In a corner space on Leary Way, midway between Fremont and Ballard, Tray Kitchen’s spare interiors hint at the modern, world-influenced food served here, dim sum style. There are polished concrete floors and muted earth tones, high ceilings and south- and west-facing windows, an open kitchen and a small bar tucked in the back.
Owner and chef Heong Soon Park (who also owns Pike Place Market’s Bacco Cafe and Chan) took inspiration for Tray Kitchen from State Bird Provisions, a fantastically popular San Francisco restaurant where customers regularly endure hours-long wait times to feast on small plates served via push carts. Similarly, at Tray Kitchen, chefs regularly prepare a few dozen small-plate items, which make their way around the room on handheld trays for customers to choose from; there are also several à la carte dishes that must be ordered from the kitchen.
Photo Credit: Easton Richmond. Dim sum–style dining at Tray Kitchen in the neighborhood between Fremont and Ballard
Particularly tasty are the Moroccan spiced lamb with mint and yogurt; Szechuan-style corned beef tongue, a totally delicious and clever mashup of Chinese and Irish flavors; and roasted cauliflower with raisins, hazelnuts and coriander, a fun play on a traditionally Sicilian sweet-and-savory dish. (Note: These are small portions, as with dim sum, offering four to eight bites for $3–$9.) Sticky, sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken wings (ordered à la carte, $12 for a small order) are another must-try. But while the food is solidly delicious, boldly flavorful and often inventive, and the service is smart and informed, the tray concept only works sometimes. The wheels come off when the dining room isn’t full. As with dim sum, the success of a tray-service concept relies on a steady stream of customers.
If one dines, as I did, after the evening rush (in this instance, we walked in on a Thursday after 8 p.m.), when the dining room is sparsely occupied, the trays may not even be in use. Of course, it makes sense that chefs wouldn’t cook the entire menu for a semi-empty dining room, but during one visit we were handed menus and asked to order everything à la carte.
So, go to Tray Kitchen when it’s busy: during the main dinner hours, or for weekend brunch, when there’s a congee bar and a sensational, crispy, savory seafood pancake topped with a fried egg. Where else are you going to taste that? Fremont, 4012 Leary Way NW; 206.557.7059; traykitchen.com.