Steelhead Diner Satisfies Bistro and Diner Lovers Alike

Where better to satisfy the gourmands and the hoi polloi both than at Pike Place Market?

As Kevin and Terresa Davis have designed it, Steelhead Diner, their two-month old Pike Place Market restaurant, is like one of those postcards whose image flickers as you tilt it. Are the lady's eyes open or are they shut? Is Steelhead a diner or a bistro? Your menu will be a paper place mat, your napkin linen. There's a burger on offer, of course, and of course it costs $12.95 and is made with Kobe beef. You and your children can split a plate of fried cheese curds at the open kitchen's "counter" while ogling the cooks from your swiveling stools. Or, like most of the suited-up lunchtime crowd, you can perch at one of the bistro tables, under the exposed-HVAC ceiling and artisan-glass lamps, and cast a million-dollar gaze over the Market and into the Sound. After two great meals at Steelhead, I had the same feeling about the Davises' new place that I always did about those flickering postcards: wary that there might be some sleight-of-hand going on, and wowed nonetheless. Kevin was previously the chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room, a fish-glorifying restaurant that's as down-home as a Cirque du Soleil tent. He's also a Louisiana kid, trained in New Orleans, who came to Seattle to give the Creole-focused kitchen of Sazerac authenticity as well as flair. Steelhead Diner is his solo show, his menu an artist's statement. He's opened the restaurant every serious cook daydreams about, the one that sums up who he is: Southerner, Seattleite, fisherman, chef. Terresa, who handles the other half of the business, has been an operations-money-type person for Tom Douglas, Wild Ginger, and Oceanaire. Davis and Davis combined strengths to snag a choice spot on Pine and First, taking advantage of the Market Historical Commission's stringent rules requiring businesses to be owner-operated. With no investors and no backers, the two have put all their savings into the restaurant, hiring an architect who could make the space look like money without requiring much of it. Now they're refining a formula that will bring them together with other market vendors—whose products Kevin showcases—while luring both summer vacationers and year-round gastrosnobs. "I wanted a place that everyone could come to, not just a certain part of the population," he says. The diner's entire menu can be viewed through a high-low double vision. Sometimes, as with the burger and an apple pandowdy, Davis presents country food in high style, though without hype or hyperbole. When the chef writes "lump Dungeness" on the menu to describe his crab cake, for example, he means it. Pushing aside the pouf of fried beet threads that crowned the softball-sized cake, I stuck my fork into the round and pulled out a three-inch section of claw. I believe an appreciative obscenity slipped out of my mouth; after I dabbed the crab into the spicy "Louis" sauce and popped it into my mouth, another one followed. The mammoth slice of "black velvet cake," covered in a shag of toasted coconut and slivered almonds, surrounded by almond crème anglaise, looked like it should be rotating around a refrigerator case next to a bowl of maraschino-studded butterscotch pudding. The cake, ethereal and surprisingly dainty in flavor, recalled a time when bakers treated a cake as a sublime pleasure in itself instead of as an excuse to eat gallons of frosting and ice cream. Sometimes the effect is even trickier. Traditional rillettes (which I love with the passion of a million calories) are made of shredded meat poached and preserved in fat, hardly American diner fare. But when the waiter set a plate of Steelhead's smoked-salmon rillettes in front of me, and it turned out to be a football-shaped scoop of mayonnaise-bound salmon, I deflated: Why, it was only salmon salad. Then I tasted said salad—the meat barely seasoned with the alder smoke, the rich mayonnaise offset by a salad of shaved fennel and a sharp caper-herb "emulsion" drizzled around the plate....OK, really good salmon salad. Bistro overtakes diner in most of the entrées: The now-classic Seattle dish, black cod marinated in sake lees, was even more moist and delicately marinated than I've gotten used to, topped with baby bok choy and a ginger slaw. Beef short ribs, wallowing in a puddle of hominy (white corn) polenta whose cream content bears not thinking about, were braised to the brink of self-shredding, the braising liquid reduced to the perfect concentration. Davis works in strong, almost poppy flavors. When he tells the white-balsamic dressing on the baby-lettuce salad to zing, it zings. When he commands his Kobe burger to be juicy, the juices all but bead up on its exterior, and the caramelized-onion-smothered burger divides its diners into either birds (pecking, dainty, clean) or pigs (me). If the kitchen has a flaw, it's that like most big-flavor chefs, Davis and his crew sometimes push salt levels up to the border of palatable. And, as might happen when you're playing with classics, a couple of tweaks didn't quite succeed. A side of crunchy, vividly hued collard greens left me missing the gray-black, velvety stewed variety, and the supposedly homey apple pandowdy was in reality one of those everybistro apple galettes. I never recovered from the anticlimax. The menu lists $10 sandwiches and salads—a buttermilk fried-chicken sandwich I'm aching to try; a baby-head-sized head of baby iceberg lettuce stuffed with bacon, blue cheese, and avocado—but no one should enter the restaurant expecting Mecca Cafe prices. Many of the entrées, which cost the same at lunch and dinner, come in two portions, full ($25–$33) and half ($18–$21); on both visits, when we asked the waiters about the half-portions, their demeanor morphed from quick and deferential to dour and bossy, and both warned us that the half-portions were so small we'd need to order sides. "We've had people get angry," one cautioned. But here's the kicker: The portions, including the sides, are actually huuuuuuge. Our asparagus weighed more than a pound, our hominy cakes a full lunch in itself. If you can leave Steelhead hungry, you might consider a career in competitive hot-dog gulping. Given the prices and quality of the food, let the tourists play diner at the counter while you call ahead to reserve a windowside table for a three-course meal. It's certainly the restaurant I'll be bringing my parents to next time they visit. The Davises are attempting the trickiest bit of American salesmanship around: Being all things to all customers all the time. Funny thing is, they've almost aced it.

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