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Café to Café

Bruce Naftaly: A Marmite for All Seasons

By Ronald Holden

Most chefs are super-serious, but when you get to the bottom of the soup bowl at Marmite, the splendid new restaurant on Capitol Hill, you might be tempted to ask, ever so humbly, for a refill. "More soup, please." And Bruce Naftaly, the white-bearded, watch-capped chef, will smile at you mischievously across the kitchen counter and reply, "Marsupials!"

He hums to himself while plating. "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, the Brindisi from Traviata, the quartet from Rigoletto. A bouillon cube would be embarrassed to unwrap itself at Marmite (pronounced Mar MEET, the French word for pot). Forget Swanson's, Campbell's, Progresso. This is otherworldly.

The Soupe du pêcheur (fisherman's soup) at Marmite is one of the best things I've eaten in Seattle. Golden Eye, true cod, salmon, mussels from Taylor shellfish. The fumet is made with halibut bones, onions, and leeks. Top it with a couple of slices of homemade baguette with Gruyère toasted in the oven until the cheese is fully melted. The rouille has intriguing notes of bergamot orange. Silky-pure flavors. Yes, it's $12, and you must wait half an hour or so because it doesn't come off a steam table. Worth every penny.

Naftaly grew up in San Francisco and majored in music at UC Berkeley. He came to Seattle in 1976 to study singing with Carlyle Kelley; he was a baritone with aspirations to "go higher," move up in the world of opera and become a Heldentenor. To pay for his studies, he took a job the first summer as a dishwasher at the legendary Rosellini's Other Place and fell in love with cooking and restaurant life in general. Within a year, he was the head chef at The Other Place, a meteoric rise by any standard. "Seattle's most brilliant young chef," Seattle Weekly called him.

In 1980, with a few friends, he opened a restaurant and charcuterie called Les Copains. Two years later he was heading the kitchen at the Alexis Hotel. In 1985 he and a partner opened Le Gourmand in the then far-off culinary wasteland of Ballard. Not until 1998 did he meet and hire Sara Lavenstein as his pastry chef; she was a London-born actress who moved easily among the rich and famous, and had taken a pastry degree at the French Culinary Institute in New York.

They continued to work together after they married. When they closed Le Gourmand (after 25 years!) Bruce concentrated on his cooking classes; "once a month" quickly became "two or three times a week." Sara opened an artisanal bakery, Amandine, in the Chophouse Row development on Capitol Hill. Then Ericka Burke, who had opened an ambitious restaurant in the project's 11th Avenue storefront, closed it after less than a year, and developer Liz Dunn coaxed Bruce out of "retirement" for another shot at a full-service restaurant and bar.

This time around, the Naftalys have investors to watch over them; not necessarily a bad thing. At his side in the kitchen, Bruce has the stalwart Miles James, veteran of his own deli ventures. The late Peter Cipra's son Karel is on the wait staff. Sara floats between the kitchen and her bakery.

Much of a restaurant's work is resource allocation and time-management in the kitchen, especially if you're making all your stocks and sauces from scratch. There are computer screens to guide the waiters, and printouts for the orders, but the chefs on the line must keep everything in their heads. The simplest dish may require half a dozen ingredients that must be "processed" by the cooks (sliced, peeled, chopped, sautéed, braised, assembled, garnished, etc.). Home cooks increasingly take shortcuts, and so do many restaurant chefs, but not Naftaly.

Naftaly's mushrooms on toast, as classic a breakfast as you can imagine, uses button mushrooms but he mixes it up: black trumpets and wild yellowfoot chanterelles sautéed with butter, shallots, and herbs; deglazed with Madeira, stirred in heavy cream, and reduced over high heat.

For his Shepherd's Pie, Naftaly starts with black radishes and baby turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and celery, plus carrots. They're simmered in his own chicken stock before being smothered in a ramekin with creamy mashed potatoes and a topping of Gruyère. Served in a 4-inch marmite, it is the most ordinary-looking dish imaginable, and at first bite you might be surprised at how simple it tastes. But that is part of the point Naftaly is making. It's not six or seven different vegetables, but a single blended flavor: "winter vegetables." A chorus is made up of individual voices, but the effect of the multiple registers is more than the sum of altos and sopranos, baritones, and basses. It doesn't have to shout to make its point; "Va, pensiero" (the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi's "Nabucco") barely rises above a whisper, yet became Italy's unofficial national anthem.

How do you know when a stock is ready? When its ingredients have nothing left to give. The unassuming "chicken broth" on the lunch menu at Marmite is a case in point. Forget boxed or canned "stocks," this is from another dimension. It has a rich, golden color, and aromas you might associate with deeply roasted beef. Yet this is chicken. Plain, it's $7.50; with buckwheat noodles and leeks, it's $9.

As for lunchtime sandwiches, the more said, the better, but I'll be brief. Merguez sausage with caramelized onions on a baguette; Canadian bacon and half an avocado with garlic mayonnaise on a whole-wheat roll; crab and prawn with lemon mayo on toasted sourdough rye. Salads, too: white beans, apple, and chicory; celery root remoulade; spinach, watercress, and Jerusalem artichokes. The emphasis is always on flavors and textures that create a unique experience.

Their liquor license hasn't come through yet, but when it does, sometime in February, there will be a separate little bar, Spirit in the Bottle, that will be curated by Sara Naftaly. This was also her domain at Sambar at the old Le Gourmand location in Ballard.

Also before the end of February, if all goes well, is a full dinner menu. Soups, of course, because how can you not. But appetizers like charcuterie, duck liver, and salmon rillettes. Main courses like a rabbit cacciatore, and spring lamb (which Naftaly will get from Jeff and Katya Rogers' artisanal Aspen Hollow Sheep Station in the Snoqualmie Valley). And foraged vegetables like nettles. The desserts will come from Sara: chocolate mousse, rice fritters, macarons.

So come on, you marsupials! Possums, wombats, and roos. Critics and diners, farmers, and vintners. Stand and applaud the return of a master.

February 2017

Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.

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