Back in the 1990s, when I was leading groups of nouveau-dotcom-riche 'Merkins on gastronomic tours through Burgundy and Bordeaux, I'd be asked to differentiate between cafés and bars, between bistros and brasseries.
Technically, they're all "restaurants," but the differences come down to ambition.
A place like Café Presse on Capitol Hill really is a café, as is its downtown sibling, Le Pichet. Classic French food, a short menu, careful but no-fuss preparations. Most cafés also have standup counters for coffee & croissants, sandwiches, snacks and drinks. French bistros (or bistrots, to use the alternative French spelling) are similarly unfussy, small spots that often serve only one main meal a day to a neighborhood clientele. Then there are brasseries, which have a larger menu and are open longer hours. The so-called grandes brasseries are found in Paris (and a few other big cities): vast, bustling, brightly lit, almost always with an oyster bar, and an enormous selection of dishes at all hours. The most famous, La Coupole, is the sort of place where tourists and out-of-towners can go without fear of being humiliated by supercilious waiters; the staff goes out of its way to make travelers feel at home.
Ted Furst, longtime fixture on Seattle's culinary scene, calls his two-year-old, 140-seat restaurant overlooking the marina at Carillon Point "Le Grand Bistro Américain," but it's really more of a brasserie. Whatever you call it, though, there's nothing on the east side like it, and nothing in Seattle other than, perhaps, Bastille and Toulouse Petit that compare in the scope and scale of their francophilia. (I will venture that they are also more puffed-up in their decor and more pretentious in their approach to food.)
I was Furst's guest this week as we tasted our way through GBA's menu, which was gratifying and comforting: a dozen oysters on the half shell; an assortment of charcuterie (and, yes, cornichons); that French café standby, "salade de chèvre chaud" with toasted goat cheese and hazelnuts; a cassoulet with duck confit (beans slightly undercooked); a beautiful boeuf bourguignonne (the charms of which were recently extolled in the Wall Street Journal); and a Northwest take on a Mediterranean bouillabaisse with rockfish, steelhead, albacore, mussels, and a giant prawn, fragrant with saffron and a big dab of tangy rouille.
Sure, there are seafood places, steakhouses and 24-hour joints with elaborate menus, where it takes an hour just to read through the choices, and that's before the server comes by to push the daily specials. (You have to ask yourself, how many of the items are simply parked in the freezer until some chump orders one and "Chef Mike" sticks it in the nuker.) Everything at GBA is fresh, though, and prepared to order under the watchful eye of veteran exec chef (Met Grill, Spitfire Grill, Daniel's) Jeff Slemaker.
Furst began cooking professionally at the age of 19; he worked at Il Bistro, Saleh al Lago, Place Pigalle among others. He and Tom Douglas opened Cafe Sport together (in what's now called Etta's, still part of the T-Doug empire). Furst teamed up with Peter Lewis to open Campagne before moving into the world of corporate restaurants. For the Schwartz Brothers group he developed Chandler's Crabhouse, Cucina! Cucina!, Spazzo, and Daniel's Broiler. He was a pioneer in Seattle's evolution from steak and frozen fish and could have gone quietly into the twilight of "respected elder statesmen."
But he had one more restaurant in him, and, by golly, he wanted to get it right. He already knew the space at Carillon Point; he'd originally opened it himself as Cucina! Cucina! (It later became a Bluewater Bistro.) What intrigued Furst was its flexibility: lakefront, outdoor seating for 90 guests in good weather, and a warm interior for Seattle's cool gray season. Says Furst: "In these chilly dark days we crave comfort foods, and the French have been perfecting the art of comfort food for generations."
Indeed, pickling, smoking, curing, fermenting and culturing the bounties of the harvest provide us with the cheese, sausage, smoked fish, pickles, pâtés we think of as soul-satisfying. "With a plate of this stuff in front of you," says Furst, "you can't be unhappy, no matter what the weather is doing."
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