Imagine two types of restaurants. There are those that are obedient to their customers, giving the customers “what they want,” fulfilling even their basest desires. Like bottomless fries (Red Robin). Or all you can eat pasta (Olive Garden). Then there are those that are responsible for their customers, restaurants that challenge their guests, or as Anthony Bourdain puts it, “experiment, push boundaries, explore what is possible, what might be possible.” These are the restaurants that take risks necessary to elevate cuisine.
Elemental @Gasworks and its sister establishment, Elemental Next Door (END), are such restaurants. The salient difference between the two — as explained by END host and signage — is that the former is a “dictatorship” with “attitude,” where you don’t get to choose anything and they won’t tell you what you’re eating and drinking as you progress through a seven course tasting menu with wine pairing, while the latter is a “democracy” without the “attitude,” where you have to choose your food and wine. All food and wine offerings at Elemental are available at END. The standoffish poodle hangs out at Elemental.
We wanted the dictatorship but realized, after an hour of waiting (no reservations or waiting list), that we weren’t going to get it. Starving and in need of drink, we opted for democracy. We were handed complimentary champagne the moment we walked in and were directed, after making the mistake of sitting at our (communal) table, to stand in front of a menu written on a scroll. Too hungry to think about the menu, we asked the server to decide for us. He refused, reminding us that we’re in a “democracy, you have to do the thinking.” We ordered all the appetizers — two orders of artichoke dip, order each of truffled popcorn, spicy goat cheese salsa, manchego stuffed peppers — and a bottle of wine, name of which I can’t recall. The food wasn’t wildly inventive, but was well executed (how did they get every kernel of popcorn to taste the same?) and well flavored. Just some interesting variations of the familiar. Party of five, 10 drinks, five appropriately portioned appetizers = $80, tax and tip included. Easily one of the best deals in town. And since it’s not the sort of place that attracts those under 30 or cares much about social etiquette and rules, they’re unlikely to card for age. You can probably get away with bringing a college aged teen and have him experience good food and wine so he’ll never tolerate shit like 4 Loko or Mike’s Lemonade or Long Island Iced teas, whatever it is teenagers drink nowadays.
Elemental, the dictatorship, I’ve been to twice, but that was like five, six years ago, back when it was more of a soft authoritarian regime, where they chose the wine pairing but you could choose the food, than the totalitarian state it purportedly is now, where they won’t tell you what you’re eating and drinking and completely control the pace of your meal. The current experience is $80 with tax and tip included, making it one of the most affordable tasting menu with pine pairing experiences in Seattle.
If Elemental were in New York City, it’d be one of the most famous restaurants in North America, on par with David Chang’s Momofuku. Like Momofuku, Elemental is one of those restaurants designed, as Bourdain puts it, “exclusively for hungry chefs and cooks and jaded industry people.” “This is the way — this is how good, how much fun our business could be if only we didn’t have to worry about the fucking customers.” Elemental’s primary aim isn’t to please its patrons by catering to their whims, it’s to show them the “proper” way to host a dinner party, the “proper” way they’re to enjoy themselves while eating and drinking. Elemental demands the customer to not be fussy or picky, to have a patient and adventurous spirit willing to take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith so they can experience a higher, more exalted pleasure.