Jerry Traunfeld has always loved Chinese food. The James Beard Award–winning chef first learned Chinese cookery in the 1980s from master chef Ken Hom at the California Culinary Academy. He continued honing his skills at home while he was chef at The Herbfarm and, later, when he opened Capitol Hill’s Poppy, poring over Chinese cookbooks with his longtime partner (now husband), Stephen. But a 2013 trip to China with British cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop cemented Traunfeld’s desire to open a Sichuan-style restaurant next to Poppy.
Unlike Poppy, however, Lionhead is not fusion. Where Poppy explores the creative interplay between Northwest ingredients and Indian thalis, Lionhead celebrates classic dishes of the southwestern Chinese province using funky, hot bean pastes and fiery, numbing chiles. Even the restaurant’s décor—red-lacquered bar, Asian art auction finds—sends a message: Traunfeld takes this seriously.
The dishes, mostly meant for sharing, are as traditional as it gets: dan dan mein ($7/$14), Chinese sausage bao ($4) and cold brisket and tripe slices ($11), known as husband-and-wife lung slices (Traunfeld calls them “man-and-husband beef slices,” which made us smile). He adds a pinch of Northwest here and there, too: A soft-boiled egg tops sesame-sauced buckwheat noodles ($14), and clams adorn iron pot pork meatballs ($20)—even though Sichuan is landlocked. I loved the flavors, freshness and, most of all, the heat in everything I tasted.
Furthermore, the team that Traunfeld has assembled keeps the food true to Sichuan while still feeling original. Chef de cuisine Kenneth Lee has commanded wok ranges around Puget Sound for 30 years, most recently down the street at Zhu Dang. And executive chef Kyle Noyce, who also runs the show at Poppy, has a serious gift for ethnic flavors. Finally, there’s Traunfeld himself, a visionary who can make hairy tofu sound appetizing. He recently returned from another trip to China, this time to Yunnan province, which is famous for its stinky soy. We’re curious to see how that inspiration plays out. Takeout window, nightly specials and brunch coming soon.