After I'd finished LloydMartin's huckleberry-bunkered chicken-liver mousse in a fast-forward flurry propelled by hunger and high regard, a bartender asked me whether I planned to stay for dinner. Glancing around the empty room, I couldn't help but ask the same of him.
LLOYDMARTIN 1525 Queen Anne Ave. N., 420-7602, lloydmartinseattle.com. 5â€“9 p.m. Mon., 5â€“10 p.m. Tues.â€“Sat. Closed Sunday. Starting Jan. 5, tables will be available by reservation only.
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On Mondays, when many Seattle restaurants go dark in deference to workers and diners worn out by the weekend, Queen Anne's newest restaurant stays open. The scheduling decision trumpets LloydMartin's intention to serve as a kind of haute-cuisine hangout, where folks can repair for a glass of wine or plate of pasta without first consulting the calendar. But the neighborly gesture didn't lure any diners on a recent Monday night, when I was the only eater in attendance. When I returned later in the week, the staffers no longer outnumbered the guests, but we still had our pick of tables.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride so far," admits chef/owner Sam Crannell, who blames the holidays for depopulating his dining room, which he says was packed during the restaurant's first couple of weeks. "We were seeing perpetual growth, and then it just dropped off."
The customer exodus must be maddening for Crannell, who's assembled a tuneful service staff and a fetching menu of ingredient-driven small plates that eaters sop up elsewhere. His cozy, wood-paneled dining room, dimly lit as a law library, ought to be a sellout. Since there wasn't anyone at the bar with whom I could chat, I bided my time between courses fantasizing about a cross-city caravan in which I'd snatch up wayward diners from less-worthy restaurants for a meal at LloydMartin.
Crannell's menu changes daily, but had my refugees from overhyped eateries arrived at LloydMartin that evening, I might have cajoled them with a splotchy salad of fat baby purple beets and shapely baby golden beets, glimmering with a brush of oil, toasted hazelnuts, and a puff of sharp blue-cheese mousse. After the salad, I'd order a round of elk fettucine, a rustic dish that calls so resoundingly for a gulp of something red from a cowhide wineskin that the restaurant's lack of a hard-liquor license feels trifling in its presence. The demure noodles are plated with a puddle of sweet huckleberry reduction—perhaps it keeps the elk happy—and the rowdy elk ragù, a magnificent snapshot of meatiness and milk. Three magic-carpet curls of Parmesan ride atop the dish.
When LloydMartin first opened, the bolognese-style sauce was made with venison instead of elk. Now, Crannell says, he's trying to find a reliable source of musk ox. As Crannell's big-game stalking suggests, there's a palpable manliness to LloydMartin—its two first names honor Crannell's grandfathers. That's partly a result of staff demographics: There's one woman on the payroll, and she doesn't work every night. "It wasn't on purpose," Crannell says of the single-sex setup, a rarity in an industry where there's almost always a woman minding the hostess stand. "Most of my people have worked for me for a very long time."
His previous project, 5 Corner Market and Bar in Ballard, closed a few months after its December 2010 opening. "It failed miserably," says Crannell, who logged time at Oddfellows and Quinn's before opening his own restaurant. "I wouldn't say I was begging for people to come work with me, but it was close. I took who I could get."
The fraternal vibe is especially pronounced when there aren't many customers in the dining room, allowing all the guys to congregate in the open kitchen. These are surely the fellows responsible for the sonic disconnect of the background music, which sometimes veers toward hip-hop. There's nothing wrong with the music, and there's nothing wrong with the arugula salad, but combining the two is akin to printing The New Yorker in a graffiti font. A gruff male influence is also discernible on the two-item dessert menu: Diners can choose between an apple galette and something called "chocolate, chocolate, chocolate," which sounds exactly like a man's idea of what a woman wants.
Even when tinkering with foie gras and chanterelles, the kitchen never resorts to foppery. Still, its handiwork is almost always gentle. Dishes such as a lamb raviolo—a small, thin-skinned pasta bundt cake packed with expansively flavored meat and ornamented with mint sprigs and cocoa nibs—are extraordinarily delicate. Yet not every preparation is aesthetically flawless: A decent potato soup strewn with errant ellipses of oil and plunked with a gob of crème fraiche was a tad blowsy, although LloydMartin's vintage floral- patterned china gave it a dainty demeanor.
"We wanted to open a masculine restaurant, but I try to keep my food feminine," Crannell says.
LloydMartin couldn't churn out rib-eye steaks even if it wanted to. When Crannell took over the venue that previously housed Bricco, it didn't have a hood or gas burners, and he couldn't afford to install them.
"Your home kitchen is probably better equipped than the kitchen here," Crannell says. "We can't sear. If we get more than one or two orders at a time, we have to hold off so we don't smoke out the dining room."
While Crannell has been able to penny-pinch his way around fancy kitchen appliances, his frugality has also resulted in the one overriding annoyance at LloydMartin: The restaurant serves soulful sauces and an upstanding chicken-liver mousse, but offers only the scrawniest tube of sour white bread to support them. Until he sorts out cash-flow issues, Crannell says, he's buying seven 8-ounce ficelle loaves from nearby Macrina Bakery each morning.
"If I don't have business, I have bread going bad," he explains. The bread could work, but the kitchen splinters it into coins so sheer that the bread falls apart when grazed with a knife or dragged across a plate. At a restaurant referencing classical European dishes, a sturdy slice of bread is as important as a fork.
It's heartening that Crannell didn't try to cut costs by switching to no-name bread. He's earnest about developing a neighborhood restaurant on a stretch of Queen Anne Avenue that feels somewhat removed from the residential area surrounding it. "My wife and I lived up here for three years," says Crannell, who now lives in Ballard. To enhance the home-team feel, Crannell has coached his staffers to pool tables. "They all roam," he says. "None of them have designated sections." He's also asked them to avoid making the grandiose claims that are typically a fixture of high-end server shtick. "I want zero pretension," Crannell says. "If you know it, say it. If you don't, don't b.s. It's like a family. In a good family, you may joke with someone, but you're not going to lie to their face."
LloydMartin's best dishes are equally simple and honest. In addition to the terrific elk, there's a gorgeously roasted hunk of chicken, plump as a bowler's bicep. Its juices straining against its sea-salted skin, the chicken leg is set adrift in a rosemary-flecked, fat-forward broth it shares with parsnips, carrots, and fingerling potatoes.
Few of the dishes at LloydMartin are especially inventive, but the kitchen is adept at making overexposed culinary power couples such as pears and blue cheese compelling. That's what backs up a plate of roasted Brussels sprouts bronzed with chili oil and scattered with sugary bacon. The hash is crowned with a squirmy soft-boiled egg that lends freshness to the earthy dish. All it needs is an accompanying glass of wine, but what it deserves is a wider audience.
LloydMartin is working in an idiom that's pretty much in syndication around Seattle. But it's doing so with admirable skill and capable service. Here's hoping the neighborhood—and the city beyond— discovers its newest resident soon.
Chicken-liver mousse $10
Baby beets $10
Potato soup $7
Chicken leg $20
Brussels sprouts $9