Rock Creek Breathes Life Into Seattle’s Seafood Scene

Bringing bold flavors to far-flung fish.

Back in July, we featured the opening of Fremont newcomer RockCreek—a restaurant that, I optimistically posed, might help revive the city’s stale seafood scene.

Since then, Josh Henderson’s Westward is enlivening it. So is RockCreek—a soaring two-storied space with wooden rafters, skylights, and a large glass garage door (it was a former auto-body shop)—which has been steadily winning over diners with a menu that focuses mostly on fin fish from all over the world, like Hawaiian ono, Baha black grouper, pompano, and snapper, in preparations that emphasize pronounced flavors, many of them South American.

Tired of pig belly and the ever-present staples salmon and halibut, chef Eric Donnelly (formerly of Toulouse) wanted “to let people experience great fish from around the world—tropical, Mediterranean, from Fiji, South America.” And while this bucks the locavore trend, Donnelly maintains that “there are many well-managed fisheries in these places, and a lot of fin fish besides catfish and black cod that we can feel good about eating.”

And, indeed, the eating here is good. RockCreek is taking some big risks on its plates—confronting you with bold tastes like berbere spice, Medjool date vinaigrette, and aji Amarillo—and for that alone it wins points with me, though I’ll admit there were times when I wished the assertiveness was ever so slightly checked. That, it would seem, is the biggest challenge the restaurant faces: finding the delicate balance between vibrant and explosive, and, more to the point, finding the right balance for the right kind of fish (some can hold up to big and bright, while others need a lighter touch).

It’s a challenge that could potentially be helped by a tighter menu. With eight starters, 14 small plates, and 10 fin-fish entrées (plus oysters on the half shell, oyster shooters, and four meat or poultry main courses), the menu can feel exhausting to read and, with so many options, tough to choose from. I can only imagine that executing all of these items flawlessly is equally taxing.

That said, on my two visits there, I was rarely disappointed. Starting with the cucumber-infused water (the first sip comes as a surprise, since there’s no cucumber floating in the glass), I knew I was headed down an audacious path. An oyster shooter (I chose one with ginger, ikura, and shiso, followed by a shot of sake), continued the élan. Wild Mexican prawns, while heavily seasoned, found a fitting backdrop in a garlic, chili, and rosemary sauce pooled over perfectly cooked heirloom grits—a ne plus ultra of sweet and savory. The oven-roasted Barron Point oysters with toasted fennel, garlic, and pastis butter made me rethink my former distaste for baked oysters (always preferring either raw or fried). These were plump and piquant and left a mouthful of juices to slurp from each shell. I couldn’t imagine how anything else could possibly trump them, but the roasted Cinderella squash bisque with lemon crème fraîche and warm Dungeness crab came close. Bisques are always a crap shoot, often just indolent with cream and sherry. But this one was light-bodied, with the taste of both squash and crab infusing every spoonful. I’d venture a guess that a crab or fish stock was used. I was glad they didn’t “pumpkin spice” it up with cinnamon and the other usual suspects that tend to dominate dishes like this in the fall.

My ono, also known as wahoo and related to King mackerel, was served with a date paste on top of it that, when blended with the extreme tartness of the lemon escarole and its broth, brought sweet and sour splendidly together. Having to orchestrate that marriage yourself, though, felt odd, and made for a few unsuccessful Sour Patch Kid puckering bites. The black grouper with its berbere (an Ethiopian spice that can hold up to goat) was a full-on assault on the taste buds, but the sweet-onion mojo softened it, and it didn’t completely mask the taste of the fish—though it came perilously close. The side of yuca frita (“Yuck-uh,” as my Colombian relatives often call it), wasn’t predictably fried, but was roasted well enough to keep the starchy tuber from turning stringy. It was the best yuca I can recall having.

A few less notable dishes (though not utter misses) included the hamachi entrée in a basic, overly sweet Asian peanut sauce that you’d get at any old Thai restaurant, and a chili-barbecued Alaskan octopus small plate that was too heavy on the BBQ flavor. Dungeness crab chiles rellenos with a tomatillo salsa didn’t speak heavily of crab, but they were creamy, flavorful comfort food, just like rellenos are meant to be.

While the food menu is sprawling (and, fyi, does include several local fish), the drink menu is abbreviated—a complete 180 from what most restaurants seem to be doing lately. True to Donnelly’s vision, these are predominately bright, light cocktails, featuring sparkling wines, piscos, and aquavits. I had a cocktail with Batch 206 vodka, Aperol, lemon, orange, and bubbles, while my friend went with the racier “Blister Pop”: tequila, Pür Likör blood-orange liqueur, habanero syrup, grapefruit, cilantro, and soda. Astonishingly, it worked. The wine list is a nice split between European (primarily French) and Washington and Oregon varieties, and the wait staff is very adept at helping you make the right selection, a particularly important task when you’re pairing with such varied (and brazen) flavors.

RockCreek is also daring with its price points; all seafood entrées are under $20. (The exception, the Baja diver scallops, is $24.) The oyster shooters, one might argue, are steep at $10 for just one—but considering you’re getting a shot of booze too, it’s a pretty fair deal.

Dessert needs work, which seems to be the case in so many otherwise top-notch restaurants these days. The Key lime pie in a jar (pies in a jar belong on the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, not in a serious-minded restaurant) is a creamy Graham-cracker mess with not a lot of lime happening. The coconut cake tasted good, but was too tough to chew.

But if the full house on both Friday nights I was there is any indication, the mediocre desserts aren’t stopping people from flocking to RockCreek—nor should they. Just under three months in, Donnelly is holding true to his conceit, and in doing so is issuing a challenge as gutsy as his food to Seattle’s seafood restaurants.

ROCKCREEK SEAFOOD & SPIRITS 4300 Fremont Ave. N., 557-7532, Dinner: 4 p.m.–midnight daily. Brunch: 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat.–Sun.

PRICE GUIDE Cinderella squash bisque $12 / Barron Point oysters $12 / Wild Mexican prawns $14 / Dungeness crab chiles rellenos $18 / Grilled Hawaiian Ono $18 / Baja black grouper $18

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