultivated acres of the Gaffer’s best produce. If you kept our card dude, drop us line should you ever get some time off, which could be fairly rare in the near future given what we saw at RockCreek. Congratulations are in order for the entire crew at RockCreek and MagoGuide will be back to check up on your tasty work in progress.