Chef JJ Proville. // Courtesy of L'Oursin
Chef JJ Proville. // Courtesy of L'Oursin

The Road BackSeattle

Shellfish Towers, Comfort Food, and Dreams of Normal: How L’Oursin Is Making Things Work

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Like many chefs who weathered the pandemic, JJ Proville realized early on that the key to success was giving the people what they want. At L’Oursin, the Central District restaurant he owns with business partner Zac Overman, that meant a quick pivot, from charming French bistro to charming French corner market — plus Southern food pop-up Old Scratch, a winter hit that centered on fondue, and as spring has arrived, Bretagne-style shellfish towers, served al fresco. After all, there’s nothing people love more than take-home terrines, hot fried chicken sandwiches, melty cheese, and oysters all in one location.

This may sound disjointed, but that’s at the heart of what the restaurant has always been: A neighborhood gathering place for great food and well-curated natural wines, thanks to longtime wine director Kathryn Olson (who recently announced her departure).

If you listen to Proville tell it, the evolution happened very naturally. But that downplays how hard he and his team have worked to make L’Oursin — in the before times and now — feel like you’re dining in France. And with travel to anywhere beyond the other side of the house still limited for the foreseeable future, this sort of culinary armchair vacation is an absolute necessity right now. 

Here he weighs in on how life at L’Oursin looks like both during and, hopefully one day soon, after the pandemic. 

(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

RESY: OK, so how are you really? Not just #pandemicfine. What’s it been like running a restaurant in the middle of a global crisis? 

Proville: Well, I think we have a different case than most people. I think [a restaurant’s ability to reopen successfully] really just depended on what your particular situation was. We were closed for a day or two last March, when it really went down. And then the next thing we did was push our prep fridges up to the front of the restaurant and become a little market. We were like, “All right, we’ll just keep making duck confit, and we’ll just put cheese in the fridges.” That was really fast and natural, and we just built on that, because the conditions were more or less favorable in terms of essential businesses and us being allowed to open. Fondue was a natural extension of that—also because I grew up Haute-Savoie [a region in the French Alps], so I had license to do this [laughs]. 

Fondue is so unique and special, but also really taps into that comfort food that everyone wants right now, even if it’s not the comfort food we grew up with. Everybody loves cheese. 

It’s weird. The smile it puts on people’s faces is pretty amazing. It makes me wanna go back to just cooking straight comfort food. That sounds so cliché now. But it makes me wanna return my menu to stuff like that, that people know and are familiar with and just enjoy so deeply. Rather than, you know, “Here’s some microgreens on top of this tuna here, I think you’re really gonna love these microgreens.” 

Why did you go with seafood towers for the next iteration of your patio dining?

We had to find something irresistible that would fill up those two seats, and be as rad or radder than fondue.

Does it kill you a little bit that people are gravitating more towards comfort food? Back in the old days, your dishes were so beautiful and delicate, but also not the sort of thing that you’d heat up at home.

Yeah. True. No, it doesn’t kill me. We have more businesses now than we did when the pandemic began. Now we have a restaurant, a market, and a burger thing. We’re going to have to simplify stuff a little bit across the board, which means L’Oursin would become a little bit more simple and a little more straightforward — but not less creative than it was. I think we’re going to have a very steady [menu] of, like, sturgeon frites or steak frites or something like that that’s always there.

Absolutely. Evolution isn’t a bad thing. How did Old Scratch come about?

Well, Zac is from North Carolina. So Old Scratch was born of a lucid dream that he had, and we thought, “Well, what’s gonna work [during Covid times]?” And we resigned ourselves: It’s either gonna be pizza, or burgers and fries. We already practiced with the burgers and stuff; we had our little Monday night burger thing. So, we had a decent product we could put out. We just dove into it, and actually some pretty good stuff came out of that, like the barbecue tofu. I don’t exactly know how we came up with that, but I think it’s a great little thing. I think you’ve got to come out with an item that’s a little gem, a little jewel, a thing unto itself. That’s how you build a successful little fast-food thing. If you’ve got a bunch of disjointed items that are not really special to people, it’s not as good. 

I have not had that burger yet, but I think about it frequently (thanks, Instagram). Which brings me to: I live in the north part of the city, so getting to the Central District is not a regular thing for me anymore. Do you think people are supporting neighborhood restaurants now more than they were before? 

Yeah, we get lots of support. People come back repeatedly — on purpose too. I think if they would normally go to Central Coop or something, first, they might stop and check out what’s going on at our market first before shopping for real. I mean, I wish we could carry toilet paper and all those necessities, too. 

Fancy French toilet paper.

That’s not a bad idea!

Do you think there’s a silver lining to all of this chaos?

Well, as shitty as everything was, I think it was good for us. Who knows what might have been had it not happened? We would have had an awesome summer, and it would have been business as usual. But now we’ve put so much work into the market and Old Scratch that we’re not letting those businesses go. And in a way, we were forced to do it, but in the long term, it’s awesome. We were totally going to expand one of those concepts, either the market or Old Scratch, into the space next door, if that were available, or down the street if that were available. It’s put us in a position where we were ready to do more, when we thought it would be the exact opposite. The government stimulus, the PPPs and stuff, those are helpful to businesses. A bunch of months of free rent? That is super helpful. I’m not saying it’s, like, boosting our bank account or anything. I’m saying it’s kind of keeping it right where it was, which is already pretty damn good. 

 

Beer, wines, selected by wine director Kathryn Olson, and spirits by the bottle are available at the marketplace. Photo courtesy L’Oursin.

Do you have a prediction for Seattle’s restaurant scene, what it looks like down the road? 

There’s definitely a market correction happening. I see the strong emerging places like Eden Hill [in Queen Anne] or Beast and Cleaver up in Ballard. People who have really strong creative ideas and presence and are not afraid to push through.

When most people are vaccinated, or when people start coming into the shop with their vaccination cards and our staff is vaccinated, that’s what I consider to be a turning point. I think there will be a lot of interest in restaurants. I think people have a lot of pent-up rage that restaurants do a good job of alleviating. 

How do you feel about the whole indoor dining debate? 

I think it’s still super sketchy right now. How come the New York Times is telling you to wear two masks and then Jay Inslee is, like, “Alll right, let’s do this.” I’m not saying it’s his fault. The guy must be pulled in so many different directions. I have special places that I really miss. I miss going to a Japanese restaurant, it’s such an experience. I don’t know. It’s not the same at all. I wanna go to Rondo and sit at the bar with a giant mug of beer when it’s really loud. I wanna go to Queen Anne and sit in a quiet little deserted restaurant with carpet. These are the things I miss. 

It’ll happen, right?

Yeah, it will. We’ll be laughing about this soon.

L’Oursin offers the Bretagne-style shellfish tower experience for two daily; make reservations here. The takeout burger window is open for pickup and delivery; order here. And the marketplace is open for limited in-person shopping.

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