Loulay is a curious spot—although at first it might be hard to understand why. Chef Thierry Rautureau’s third restaurant is an energetic, glitzy, big place, with soaring ceilings, open loft seating and a spectacular chandelier that casts a glittery spell over the dining room. It’s downtown, but just outside of the shopping core, a location more apt to capture the attention of theatergoers and hotel guests than locals passing by. It’s dressy—Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores are within a couple of blocks’ walk, after all—without being intimidating. The curious part is how a chef like Thierry Rautureau ends up opening a place like Loulay, a restaurant so different from the one that earned him renown.
First, though, I should share a theory I have about a chef’s first restaurant, and second, and so on. After working his or her way up from the pantry station, which is often a glorified role of salad tosser and ice cream scooper, to working the sauté station beside the head chef, and after working for someone else and cooking someone else’s food for years (sometimes for decades), when a chef finally makes the exciting, nerve-jangling leap to owning his or her own first restaurant, everything changes. The food must be excellent, the service must be spot-on, the long hours become a labor of love. The first restaurant is the showcase. This is what I can do, the chef seems to be saying through the food, design and service at the first restaurant. This is the restaurant I’ve dreamed of creating.
When chef Thierry Rautureau moved to Seattle from Los Angeles in 1987, he was looking for just such a place. Born and raised in Saint-Hilaire-de-Loulay in the Muscadet region of France, Rautureau left home to begin apprenticing in kitchens at the age of 14. After six years in Normandy, the French Alps and the Pays Basque, he moved to the United States and began working for French chefs here, first in Chicago, and then in Los Angeles. But around the time he was ready to settle down and raise a family, he visited friends in Seattle and found that a house turned restaurant called Rover’s was for sale, in what was then a somewhat deserted dip in the road between Capitol Hill and Madison Park. He and his wife bought it, and Rautureau set out to create the finest French restaurant in the city.
In the elegant dining room inside that house hidden behind storefronts, there was seared foie gras, of course, and caviar. There were tournedos of wild salmon, venison medallions, lobster served on Limoges china. There were eggs scrambled so softly, as if they were whispered into their tender final state, crème fraîche gently folded in and then spooned ever so carefully back into an egg shell, topped with black sturgeon caviar and served with a tiny spoon with which to eat it. It’s the sort of extravagance rarely on display in Seattle, even at the finest restaurants.
Rover’s became legendary. Rautureau shot to fame, one of Seattle’s first star chefs, sometimes referred to as “The Chef in the Hat” for the fedora he’d don when swirling around the dining room warmly greeting regulars. About 10 years ago, I was introduced to esteemed New York chef Daniel Boulud after dining at his restaurant, Daniel. Upon learning I was from Seattle, Boulud remarked, “Oh, do you know Thierry? You don’t go to Seattle and not see Thierry.”
He’d done it: Rautureau had created a showcase for fine French cuisine, where diners spent, in the end, upward of $120 per person for prix fixe meals, considerably more for wine pairings.
But by the early aughts, diners’ tastes were shifting. Rover’s was a destination for fine dining, certainly, but younger diners were doing less and less of that, opting instead to share a slew of smaller plates. The trend was toward less formality, more conviviality.
Rautureau, too, had long craved cooking more casual fare. It’s a common theme: A chef’s second restaurant is almost always the sort of restaurant one can imagine the chef hanging out in after cooking at his or her showcase restaurant. Often there’s a looser, more easygoing atmosphere, serving food that’s not nearly as fussy or formal. The second restaurant is less about proving oneself and more about being oneself. And so, Rautureau opened Luc in 2010, a French-American bistro with every-night appeal, within stumbling distance of Rover’s.
And then, just as the earliest plans were starting to form for Loulay, Rautureau closed Rover’s. The doyenne served her last dinner in June, after 26 esteemed years.
600 Union St.
Lunch and dinner daily.
Six months later, Loulay, named for the town in which Rautureau debuted, opened. Here, the Chef in the Hat woos the crowd with his French accent while a team of professional servers dances through the room, keeping the evening humming along. They whisk by to refill wine glasses, present slender plates bearing sunset-pink ahi tuna ($8.50) dressed with Asian pear and ponzu sauce, or Dungeness salad ($12) dressed with a watery remoulade, served in bowls of crisp butter lettuce. There is comforting depth in the proper French onion soup ($7.50), and a burger ($12) so unbelievably good, with its bacon-shallot jam and house-ground meat, served with perfect fries and a divine aioli. There is a range of plates—from charcuterie to foie gras to sweetbreads to wild salmon—in a range of prices, mostly in the teens to mid-$20s, and they have varying success. It’s a bistro menu that hints at the season, but there’s something comforting and easy to understand about how timeless it is, too. One could say Loulay—its food and its locale—has broad appeal.
Loulay is not the second coming of Rover’s, and according to the Chef in the Hat, that is very much the point. Keeping impeccable standards is excruciatingly difficult, and Rautureau grew tired of it. And so, he went big. He went for a busy downtown corner where big spenders and theatergoers pop in for drinks and dinner. He went for a people-pleasing place, a mix of refinement and everyday ease—with the glitz of Rover’s and a bistro menu reminiscent of Luc. Yet, for this longtime fan, it is still a bit of a disappointment that so much of the menu is only good, because this chef is capable of achieving great.
Still, should you find yourself wistful for the lavishness of Rover’s, there remains one superb option: the scrambled egg, supple and soft, served in its own shell under a dab of white sturgeon caviar. It’s served at Loulay for $25. And eating it, you’ll feel like royalty. (Photo: The famed scrambled egg with crème fraîche and caviar is back)