As French as It Gets

New in Madrona, Crémant begs a look at the brasseries and bistros of our past.

On a recent Tuesday evening, at a brand-new, radically untrendy brasserie in the highly risky restaurant neighborhood of Madrona, the buzz was loud enough to wake Rip van Winkle. By 8 p.m., Restaurant Crémant was glowing like L.A.'s Daisy on a Saturday night in 1969. Culinary stars on their nights off waved to each other across the room. Every time the door opened, heads turned to see what new celebrity was entering to run the gauntlet. In 30 years of dining out in Seattle, I've never felt an atmosphere so palpably hot. There was every reason to expect Crémant to be good. Chef Scott Emerick worked in some of the best kitchens before buffing his brasserie technique at Le Pichet on First Avenue, where maitre d' David Butler also honed his chops. But Crémant takes Pichet's casual yet careful cuisine-bourgeois approach to amazing extremes—and gets away with it. It's not just the exotic menu items, old-fashioned even in modern France—items like roasted marrow bones ($12 for two), served with crisp toasts to spread the jewel-glistening contents on; or steak tartare ($14), fresh-chopped to order and served with fragrant fries; or, most bizarrely trad of all, oeuf en gelée au Porto, a poached egg enfolded in ham and robed in deep-purple aspic ($7). But presentation is even more striking than the menu. In a brilliant stroke of anti-chic, Crémant serves its patés—airy-light chicken liver ($9), rillette of duck ($10), and foie gras ($39)—in trim little rubber- gasketed French-style canning jars, a perfect way of preserving their delicate freshness. The braised veal shank ($19) and mussels in white wine ($14) come in individual white Le Creuset casseroles. For $19, you can have cassoulet, made with authentic Tarbais beans and laced with lamb, pork, and duck confit. Several main dishes are designed for two. Just say the word as you enter, and after you spend an hour dallying with a bit of serrano ham ($10) or pork-and-Roquefort paté ($9), a freshly roasted free-range chicken ($40 for two) will arrive at your table. Order bouillabaisse ($45), and a wide variety of fish in season (currently monkfish, skate, striped bass, and shrimp) will arrive just poached in a steaming tomato-garlic-saffron-scented fish stock. BY GOOD FORTUNE, my companion at dinner was a French-born chef who's worked in Seattle for 30 years, so I didn't have to rely on my memory alone. Crémant serves some of the best down-home French cooking ever to grace this town. Real French restaurants have always had an iffy time establishing themselves here, in large part, I think, because they pursued the traditional hotel-restaurant approach. I remember my first local encounter with coquilles St. Jacques: a laboriously assembled stew of gluey scallops in a gluey white sauce, served in a scallop shell with mashed potatoes piped around the edge. The age of culinary less-is-more was yet to be born, but even in 1964, it was clear that this kind of more-is-more cooking would never bowl the Northwest over. Edmonds' Henri de Navarre served a heck of a tournedos Rossini, as I recall. But does tenderloin really need foie gras, or vice versa? The grand old Mirabeau atop the Seafirst Tower tried to temper glamour (tableside flambés, the city's first dessert soufflés) with down-home touches (tripe à la mode de Caen), but the mix never quite made sense. Gerard Parrat's Relais de Lyon was the full-bore real thing, haute cuisine at its best, but it was beside a strip mall in Bothell, doomed from the moment Parrat and his wife decided to stop working 20-hour days and get a life. The simple fact is old- fashioned grand-style French cooking is so labor-intensive that it ultimately squeezes dry the most dedicated chef. It totaled Le Tastevin; it finally brought down Kaspar's; and the only way Thierry Rautureau can make a go of Rover's is by sticking to a tasting-menu format and playing for a steady stream of knowledgeable foreign visitors. THE FIRST PERSON who found a way of getting "French" and "Seattle" to sit down at a restaurant table together was Peter Lewis, and his somewhat romanticized and commercialized version of French country cuisine is still playing well at Campagne. The men who revived the aged Maximilien in the Market did so by simplifying traditional cuisine without compromising quality. And Le Pichet finally proved that a clattery, jovial brasserie-cum-bistro was everything Seattle had been waiting for: fabulous food, simple but sumptuous, engagingly served, and reasonably priced. If early evidence is to be believed, the Pichet formula has lots of room for expansion. Crémant's menu is devised to minimize assembly and cooking time, so even when unexpectedly slammed on a weeknight, the staff was able to cope, with good humor if not grace. The place can't count on such a glamorous crowd every night to keep the room sizzling, but once the word gets round, I'm confident the sizzle will be self-sustaining. Cremant

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