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Wednesday, January 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town

Reeling in a big catch

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Nancy Leson on KPLU

Catch Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants every Wednesday on KPLU (88.5 FM) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m, and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Today she talks about cooking tips.

Remember "The Restaurant"? The reality-based show where chef Rocco DiSpirito and his big-time financier Jeffrey Chodorow start out as hot-shot business partners and, quick as you can say "86 mamma's meatballs!," were duking it out on national TV?

They fought about the restaurant in the kitchen, the back office and — after their high-profile Italian joint took a very public nose-dive — ended up suing one another.

I tried not to think about that when I heard the news that Charles Ramseyer — executive chef at Ray's Boathouse & Cafe for the past 14 years — has been tapped by Chodorow's China Grill Management team to open a Pacific Northwest-themed restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

Wild Salmon is slated to debut early this spring, just in time to take advantage of the spring salmon runs, says Ramseyer, chatting by phone from NYC. I caught him there last weekend, apartment hunting before a big meeting with Chodorow (whose company has a couple-dozen restaurants from New York to Las Vegas, L.A. to London, Miami to Mexico City).

Turns out Chodorow's group has been wooing Ray's accomplished Swiss chef for some time. "They called me about a year or two ago and said, 'We're thinking about doing something Pacific Northwest, though we don't know where yet,' " Ramseyer recalls. "I told them to talk to me when they're ready." They were ready last fall, flying him to New York to show him the site — the Todd English/Jeffrey Chodorow Production, English Is Italian, set to close for a major makeover — then offered him the job as executive chef.

"There's nothing like it here in Manhattan," Ramseyer says, describing Wild Salmon as a restaurant whose menu will focus on fresh Pacific Northwest seafood, whose wine list will feature Pacific Northwest labels and whose raw bar will highlight oysters whose "hometowns" we'd readily recognize. As for the décor, there's talk about a mural with — love this! — a Pike Place Market theme.

"What I want to do is educate New Yorkers and the people who come here, to introduce them to true Pacific Northwest flavors, to our salmon and black cod," says Ramseyer. As excited as he is about this venture, the chef won't need to watch reruns of "The Restaurant" to get a "real" taste of the New York restaurant world. "I know how tough it is to be in New York City," he notes. "But an opportunity like this doesn't come up too often." I'll say.

Ramseyer's leave-taking is also a big opportunity for his successor, Peter Birk, who filled his shoes as executive chef at Ray's early this month. Hired as executive sous-chef in 2000, Birk was later promoted to chef de cuisine and has put his imprimatur on the menu by forging great relationships with sustainable fisherfolk and local farmers. "Now," says Ramseyer, "he can take it to the next level."

Keeping it closer to home

But enough about Big Name seafood-restaurant chefs opening Pacific Northwest restaurants in the Big Apple. Let's talk about a Big Name seafood-restaurant chef opening a Pacific Northwest restaurant right here in the Emerald City.

His name: Kevin Davis. His place: Steelhead Diner. The location: Pike Place Market. Expected opening date: Feb. 1.

Davis, a Louisiana native, made his name locally at Sazerac before taking the helm as chef-exec at the Oceanaire Seafood Room when it debuted in 2002. There he garnered well-deserved attention for the exceptional job he did running the Seattle kitchen for a high-flying Minneapolis-based restaurant chain.

When he left his post at the Oceanaire in August — a timeline that coincided with his five-year commitment to stay on board — he and his wife and business partner, Terresa, had their eye on the prize: the former Vivanda restaurant space at 95 Pine St., closed since July 2005. They weren't alone in their quest, as more than a few local restaurateurs and wannabes had been eyeing the spot whose views overlook the Market and the Sound.

"We've always talked about owning a restaurant," says Terresa, whose restaurant management experience is not only global (she hails from Australia) but extends from the front of the house (Wild Ginger) to the back office (she's kept the books at Oceanaire and at Tom Douglas Restaurants and just got her business degree from Seattle Pacific University). But it wasn't till recently, she realized, that "Kevin had this internal alarm clock I wasn't aware of — till it went off."

"I found this restaurant," her husband recalls, "and it was obvious to me that there was nowhere else in the city, already built-out, that made sense." As luck would have it, their business plan passed muster with the ever-vigilant Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority and the Market's Historic Commission. "When we told them our concept" — a Pacific Northwest-oriented diner — "and presented our press material, it just clicked."

I'd bet big bucks that the Steelhead Diner (steelheaddiner.com) will click with both locals and tourists, who can sit face-to-face with the chef at his open kitchen counter, drink Pacific Northwest wines and sample starters like flash-fried Beecher's cheese curds from the cheesemaker around the corner and "Rich-boys" made with Uli's Sausage ground right across the street.

And while patrons might chow down on Davis' famous gumbo and apple pan dowdy with cinnamon ice cream, they can also count on the likes of spice-rubbed Alaska salmon and slow-braised Washington short ribs. What they won't see on his menu, though, is steelhead. Though the chef cops to being serious about fly-fishing, when it comes to steelhead, he's a catch-and-release guy, one who pays more than lip-service to supporting efforts to restore endangered salmon and steelhead to local waters.

Perhaps that accounts for his good karma. "It's been like fate, a total gravitational force," says Davis, explaining his good fortune at landing this prime real estate, hooking up with an architect who appears to have channeled his vision and getting back to the place he really wants to be: a small kitchen, where he makes all the rules.

Davis lives within walking distance of the Market, and says he's in it for the long-haul. "This is going to be a mom 'n' pop place where I'll build my life, at that stove, in my kitchen, among friends. If I can fish on Monday [when the restaurant will be closed], and cook dinner for my wife on Sunday night [when they'll close early], I'll be a happy man."

Talk about the long haul!

This month marks the 30th anniversary celebration of McCormick's Fish House & Bar (722 Fourth Ave., Seattle; 206-682-3900 or www.mccormickandschmicks.com). Events include an alumni reunion (Monday); an anniversary winemaker's dinner with Chateau Ste. Michelle (Jan. 18); and the Shuck & Swallow Oyster Challenge, a fundraiser for Seattle's Bravest which helps families of fallen firefighters (Jan. 25).

Share your news or restaurant tips with Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. More columns are available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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