It's a bit of a letdown to find that l'Oursin doesn't really live up to its name. Taylor Shellfish serves oysters. Red Cow serves steak. Chick-Fil-A serves chicken. If you go to a restaurant called Lasagna, after all, you should know what to expect.


The year is 2009, and at an office in Manhattan a young man named JJ Proville is typing copy for a website called Typical stories: a profile of Chicago chef Grant Aschatz, an interview with Seattle chef Adam Stevenson. In another part of the building there's a designer named Zac Overman. The two men connect briefly but not yet definitively. Proville (who was raised in France and has a business degree from Montreal) switches from writing to cooking, Overman to beverages. By chance, really, they cross paths again, this time in Seattle. Overman is behind the bar at Sitka & Spruce, and at Rob Roy, Proville in the kitchen at Il Corvo and Art of the Table. They decide to go for it and launch a kickstarter campaign to raise more than $25,000. They find a building under construction at 1315 E. Jefferson, in the no-man's land across from Seattle University. After months of hammering and sawing, they have just opened l'Oursin, the French word for sea urchin. Fifty seats, so definitely not a hole-in-the-wall; in fact quite spacious compared to most neighborhood restaurants, with an expansive kitchen and a generous bar space.

The sea urchin is a fearsome critter, the size of a golf ball and spikier than a porcupine. You sure don't want to step on one if you're out on a saltwater beach, barefoot. Their close cousins are sand dollars, which get on with their lives without armor but don't carry the sea urchin's prize: egg sacs filled with delicate roe. Otters don't mind the spikes, neither do lobsters, crabs, or long-toothed fish like wrasse, wolf eel, and sheephead. Ricci di mare, the Italians call this delicacy. Uni in Japanese. Oursin in French. Put on rubber gloves and grab hold; they're easy to open with an oyster knife.

The Happy Hour crowd that fills Eric Banh's steak house next door hasn't yet spilled over to L'Oursin, but it shouldn't take long. The drinks card alone is worth stopping in for, starting with an old-fashioned Alsatian boilermaker known as a Picon Bière, $10. (In Seattle, boilermakers are sometimes called sake bombs.) It's a shot of Amer Picon and a schooner of Kronenbourg 1664, the Picon being one of those syrupy bitters like Fernet Branca or Cynar; the real thing isn't even sold in the US, so bartenders make their own. Another highlight: the house version of a Negroni, called Sur La Côte, $12, which foregoes Campari in favor of a bright shot of marigold liqueur called Araceli.

Kathryn Olson, a former sales rep for a national importer, shepherds the wine program, which is focused on natural wines, all but one from France. "Natural" in this case meaning fermented with native yeasts rather than the sulfur-plus-commercial yeast that makes so many wines taste pretty much the same. On the red side of the list, wines from Beaujolais, the Rhone, and the Languedoc that seemed more eccentric than refined, imperfect and weird rather than wonderful. The best one was described (Proville's words, no doubt) as "Abraham Lincoln palming a regulation basketball."

The best way to navigate the menu is to order a collection of appetizers. (Proville, being half French, correctly refers to them as entrées; the main courses are plats.) The menu changes depending upon the supply chain, so this week's ocean smelt might become marinated herring next time. But you should definitely dip your spoon into the foie gras with sea urchin mousse and pull up a decadent scoop of goose liver enveloped in unctuous roe. Don't miss the sweetbreads in Calvados cream, either. If you're a fan of baked oysters, l'Oursin chops them into a creamy sauce of leeks, tops them with breadcrumbs and runs them under the broiler. The main courses include a couple of fish options and a roast chicken; the check may seem high but includes a 20 percent gratuity.

L'Oursin is squarely in the tradition of Seattle's authentic French restaurants, a tradition that started with François Kissel and the Brasserie Pittsbourg and lives on today at Le Pichet downtown and Café Presse, 1117 12th Ave., (in contrast to the short-lived Vivre Bistro, 1222 E. Pine). But you'd think, with a shellfish name and a stated philosophy of "fresh" and "natural" ingredients, that there would be oysters, or at least mussels and clams, but no, at least not yet. (For oysters on the Hill, head straight to Bar Melusine, 1060 E. Union; they've got half a dozen varieties on the half-shell.) The sea-urchin mousse atop the slice of foie gras torchon is the closest l'Oursin gets to crustaceans, unless you count the prawn broth in which the kitchen poaches its black cod.

Then again, it's the first time these gents have run their own show, so I'm hoping they'll figure out before long how to get past the urchin's spiky defenses. A Mediterranean bouillabaisse, perhaps? A creamy mouclade of mussels from Charentes? Dungeness crab cakes? Spaghetti with tuna roe? House-smoked King salmon? A seafood version of pho? Traditional or innovative, it's time for a dramatic move.

The Burger Economy

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Burger collage.jpg

Seattle burgers, clockwise from bottom right: Feed Co., Dick's, Skillet, Goldfinch, John Howie Steak, BluWater, Daniel's, Coastal.

If the world should end between the election and the inauguration, don't let yourself get vaporized without having made at least one quick trip to 24th and East Union, where Scott Staples has opened a spot called Feed Co. We don't want to see a repeat of this summer's congealed traffic, so keep a laser-like focus on that corner; we shall return shortly.

It's probably futile to complain about restaurant prices, I know, but here goes anyway. A hamburger at Dick's used to cost 19 cents, many decades ago. A Deluxe today will set you back $3.10, fries extra. And we can (and we do) raise our one lonely voice in the wilderness and argue that the fries are unacceptably greasy. But the burger itself? Terrific!

The humble burger is still the least expensive item on many menus, undercutting chicken, pork chops, mussels, even pasta.

Some years ago, for an assignment by the Seattle edition of Eater, I queried the local burger chains about their products. Dick's, not surprisingly, was the only one that declined to reveal any information at all, which they had every right to do. Kidd Valley let us know that they order 2,500 lbs of meat a week (from a source they wouldn't disclose), and that they sell over 600,000 burgers a year. John Howie Steak (in Bellevue's Bravern shopping complex) sells 500 burgers a week, the most popular being the mesquite-grilled USDA Prime burger (half a pound of meat) with bacon and Beechers Reserve Cheddar, $16.

So how come Coastal Kitchen, 429 15th Ave. E., thinks it can get away with a price tag of $17.95 for its Coastal Burger? (Fine, the beef comes from Great Northern Cattle Company in the grasslands of Montana, but still.) Want bacon? Another $3.50. So $21.45 for bacon & cheese. Plus a three percent "Seattle Surcharge" 64 cents "to support living wages for Coastal Kitchen employees." The bun was too small to hold the patty properly; it fell apart after the first bite. The meat was dry. Other than a ramekin of ketchup, there was no mustard, no mayo, no special sauce; the dill pickle spear was the best thing on the plate.

But we flogged that cow to death already. Let's take a quick look around the neighborhood at the burgers, starting with Leschi. Daniel's Broiler, 200 Lake Washington Blvd, serves its Classic Steakhouse Burger for $16 from 4 to 6:30 at happy hour. BluWater Bistro, 102 Lake Washington Blvd., charges $14.50 for its burger, lunch or dinner. Newcomer Meet the Moon, 120 Lake Washington Blvd, offers a House Burger for $15, fries included, bacon extra.

In Madison Park, the BeachHouse Bar & Grill, 1927 43rd Ave E, features a house burger with cheese and fries for $15. The Attic, 4226 E. Madison, offers a bacon cheeseburger for $14. And Bing's, 4200 E. Madison, comes in at $13. Only as we get into Madison Valley do we find a high price, where Luc, 2800 E. Madison, charges $16 (but you get aioli!). Earlier this year we sang the praises of the "Italian Black-Bean" burger at vegetarian Cafe Flora, 2901 E. Madison. You don't miss the traditional all-beef patty one bit; this is as juicy and complete a taste experience as you can imagine, and it's just $13.

Atop the hill, the Madrona Arms, 1138 34th Ave., puts out a Madrona Burger (with all the fixings on the side) for $15, fries included. The heavyweight (in terms of provenance) is Red Cow's, at 1423 34th Ave. The happy hour version of its burger is $10, the dinner presentation (with white cheddar, bacon, tomato, caramelized sweet onion, and chili aioli) is $17.

Scott Staples in Zoe kitchen.JPGSo now we can return to Feed Co. A word about the owner and chef, Scott Staples. His first spot was in Belltown, a charming neighborhood bistro called Restaurant Zoë in a vintage brick building with high ceilings, a dramatic chandelier and an ambitious menu that featured cuts like braised lamb or pork shanks before anyone else in Seattle was touching them. Staples added a tavern on Capitol Hill, Quinn's, at 1001 E. Pike, to indulge his populist side. (Even so, the burger clocks in at $16.) But then he opened a spot in Fremont, at 4302 Fremont Ave N. called Uneeda Burger, and he seemed to have hit his mark. The opening salvo is $5 for a quarter-pound patty, romaine, pickles, and sauce. Then it escalates: more meat, more condiments, until you get to a $13.50 Medi-Terra lamb burger with peppers, manchego, and lemon. There's even an upscale wine list.

And it still wasn't enough for Staples, who now has his own management company called Staples Restaurant Group. His next venture was called Feed Co., located at 7990 Leary Way NE, in Redmond. The weigh-in for the burgers is still a quarter pound, but you can add more meat, cheese, and so on. But it's interesting to check out the upgrades like the Blue Onion ($8.75), which has caramelized onions for sweetness, blue cheese for saltiness, arugula for bitterness, and Quinn's own mayo-like sauce for a creamy mouth-feel. The onions on the Texicana are frizzled (hand-chopped on the griddle) and a grilled jalapeño, the bim burger has ginger beef and pickled daikon. At these prices, it's no wonder that fries are extra, which means you don't have to be tempted. Instead, you can suck down a milkshake, made with Snoqualmie ice cream; I much enjoyed the blueberry-blackberry blend.

Feed Co.'s latest outpost, at the eastern edge of Madrona, is not large, and the menu (short on alcoholic options) is not designed for lingering. Instead, Staples has leased half the vacant lot across the street so that moms on their way home or dads out shopping can call ahead, park across the street, and scoop up their family orders. Beats bringing home a soggy pizza in my book.

Note: This story first appeared in


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