The year is 2009, and at an office in Manhattan a young man named JJ Proville is typing copy for a website called Starchefs.com. Typical stories: a profile of Chicago chef Grant Aschatz, an interview with Seattle chef Adam Stevenson.
In another part of the building, there’s a designer named Zac Overman. The two men connect briefly but not yet definitively. Proville, who was raised in France and has a business degree from Montreal, switches from writing to cooking, and Overman to beverages.
By chance, really, they cross paths again; this time in Seattle.
Overman is behind the bar at Sitka & Spruce and at Rob Roy. Proville is in the kitchen at Il Corvo and Art of the Table. They decide to go for it and launch a kickstarter campaign to raise more than $25,000. They find a building under construction at 1315 E. Jefferson, in the no-man’s land across from Seattle University.
After months of hammering and sawing, they have just opened l’Oursin, the French word for sea urchin. Fifty seats, so definitely not a hole-in-the-wall; in fact, quite spacious compared to most neighborhood restaurants, with an expansive kitchen and a generous bar space.
The sea urchin is a fearsome critter, the size of a golf ball and spikier than a porcupine. You sure don’t want to step on one if you’re out on a saltwater beach barefoot. Their close cousins are sand dollars, which get on with their lives without armor but don’t carry the sea urchin’s prize: egg sacs filled with delicate roe. Otters don’t mind the spikes; neither do lobsters, crabs, or long-toothed fish like wrasse, wolf eel and sheephead. Ricci di mare, the Italians call this delicacy. Uni in Japanese. Oursin in French. Put on rubber gloves and grab hold; they’re easy to open with an oyster knife.
The happy hour crowd that fills Eric Banh’s steak house next door hasn’t yet spilled over to L’Oursin, but it shouldn’t take long. The drinks card alone is worth stopping in for, starting with an old-fashioned Alsatian boilermaker known as a Picon Bière, $10. (In Seattle, boilermakers are sometimes called sake bombs.) It’s a shot of Amer Picon and a schooner of Kronenbourg 1664, the Picon being one of those syrupy bitters like Fernet Branca or Cynar; the real thing isn’t even sold in the U.S., so bartenders make their own. Another highlight: the house version of a Negroni, called Sur La Côte, $12, which foregoes Campari in favor of a bright shot of marigold liqueur called Araceli.
Kathryn Olson shepherds the wine program, which is focused on natural wines, all but one from France. “Natural” in this case meaning fermented with native yeasts rather than the sulfur-plus-commercial yeast that makes so many wines taste pretty much the same. On the red side of the list: wines from Beaujolais, the Rhone and the Languedoc that seemed more eccentric than refined, imperfect and weird rather than wonderful. The best one was described as “Abraham Lincoln palming a regulation basketball.”
The best way to navigate the menu is to order a collection of appetizers. (Proville, being half French, correctly refers to them as entrées; the main courses are plats.) The menu changes depending upon the supply chain, so this week’s ocean smelt might become marinated herring next time. But you should definitely dip your spoon into the foie gras with sea urchin mousse and pull up a decadent scoop of goose liver enveloped in unctuous roe. Don’t miss the sweetbreads in Calvados cream, either. If you’re a fan of baked oysters, l’Oursin chops them into a creamy sauce of leeks, tops them with breadcrumbs and runs them under the broiler. The main courses include a couple of fish options and a roast chicken; the check may seem high but includes a 20 percent gratuity.
L’Oursin is squarely in the tradition of Seattle’s authentic French restaurants; a tradition that started with François Kissel and the Brasserie Pittsbourg, and lives on today at Le Pichet downtown and Café Presse, 1117 12th Ave., in contrast to the short-lived Vivre Bistro, 1222 E. Pine.
But you’d think, with a shellfish name and a stated philosophy of “fresh” and “natural” ingredients, that there would be fresh oysters, or at least mussels and clams, but no, at least not yet. For oysters on the Hill, head straight to Bar Melusine, 1060 E. Union; they’ve got half a dozen varieties on the half-shell. The sea-urchin mousse atop the slice of foie gras torchon is the closest l’Oursin gets to crustaceans, unless you count the prawn broth in which the kitchen poaches its black cod.
So it’s a bit of a letdown to find that l’Oursin doesn’t really live up to its name. Taylor Shellfish serves oysters. Red Cow serves steak. Chick-Fil-A serves chicken. If you go to a restaurant called Lasagna, after all, you should know what to expect. Then again, it’s the first time these gents have run their own show, so I’m hoping they’ll figure out before long how to get past the urchin’s spiky defenses. A Mediterranean bouillabaisse, perhaps? A creamy mouclade of mussels from Charentes? Dungeness crab cakes? Spaghetti with tuna roe? House-smoked King salmon? A seafood version of pho? Traditional or innovative, it’s time for a dramatic move.
Ronald Holden is a restaurant critic for Pacific Publishing. His latest book is Forking Seattle: Tales of Local Food & Drink from Farm to Table to Landfill.