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December 28, 2009 at 7:00 AM

Steelhead’s Davis snags Oceanaire site for Blueacre Seafood

When Kevin Davis left Sazerac to take the creative helm as executive chef at Seattle’s Oceanaire Seafood Room in 2001, he was the happiest guy alive — or so he thought. Five years later, with the chain’s corporate bean-counters dampening his spirit, he stepped out on his own with a new source of inspiration — the Steelhead Diner. “The Steelhead has been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” Davis says of the three-year-old Pike Place Market restaurant he owns with his wife Terresa. “It allowed a level of happiness I didn’t think was possible.”

Kevin Davis happily wearing his Steelhead whites.

Yet even in their wildest dreams, they never imagined what the new year would bring: twin sons, due in May, and a lease on the shuttered Oceanaire site — slated to re-open by spring as Steelhead’s downtown sibling: Blueacre Seafood.

Steelhead Diner’s owners Terresa and Kevin Davis will soon give birth to a second restaurant. [Seattle Times photo/John Lok]

“We were floored,” says Davis, when Oceanaire’s landlord offered them a chance to bring new life to the 200-seat restaurant at the corner of Seventh and Olive, which closed abruptly in July when its parent-company filed for bankruptcy. Leaving Oceanaire in 2006 was fraught with much emotion, says Davis, whose wife kept the books there. “The chance to go back into the restaurant we loved so much, on our own terms, and to have it be ours, was an opportunity of a lifetime. This is a restaurant we’ll build our lives and our family around.”

What goes around, comes around. [Seattle Times photo/Christopher Joseph Taylor]

Blueacre’s menu will be centered on American seafood, says the Louisiana native who worked at some of the nation’s best-known restaurants — from Arnaud’s in New Orleans’ French Quarter to Tra Vigne in California’s Napa Valley. “If it’s grown, caught or harvested in America, it’s going to be fair game,” he says. “I’m infatuated with West Coast seafood, but it’ll be nice to go to some Hawaiian species, East Coast oysters, fish from the Gulf. Sustainability is not going to be the platform of the restaurant, though it will be woven into the fabric” through careful sourcing from closely monitored and regulated fisheries. “We’ll be able to verify the sources and practice good stewardship while championing great American seafood.”

Here’s hoping they put this American beauty on the menu: Stream-raised Idaho rainbow trout with Washington white truffles, served on Christmas Eve’s eve at the Steelhead Diner.

The seafood-rich menu will run deep, with a conscious nod to carnivores and vegetarians as well as diners looking to be impressed while watching their wallets. “Oceanaire catered to people with money, or people who wanted luxury,” Davis says, “and when luxury became a dirty word, that ship ran aground. We know that we have to make the place more approachable — and not just to business executives, business travelers and tourists. We need to appeal to the people who live and work here. Our target market is the locals.”

As at the Steelhead (set to run under Davis’s auspices by a fleet of well-trained staffers — including his chef de cuisine, Anthony Polizzi), Blueacre will offer entrees in half and full portions, and list sandwiches at dinner as well as lunch. But unlike the Steelhead — whose design is an extension of the chef’s love for fly-fishing, “Blueacre’s genetic makeup will be more of Terresa,” Davis says, explaining that it’s his wife who’s taken the lead on their latest venture.

Terresa, chatting up customers at the Steelhead.

“I can’t say enough about the incredible person she’s become,” says the man who fell in love-at-first-sight with the young woman he met upon arrival at his new job in a Cajun restaurant in Australia 20 years ago. Adelaide native Terresa Davis is an accountant as well as Steelhead’s GM, and as of this quarter the mum-to-be is a few briefs shy of a law degree. It was she, says her husband, who single-handedly “put the business plan together, raised money through the banks and got the additional funding we need to open this on our own without partners and investors.”

Together with their architect Elizabeth Grace — the woman who “channeled who we are” at Steelhead, they plan to wreak minimal havoc on the interior design of their new 9000-square-foot restaurant kittycorner from Pacific Place shopping center. “Oceanaire was built to last, and they spared no expense” says Davis of the original $4.5 million dollar build-out. “We won’t have to make a lot of changes to the foundation of the restaurant, but we’ll have to personalize it.”

So it’ll be out with the Art Deco appointments and the shuttered windows (to allow more light and see-and-be-seen scenery), and in with dramatic color and imagery. The bar (where in better days patrons lined up three-deep for $12 glasses of wine and classic cocktails) will be expanded, and a wall separating the dining room from the kitchen will come down, allowing for visual contact between chef and patrons — something Davis greatly enjoys at his popular Market restaurant.

Windows onto Kevin’s world at the Steelhead Diner.

“I love that kitchen,” he says of the spacious working area he formerly commanded at Oceanaire. Among other technological wonders, it houses a special refrigerated unit with a built-in counter and sink for cleaning and filleting fish, an advancement that minimizes health hazards and maintains the integrity of fresh seafood. During his absence, “they kept that kitchen in great shape. It’s first-class all the way.”

It’s sure to be an emotional homecoming when Blueacre makes its debut. “It was like we were meant to be there. There will be very few opportunities in my lifetime that would allow a local chef of my stature to go into a location like that,” Davis insists, crediting the building’s owners for having faith in his ability as a chef and restaurateur.

“It’s one of the best restaurant locations in the Pacific Northwest, and the people who put that restaurant in that space knew that. They knew about the condo development that was going in downtown, and about the Convention Center. They knew in 10 years’ time that would be an incredible fruit-bearing location. The only problem is they didn’t make it to that point. So I know, going forward, that it’s an incredible location, an incredible physical plant and an amazing opportunity,” Davis says.

As far he’s concerned, the pre-Christmas signing of the lease at 1700 Seventh Avenue is the greatest story ever told: “It’s boy meets restaurant, boy loses restaurant, boy gets restaurant back — and rides off into the sunset.”

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