Josh Henderson’s New Restaurants Offer Counter Intelligence

Way back when (well, about 10 years ago), Josh Henderson might have been handing you a burger with bacon jam through the window of his Skillet Airstream. Having moved on to found the Huxley Wallace Collective, Henderson is the executive chef of a group of quality restaurants that includes Quality Athletics, Westward, Saint Helens, and Great State Burger—which would be on my list of top hamburgers in Seattle.

Now Henderson and Huxley Wallace have opened two new restaurants that bring you close to the kitchen and the cooking action, and therefore close to the chefs.

Scout sits at the base of the new Thompson Seattle hotel. You can have a regular restaurant experience here, but for a special occasion consider a seat at the Chef’s Counter for $120 plus optional drink pairings. Five nights per week at a set seating time, eight diners get a close-up view as Quinton Stewart curates a multi-course tasting menu utilizing seasonal, local ingredients—sometimes based on something he’s scored that very day.

The night I dined, Stewart was lucky to land a live King crab. My meal started with an amuse bouche portion of King crab soup (a “tease” to a later dish of crab-stuffed squash blossoms), followed by a trio of geoduck, oyster, and albacore bites, all served in the restaurant lounge. Seating felt a little awkward as a solo diner, but I appreciated the effort to have us “tour” the Thompson, with dessert on the rooftop Nest (with its amazing view of the city and sound) bookending the counter experience.

The main and best part of the meal is at the actual chef’s counter. Like an omakase meal at a sushi bar, you’re at the mercy of the chef. It’s well worth the trust factor. Stewart revels in the opportunity to focus exclusively on the counter diners. He strikes a good balance of being personable and playful while still professional in executing a casual fine dining experience. The chef’s counter is dinner and a show, with the ability to learn a lot about the cooking process.

Lamb tartare with artichoke and mint pistou at Scout.

Lamb tartare with artichoke and mint pistou at Scout.

Scout’s smoked salmon (a little Weber at the chef’s counter!) with beet relish, blini and dill crème fraiche.

Scout’s smoked salmon (a little Weber at the chef’s counter!) with beet relish, blini and dill crème fraiche.

Stewart serves up a seemingly endless number of courses (filling without feeling bloated) right before your eyes. Dishes tend to spotlight just a few essential ingredients, sometimes prepared different ways on the same plate. A good example: spot prawns with celery root puree and compressed pickled celery. My meal progressed from those prawns to lamb tartare, tomatoes with handmade stracchiatelle, the aforementioned squash blossoms, smoked salmon, muscato d’asti granite, dry-aged New York strip steak, foie gras with fig, lemon sorbet, and then hot chocolate for a sweet finish.

Some might make a comparison to a counter experience at Heartwood Provisions, just down the road. I’m thrilled to recommend both restaurants as anchors of delicious downtown dining on 1st Avenue.

The Chef’s Counter at Scout. Photo: Sarah Flotard.

The Chef’s Counter at Scout. Photo: Sarah Flotard.

Vestal is just south of Lake Union in ever-developing Amazonia. Here you can (and should) opt for counter seating near the seven-foot long coal-fired hearth, close to a sometimes blazing fire sometimes spewing ashes in the air. You’re close enough to keep warm on a cold day without taking home any of those ashes. That’s partly because the hearth seating area is a little on the large side, making it a less intimate counter experience than what you get at Scout. Still, the chefs (Henderson was there the night I dined, along with chef de cuisine Andrew Iacono) bring all the diners the food as it’s ready, and are accessible if you have questions about the menu that your server can’t answer.

Much of the menu is about the fire, with all of the dishes done in reasonable view of the hearth seats. Like Scout, the focus is on local, seasonal ingredients, though the preparations cut across various cuisines. You can choose from a good number of small, shareable dishes as well as a couple of pasta plates that are all under $20. The night I dined, roasted salmon was the only protein at mid-level cost of $38, and then pricing jumped to $80 and $90 respectively for plates of ribeye and duck breast for two.

Dry-aged ribeye tartare with nasturtium, shaved radish, and sorrel vinaigrette at Vestal.

Dry-aged ribeye tartare with nasturtium, shaved radish, and sorrel vinaigrette at Vestal.

Vestal’s lievito e pepe.

Vestal’s lievito e pepe.

I wonder whether Amazon workers will bite on those higher-priced plates. The income is there, but the shuttered Shanik showed that the young workers in the area weren’t quite ready for prime-time finer dining. The duck is high quality, from nearby Pleasant View Farms. But as it’s just breast slices and a confit leg quarter with fermented cherries and jus (no starch or vegetables come with it), $90 is a big roll of the dice if the dish isn’t a winner for you.

Perhaps better is to invest in several of the small plates, like compressed melons and matsutake in an herbal lemon balm broth or dry-aged ribeye tartare with nasturtium, shaved radish and sorrel vinaigrette. You can make an excellent meal out of some greens (such as the shaved braising greens with cultured ricotta, sunflower pickles and blossoms) and the amazing lievito e pepe: Vestal’s rich take on cacio e pepe that substitutes smoky, toasted yeast butter for the usual Pecorino Romano cheese in the peppered spaghetti. This was the “wow” dish of the dinner, and one I’d love to learn to make at home. And with some counter intelligence I acquired while dining at Vestal, I might just try—perhaps after returning to sample it some more.

Seating at the hearth. Photo courtesy of Vestal.

Seating at the hearth. Photo courtesy of Vestal.

Thanks to Huxley Wallace Collective for inviting me in to experience both of these restaurants.

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