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Butcher-shop restaurants

by Ronald Holden

How do you even define a hybrid butcher-restaurant? Is it, like Bavarian Meats in the Pike Place Market, a storefront whose long counter displays a variety of sausages and cold cuts, with a pork chop or two thrown in, and a brisk sit-down business at lunchtime? What about Uli Lengenberg, the sausage guy who also sells and serves at the Market? No question that Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market on Capitol Hill is the most serious artisan butcher in town, even if owner Russ Flint did close the Pioneer Square shop where he served sandwiches. Ironically, Salumi moved right in and does a lively sandwich business (more later). The big dog in the butcher business is Costco, with very low prices and surprisingly high quality. For "everyday" purchases, the meat counters at Metropolitan Markets and Whole Foods run rings around your neighborhood supermarkets. And sure, more and more stores will build fresh sandwiches on the spot.

So there are no clear-cut lines. Even so, here are dispatches from a few of the candidates.

Heading down California towards West Seattle's Fauntleroy ferry dock you'll pass close by the Swinery, a butcher shop and lunch counter with a long history. The founder, a freelance chef named Gabriel Claycamp, is up in Bellingham these days, making bone broth. His successors, who ran the place for a decade or so, recently turned it over to Kim Léveillé, who will gladly sell you sausages or pork chops from the cold case but just as cheerfully disappear into the back for a minute or two and emerge with a freshly made sandwich, hot off the grill.

Swinery sandwich

The Swinery's $12 burger has been featured on magazine covers and regularly turns up on short lists of Seattle's best. But I figured, hey, with a name like Swinery ("Temple of Porcine Love"), the thing to order would have to include pork. What I ordered, in the event, was a sandwich called the Spectacularrr ($14.20): pulled pork, ham, pork belly, Swiss cheese, Dijonnaise, and pickles. And spectacular it was. Enough for two meals, except that I was (ahem) starving.

Further afield is Ruby Brink on Vashon Island. Keep Vashon Weird, it says on coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Traffic signs warn you to Watch Out for Deer on All Roads. There's not a single Starbucks on the island, but there are indeed deer.

Named for a feisty little girl who became a local heroine because she set fire to her school, Ruby Brink has quickly become part of Vashon's quirky landscape. Among the neighbors: Kurt Timmermeister (who closed his own storefront in Chophouse Row to concentrate on cheesemaking at his Kurtwood Farm), Matt Dillon (who closed all his Seattle restaurants and "retired" to Oxbow Farm), and coffee magnate Mike McConnell (who just opened a pasta spot and a pizzeria on the Island's main drag). And now Ruby Brink, where Seattle chef and butcher Lauren Garaventa has combined her skills at whole animal butchery and her longstanding interest in animal activism. Yes, she's a butcher who wants us to eat less meat.

It was a cold and blustery morning, so the first thing I had was a mug blazingly hot, remarkably restorative bone broth. (Note to Starbucks: if you can copy this densely flavored, velvet-textured brew, you'll make another gazillion dollars.) Then came a sandwich described as "Almost Muffuletta," filled with mortadella, roasted pork loin, sopressata, lightly melted Swiss cheese, and olive tapenade. Muffuletta itself is a famous Nawlins sandwich named for a flat, plate-size (maybe 10 inches across) loaf of white bread; it's traditionally dressed with an olive salad and filled with assorted cold cuts and cheese. The name is Sicilian, a corruption perhaps of muffa, the Italian word for mold, because the bread could be seen as a resembling a morbidly oversize mushroom. Alongside the Po' Boy, the mufuletta has become an emblem of New Orleans, where the version served at Central Grocery has an especially devoted following. In any event, Ruby Brink's challah roll (from Macrina bakery, actually) is much more like a brioche than a mufuletta, but that didn't stop this sandwich ($16) from delivering a satisfying experience. The unexpected but most welcome briny flavor of the tapenade made this memorable.

Muffuletta at Ruby Bridge

What I can't figure out about The Shambles is why it calls itself "Seattle's neighborhood bar & butcher." Nowhere on its website does it give a hint which neighborhood that is. (Spoiler alert: it's along Lake City Way, in a district known as Maple Leaf.) The owner/manager is Joel Klemenhagen, who used to work nearby at Fiddler's Inn (we wrote admiringly about that spot last October). But here, Klemenhagen's approach swings haphazardly from laudable attention to beer (a full range of brews from Skookum, for example) and a few imaginative menu items to head-scratching indifference (not just the lack of useful information on his website, but a fogged-up meat case). Best bets for sandwiches are the mole-rubbed tri-tip, and the overstuffed mufuletta (but it's only available sporadically). The Reuben arrived on the dry side, and a request for condiments yielded a bizarre, grainy yellow substance described as "beer mustard." A side dish of bland potatoes "crusted with spiced sauerkraut" was accompanied by "black garlic aioli" that could have been ordinary Best Foods mayo. So what's the appeal here? Butchery classes once or twice a month? The Shambles does seem to have a lot of fans; I'll pass, thank you.

Shambles sandwich

Down to Pioneer Square for a visit to the recently re-imagined Salumi, now formally called "Coro by Salumi." That's because salumi is a generic Italian word for cold cuts, though coro is Italian for chorus. (Just the same, the website is still salumicuredmeats.com.) The Coro part is because the new owners don't want to feel hemmed in by, you know, just shipping cold cuts across the country; they want to sell uncured meats as well, alongside t-shirts and what-have-you.

A bit of back story. When Boeing engineer Armandino Batali retired a couple of decades ago, he embarked on a second career as a purveyor of meat, and to learn his new trade he apprenticed for a year with Dario Cecchini, an outgoing butcher in a remote Tuscan village whose talents were known throughout Italy. Back in Seattle, Armandino opened Salumi in a tiny Pioneer Square storefront and became famous in his own right (and not just as the father of now-disgraced celebrity chef Mario Batali). Eventually Armandino turned the business over to his daughter, Gina, and her husband, Brian d'Amato, and they in turn sold it some 18 months ago to two enterprising women, Martinique Grigg (former CEO at The Mountaineers) and Clara Veniard (ex-Gates Foundation). The new kids rounded up additional investment so they could ramp up production at a new facility in Kent, while moving the retail counter into the space vacated by none other than Rain Shadow Meats. One thing they're keeping for sure: the culatello, sold in 5-lb pieces for $250, assuming you already have your own rotary-blade slicer. (If not, figure another $1,500 or so for a restaurant-quality Berkel.) Then again, you can buy the regular prosciutto for less than one-tenth of that, $22 per pound, as much or as little as you want.

If you're staying for lunch, the porchetta here, served on Giuseppe bread from Macrina, is $12.50. I'm not a big fan of barbecue, but with "plain" roast pork this good, I don't need to be. As good a sandwich as you'll find in Seattle.

My favorite "butcher shop" meal was at The Butcher's Table in South Lake Union. Yes, this is one of these clubby, leather-upholstered steak houses where you might want to sit with an eye on the door and your back to the wall, but the vibe, in reality, is less East Coast Mafia than Dot-Com Showoff. High ceilings, industrial fittings, warm lighting, and attentive service await. The butcher's case displays a panoply of luxurious, high-end cuts of Wagyu beef under the ultra-premium Mishima Reserve label. You can take home a Tomahawk for $83 per pound, and if you have to ask how many pounds it weighs, you can't afford it. (Should you want one for your table, they don't even list a price on the menu; sauce is extra.)

Butcher's Table steak tartare

So there's a welcome find, in this temple of high-end meat: an order of steak tartare for a modest $13 on the Happy Hour menu (it's $19 at dinner). The hand-chopped meat (a three-ounce portion of top sirloin) is seasoned with a lemon vinaigrette and sea salt; it arrives on a bed of aioli (anchovies, olive oil), surmounted by a quail egg. The plate is bordered by mounds of chopped red onions; pickled and shredded kohlrabi; pickled English cucumbers; charred jalapeños; an assortment of fresh herbs (chervil, tarragon, chives) from owner Kurt Dammeier's garden; and, for crunch, toasted breadcrumbs and a sliced radish. The crisp lavash is seasoned with fennel, cayenne, and garlic oil.

You can ask the server to mix it all up for you or do your own preparation. Either way, the result will be a dish with deep, meaty flavor and an almost creamy texture. In retrospect, I might have liked a bit more tartness (the way they serve it at the grandes brasseries in Paris) but overall, this version of steak tartare is one of the most satisfying dishes I've eaten in a long while. No question, it goes on my list of Seattle's best bites.

February 2020


The second edition of Ronald Holden's historic guide to local dining, Forking Seattle, is available on Amazon.com.


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