So why, exactly, are we waiting until nine to go?” protested my friend the Good Doctor. “We can eat at the bar—it’s first-come, first-serve.” Anything sounded better than the pathetic reservation time I had been able to get, so I texted my friend Ann and said, “Meet us there now!” When we converged on Montlake Cut at six-thirty on a cold Friday night, almost the entire bar was ours for the taking. We claimed a choice corner, and for a good thirty minutes we actually conversed without shouting in the welcoming room, with colorful wooden oars suspended from the ceiling and photographs of sailing regattas and a Bainbridge Island–Seattle ferry schedule hung on whitewashed-looking walls. Then the crowds showed up and just kept coming.
Crowds were inevitable given that Montlake Cut is the most recent project of Nick Badovinus, the personable Dallas chef and restaurateur behind the popular Neighborhood Services restaurants and Offsite Kitchen, a sandwich and burger bar. The anticipation factor had also been heightened by the months of delays that Montlake had experienced before it opened, exhaustively chronicled in the food media. Finally, curiosity was no doubt piqued by the Seattle factor, the mysterious appeal of that alternately dreary and glorious Northwest Coast city where Badovinus spent the first 25 of his 45 years. (The restaurant’s name refers to the forested canal that separates Lake Washington from Puget Sound.) When I spoke to Badovinus later about the motivation behind his new venture, Seattle weather was on his mind. “I love it up there,” he said, “but the sun checks out right about the end of October, and it can be pretty gray until May. You need places where you can step out of the cold and chill and into something that warms and cheers you. You need those communal gathering points. And besides, I’ve always wanted to do a little restaurant that cures my homesickness.”
What he didn’t have to say is that in Seattle, the culinary default is seafood. We were tempted to have a round of the day’s oysters from the “left” and “right” coasts, but we decided instead to check out a couple of the other items from the cold bar. A long white platter came adorned with overlapping squares of yellowtail in a rich, coppery-colored dashi-ponzu broth, dotted with trout roe and topped with micro-cress. Were the pieces of fish fresh? Quite. Were they precision-cut? No. Were they briny and satisfying to eat? Definitely. Our next choice, a neatly molded log of ahi tuna tartare, came bumped up with harissa and a splash of sesame oil (which makes everything better); alongside was a pile of house potato chips sprinkled with snappy togarashi powder. Still in the mood for something cool, we ordered the steak tartare, which arrived in the company of a crusty baguette and a dab of mayo spiked with gochujang, the South Korean chile paste. Actually, if I hadn’t been very hungry, I would have ordered one of the two tartares and a wedge salad (classed up with Point Reyes blue cheese dressing) and been perfectly sated.
As all these dishes showed, Badovinus was doing what he does best: modernizing and elevating the familiar. “I’m not an artist,” he told me. “Food is not a canvas where I create something out of nothing. I don’t chase trends. What interests me is tradition, what makes certain dishes survive for generations. I take those classics and add something—a little Asian, a little New American, a little raw bar, a little fish house, basically what I’ve learned in twenty years as a chef.”
Given that the point of Montlake is to evoke the feeling of the seacoast city where Badovinus grew up, we decided that our next choice had to be . . . more fish. Back in my day, sole in sauce meunière was a classic. It was what ladies (and gentlemen) ordered at fancy so-called continental restaurants. Montlake’s kitchen takes that idea and broadens the appeal by sautéing the fragile filet in a jacket of crunchy panko crumbs, dusting it in Parmesan, and finishing it with a licentious side of lemon-caper beurre blanc. Voilà! Sole milanese.
Our other saltwater choice was the Nova Scotia halibut, filets of snowy-white fish, lightly cooked and sparked with another golden oldie, sauce gribiche. When you hear that French sauce’s basic components (cornichons, capers, aromatic herbs), you think, what’s not to like? And it was in fact as spunky as I remembered. The only trouble was that the ingredients had been so finely minced that the whole thing came off a little grainy.
Man cannot live by fish alone, though, so we felt obligated to try the grilled dry-aged New York strip (twist our arms, please). Sourced from Georgia’s Southeast Family Farms, the hunk of ruby-hued meat wore a coal-black crust and a cap of dreamily melting herbed garlic butter. Alongside the monster was a mound of airy mashed potatoes, which we supplemented with miso-glazed whole baby carrots tossed with chiles and cashews.
By this time, the dining room had filled up and we were ready to call it a night—except that we hadn’t finished yet. One of the great lies that we humans tell ourselves is that fish is so light and healthful we can have anything we want for dessert. So we did. The pot de crème was a deep dive of creamy bourbon-scented chocolate sprinkled with turbinado sugar (a little wooden ice cream spoon confirmed that it was basically chocolate pudding for grown-ups). After our extensive comparison between it and the banana pudding, layered with pretzels and homemade vanilla wafers, we still couldn’t say which we liked better. In the end, though, the latter won because of its astonishing toasted meringue, so spiky it looked like Guy Fieri’s hair.
If all goes well, in the fall my friends and I will have yet another Badovinus restaurant to check out, because in the midst of getting Montlake Cut up and running, he has been working on an even bigger project, the love of his professional life, Town Hearth. In the meantime, though, Montlake is open for business. And it will make you homesick for Seattle even if you’ve never been there.
Montlake Cut: 8220 Westchester Dr, Dallas (214-739-8220). D Mon–Sat. $$$
Opened: December 16, 2015.