June's Bugs 

Ambition, Enlightenment, and... Hamburger Bread?

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I GOT INTERESTED in June when a recent online poll of underrated restaurants awarded it a spot in the top three. Friends in real life loved or hated the place—with few levelheaded opinions in between—which told me there was at least something worth fighting over. Chef Gregory Perrault was praised for masterful and transcendent flavor combinations, but also taken to task for inconsistency and outright culinary weirdness. Two months and three visits later, I've come to my own conclusions about the place.

I agree with everyone.

Within a night's meal, dishes at June can go from show-stoppingly good, to respectably gourmet, to maddening.

When an unassuming scoop of Gouda ice cream melted into a hot, crisp apple tarte Tatin ($8), it created a third richness so powerful, so pleasurable, that it derailed me from the present. It carved a high into my brain that I need again but know I'm unlikely to find for years. I looked for it elsewhere on the pastry menu, in a phyllo-sealed almond and semolina pie with white chocolate sherbet and wine-poached pears ($8), but that was just quite good, not magical. A chocolate lemon bar with a piece of hard meringue sitting on top ($8) was... odd.

That first dessert experience was so illuminating that I had to open with it. I'll begin again, from the top.

An outsized starter of French onion soup ($10), with a broiled lid of sour boule and buttery, liquid Gruyère was exceptional—the only aggravation here was overhearing the woman at the next table order it without the bread and dairy. Equally classic and comforting was a winter vegetable gratin with beluga lentils and kale ($12), maybe an inch thick but meticulously composed of almost a dozen layers of fork-tender, nearly melted squash and turnips. The slow-poached egg in nutty brown butter sauce with popcorn and diced Fuji apple ($9) is presented like a soup, with an overwhelming amount of the sauce drowning the egg: wonderful flavors, but the ratio of ingredients needs reworking.

Perrault rapidly develops dishes based on fresh, local fish. A generous filet of Humptulips River steelhead, baked in a shallow bowl of turnips, fried garlic, walnuts, and a lemony broth ($20), was worthy of slow, reverent savoring. The fishiness of lightly pickled Quinault River steelhead with crème fraîche and roe ($15) was cleverly cut with citrusy, peppery nettles. Bucatini with cured walleye roe and chili flakes ($10), on the other hand, was so shockingly salty that it burned.

Of the red meats, the Carman Ranch beef belly stuffed apple ($14) is a house masterpiece. A baked apple is peeled and hollowed like a pumpkin, then filled with a creamy, mustard-thickened blanquette of cubed beef belly and blue hominy. A presentation like this is hard to pull off, but it eats well, and the strong, pungent flavor of blue hominy—similar to fermented Japanese natto beans—is a challenging but rewarding accent. The braised Reister Farms lamb shank with chickpeas ($23) is cooked perfectly but served austerely, with the juices that typically accompany this humble joint served in a ramekin, in the form of a mushroom chutney. The Carman Ranch grass-fed rib-eye steak with béarnaise sauce ($26) was frustratingly dull without the sauce, and hard to taste with it (credit where it's due: the béarnaise was superb).

And what did I mean earlier, when I said dishes could be maddening? I meant the burger ($13). Burgers go on buns, not sliced bread—unless they're a patty melt, which this isn't. The twice-cooked beef-fat french fries are world class, but this potential home run was a self-destructing bunt into the dugout.

June gained early renown for luring bartender Kelley Swenson from Ten-01, and though he is long gone, the sophisticated cocktail program remains competitive. The June Club (gin, lemon, house elderflower, egg white, $8) is perfectly focused and refreshing, with a delicately enhanced texture. The Dusty Bottoms (mezcal, Ramazzotti, yellow Chartreuse, $9) reads like an axis of mayhem, but the simple-intermediate-complex liquors are balanced into a dark, smoothly herbal, seriously strong drink.

Service at June is friendly, professional, and versed in the smallest details of the menu. The wide, bright, chest-high kitchen pass looks out across the intimate and romantic dining room, which is bathed in a low, amber-tinged glow. The noise level is easily conversational even when full.

You can see why I'm torn. It's a beautiful restaurant whose food can achieve unforgettable moments of perfection. The gambles that get us there can't always work, but some of them leave the kitchen anyway. June's courage and ambition is admirable, but to be the best of their kind they have to perform the artist's most difficult trick, which is to examine their deeply personal creations with a fresh, objective eye.

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Open Tues-Thurs 5:30-9:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-11 pm, "Burgers and Bubbles" happy hour Sat 11 am-3 pm. Bar and lounge seating available.

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