There are a lot of new restaurants in Seattle. An exhausting amount, really. I suppose that’s what happens during a city’s growth spurt. And I suppose what happens next is that only a small handful of them will survive. I see it as a sort of unintentional experiment for potential new restaurants—those who plan to open one will be able to see what works in today’s market without actually having to spend their own money. It’s a little morose, but lots can be learned from others' failures.
On the flip side are the new restaurants that have earned their keep, the offspring of rabidly voracious chefs who want nothing more than to feed people good food and show them a good time. You can almost taste the heart and soul that goes into each dish they prepare. The dismal side of this? Their restaurants, despite being filled with so much love and talent, aren't always the most bustling places in town. (Exhibit A).
One of those chefs is Derek Ronspies. I met him years ago when he was working at his brother Dustin’s restaurant, Art of the Table. And damn, could he cook! Derek opened his own place, Le Petit Cochon, last October, right around the same time that nearby RockCreek, Vif and Roux opened. And now, a year later, he’s one of the "little guys" trying to compete in a saturated market.
His nose-to-tail restaurant got a little bit of a makeover one month ago when he decided to take some by no means drastic measures to help bring people into his by no means easy to find restaurant in lower Fremont. His space is perched above Chiso. You have to first find the stairs and then the front door to the restaurant. It’s cool and clandestine, but frustrating if you don’t know where to look.
First off, Ronspies cut the “Le Petit” from “Cochon,” because apparently it created some confusion as to what cuisine he was offering. Last night during dinner he told me that Le Petit Cochon had been typcast as a French restaurant.
Come on, Seattle!
“Some people thought we were super fine dining,” he told me. “Others thought we only served offal: ‘Oh, I don’t want to go in there. All they’re serving is weird parts.’”
So, he took out some of the “parts,” and added the universally approachable burger to the menu—45% short rib, 45% brisket, 10% bone marrow—in order to make people feel safe.
The menu changes weekly, but you’ll likely find some other playful items along the lines of fish and chips or buffalo fried oysters ($14), which are currently up to bat. For me, I opted for a beautiful charcuterie plate ($18), King salmon with fried green tomatoes, Creole butter and green onion puree ($20) and a towering fried chicken—good lord, that fried chicken!—slider topped with pepper jam and kimchi ($8). Everything was not only really delicious (sorry, sometimes you just have to use that overplayed word), it was artful. A complete overhaul from Le Petit Cochon? Nope. Just different.
Instead of the obvious pig mascot, an octopus graces the cover of the menu. There's really no rhyme or reason for this other than Derek loves himself an octopus, calling it his spirit animal. A giant painting of one also hangs in the bar area. Interesting enough, both the swine and the octopus are two of the smartest living creatures.
There's also happy hour from 4-6 p.m. and half-off bottles of wine every Wednesday (a.k.a. my new office on Wednesday nights). A six-course chef’s tasting menu is still available ($69)—the only portion of the restaurant that's fine-dining, if you want to call it that.
"I went from, like, a pub kind of thing originally, to all of the sudden pushing tasting menus, 'let's do this, let's do that,' and I felt like we turned more into fine dining that I wanted to be. I want [Cochon] to be a loud place, fun, Portland-style where you come in and have a good time. It's also a little smoky in here because the hood sucks.”
From my experience last night, the place is definitely fun, due in large part to the open kitchen that squeezes in at the end of the bar. And depending on whether or not you like Derek’s choice of music the night you come in, it could either be way more fun or distracting. But the good news here is that when he enjoys the music coming over the speakers, his energy becomes contagious. If you sit at the bar or in its general vicinity (definitely the best seats in the house), I guarantee you’ll feel like you’re at your good guy friend’s house, who manages to feed and entertain you while plying you full of booze. Aren't those always the best kind of friends?
But even if Cochon doesn’t last past tomorrow (which it will. Derek says this week was its busiest week since May), he already has plans for other projects that might even suit him better.
“My whole thing was a sandwich shop from the beginning, but I needed to do [Cochon] just to get this out of my fuckin' system. I'm here to do this until it's good and then go open either a fried chicken joint or a sandwich shop.”
Regardless of what he does, I genuinely want to see Derek keep cooking. He has so much to offer Seattle—more than just an unintentional experiment.