le pichet

There’s something about Le Pichet that always makes me feel at home — in France.  Whenever I step inside Jim Drohman’s enchanting downtown bistro, I quickly forget my American troubles and my troubles with America and allow myself to travel abroad.  This is usually followed by a genuine sigh of relief.  The archetypal space is so remarkably authentic, it’s hard not to be completely transported by the illusion.  The floor is dotted with small tiles, the walls are hung with old photo frames and chalkboards scrawled in Gallic script, an enormous mirror reflects your image behind the bar.  Wine bottles and casks line every horizontal surface.  And while Drohman’s second restaurant Café Presse may have completely stolen my heart, Le Pichet will always be my first love.

The dining is not exactly communal, but the small tables for two are arranged so closely together in the cozy space that you will inevitably strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you.  “What’d you get?” is not an uncommon icebreaker.  Or: “Have you tried the moules-frites…?”  Penn Cove mussels with bacon, leeks and saffron.  The frites are crispy and golden and taste like Belgium.  (They are also the best in town and should not be missed – order them solo with traditional french mayonnaise).

Le Pichet is casual and crowded during lunch, and tends to attract a more upscale scene for dinner.  There are certain items on the menu that you can order all day (le casse croûte), and certain dishes that you can only get during the evening.  Of these, Drohman’s most famous spécialité de la maison is easily the poulet rôti à votre commande, and for good reason.  His remarkable roast chicken is only available upon request, is only served for two, and takes an hour to prepare.  Juicy meat, golden crispy skin, seasonal vegetables marinating in savory drippings… it’s everything you dream a roast chicken could be.  I’ve heard tell that you can phone in your order in advance, but that seems like blasphemy to me.  Enjoy a plate of charcuterie or cheese (or both) and take your time exploring the immense wine list.  Why on earth would you want to get back to the States so quickly?

Despite his classical approach, Drohman continues to innovate and expand his technique.  I’ve noticed in particular that quite a number of curry dishes have been showing up on the menu lately.  During one visit this summer, I was utterly floored by a plate I had never seen before, one salade aux pommes de terre marinées, aux pissenlits et aux lardons (marinated red potatoes tossed with dandelion greens, olives, radish, bacon and red wine vinaigrette).  I couldn’t even imagine what this might taste like, so I was quick to order.  It was probably the most intense salad I can recall eating.  The bitterness of the dandelion greens was countered by the relative sweetness of the vinaigrette and magnified by the spiciness of the radish.  The potatoes acted as necessary buffers between each bite of salad explosion.  I honestly don’t know if I’d order it again – it was a bit much.  More enjoyable were the house-made grilled chipolata sausages with cauliflower and saffron aioli.  The coarsely ground pork sausages were hot and spicy and the cauliflower florets were roasted and crispy.

But now as the autumn approaches, I find myself craving the classics – particularly the gratin lyonnais, a simple and delicious french onion soup with gruyère that will warm your heart and fill your stomach.  I love Le Pichet.  It’s one of a handful of places that truly makes me grateful to live in Seattle.

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