Food Stuff: Burnin’ for You

Wood-fired ovens put the heart back into dinner as Seattle’s restaurants build on a warming tradition.

With winter comes the undeniable urge to hibernate. When the sky turns black at four p.m., the only sensible thing to do is head inside and get cozy by the fire. Or the heater. Or, if you’re hungry, the oven.

The notion of staying in and staying warm finds its focus, and history, in the kitchen. Before the modern stove and oven, there was the hearth, a fireplace lined with stone or brick that was used for both cooking and heating. The sheer size of a hearth made it the center of the house, but the sustenance it provided – comfort from the cold, a home-cooked meal – made it the true heart of the home.

Bread toasts in the big, warm oven at the new Sitka & Spruce location in Capitol Hill’s renovated Melrose Market. Photograph by Andrew Waits for City Arts

Sitka & Spruce
1531 Melrose Ave.

121 E. Boston St.

Seatown Snack Bar
2010 Western Ave.

While electricity and the modern oven have made hearths outdated and impractical, these days restaurants around Seattle are “keeping the home fires burning,” and traditional wood-fired ovens are on the rise. Ironically, cooking over an indoor fire now requires more time, commitment and specialized equipment than cooking over regular stoves, but chefs – and diners – find the effort more than worthwhile.

At restaurants where you find a hearth, you won’t find any powders, gelées or other markings of molecular gastronomy and “modern cuisine.” This is simple, solid food, artfully prepared in a manner that has worked perfectly for thousands of years.

When Sitka & Spruce moved from its tiny Eastlake digs into a sprawling, light-filled space in Melrose Market on Capitol Hill, chef Matthew Dillon made his priorities clear by creating a completely open kitchen anchored by a massive, gleaming white-tiled hearth. It’s a beauty – and it’s impossible to miss, especially with the three-foot-high stack of logs resting against the side of the oven, just waiting to give char and flavor to Sitka’s ever-changing menu of local, seasonally driven food. At dinner service, nearly all the meat is cooked in the fire, including dishes like house-made sausage with chestnuts and savoy cabbage, Dungeness crab, chicken and lamb (whose natural gaminess takes particularly well to the smoke and wood of the hearth).

When owner Susan Kaufman first conceived of Cicchetti, her Mediterranean small-plates restaurant, her vision was to have a wood-burning oven at the center of it. At Cicchetti, chef Dylan Giordan and crew crank out an impressive number of Spanish, Turkish and Italian–inspired dishes from a tiny open kitchen, most of which is taken up by the giant apple wood–burning hearth, its bright orange embers warming the entire space. Every hot dish at Cicchetti emerges from the wood-fired oven: pizza topped with lamb sausage, wood-fired steak, even a whole spice-rubbed trout. A recent special showcased the beauty and value of Cicchetti’s hearth: the natural sweetness of a juicy hazelnut-finished double pork chop was enhanced by the apple wood, while the smoky flavor of the chilis in its chermoula sauce were deepened by the fire.

Admittedly, there is no wood-fired oven to be found at Seatown Snack Bar, Tom Douglas’s new Pike Place Market outpost. But Douglas, who has long been a proponent of cooking with fire (his Palace Kitchen, Dahlia Lounge and Serious Pie are all home to wood-fired grills and ovens), intuitively and clearly understands the importance of a hearth.

The heart and soul of Seatown – which isn’t even found in the restaurant itself, but in the “To Go” deli next door – is an enormous, multilevel, glowing rotisserie that’s constantly turning, slow-roasting obscene amounts of meat. Every day, there’s porchetta stuffed with rosemary and fennel, cider-brined turkey, garlic-and-lemon chicken and hauntingly good porcini-rubbed beef short ribs, all cooked for hours, priced by the pound and ready to take home. From the sleek rotisserie to the emphasis on take-out, Seatown’s approach is a thoroughly modernized spin on tradition – but one you’ll be grateful for as you lick porcini and black peppercorns off your meat-stained fingers, warm, both inside and out, within the shelter of your own home. •