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December 9, 2008 at 6:24 AM

Bookstore Bonanza, Chapter One: In which Tamara Murphy takes over at Elliott Bay Cafe

When word got out that Tamara Murphy was revamping the subterranean Elliott Bay Cafe at the Elliott Bay Book Company, I managed to miss the memo. So, last week, when a friend insisted that the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Belltown’s Brasa was crafting sandwiches in Pioneer Square. I said, “Sure she is!” — then I hightailed it down there to see whether truth really was stranger than fiction:

It had been a long time since I’ve hung out in the bowels of Seattle’s storied bookshop, and given that word on the street over the last couple of years has been, “Don’t bother!” I figured I hadn’t been missing much. But when I walked into the cafe I found a clean well-lighted place where folks were standing in line, cafeteria-style, ordering lattes and lunch and ogling a pastry case whose eye-candy included Top Pot Doughnuts and Pies By Jenny:

The cafe’s open daily from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. and all around me, people were hoisting Moroccan steak sandwiches ($9) and daily specials including chimichurri clams with chorizo, tomatoes and smoked paprika creme ($10), just as they might do if they were, say, hanging at the bar at Brasa:

I was mightily impressed with what I saw coming out of that kitchen — like this Serrano ham sandwich with Manchego cheese, arugula and fig mustard (offered with a side of Spanish potato salad, $9), and half an egg salad-sandwich with tarragon, cornichons and aioli, built on Macrina’s semolina-rosemary bread (accompanied by a pear and arugula salad, $8). Which you might enjoy with a beer or a glass of wine, if you were so inclined.

And sure enough, back in the kitchen, doing what she does best, was Tamara Murphy — the ball ‘o fire behind such fantastic farm-related fundraisers as Burning Beast and The Incredible Feast — “Where Farmers are the Stars”:

“Hey, Nancy!” she cried out, looking up from her work to see me checking out the new joint, “Come on back!”

When she saw me cocking my eyebrow (translation: “What the hell are you doing, and why didn’t you tell me about it sooner?”) Tamara looked at me said, “I’m so happy! I loved this place. I’ve always loved it!” Then she showed me around the kitchen, her little office and the handsome, golden-hued dining room run by GM John Kingston, explaining how she was recruited to re-hab the cafe and its menu.

Before the brick-walled cafe was remodeled, “this place was like a dungeon,” she said, noting how, during a swift renovation, they put eight coats of paint on the dining room floor and overhauled the once mortifying (and now elegant) bathrooms. Soon, she expects to turn a large storeroom into an in-house bakery. “It has so much potential,” she said of the cafe, inviting me into that space while telling me how excited she is about hosting author dinners, and being part of Seattle’s beloved literary landmark.

“There’s a synergy between books and food,” said Tamara, who doesn’t need to convince me. “And by doing this” — branching out from the high-end restaurant and bar and putting her talents to the test in the cafe-culture business — “it’s like recycling something.” And in this economy, when a great meal can be had for $10, that’s a very good thing.

As it turned out, Tamara — who still has a restaurant to run over in Belltown, where her business-partner Bryan Hill’s got her back — wasn’t the only familiar face in the kitchen. Say hello to Zephyr Paquette — whom I’d last seen starring at the stove, doing her whirling dervish voodoo, at Ballard’s late, great, Dandelion bistro:

After the grand tour, I sat down to lunch — and couldn’t resist ordering a Moroccan steak sandwich with chermoula, minted yogurt and feta, wrapped in grilled pita, with a side of raisin-studded agrodolce-style coleslaw:

Then I headed up the staircase in the middle of the dining room. . .

. . .and checked out the cookbooks:

Interestingly enough, Tamara Murphy isn’t the only local chef and restaurant owner who has turned a page and set-up a second shop at a local bookstore. More on that in a bit.

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