As they say, the third time’s the charm.
The first time we tried going to Elemental was about two years ago with friends. They had recently gone for dinner, raved about how good it was, and really wanted to take us. Great! They said you need to get there early so we showed up at 5:30 with them. The five tables were already full, and we got the cold shoulder from the owners. No reservations, no waitlist, “no we won’t call you on your cell – come back in a few hours and try again.” Our friends weren’t too thrilled about the response, so we left and had a lovely dinner someplace else.
Later that summer on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, Dawn suggested we give Elemental another shot. Having read that you stand a good chance of getting one of the 14 seats for dinner if you arrive before the 5-6 cocktail hour, we left early. We took a bus down to the U District, strolled along the Burke-Gilman trail, and arrived at the restaurant at ten-to-5, where another couple was standing reading a small handwritten sign hanging there: “Closed tonight due to a hand injury. See you next time.” Hm. Two strikes, I thought.
Fast-forward two years to a cold and gray June day. Dawn, knowing that I had all but written off Elemental by now, bravely tossed out the idea of trying to go once more. Our friend DoRon had just declared Elemental his favorite restaurant in Seattle, so shouldn’t we at least try it? “Fine,” I said, “but this is it.” We followed the same plan as before: bus, walk, get in line early. We arrived and took up spots number nine and ten in the line. However, that was no guarantee we’d get in, given that people ahead of us might have friends joining them. Dawn could see I was already scheming a fallback plan for the evening, but as luck would have it, we were seated ten minutes later. The poor group of four in front of us didn’t fare as well – there are only two “big” tables at Elemental (for 4 or 6 people), and they were the third big group. Lesson learned, I supposed: get there early for two people, or really early for more.
When we sat down, I actually felt relieved! After all of the anticipation, we could finally sit and relax for a few hours. Cocktails and truffled popcorn mellowed things out, and by the time dinner started an hour later, we were ready to eat. Phred, co-owner and our waiter this evening, asked if we wanted to see menus or if he should just bring us food. Our preference is to always let the kitchen make whatever they want, so we went with that option and never even saw a menu.
And so began our nine-course meal of shared plates and interesting wine pairings. An intense cold asparagus soup was followed by a plate of delicate scallops, radishes, and watercress drizzled with olive oil. The one food that Dawn generally avoids is scallops, but these were so tender and fresh that they had practically no resemblance to the bivalve as we knew it. Next were two stacked blini with salmon gravlax, roe, and crème fraîche, followed by gnocchi in a cream sauce, a puff pastry with chickpeas, and a perfectly-seasoned white fish with sautéed zucchini and a small egg custard. You might think we were completely stuffed at this point, but the serving sizes were perfect – we were enjoying everything, and still looking forward to more. The main meal wrapped up with an ancho chili-glazed squab, and a beef tenderloin with cream sauce and cabbage. Finally, three desserts arrived altogether – buttermilk ice cream and strawberries with chocolate syrup, a thin slice of chocolate mousse cake, and a Greek dessert of cheese-stuffed crepe drizzled in honey. I could get used to every meal ending with three desserts!
And let’s not forget about the wine. For an absurdly underpriced $20 per person, we enjoyed nearly a dozen paired wines – dry sherry, dry white, sweet white, oaked white, reds of all kinds (including an amazing Rioja tempranillo that was the perfect pairing for the ancho chili-glazed squab), and several dessert wines. (Now you know why we didn’t drive to dinner tonight!) Phred cleared each round of wine glasses as he brought the next, which I really appreciated. With that much wine, I don’t like to feel pressured to drink everything, but it’s nice to enjoy the different tastes with each course.
As we had read before going, Phred doesn’t like to tell you what you’re eating or drinking at Elemental, at least not until you’ve finished the course. He obligingly confirmed (or corrected) a few guesses I made about the wines as he cleared glasses. Not knowing what you’re having is all part of the experience, reminiscent of some of our fine dining adventures abroad. Rather than lazily allowing your analytical process to tell you what’s in front of you (“the menu says this is a pinot noir”), you find yourself relying instead purely on your senses to interpret the food and drink (“hm, this wine has a slight acidic taste on the tongue initially, then starts tasting like raspberries”).
I’m glad DoRon threw down the gauntlet and declared Elemental his favorite restaurant, otherwise I might have completely missed this amazing experience after having dismissed it years ago.
What are your favorite restaurants in Seattle? Where have you had a particularly memorable dining experience?
Elemental @ Gasworks
3309 Wallingford Ave N, Seattle