If you ever need to find me, I suggest you try looking just around the corner of 12th and Madison on Capitol Hill. Over the course of the past year, Jim Drohman’s neighborhood bar Café Presse has quickly cemented itself as my very favorite restaurant in Seattle. It’s probably the first place I have ever wanted to eat my way through the entire menu. And dozens of visits later, I still haven’t managed to accomplish this, for a number of reasons.
For starters, Café Presse has the greatest Croque Madame on earth. The creamy béchamel and gruyère are melted over the soft baked ham sandwich, and the egg served sunny side up on top is fried perfectly every single time. I love cutting into the vibrant yellow yolk and watching it slowly drip down the sides of the sandwich. It’s a work of art. Additionally, any of the other sandwiches en baguette are going to satisfy. From pork rillettes to jambon cru, with a side of the best frites in town, you can’t go wrong. Don’t miss the grilled sardines with bibb lettuce – salty and smoky and straight from the sea.
Speaking of bibb lettuce, the salade verte is a masterpiece. Crispy and vibrant green leaves stacked one on top of the other, lightly coated with a mustardy vinaigrette and scattered hazelnuts. It’s simple and splendid (and it’s only $4). And that’s another wonderful thing about Café Presse – for the caliber of the cuisine, the prices are astronomically fair. Particularly the wine, which is served in variously sized pitchers à la chef Drohman’s other beloved restaurant Le Pichet. And though many of the items on the menu are similar to his downtown bistro (and likewise many of the dishes rotate seasonally), Café Presse is ultimately a much more casual and relaxed space. I like to sit at the bar and sip on a demi pichet of La Chaussynette and just absorb the scene.
The crowd is more diverse and dynamic than downtown, no doubt due to the location (next to Seattle University) and the hours (open daily from 7AM to 2AM!). The space is bright and airy, with wood ceilings and brick walls crisscrossed by giant black industrial girders. The back of the restaurant is separated from the front by the kitchen, and is generally more subdued. The front holds the bar and several green-topped tables bathed in natural light during the day via the epic skylight above. There is a newstand and framed soccer jerseys and a great big beautiful clock hanging from the ceiling. There is always something good playing on the stereo. Café Presse truly succeeds at being the “sort of place that Parisians use as a kind of alternative living room”.
On a recent visit, a group of us shared a simple bowl of almonds sautéed in olive oil and coarse sea salt along with gâteau au foie de volaille, a terrine of smooth chicken liver and dried cherry compote. The almonds were crunchy and the pâté was cool and rich. I was delighted to see that Drohman’s famous caramelized onion soup was back on the menu for the Autumn, and ordered up a big bowl. Served piping hot, with two huge baguette croutons and melted comté cheese… tell me one thing more than this. How about the roasted chicken? Same drill as at Le Pichet, order for two, allow an hour to prepare, allow days to recover.
If you happened to be in Seattle for one night only, this would be the place I would take you for a truly authentic, local and unique meal and experience. I can’t recommend it highly enough.