Moving Up from the Underground

anne catherine

a capricious restaurant from a serious talent
BY JENNI PERTUSET
PHOTO BY NICK HALL

 In a tiny Seattle neighborhood, in a tiny neighborhood bistro, stands a tiny bistro kitchen, with walls as orange as the yolk of a pastured hen’s egg.

“This is my least favorite color,” says (not tiny, but certainly petite) Chef Anne Catherine Kruger. That’s a surprise. Though she inherited the color, it seems a perfect match for Kruger, the vibrant orange wall behind the staid black-and-white dining room like the warm smile flashing from her reserved demeanor.

Indeed, the entire personality of A Caprice Kitchen is much like Kruger’s. Her sensibilities, her values, and her experiences shine from every aspect of the place, from the sunny kitchen, to the ship photographs on the walls, to the farm-focused menu.

The name reflects Kruger’s approach to creating her menu. Inspired by the latest seasonal produce, she devises each week’s dinner menu “on a whim” according to what’s available at the farmer’s markets.

“Caprice” also reflects how she opened the place. After working briefly with the previous owner, Kruger closed the cafe’s former incarnation, updated the space (from sponge paint to sleek), and reopened as A Caprice Kitchen two days later.

The new restaurant continues in the spirit of Kruger’s prior undertaking as a Seattle chef, Caprice Communal Dinners. Those self-catered dinner parties were permitted, licensed, tax-paying affairs, but “people liked to call it an ‘underground restaurant,'” said Kruger, “because that sounds more exciting.”

Like A Caprice Kitchen, Caprice Communal Dinners came about with little advanced planning. “I sent an email on a Thursday that I was offering a meal for 20 people on Sunday without publishing the menu,” Kruger says. That and each of her subsequent dinners quickly sold out, until the fall of 2008.

In the summer of 2008, as she had the summer before, Kruger took a hiatus from her work as a land-based chef to cook on a working boat in Alaska. She’s loved boats since living aboard for a year at age 9. After college, she worked as a steward in the Sea Education Association program, feeding 40 people 6 times a day from a small kitchen.

She learned to be creative within the restrictions of her circumstances, creating menus with limited ingredients and “always checking what was about to rot.”

On her return from Alaska in September, she learned of the economic collapse because “suddenly, no one was signing up” for her communal dinners. At a time when other business owners reduced overhead costs, Kruger decided to start paying rent.

Selecting this spot enabled Kruger to capitalize on an established breakfast and lunch trade. Breakfast and lunch “are not extravagant,” and people seem more likely to eat out for those meals even in a downturn, she says.

Kruger was also pleased to establish roots in such a welcoming neighborhood. Many of her customers are locals who walk to the restaurant, which lies just a block east of busy 15th Ave NW in residential Whittier Heights. After noticing that many of her customers walked to A Caprice Kitchen, she thought she should, too, and moved into a home a couple of blocks away.

She’s building connections with other neighborhood businesses as well. When she saw how each latte order would stop service in the restaurant, which has only one server, Kruger scrapped the espresso machine and began offering pickup service from Honoré Bakery across the street. By calling in the order to Honoré, she improves her customers’ experience while supporting another small business.

Though she’s new to the block, Kruger seems to have readily developed relationships. On a recent afternoon, a hairdresser from the salon across the street popped in to bring newly-arrived shampoo. “It has no sulfates. It’s very Anne-Catherine-esque,” she told Kruger. The hairdresser offered to make a trade, and the scene called to mind the end-of-day bargaining one hears between farmer’s market vendors.

Her support for the local economy extends to Washington farmers. “The menu is 99 percent local food,” she says. The major exceptions are coffee, salt, and sugar. She buys coffee—and “it’s a breakfast place, you need coffee”—from Seven Roasters, a small Seattle shop. Her salt comes Sonoma, CA from what she believes is the only commercial producer of natural sea salt in the US. And she minimizes her use of sugar, choosing honey to sweeten baked goods.

For the rest, she uses produce from local farms, purchased primarily from vendors at two farmer’s markets: the University District market on Saturdays and the Ballard market on Sundays. She works with “farmers who answer their own phones” and who come to market themselves. Most important for Kruger is choosing farms from which home cooks can buy their produce.

Just as she did while cooking on a boat, she’s working within her limitations. Instead of what’s about to go bad, she’s interested in what’s freshest. In some seasons, there’s little to choose from, but “I love it,” she says, and in the summer, “there are so many options I get overwhelmed.” She takes advantage of the bounty. Last September, she made peach preserves, canned 200 pounds of tomatoes and filled her freezer with raspberries. She used those ingredients through the leaner months to brighten her recipes.

The small kitchen size precludes an expansive menu, but expect to find three or four selections for each course. While the details may be unpredictable, each plate is carefully designed and well executed. Bright, thoughtful, charming: A Caprice Kitchen is very Anne-Catherine-esque.

A Caprice Kitchen
1418 NW 70th St
(206) 784-9404
Breakfast and lunch Wed-Sun 8am-2pm
Dinner Fri- Sat 6pm-9pm

Jenni Pertuset thinks Anne Catherine should move to her neighborhood, but until then is content to drive to A Caprice Kitchen.

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