Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Madison Park Conservatory ready to make music

Open house on Saturday

By Bryan Tagas

Before we get to the blah blah blah portion of this posting, let’s go directly to the reveal: Madison Park Conservatory, the latest culinary incarnation to inhabit the onetime Sostanza space, is going to have its soft opening on Tuesday; and in advance of that, the neighborhood is invited to tour the refurbished digs and meet the new restaurant’s team at an open house to be held this Saturday, November 27, from 6 until 9 pm.

Now, on to the narrative:

Cormac Mahoney, maestro of Madison Park Conservatory, seems like a guy who’s ready for his close up. At 38, he’s done his time in the kitchens of other restaurateurs and has gained both assurance and bit of celebrity from his successful effort of last year: the trendy, well-regarded Tako Truk on Eastlake. That little venture, in which he was partnered by Bryan Jarr, was a “summer experiment” of intentional short duration. Operating out of window space in the 14 Carrot Café, Tako Truk was a quickly-popular, walk-up/carry-out purveyor of some adventuresome dinner fare—for example, the Coco Piggy Taco (coconut-flavored braised pork belly topped with pork rinds) and the surprising Octopus Taco (octopus boiled, sautéed, caramelized with lemon juice, and topped with a yogurt sauce and parsley)*. The critics raved and the place developed something of a cult-like following before shutting down.

Don’t expect another Tako Truk here in Madison Park, however. That’s not the plan.

But what is the plan? Since everyone wants to know, I’ve been doing my best to ferret that out, pestering Cormac for weeks to tell all. But though he was gracious and voluble, the guy was just not ready to divulge. Until now.

On Monday I got an email from him, and the subject line read: “built to spill.” So I eagerly bundled myself up and trudged through the evening’s snowstorm to meet Cormac at his new Madison Park Conservatory and get the scoop.

First of all, about the space. It’s been both lightened up and stripped down since the days of Sostanza. Outside, the building has been whitewashed, making it cleaner and brighter. Inside, the false ceiling in the main dining room has been removed, the fireplace eliminated, the wallboard pulled away to reveal the underlying cement, and the walls considerably lightened in color. The impact of all this is to make the room much airier and more open. Upstairs, the carpet has been pulled up to reveal a lovely wood floor, which has been refinished; the walls have been painted a light gray-blue in order to better tie the interior space to the view of water and sky; and in the bar area, decorative tin ceiling tiles have been installed to enhance the ambiance. The previously dark-stained bar—like the food counters downstairs—has been sanded down (by Cormac himself) to reveal the lighter wood beneath. Again, the impact of these changes is to create a livelier, happier space.

The Mediterranean atmosphere of the new restaurant, meanwhile, is heightened by the addition of hand-made Moroccan light fixtures. Large mirrors, which were framed in wood by Cormac’s father, will grace the main floor; but what other interior furnishings and decorations will fill the space are unknown to me, as they had yet to arrive. Hopefully, the snow will not prevent their delivery in time for Saturday’s event, so we can all see the full staging.

I had submitted a list of questions to Cormac before I actually got the chance to quiz him in person, not that he would have needed any advance prep in order to handle my interrogation. He certainly appears to be a guy who’s self-possessed, confident, and well able to think on his feet. He is also—by his own admission—profane, contrarian, and conceited. All of this, however, is overlaid with a well-developed, self-deprecating sense of humor. I was not fazed.

Here are the blogable results of my interview (some of which I excised in conformity with community standards and some of which Cormac himself decided were off the record, either before or after uttering the words). The questions and the responses have been paraphrased, except where there are direct quotes.

Bryan: Why the name, Madison Park Conservatory?

Cormac: Four things. First, “I like the way it sounds. It rolls nicely, and I like the acronym.” Also, there’s the greenhouse sense of conservatory. “We’re going to have our own garden and grow our own herbs and as much stuff as we can.” Additionally, “I like the whole idea of the music-school conservatory since there’s a correlation between music and cooking. At Sitka & Spruce [where Cormac was chef, 2005-09] I likened us to a house band. People came to us for the standards, but we wanted to do new things, too.” Finally, there is a certain “nudge/nudge, wink/wink” aspect to the name. “I wanted to play against the expected. Madison Park has the reputation of being staid and conservative,” and a conservatory is what people might expect to find here. “So it was kind of an inside joke, which maybe only I get: ‘Oh, let’s do lunch at the Conservatory.’ I was counseled against the name from some camps, but if I have gotten laughter or even a single giggle out of it, it’s what I wanted.”

Bryan: You’re being pretty coy about the menu. What kind of food are we talking about?

Cormac: As I always say, we’ll be serving “delicious plants and animals with a squeeze of lemon.” I really don’t want to define it further or put a label on it and then have it typecast. Once you do that you limit the food. “I’m going to cook what I want to cook.” My favorite dinner, for example, is roast chicken, potatoes and braised greens—the best vegetables ever. We’ll start minimally with the menu, the bar, and the space--and then let things take their course. I don’t want to overdesign it. It will grow organically. We will get feedback from our audience, and things may change. This is not to say, like Tom Douglas [famous Seattle restaurateur, in whose restaurants Cormac got his start] that the customer is always right. I reject that. I know it’s not true because as a customer I am sometimes wrong. So we’ll consider the input and then decide. I don't want this to be a place that intimidates people, but everyone will have to remember that “we’re a restaurant, not a catering company.” I want people to be comfortable here, but people will also have to be reasonable. This is going to be a mature, adult place. I want to have a healthy relationship with the neighborhood, including introducing it to new things that people may not already know and that might not otherwise be here. Mario Batali [well known New York chef and food impresario] has a sign up in his market, Eataly, which says ‘We are not always right, you are not always right, but together we’ll figure it out’ or something like that. I like the thought. “I don’t want Madison Park Conservatory to be a place that intimidates people. I want someone to walk away from a dining experience here saying ‘I learned something I didn’t already know.’”

Bryan: Can we talk about the Sunday dinners?

Cormac: We’ll be doing them every Sunday and if you want to dine you’ll have to make a physical reservation. In other words, come in, look us in the eye, and tell us you’re going to be here on Sunday and with how many people. We’ll post the Sunday Dinner menu on Thursday, so everyone can see what’s being served, the same meal for everybody. You’ll also get to look at the signup list, so you can see exactly who you’ll be dining with.

Bryan: Tako Truk—three months successful and then gone. How does your experience there inform what you’ll be doing in this new gig?

Cormac: “Tako Truk was an experiment, a street party. It was my frustrated artist scratching an itch. It was designed to be a summer thing, and it was fun for me to build something and then kill it. The food was good—I loved eating what we cooked. But I had to separate myself and get over myself for a second.” I learned to be self-critical. I’m sure I learned other things as well.

Bryan: What kind of atmosphere are you hoping to create at Madison Park Conservatory?

Cormac: “I want this to be a fun place, and I want this to be a place where big discussions happen. I have high hopes that the crazy Madison Park people will turn this into the kind of place where someone will suddenly break into song and that people will have great ideas eating here: ‘a full belly leads to an inspired mind’ or something like that. At minimum, I want people leaving here happy with themselves.”


Cormac is by no means alone in this new adventure, as he is quick to point out. Onetime Dahlia Lounge chef and celebrity Top Chef contestant Zoi Antonitsas, Cormac’s longtime friend from their days together in the kitchens of Tom Douglas, has returned from San Francisco to Seattle to work the “back of the house” with Cormac. “She’s my alternative life partner in the kitchen,” he says. A Seattle native of Greek descent, Zoi went on to become executive chef at Zazu in Santa Rosa after her 2008 stint on Season Four of Top Chef. She’s a believer in the simple and the rustic, and she’s on record as favoring the use of local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible. That’s certainly a fit with Cormac’s own thinking.

Maggie Savarino, meanwhile, will be managing the “front of the house” at MPC. She’s a one-time booze, wine, and food columnist for Seattle Weekly, whose first job (so her story goes, as told by Cormac) was as a bartender in a roadhouse blue-collar bar. Cormac met her through a mutual friend, did a dinner with her, instantly hit it off, and came back gushing about Maggie to his girlfriend, he reports. “She’s a fabulous, fun person.” says Cormac, adding “she’s a killer.” But I’ve met her and she seemed pretty sweet to me.

Last but not least, Bryan Jarr continues as a principal player with Cormac in this latest endeavor. “If the rest of us are Charlie’s Angels,” says Cormac, “then Bryan is our Bosley. He picks the herbs and chooses the insurance, among a lot of other things—he makes the ball round. He’s the only guy who can tell all three of us no.”

Madison Parkers will get the opportunity to meet the whole MPC crew on Saturday, at which time you can quiz each of them unmercifully. Cormac already knows what he’s in for, since he’s met at lot of neighbors already and has concluded that we’re pretty free with our advice and commentary. He lives in the neighborhood himself and describes Madison Park Conservatory as a 24/7 effort.

Judging by my interactions with him, it’s clear to me that Cormac Mahoney is a big thinker (just to prove my point, ask him sometime for his views on the fetishization of food in American culture). And it's also evident that he's ready to move to center stage. Though he’s perhaps a bit crazy, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the proprietor of a top-end restaurant, even one located in Madison Park. He’s obviously got a lot of talent, a good team, and a thought-out game plan. I think we should set the bar high for Madison Park Conservatory and expect great things.

[*I’m abashed to report that I was not among those lucky enough to have had the Tako Truk experience. I’ve therefore relied on the excellent reporting of Seattle Times critic Tan Vinh for these descriptions. Madison Park Conservatory is located at 1927 43rd Avenue E.]

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