Once in a great while, you arrive at a restaurant and know you're going to have a terrific meal before you even walk in the door.
Anybody who's done some serious eating knows that promising feeling. Paley's Place has always felt like that: If you stumbled on it while wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city, you'd know immediately you'd come to the right place.
Sel Gris has the same effect on me. When I first saw the restaurant, on a bland block of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, it actually glowed in the winter gloom. The shoebox-shaped space is simple but uncommonly chic, and the subdued dining room directs all eyes to the brightly lit kitchen, framed by a proscenium-like filigree screen, where chef-owner Daniel Mondok stands center stage, in starched white, positioned to make sure everything in his little kingdom is exactly the way he wants it.
In a world where restaurants are "concepts" and super-chefs clone themselves from Las Vegas to Dubai, Sel Gris is something very different: one skilled, imaginative artist expressing himself in the medium of food at one moment in time. Mondok, who headed the kitchens at Carlyle and Olea locally before opening Sel Gris last September, works with the big stove on his right, a stainless steel table in front of him. With a quietly purposeful kitchen crew behind him, he cooks. And every dish that leaves the kitchen lands on Mondok's work station first. He eyes every one, adds the finishing touches—a few meticulously selected sprigs of thyme, a squirt of sauce, a sprinkle of sea salt—and then, when he's proud of it, he sends it to the table.
Anyone who's been to France will recognize in Sel Gris the type of jewel-box restaurant Mondok is aiming for —small and personal (it seats about 40), with cooking combining traditional technique and modern style. (The name is French for "grey salt," a type of unrefined sea salt.) Sel Gris' cookbook shelf in the kitchen gives an indication of Mondok's influences: You'll see Larousse Gastronomique (the bible of French haute cuisine) at one end and Bouchon , from the casual bistro owned by the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, at the other.
A couple of dishes have already become signatures. Mondok's a foie gras aficionado; liver in some form turned up on a recent menu four times, but the real junkies should order his foie gras "two ways" starter ($16), one fatty nubbin pan-roasted, the other cured with Hawaiian pink salt, kosher salt, lavender and Chinese five-spice. Mondok's sweetbreads ($11), are served crisp, in a puddle of sweet-savory apple butter, sprinkled with chewy bacon and drizzled with just a bit of maple syrup. On top, there's a golf ball-sized round of browned batter; break it open and you'll find an egg yolk, perfectly runny.
When you encounter the egg yolk, you may ask, "How does he do that?" Which brings us to the best seats in the house at Sel Gris: the four spots at the counter that directly face Mondok's station. If you're sitting there, you'll see him make the mystery egg with a cast-iron aebleskiver pan, used for doughnut-like Scandinavian cakes. He ladles in some batter, lets it start to cook a bit, tenderly lays the yolk into the batter cradle, tops it with more batter and turns the whole thing over to brown. The first time I went to Sel Gris, I was seated at the counter by happenstance. The next two times, I requested it. Watching Mondok and his crew is loads of fun, and he's so excited about what he's doing that he's happy to answer questions and explain techniques as he cooks.
Sitting there, you'll see your own dinner made, and everything you didn't order but vow to try next time: deconstructed Caesar with a saucer of dressing for dipping the greens ($10), soul-satisfying Lyonnaise salad with warmed frisée and crisp lardons, topped with a rich poached duck egg ($11), and a bowl of mussels "billi-bi" in a broth with Spanish chorizo, smoky tomato, saffron cream and zingy rouille ($12). When I first saw the colorful platter of "beets three ways" ($9), I thought it was a dessert—with its geometric arrangement and bright colors, it looked like little balls of melon or mango or sorbet.
I'll run out of space before I run out of dishes I want to mention: tender saddle of venison with roasted fig jus ($29), burnished lamb shank with honey-glazed baby carrots and curried cauliflower ($27), and Pacific ono, a firm-fleshed white fish, with an upscale version of "mac and cheese" made with Israeli couscous and bright orange French mimolette cheese ($26). A spoonful of unctuous duck liver Roquefort butter added a classy touch to the grilled hanger steak centerpiece of "steak frites" ($27), though the so-called "frites" were dry, dull roasted potatoes. (OK, the place isn't perfect: The escarole salad is way too bitter, the whole wheat bread too sweet, and when the room's full the noise level is excruciating.)
Steven Smith's adventurous, beautifully presented desserts include a sophisticated, sweet-savory chèvre-stuffed baked apple with cider-merlot sorbet ($7). The wines on the ambitious list have in common an elegance that reflects the chef's style, and many clock in at $30 or less.
Since opening in September, Sel Gris is well on its way to establishing itself among a special handful of the Northwest's restaurants. When I was standing on the sidewalk, looking in the door, I knew I was in for something good, but I couldn't have imagined my meals at Sel Gris would turn out quite so well.
Sel Gris, 1852 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 517-7770, selgris.net. Dinner 5:30-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday,
5:30-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$$ Expensive. Reservations recommended.