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Friday, April 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Elemental@Gasworks is quirky, captivating — and irresistible

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Elemental@Gasworks 3 stars


3309 Wallingford Ave. N. (in the Regata condominium complex), Seattle, 206-547-2317

Web site: www.elementalatgasworks.com

Eclectic

$$

Reservations: not accepted

Hours: cocktail hour at 5 p.m., dinner served 6 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Prices: four menu designations: $5, $8, $11, $16; choose one course from three price-designations $30; desserts $6-$7.

Wine list: They've got one, but it's just for show. Put yourself in Phred's hands: His by-the-glass pours will knock your socks off.

Sound: comfortable, with a musical soundtrack as eclectic as the menu.

Parking: none provided.

Full liquor license / credit cards: MC, V / no obstacles to access / no smoking.

Who should go: The patient few who think "small is better" and "less is more"; wine-lovers willing to cede control to a higher power.

Do me a big favor. Don't go to Elemental@Gasworks. Unless you are smart enough to show up late at night, there won't be room for you. And don't bother calling, either, since they don't take reservations. So what's the point in telling you about it? Because I can't remember the last time I fell so hard for a restaurant. If you can call this offbeat, out-of-the-way haunt in a North Lake Union condo-complex a restaurant.

In business since September, Elemental — which has no apparent signage and little street presence — is more like a dynamic dinner party. One where you drink what's poured, the décor screams "Ikea!" and your hosts are a pair of thirtysomethings whose mission in life is slapping your tastebuds around while making you feel right at home.

Their floor looks like something you'd nail to the window if a neighbor's kid threw a ball through it. The test-tube-shaped lighting fixtures in the dining room resemble backyard bug-zappers. Pots and pans adorn the walls of an open kitchen. And when one of the cozy cocktail chairs lost its stubby leg on a recent visit, our happy host did exactly what I'd have done had it happened at my house: He propped it up with a 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes.

Say hello to Phred Westfall, a quirky wine geek whose idea of a good time is running the show — alone — while gauging which "adult beverage" best suits your mood. No oenophiliphic snoot, he's as happy turning you on to cinnamon-scented Czechoslovakian liqueur or an icy splash of contraband pastis as he is playing sassy sommelier.

Waiting too long for a friend who couldn't find the place ("You only can't find it the first time!" Westfall quips), he set me up with a shot of aged tequila, a dog-eared copy of "Endangered Pleasures" and a book light to augment the candlelight. (What? No reading glasses?)

With the least encouragement, he'll pour glass after glass of less-than-familiar wines — each perfectly matched to the food he's serving. Notice his hand discreetly concealing the label, lest you deprive him of the fun of letting you guess what you're drinking. (Good luck.) And don't worry about the tab. You're not likely to sip better wines cheaper anywhere else in town. I've yet to spend more than $20 on five of Phred's phabulous pours. Nor would I think of complaining when he pours three different reds into (gasp!) the same "used" glass.

Meet his sweetheart Laurie Riedeman, the waitress-turned-chef who worked alongside him for years in the dining room at the Union Bay Café. The pair operated a yearlong cafe "experiment" in a borrowed breakfast-room in the U District's Watertown hotel. Also called Elemental (hence the new venue's @Gasworks addendum), it was a rent-free dry run for what would become their latest let-us-entertain-you enterprise.

Laurie scours cookbooks looking for inspiration — when she's not scouring dishes, by hand, in her compact kitchen. Working solo, she produces a brief, vegetarian-friendly menu that suits her creative whim, changes frequently and is divided by price ($5, $8, $11, $16). Can't decide which of her incredible edibles to try? They also offer a $30 build-your-own prix fixe option that allows you to choose one course from any three of those price designations. Did I mention that the final bill is service-inclusive? That's right: no tipping.

Generous though Phred and Laurie may be, prepare to be turned away at the door.

Their 20 seats fill fast. These encompass five tables, a couple of counter stools and two sets of low-slung armchairs — each separated by a cocktail table just large enough to hold several glasses, a pitcher of cucumber-scented ice water and a dish of olives.

So, want to know what you're missing? Curried albacore tartare ($11), a convergence of sweet, salt and sea whose rosy raw tuna might be sprinkled with coarse salt and matched with diced fresh pear. Crunchy crab cakes embellished with a refreshing basil-scented fennel slaw ($16). A mild rum-stoked black-bean soup with toasted pumpkin seeds, and a pretty toss of arugula with chickpeas in a simple vinaigrette ($5 each).

This cheese-lover nearly lost her mind over a creamy, crusty pear and blue-cheese bread pudding ($8) baked in a little ramekin. And that was before I tasted the unbelievable green-chili cheesecake with papaya salsa, a savory sensation with a finely ground blue-corn-chip crust ($8).

I won't soon forget Laurie's light, lovely gnocchi with truffle brown butter ($11): the perfect precursor to a crisp duck leg with a syrupy hibiscus sauce that tasted just like tart pomegranate molasses. Nor the cloudlike espresso pot de crème, paired with a short pour of sticky-sweet framboise liqueur.

One night, over a generous plate of mussels speckled with toasted almonds ($11), a friend sighed, "This makes you remember why you love mussels." I was far less poetic when forking into our short ribs ($16). That luscious braised beef arrived on a housemade waffle that would have laid Aunt Jemima flat-out; the waffle had been imbued with the sweet, earthy flavor of roasted garlic. "Holy [nevermind]!" I cried, loud enough to garner a lusty laugh from my host, who arrived just in time to offer another splash of something regal and red.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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