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Dustin Ronspies soars at Art of the Table

By Ronald Holden

Clearwater, Florida, 40 years ago, would not have been a culinary hotbed. (Not that Seattle was, either.) The best-known kitchen, Bern's Steakhouse, was a good half hour across the Tampa Bay causeway. And yet, from this land of stone crab and fried grouper, from ethnic neighborhoods like Ybor City featuring Cuban sandwiches and Greek salads, came the Ronspies brothers, Dustin and Derek.

Dustin (left) and Derek in 2015

Dustin, lanky, goofy, older by two years, found work as a dishwasher, then as a line cook (six years at Outback Steakhouse), while earning credits toward a degree in architecture, which he traded for culinary school, and in whose alumni newsletter he found an ad for a chef with a luxury travel enterprise in France. As it happened, it was the famous Buddy Bombard hot-air balloon company, headquartered just across the peninsula in Boca Raton. The balloon gig was followed by a stint as private chef to a globe-trotting billionaire, then a tour as chef on a yacht. One port of call was Seattle, and Dustin disembarked. He soon found a rundown spot in Wallingford that became The Art of the Table (AOTT), which moved a couple of years ago to the street level of a nearby apartment building. Twice now he has been named a finalist in the James Beard ranking of regional chefs. "It's about life, nourishing oneself, nourishing others," is how he defines his work.

Dustin Ronspies' cooking is quite sophisticated. A typical plate: butter poached octopus, duck gizzard, shiitake, cilantro fried rice, carrot butter, chili oil, orange-vanilla vinaigrette. There's an AOTT manifesto of sorts: "Put away your phone, eat your fish skin, slurp your broth, gnaw your bone, eat your micro-greens, lick your plate, eat your cheese rind, have a cocktail, try everything, use your fingers when applicable, hold onto your silverware, enjoy your time here."

An early sous chef was Dustin's little brother, Derek, more intense, who'd been working as a server in Colorado while taking computer animation classes. "I hated waiting tables," Derek told me some years back, "but I loved working the kitchen." His particular interest was charcuterie. After a stint on Nantucket and a foray to Argentina, he turned up in Seattle. After hours, the brothers, along with Dustin's wife, pastry chef Shannon Van Horn, would go for beers and ramen at Showa, the upstairs annex above Chiso's in Fremont. In 2013, Derek took over that very space, just half a mile west of AOTT, and launched his own restaurant; he called it Le Petit Cochon, the little pig. It lasted until recently, when Derek and his landlord had a falling out. He walked away, took a gig as a private chef on a yacht in Alaska, then headed to Mexico for a complete break from cooking.

Dustin plating at Art of the Table

What distinguishes Art of the Table from the flock of farm-to-table restaurants around town is that they take the farm part very seriously. They're not just names out of a directory but friends. The AOTT website lists an even dozen: farmers like Alvarez Organic, Collins Orchards, Brent Olsen, Jones Family, Jason and Siri Salvo, Kurt Timmermeister; ranchers like Sidhu, George and Eiko Vojkovich; creameries like Silver Springs.

Dustin Ronspies today has more gravitas (no, that's not a method of curing salmon). He and Shannon have a little one at home now, and for the past two years he's had a magnificently-outfitted restaurant space in the Bowman Apartments, though they salvaged a charming "stained glass" window from the old premises. (You could make a pretty good case for Stone Way as being one of Seattle's best Restaurant Rows: The Whale Wins, Joule, Manolin, Super Bueno, Tutta Bella, AOTT.)

He named the 20-seat corner bar "Under the Table" and stocked it with a menu of small plates and exotic cocktails, little-known wines, six sherries by the glass. You could make a dinner (and a fine dinner at that) from the tasting menu available at the bar: house-made charcuterie; chickpea fritters (street food in Sicily); perfect, plump mussels in escabeche; a spectacular tuna belly crudo. Five nights a week, you can pick three small plates from the bar menu and add a bottle of wine for $40.

Below: tuna crudo

If you'd rather keep it formal (maybe not every day but well worth doing from time to time), there are prix fixe options at $125 per person in the dining room that involve seven or eight courses. Each course can also be accompanied by a half glass of wine for an additional $85. And once a month, by reservation, AOTT offers a Chef's Table supper club dinner for 22 guests, also $125. November's dinner (on the 14th) is a succession of "Amuse Bouches," December's is "Seven Fishes," January is "Mexican."

There's nothing like AOTT anywhere else in Seattle, with its 12-seat semicircle that overlooks the kitchen, blond wood, high ceilings, and such precise combinations of flavors. (The only competitors would be Altura, Cafe Juanita, Eden Hill.) AOTT's menu carries the usual caveat that "eating raw or undercooked foods could make you sick." But, Chef Ronspies points out, "so can eating over-processed, preservative-laden, GMO-loaded, feed-lot-raised and caged foods…think about it."

And, thinking about things, AOTT is now giving its guests more freedom. It's no longer a single, fixed-price menu, but choices: the chef's seven-course extravaganza is certainly one option, with the bar's selection of delectable small plates providing the opportunity for a more casual experience. In any event, AOTT should be on everyone's short list for some of Seattle's best bites.

Ronald Holden's most recent book, FORKING SEATTLE, is now in its second edition.

November 2019

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