Well-positioned salt. Chef Brian Clevenger’s latest restaurant Le Messe is much more than just salt, but this precisely placed, essential seasoning is a standout in each dish we tasted at the chef’s counter last week. Since opening in late January in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood, Le Messe follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in Clevenger’s expanding Northwest-gone-homespun-Italian empire, but with a healthy dose of seafood, where a little (or more) salt can go a long way.
House-made pastas, pan-seared and butter-bathed meats, vibrant cocktails and drool-inducing Italian wine lists have become standards for the chef’s restaurants, now with three main locations triangulating three distinct districts of the city (West Seattle and Madrona the other two). In a corner slice of a building with a peekaboo view of Lake Union from Eastlake Avenue, Le Messe’s interior is stark and minimalistic, with large picture windows that illuminate the white-and-concrete running throughout the space, and mid-century hanging pendants to light it up when the sun is less kind. A dimly lit and intimate bar is almost completely removed from the restaurant by the turns of the architecture, creating an alcove for adults only, hoarding the best views of the lake for those who might appreciate it the most. By keeping the decor subdued, the natural focal point — because of its location and its surroundings – is the open kitchen, which is framed with an eight-seat chef’s counter.
When we visited, chef Rock Silva was leading the kitchen while garde manger chef Sunny Dixey was running the crudo bar, which is where we tasted our first dish of salty respect. After delicately plating the tuna crudo — without tweezers or pretense — Dixey passed us three thick-cut slabs of Ahi, drizzled in Calabrian chile oil and dried chile flecks, plus shaved radish and orange slices with the aforementioned flakes of positioned sea salt. Every bite of this refreshing dish was met with a strategic flake or two, adding flavor and crunch to the fleshy fish, leveled with the heat of the chile.
Shaved fennel and Dungeness crab are tossed with house-made avocado and kumquat goddess dressing, spun into a dense ball in the center of a glossed bowl, once again finding toothsome saltiness with the high acid and savory dressing giving zip to the crustacean’s sweetness. Calabrian chile oil makes its second appearance underneath a mound of house burrata — alongside chunky pesto and leafy watercress — pulling heat through the creamy cheese as it’s slathered on the grilled bread. An upgrade on a parsley-laced potato salad, topped with dollops of pickled mustard seeds, the team treated us to a lusciously seared scallop, cut in half and rested atop the well-dressed spuds. That salt rings true one more time here, balancing the high acid and high fat of the dish.
When it comes to pastas, everything but the spaghetti nero is made in-house, however, the execution of those squid ink noodles will make you think twice. Cooked for just a short time in water — with the majority of the time spent in the pan with the butter sauce to soak up all the starch — the salty, slippery pasta is served with sliced garlic, oregano and that prevalent Calabrian chile oil, resulting in a mineral-forward and earthy dish that sings with the Nebbiolo poured by the glass. The Cappeletti — which I saw was made just that day via Instagram — is stuffed with ricotta, placed on thick swirls of celeriac puree and topped with fried sage leaves, hazelnuts and wide strips of Parmesan. Although the pouches of pasta alone came off a hair dry, the combination of the flavors on the plate brought it altogether in one sublime bite.
As if there was still room in our stomaches (or hollow legs), we consented to a “light” gelato for dessert. Here, the team folds chocolate sponge cake into a velvety caramel ice cream, with toasted chocolate sponge cake “croutons” adding a salty-sweet crunch to each mouthful. Salt, you’ve done it again!
Le Messe certainly has its star ingredients — sea salt and Calabrian chile oil being two of them — the spotlight is shared by a supporting cast of fresh flavors and rich textures that deserve equal applause.