A unique aspect of eating at dim sum restaurants is the constant flow of carts that roll past your table, filled with a variety from which you can choose. This type of dining qualifies as culinary instant gratification; right away you can eat what sounds or looks good to you. Chef Heong Soon Park embraces this concept at Tray Kitchen where servers bring trays to your table rather than carts (a not uncommon dim sum method of service). Instead of Chinese dim sum, the small plates are filled with eclectic nibbles, most with Asian influences, some Korean, all seasonally prepared. In dim sum fashion, when you pick something, the server will put a mark on the paper menu in one of six boxes that represent prices (tonight: $3, $5, $6, $7, $9 and $10). And, as also happens at dim sum restaurants, the frequency varies throughout the meal, depending on how quickly the kitchen, which is open-air and visible from any table, can put out the dishes. There is also the impression of a slow-down as the meal progresses, because I got the feeling that servers keep a mental note of what’s already been shown at your table and won’t bring them again.
The paper menu that keeps track of your orders likewise lists the a la carte items, which are more main-course-ish (and more expensive) though in a few cases the distinction wasn’t clear. Four of us had dinner here on a Saturday night for a special occasion. The restaurant is located in the part of town increasingly referred to as Frelard (or Balmont), the area that straddles both Ballard and Fremont in Seattle. The interior is minimalist, modern, vaguely Asian and surrounded on six sides by hard surfaces, responsible for the extreme noise level that can build with a full house. More than once, both we and servers had difficulty hearing each other. It was bad enough that a conversation could barely be carried on at your own table. Really, do we need this?
From the menu, we selected two entrées. K.F.C. (aka Korean fried chicken) comes in two portion sizes, 3 or 6 wings. Each is an entire wing. These weren’t puny ones either, but big and meaty. The potato starch batter was extraordinarily crispy, burnished to a golden brown from double-frying and nicely seasoned. But, they were thickly covered in a sweet and spicy sauce, which needed scaling back for a less messy eating experience. (☆☆☆)
Also from the menu was the poached halibut entrée. Extremely moist and flaky, the fillet appeared to have a partial swathe of skin still attached. A closer look made me think instead of lots of very finely ground black pepper. It was actually minutely flaked nori that complemented the fish’s subtle flavor. Seaweed (kombu) lent flavors of the sea and shimeji (cooked) and enoki (raw) mushrooms, flavors of the earth. Add to this sweet rice crackers for crunch and tiny purple blossoms for striking color. Tying it all together was a rich dashi, resulting in one of tonight’s outstanding dishes. (☆☆☆☆)
The first tray dish was a steak tartare complemented by flavors of sesame oil, sesame seeds and a touch of honey and mixed with bits of minced jalapeño chiles and nashi (Asian pear). The mince is supposed to be scooped up by housemade lavash crackers. But the crackers were too thin, the meat easily breaking them apart. The flavors were fine but the kitchen should have used more care to remove occasional pieces of muscle sheath. (☆☆½)
Next was roasted cauliflower paired with ‘drunken’ raisins (cooked in wine) and toasted hazelnuts. Of all cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower reigns supreme when roasted. It develops a wonderful nuttiness. Charring brings out even more sweetness and pairing them with perfectly toasted hazelnuts and macerated raisins is divine inspiration. The contrasting flavors and textures were remarkable, my other choice for the best dish of the night. (☆☆☆☆)
The concept of an Asian Caesar salad seemed promising. Instead of romaine, use crunchy shaved Brussels sprouts, togarashi for ground black pepper and Chinese doughnuts for croutons. Good but a bit weak on the wow factor, an example of leaving well enough alone. (☆☆½)
Octopus can be tricky suckers to prevent from overcooking. Grilled octopus in a salad is something I’ve never come across. Combined with nicely cooked white beans (cannellini?) and greens, the salad conjured up thoughts of Spain or the Mediterranean. A grilled lemon quarter could be squeezed over the salad, for some diners necessary to subdue octopus’ strong taste. (☆☆☆)
More Korean in substance were rice cakes tossed in kojuchang sauce, suggestive of a cold, more humble version of eundaegu jorim, though baby octopus takes the place of black cod. Baby bok choy provided nice crunch. (☆☆☆)
As inventive and well executed as the menu and tray items are, I agree with a few reviewers who’ve commented that taken as a whole, the dishes lack harmony—some are strongly assertive, others are subdued, some are forthrightly Asian, others are not. There is no unifying style or vision that ties everything together. That doesn’t mean that the dining experience wasn’t fun and didn’t keep us all guessing what surprises the next tray was going to bring. We enjoyed ourselves. But, damn that noise!