Down-home delicious

Retro American food gets jazzed up at Blue Onion Bistro

Down-home

Susan Jensen and Scott Simpson are bringing American classics like macaroni and cheese back into vogue.

John Granen

BLUE ONION RECIPES

Blue Ribbon Mac and Cheese
 Thai Sweet Chili Ketchup

"We have fish sticks!" announces Scott Simpson, the co-owner of Blue Onion Bistro, as grandly as if he were heralding truffles. "We take some fresh wild salmon, slice 'em into long and thin pieces, and then we herb 'em and bread 'em and deep-fry 'em and serve 'em with kosher dill tartar and malt vinegar."

Two sentences into a conversation with Simpson and his business partner and fellow chef, Susan Jensen, or two items into their menu, and you know this is a fresh and funky kind of restaurant. It's heartland retro, granny's comfort food, and mom's convenience cuisine, rehabbed with fresh ingredients and outfitted in wild ethnic accessories.

Last time Simpson contrived a meat loaf special, it came with a Thai sweet chili ketchup, and the time before that it wore a French whole-grain mustard glaze. Other church-potluck standards enjoying a revival at Blue Onion Bistro: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sesame chicken salad, and tuna casserole. For fancier tastes, there's spice-crusted filet mignon and maple-glazed duck. Defying categorization are the chicken popper rolls ― egg-roll wrappers stuffed with jalapeños, mesquite-smoked chicken, cream cheese, and red onions.

"We're revolting against health," Simpson says, laughing but not exactly joking. "We had a guy who called and asked, 'Is the tuna casserole healthy?' I said it may be the most unhealthy thing in the world. It's cream, sour cream, cheese...all bad things." Jensen adds, "And it's huge. But doggone it, it's good. Maybe you don't want to eat this seven days a week, but you can't live on carrot sticks and fat-free dressing forever."

CHAMPIONS OF CLASSIC AMERICAN FOOD

Simpson and Jensen met three years ago while working for 22 Fountain Court, a restaurant in Bellevue, Washington. They contrast like garlic and cinnamon: Simpson bubbles with jolly, manic energy; Jensen radiates thoughtful calm. Simpson earned impressive chef credentials the traditional way, starting out scrubbing deep-fryers when he was barely into his teens, earning a diploma from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona, then working restaurant kitchens from Arizona to Switzerland. Jensen drifted into a kitchen at the age of 21, just needing a job, and found that she loved it. When they met, they discovered that they cooked uncannily well as a team and became best buddies.

Three years ago, they were driving by a row of car-repair shops on Roosevelt Way when they spotted a decrepit 1939 Mobil station that had been converted, halfheartedly, into a restaurant ― and it was for lease. They pooled their resources ($15,000 each), borrowed $10,000, and begged family and friends to help them scrub, paint, and remodel, and then stuff the dining room with American kitsch ― old toys, classic appliances, and Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus posters that advertise, among other attractions, the world's "largest and fiercest gorilla," Gargantua the Great.

"This restaurant is a reminder of the American dream," Simpson says, "because we had this dream and very little money, and we did all the work ourselves. There was a time when people always did it that way."

These dreamers think American food has been unfairly scorned by the culinary world at large and by Americans rejecting their own roots. Developed by a nation of immigrants, they say, American food is rich with influences and imagination. It wandered astray, seduced by packaged convenience, but it's being revived and is better than ever.

"There's been a resurgence of comfort foods," Simpson says. "I was watching a cooking show from New York, and they were doing a mac and cheese ― with Stilton! The core is still there, but the flavors are changing. We're just incorporating different styles and ethnicities."

Simpson happily proclaims that nouvelle cuisine is dead, and Jensen believes that restaurant patrons today are rightly rejecting all forms of pretension. "People want to feel at home," she says. "Customers will call and ask about our dress code. We tell them, 'You have to wear clothing.'"

REHABBING MOM'S COOKING

Don't scoff at those Middle American standbys, say the Blue Onion Bistro's chefs; rehabilitate them with imagination and quality ingredients. Here's how.

Mac and cheese. "It's like an empty canvas," chef Susan Jensen enthuses. "You can add practically anything to it. We've used ham, crab, and shrimp. If you roast a chicken, you could throw in the leftovers along with a Southwestern salsa the next day."

Blue Onion Bistro's standard version uses Tillamook medium cheddar for the cheese sauce, but a cranked-up iteration adds blue cheese. Jensen encourages cheese experiments. "I haven't run across any that won't work. If you're trying a smoked cheese, though, go light on it," she says.

Meat loaf. Jensen hoards her filet mignon trim in the freezer until there's enough to grind, so the meat loaf is made with the highest quality beef. She then adds herbs liberally ― basil, thyme, oregano, a little dill, and occasionally a Cajun seasoning mix. And garlic, of course, either fresh or powdered.

Blue Onion Bistro: closed Mon; 5801 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seatte.

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