“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” - Henry David Thoreau
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
One doesn’t absolutely have to talk about Thomas Street Bistro when talking about Resto, but perhaps one should. The latter, a Quebecois eatery that took over the curiously cramped confines of the former, is its own restaurant that should (and will be) measured by its own merits. Still, Thomas Street Bistro left this world in much-deserved infamy, so despite the low bar Resto has to clear to be its predecessor’s better, there’s still a lot of ill will for the space it occupies.
Thomas Street Bistro closed after serving sub-par food and refusing to honor its own coupons, a practice that got it booted from Groupon, among other daily deal services. All the charming guitar serenades in the world won’t save such a disastrous kitchen in our already restaurant-crowded neighborhood.
The question at hand, then, isn’t just whether Resto can rehabilitate the site of more culinary abuses than you can shake a Gordon Ramsey at, but also whether it’s good enough to be essential in a neighborhood that doesn’t need a new place to eat, strictly speaking. Summed up in a word, Resto is refreshing. Everything that made Thomas Street Bistro a disaster, and many things that make modern dining in Capitol Hill overwhelming or even numbing, are absent from Resto’s menu and presentation.
The notoriously tiny space it occupies at 421 E. Thomas St. feels comfortable and economical. Where once the room was a clutter of tables with nary an inch for elbowroom, now it’s an open floor with two rows of booths hugging the walls and some counter seating between them. Resto opts for an open kitchen approach, so the counter chairs are an extra treat. Chef Jang Cho is a joy to watch at work, both for his earnest enthusiasm for cooking and for the play-by-play view of his simple but excellent approach.
“It’s good to have a rush,” Chef Cho said at the tail end of a busy line of orders. He’s happy to chat in slower moments, likewise with owner and server Johanna Robinson.
Resto’s offerings change daily, running with a loose, seasonal theme and mostly based on whatever was best at the market. On the day I visited, greens, pasta and locally sourced string beans took center stage. Of the four starters and three linguini dishes on the card, I chose the Chevy Beets salad and the Resto Rasta linguini, a vegetarian mix of the aforementioned string beans, mushrooms and a sunflower basil pesto.
While I was eating the Chevy Beets salad, I merely took its pretty, segmented plating as nice, respectful presentation, but in retrospect I think it’s indicative of the sense of balance at the core of Resto’s whole experience. Chef Cho placed the beet wedges on one side of a rectangular plate, a generous dollop of chevre and roasted red peppers on the other side, and a mound of arugula with a light olive oil vinaigrette in the middle. The slight acidity of the beets balanced nicely with the sweet, creamy peppers and chevre, and it all harmonized with the peppery greens. As said before: refreshing. Everything on the plate was essential and delicious.
Pasta, as crowd-pleasing as it can be, has some hidden challenges, especially in a restaurant setting. It’s easy to overdo, putting so much flavor and punch in the first bite that it becomes an endurance test for the tongue. On the other extreme, tasting the same, homogenous pile of pasta for an entire meal gets boring.
The Rasta avoids these issues entirely. Chef Cho seasons conservatively and lets the ingredients speak for themselves. The string beans were every bit as good as their frequent appearance on the menu suggested, and the mushrooms were springy and flavorful. The dish never got boring because it was easy to move between different textures and flavors, free from the distraction of a sauce. I could have done with slightly less oil in the Rasta, but it was far from swimming.
The ease and balance of Resto feels relaxed and effortless, but clearly a lot of thought and care goes into it. The food is inventive but not fussed-over as is often the case with high-end dining these days, while the restaurant’s atmosphere is unpretentious without being aggressively democratic like a lot of hole-in-the-wall eateries. Robinson and Cho keep a clean, inviting space that earns its neighborhood joint bona fides and could easily become a destination for hungry Seattleites in the know.
421 E. Thomas St.
Mon-Sat 5 pm – 10 pm