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Café to Café


John Sundstrom

A Man for All Three Seasons

By Ronald Holden

Four restaurants and a cookbook, who dat? The Dukester? T-Doug? Ethan? Renee? Yes to all, plus one you could easily overlook: John Sundstrom, the zen perfectionist behind Lark, Bitter/Raw, Slab Sandwich, and Southpaw Pizza. His cookbook from Sasquatch Publishing, Lark: Cooking Wild in the Northwest, highlights his signature small plates.

So, class, first question: how many seasons are there in a year? If you say "four," you're not exactly disqualified, but you don't earn any points. The right answer, says Lark chef John Sundstrom, is three. In the Northwest, anyway. The first season will be familiar to anyone who's been in Seattle for a calendar year: "Mist." Cold, hazy, damp, gray for month upon month. "The lack of blue can be relentless," Sundstrom says. The second is, simply, "Evergreen," the long, moist season that defines our flora. The third is the very short window when the patience pays off, "Bounty."

Since we're in the midst of Mist, let's see what Sundstrom proposes. How about this? Scallops choucroute with ham hock? A "misty" favorite, especially right now, when we can get those exquisite Alaska weathervane scallops. Once things warm up (April, one hopes), we'll get to the Evergreen season. What'll it be? Rabbit with morels? Or wild salmon with fingerling potatoes? We don't need a cookbook for "Bounty," do we? Just stay out of the way of the ingredients. By the way, one of Sundstrom's mantras is "Always Be Making Stock," be it clams, cheese rinds, mushrooms, corn, or leeks, a great habit for home cooks to adopt.

Sundstrom grew up in Utah, where "scallions on a baked potato was considered exotic and pizzas were square." He made eclairs out of a cookbook recipe when he was 10 or 11, and then, while he was still in high school, he toughed it out as the new kid in the kitchen of a Japanese slice & dice restaurant in Salt Lake City. He admired his grandmother's abilities as a baker, but knew he had to leave, so he took off for the New England Culinary Academy in Vermont.

By the mid-aughts, he was here in Seattle, working the line at Dahlia Lounge, then running the kitchen at the W Hotel's original restaurant, Earth & Ocean. Along the way, Sundstrom was named a Food & Wine "Best New Chef." When the opportunity came for a place of his own, he jumped from downtown to Capitol Hill, a tiny spot on 12th, opposite Seattle University, in what was considered, back then, a marginal neighborhood. You'd expect to find campus beer joints here, even a casual Parisian-style spot called Café Presse. But high-end small plates? That took a leap of faith. Yet Sundstrom and his wife JM Enos (expecting their first child) and business partner Kelly Ronan signed a lease.

Big hit, but the wrong space. Kitchen too small, not enough seats. "It takes a lot of people to run a restaurant," Sundstrom says, "and a lot of guests to make it last." The first notion was to turn the house next door into a bar called Licorous; it's now a stand-alone watering hole called Canon. Fortunately, Capitol Hill had lots of old stores and warehouses just waiting to be renovated, and one of them was only a couple of blocks away, the Central Agency Building at 10th & Seneca. Sundstrom ended up taking over all four units: a basement event space (Off the Record), a lunch spot (Slab Sandwich & Pie), a bar and private dining room (Bitter/Raw), as well as a new incarnation of Lark itself. The rehab project was awarded Seattle's Restaurant Design of the Year award.

The nightly happy hour at Bitter/Raw features a traditional Americano (Campari, vermouth, soda) as well as two adventurous concoctions (My Fellow Scribe, Five Dollar Buck) featuring Italian Alpine bitters called Génépy (pine) and Meletti (anise). What a welcome change from the traditional five-dollar well drink. The Americano may well be the perfect aperitivo: well-balanced flavors of sweet vermouth and bitter Campari, enlivened with soda (like its cousin, the Aperol spritz) rather than fortified with gin. You can drink two of these without falling over, before heading out to dinner, and all you have to nibble are those adorable and tasty sunchoke chips seasoned with a few flakes of truffle salt.

While Lark settled into its new digs, the old space became a pop-up for Holly Smith's Cafe Juanita, which was undergoing a renovation of its own. Now that Smith is back on her home turf, Sundstrom turned his attention back to 12th Avenue and proposed a pizzeria. (Say, what?) Well, fine, pizza that's a bit different. Left-handed pizza, if you will. Casual take-out or counter service; bleached walls, pre-mixed cocktails. Relatively expensive pizzas, if truth be told, so they better be good. Six dollars for a slice, meat extra.

Salami is nothing more than a generic word for sausage; a salumeria is a shop that sells cold cuts. Italy being a farming nation, there are vineyards to make wine; fields of grain to make pasta and bread, pastureland for cows; milk to make cheese, and whey to feed pigs; and pigs, well, to make salami. Prosciutto, of course, salted and air-dried in the cold, moist forest hillsides; mortadella in the northern center of Bologna; 'nduja from Calabria; pepperoni, with beef added; pancetta, guanciale, speck, coppa. Hard, soft, and in between, something like 300 varieties across the Italian boot. One of which is called soppressata, though some spell it with only one P: sopressata. More important is whether it's soppressata from the south (Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia) or the north (Tuscany, Liguria). The southern version is cured; the northern version simply pressed.

There's also a Spanish version, from the Balearic Islands of Majorca, midway between Algiers and Barcelona. It's called sobrassada, also made from pork bits and pieces, and spiced with paprika. This is the version-fatter, softer, and spicier than the others-that you find on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. And it's what you find on the "soppressata" pizza at Southpaw.

And so it pains me to mention that the crust, the vaunted "crunchewy" crust of this vaunted pizza, is, gaaah, way too salty. Sure, you want the crust to be flavorful; you don't want the customer to eat the toppings and leave the crust behind. So the kitchen makes sure there's extra olive oil and salt on the edge of the pie. But hold on a second. Whoa! Dial that back a notch, please. Two or three notches, even. (Yeah, nachos. I get it.) Much is made of the flour, from Small Family Farms in Walla Walla, which resembles the finely milled, soft-wheat "Tipo 00" imported from Italy. Much is made of its gratifying tendency to produce blisters in the 800-degree oven. But it's just too salty. And, at $6 for a "plain" slice, I'll think hard about nibbling the crust next time I come. And come back I will, straight for the Title Fight (mushroom, lardo, garlic, thyme, arugula), with an extra topping of red-wine oxtail. And another Negroni, please.

Photos by Ronald Holden

January 2017

Ronald Holden's new book about Seattle's food ecosystem, FORKING SEATTLE, is now available from, , or for the Kindle download,

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