My first meal at Lampreia, Scott Carsberg's epic, nationally praised fine dining restaurant which lived in the space that Carsberg's Bisato now calls home, well, it must've been in 1999 or 2000.
Back then--as now, though perhaps less-so--Carsberg's reputation for perfectionism--along with a firey temper--preceded him.
Oh man, the stories were legend. And remember, this was largely before every little thing was captured forever on Flickr or an Iphone. Still, word got around: what's that? He threw Tim Zagat out of his restaurant? (The true story, according to Carsberg, can be found in Christopher Boffoli's marvelous profile for this magazine, originally published in June 2010). To be perfectly frank, I was nervous. No, I was afraid. Afraid to dine at Lampreia. So was my friend, a chef who'd probably heard even more stories than I had.
There we were, feeling out of our depth, in outfits cobbled together to be--we hoped--dressy enough for the kind of dining room Seattle has so few of nowadays. (I was there, as usual, under an assumed name.) Our first courses arrived, beautifully composed, mine an appetizer with a centerpiece of tuna. And therein lied the problem: the tuna was inpenetrable by knife or fork. I kept trying to cut into the fish, but there had been a fibrous layer left on it. I tried this angle, then turned the plate and tried that angle. I traded plates with my chef friend, who also tried to make entry. But the tuna would not budge. There was hushed, worried cussing. Of course I panicked: I wasn't worried about my review, or what I'd say about this tuna, at least not right then. The urgent matter at hand was this: We were both afraid to send it back!
Would Carsberg throw us out of the restaurant? Would he accuse us of being rubes undeserving of his great culinary genius (which we both suspected was the case, anyway)? After whispered weighing of pros and cons, I'm serious when I tell you we fortified ourselves. And then I apologetically sent the dish back.
Ugh. The sweating. We nervously waited for what was surely going to be our painful, humiliating demise. It's been nice knowing ya, fine china and superb glassware. Deep down, all along we'd known we weren't worthy.
I'm sure neither of us was breathing as Carsberg came out of the kitchen and walked to our table. I can imagine the pinched smile I must've been forcing onto my beet-red face. But instead of shouting at us to leave, just get out!, Carsberg began to apologize. He was gracious, maybe a little embarrassed--I guess he, too, had failed at making headway with knife and fork. The rest of the dinner was a pleasure.The food was superb. I made another visit and my suspicions were validated: that tuna was a fluke. Nothing--not even the tiniest detail--was off on any other plate. Though I wonder what happened to the prep cook who let that tuna out of the kitchen. Surely, a slow and agonizing death.
Even more than the resplendent pleasures of Lambreia, the gorgeous artistry of the much more affordable but still gorgeous, inventive food at Bisato. In 2010, the recession, the fact that people were dressing up less and expecting small plates everywhere, and the fact that Belltown was no longer a strong destination for fine dining, all of that made Lampreia something of a dinosaur. Bisato felt fresher, younger, though still refined. Carsberg doesn't do sloppy or "rustic": You want a crash-course in how to plate food? Take a look at Bisato's website. Beyond that, the food and labor costs confounded me every time I visited Bisato: Where else can you get such sublime food for so little money?
But sadly, Carsberg's 20 year run is at an end. He's planning on closing Bisato on October 14. This is your chance to get a last taste of Carsberg's expert cooking. You should absolutely take it.
Shown left: Scott Carsberg’s seared lamb chop with whipped potato. Above: halibut rillette and tomato with panzanella sauce. Photos by Hayley Young.