Scott Carsberg scales new heights of fine dining

Note: this review was first published by SeattleDining.

There’s a storied corner in Pioneer Square at the intersection of Yesler and Post Alley. Trattoria Mitchelli, the restaurant that replaced the original Barney McCoy’s Cafe at the Travelers Hotel in at that location, used to be one of Seattle’s liveliest red-sauce Italian eateries. Now, six years after the Tratt’s founder Danny Mitchell decamped for the south of France, the space has a new tenant, a chef with a monk-like dedication to his craft.

The discreetly illuminated sign on the door says Bisato and, yes indeed, Scott Carsberg is inside, running the kitchen in a neighborhood that’s quite a contrast to the Belltown intersection he once occupied.

Unlike a lot of would-be “chefs” who might spend a month or two lounging around an agriturismo in Tuscany or doing a stage at a pasta palace in Milan then returning to the States with a newfound “passion” for Italian cuisine, Carsberg really did make his bones in classical kitchens. Born in West Seattle, he did a tour of American and European capitals, growing especially fond of the Italian style. He worked at Settebello before setting off on his own, where he was able to develop his own approach to cooking, marrying the rigor and restraint of French cuisine with Italian inspiration and attention to ingredients.

In person, he could pass for a fry cook at Mel’s Diner. (“I have a mug only a mother could love,” he told me when I took his picture some years back.) In 1992, he and his wife, Hyun Joo Paek, opened their own place in Belltown, Lampreia. It was a formal, prix-fixe establishment in what was then a relatively rowdy part of Seattle. Talented, meticulous, a chef whose charismatic personality was not universally admired (hey! we all know people like that!), he was nominated three times for a James Beard award before finally winning, in 2006, some 15 years after he had opened Lampreia in Belltown. Carsberg had never cooked a James Beard dinner; he did not attend the awards ceremony.

And even after he transformed Lampreia into a more modest, Venetian-style wine bar called Bisato, he won Best “Authentic Italian” Restaurant in North America from Birra Moretti.

Belltown residents like yours truly would see Carsberg sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside his restaurant, grabbing some fresh air during his afternoon prep, greeting passersby. Sometimes gruff, sometimes charming, but always approachable. Then, without warning, the bombshell: Carsberg and his wife announced they were closing permanently. Time for a break, Carsberg said. But to the end, even as the menu reprised “Bisato’s Greatest Hits,” the place maintained its quiet dignity. Three unhurried servers under Hyun Joo’s stately direction, a stream of reverential patrons ordering butternut squash soup, sea urchin risotto, braised short rib. Carsberg himself hovering over every dish, with intensity and focus, for a full-throttle, thoroughly professional finish to a 20-year run.

Carsberg and his wife then traveled to Korea and Japan, and he consulted for Fran’s Chocolates and Caffè Vita. Now it’s time for his comeback. There’s even a documentary about the project titled “The Last Course.” (I’m one of the interview subjects.) After his six-year hiatus, he has a new backer, restaurant investor Susumu “Sam” Takahashi (notably in Shiro’s and Kashiba), and a spot in Pioneer Square.

The new location, at 84 Yesler Way, had been vacant since New Year’s Eve of 2009. The landlord is Ilze Jones, an architect with a strong commitment to responsible development in Pioneer Square; she kept the space vacant for a decade rather than accede to proposals for nail salons, massage parlors, Subway franchises or hot dog stands.

The décor has been transformed from the Tratt’s bright Italian colors to muted grays and a dialed- back informality. Waiters wear dark blazers over black slacks & black T-shirts. Some of the patrons wear jeans; some of them even slip off their shoes.

Like his counterpart at Cafe Juanita (the Seattle region’s only rival in the field of high-end Italian dining), Carsberg offers a seven-course, prix fixe menu for $150. In addition to a solid à la carte menu, there’s also an unpriced, omikase-style “Cook for me Carsberg” option.

I wanted to start with seafood, so I ordered the “savory fish tart,” which, it turned out, was a seafood-flavored custard topped with a creamy egg yolk alongside a cured salmon filet topped with Ikura salmon roe. Before my main course arrived, Carsberg sent out a few items for me to taste. The most impressive was a single fat spear of purple asparagus, steamed or grilled (or both), simultaneously tender yet retaining its crunch, its bright vegetal flavor complemented by a dab of mustard aioli on one side and a foie gras tartelette topped with an apple-rhubarb gelée on the other. A slice of seafood terrine came out soon thereafter, full of shrimp meat and briny flavors. This was followed by an exquisite trio of treats: baby pastry wafers topped with domed purées of tomatoes, peas, and squid ink, each a two-bite delight. Then came the famous short rib braised in Barolo, set atop a pillow of whipped potatoes; the meat was as tender as could be, the sauce rich, deep and redolent of Italy’s greatest wine, the potatoes as light as a feather. Dessert showed up unbidden: a quenelle of white chocolate drizzled tableside with a raspberry rhubarb cream.

Carsberg is still tweaking things. I wasn’t crazy about the (thin and relatively tasteless) pastry that turned up in the fish tart and the tartelettes; while they didn’t impose on their dishes, they didn’t help them along, either. But I want to return for the egg-enhanced truffle pasta and the menu’s nod to the Alps: duck breast with Tyrolean red cabbage.

Meanwhile, there’s an impressive front line of salumi on display on the kitchen counter (prosciutto, mortadella, salami, etc.) ready to feed into a fancy Tomaga slicer for a $25 “DOP Salumi” course. Most high-end restaurants use a traditional slicer from Berkel; Carsberg prefers the younger rival, also from northern Italy.

Still, Carsberg is that rarity: a control-freak who does almost all the cooking himself, yet he’s a shy chef. He’s not going to bang his own drum. We hope Takahashi will make a little noise on his behalf, but don’t look for glamorous media events to intrude on the peace and quiet that Carsberg brings to Bisato. Canlis is five miles north of town and Cafe Juanita half an hour’s drive from the convention hotels, but world-class gastronomy is now closer than the football stadium.

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