After nearly a decade of dining in Seattle, I finally – finally – made it to the esteemed Le Gourmand this past weekend. Hallowed amongst food enthusiasts and Francophiles, chefs Bruce and Sara Naftaly are revered for their impeccable cuisine and lifelong dedication to local and organic food culture. A full quarter of the printed menu is committed to acknowledging their farm sources and providers. Still, the Naftalys are hardly newcomers to the locavore bandwagon, and in fact the evening’s experience called to mind Alice Waters and her pioneering approach to cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. There was an ease and elegance to the food that can only come from years and years of devotion, and countless mornings spent in the garden.
Since I never knew Le Gourmand during its previous incarnation, I can only imagine the transformation it must have undergone after a (reportedly) dramatic remodel early last year. The space is wonderful, like nowhere I’ve ever been, a singular room out of time. Like a fairytale. This is in no small part due to the wizened visages of the three hand-carved puppets watching over you from the far wall (the puppets were not nearly as freaky as I had heard – really, the craftsmanship, concept and execution were singular. They were also quite a bit larger than I had anticipated). Even though this is serious cooking, and you will be dropping serious cash, the puppets remind you not to take things too seriously.
The dining room is very small, very intimate and very relaxed. White tablecloths, a porthole peering into the kitchen through an upholstered swinging door and soft light bursting from wonderful, exploding blossoms of glass. Like if an allium went supernova. The music is unobtrusive but upbeat, the pace of the service is leisurely, and my partner and I could actually whisper to each other across the table (despite the constant low level murmur drifting through the doorway from the Naftaly’s adjacent, equally beloved lounge, Sambar). Really my description cannot even begin to capture the magic of the place.
Nor, I’m afraid, can I fully do justice to the exquisite four hour, seven-course Late Summer tasting menu that I enjoyed. But I will try. The tasting menu doesn’t actually feature any of the items listed on the regular menu, though they are happy to substitute if so desired. Also unlisted: a mini-flight of various wines to accompany the courses (there was nothing mini about it – the pours were immensely generous). Our server was very thoughtful and attentive, easy-going and cheerful. There was a fluidity to the service that I thoroughly enjoyed, a subtle capriciousness (the wines seemed paired mostly on the fly, the sorbet course was still TBD, etc.)
I started with a remarkable glass of Sancerre rosé – full-bodied, with a nice mineral bite, a perfect way to end the season. The first course was a tiny cup of radish soup (!!), smooth and creamy, simmered in duck stock and topped with fresh julienned radishes and Claudio Corallo cocoa-nibs. As you well know, I adore radishes. It was perfect pink. My partner opted for à la carte, but joined me on this course with a beautiful bowl of heirloom tomato soup – deep red, rich and earthy. Next up was a screamingly good pork sausage meatball stuffed with foie gras. The dollop of paté was almost (almost) upstaged by the freshness of the herbs used in the loosely packed sausage – marjoram, savory, thyme, and Italian parsley. It also didn’t hurt that the pork was from Wooly Pigs. An absolutely sensational dish.
For the third course, a tantalizing bowl of early season chanterelles bathed in a decadent cream sauce that reminded me of butterscotch and apricots. The mushrooms were meaty and warm, tiny caps mixed in amongst the larger ones. Thankfully, the portion sizes were well-controlled throughout the evening, as this dish in particular was exceedingly rich. A somewhat sweet Vouvray bridged this course into the next – local Albacore tuna gratin, layered with basil, sweet red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and baked in a scalloped half shell with comté and gruyère cheeses. Perhaps out of everything I ate during the tasting menu, this dish in particular was closest to my heart. There was something so soulful about it, so comforting, the flavors so well-balanced, that I found myself mopping up the shell with the previously untouched bread on the table. It’s no wonder that the basil guy gets his very own special shout-out on the menu (respect due, Dennis Williams). Simply unparalleled.
Before the main course, a small scoop of sorbet was served as a palate cleanser. Apparently they had settled on a sweet and light blend of honey, nectarines and champagne (with a tiny garnish of that incredible savory from earlier – an herb that, until I sat down to dinner, I was entirely ignorant of). The sorbet served it’s function, but was otherwise neither here nor there. No matter, as soon the squab was upon me. Bathed in an earthy lobster mushroom sauce, the medallions of tender, pink pigeon meat were wrapped in chewy grape leaves straight from Le Gourmand’s garden arbor. I found it a great deal richer than the usual poultry, with more depth of flavor, and very moist. The squab was served with a plate of vibrant vegetables – kale, cabbage, new and purple potatoes, butter, some salt and pepper, more butter. My partner’s boneless rack of lamb in a plum and garlic sauce was undeniably brilliant (although it’s worth noting that it was listed on the menu as “wrapped in house-made bacon”, said bacon nowhere to be found on the plate. Not that this was necessarily an issue, but there was never any explanation).
As all things appropriately Euro should be, the final course was Salade le Gourmand: green and leafy lettuces straight from the garden, tossed with colorful nasturtiams and other edible flowers in a Blackwood Canyon Chardonnay vinaigrette with mustard seed. It was a little bit bitter, and a whole lot earthy. The best possible way to end a meal, unless you’ve somehow managed to save room for one of Sara Naftaly’s desserts. Sadly, we were informed, Sara had been called away unexpectedly to attend to her son who had gotten into a skateboarding accident (although, we were assured, he was going to be just fine). This may explain why the chocolate soufflé we ordered was runny in the center, not cooked all the way through. There was a rich hazelnut sauce to pour over the soufflé, and best of all, a garnish of golden raspberries and blackberries. I can’t even remember the last time I ate golden raspberries, and that was about all the dessert I needed anyway.
As I contemplated the meal through a haze of synaptic fireworks, Bruce Naftaly came out from the kitchen to introduce himself and thank us for our patronage. I was starstruck and awkward as ever, but he was appropriately gracious and humble. We said our farewells and wandered down the street, savoring the fleeting summer night. It was truly an epic dinner, and I had one of the most intense food highs I’ve had in ages. Endorphins for days. In many ways, Le Gourmand is completely off the map – not least of all physically, tucked away on Northwest Market in that little area of town that’s not quite Fremont, but not yet Ballard (Frelard?). So too, it seems to reside on the edge of the epicurean consciousness. Like a fairytale.