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First Miller's Guild, Next Lardo? PDX Restaurateur Talks Seattle Expansion Plans

What's been in the works for more than a year is now becoming a reality: Crush chef/owner Jason Wilson is partnering with Portland's top restauranteur, Kurt Huffman, to open a steakhouse in Hotel Max downtown. Miller's Guild will replace Red Fin and mark Huffman's first time expanding his impressive ChefStable empire to Seattle. (He's launched like a bazillion concepts, including Ox, and says he has six more projects in his PDX pipeline).

Wilson's wife, Nicole, and their Crush wine and beverage director, Jake Koseff, are also partners in the deal, which promises to be nothing like Wilson's fine-dining mecca on Madison. The 3,200 square-foot restaurant will have approximately 75 seats, with a supposedly amazing wood-fired grill called the Infierno as the show-stopper. And if the stars align and a miracle happens, Miller's Guild could be open in November.

Huffman, who is currently in Seattle to get things moving, gives Eater more scoop.

How did the partnership with Jason happen?
I met Jason and Nicole about two-and-a -half years ago through a mutual friend. When the hotel group approached me about a deal, it was really a no-brainer that Jason would be the guy to work with.

Why a steakhouse?
I'm involved in a lot of restaurant projects, and so my perspective and understanding of the restaurant business changes with every project. A really critical project for me was Ox in Portland and none of us talked about it like a steakhouse before, but the impactful moment was when we started to enjoy people confusing us with a steakhouse. It was something that we loved and we realized the potential the steakhouse has as far as being a super accessible restaurant tradition. It's something everybody can identify with and I think it gives us an opportunity to do all sorts of stuff. Hopefully we can really surprise them with really wonderful food that's very much in the tradition of what I think everybody in Seattle and Portland is trying to do these days, which is very much regional-based cuisine, but at the same time provide food for those who are more food lovers. I think it's the perfect canvas for Jason because it's going to be so different from Crush.

How long have you been using the Infierno grill?
About 14 months. We started this project before Ox even opened. Perhaps the linchpin of the whole project was getting him down to Ox and showing him what this grill was all about and how much of an impact the grill we're bringing in makes on the product that you're serving. Not just on meat, but on all sorts of seafood and veggies. I've never worked with a piece of equipment that's able to impart that much flavor to the food as much as these grills.

What will dining at Miller's Guild be like?
We very much want it to be experiential, very engaging for the guests. We'll be butchering stuff right in front, the bakery is going to be exposed.

Can you talk about the liquor aspect of this project?
We have to be careful because things change over time and to be transparent, we don't want to talk about everything before we open. When I think about how much this project has changed over 14 months...we're also in partnership discussions right now with different micro-distilleries. And thanks to the change in liquor laws here in Washington, all sorts of possibilities have opened up for us as far as buying large format amounts of things. It's a program that's in full-on evolution and it's too early to talk about yet because we don't even know who the major partners are going to be. But it's something we'll be able to talk about soon.

What can you tell me?
We've been talking with different micro-distilleries around [Seattle] about having micro-batches of different booze that we can age in wooden casks. That's going to be a component of the bar program. It all came with the change in liquor laws, that's where the genesis of the idea came from. We said, "What can we do now that weren't able to do before?" Now, we can buy this large format booze and actually pump into these casks and it just allows us the liberty to experiment. The ambition of the program is to be able to be given all sorts of things to experiment with once we're open so we can kind of have all sorts of products or base ingredients to build the cocktail program on. But it's way to early to say, "It's going to be bourbon, or it's going to be rum, or it's going to be any kind of brown liquor."

Is the term "steakhouse" preferable when referring to Miller's Guild?
Yes. I think the way Jason describes it as a nose-to-tail steakhouse is exactly what it is. It was one of those things where my partners [in Seattle] were nervous calling it a steakhouse, but for me, calling it something that people are familiar with that doesn't really limit what you can do in there is really liberating. I think "steakhouse" reassures people that we're not going to have any lessons when you sit down and eat. It's not like we're going to teach you something. You're not going to have to figure out the menu. There's going to be an immediate comfort level that you're going to get when you walk in. And then hopefully we're going to do a great job.

Do you feel like Portland has a better steakhouse scene than Seattle?
I feel like Portland and Seattle are similar in that, when you're driving around, you're not seeing [steakhouses] like you do in Tampa or in Denver where it just seems like there's steakhouses everywhere! You go down into some parts of the country and there's a Flemming's and a Morton's and a Gibsons and Ruth's Chris — everywhere there's a steakhouse! I don't feel like we have that in either of our cities. That was also one of the reason's why [Miller's Guild] was appealing to us. Here's a really great tradition we feel like we could contribute to. We will be different from all of those [other] places, but we also want to embrace the accessibility that all those places have. I dont' think you want to go into a steakhouse and see guys with tweezers in the back finishing up a dish. We're not going for that. We're not being fancy. There's no bubbling fluids somewhere in a beaker. You're going to have an awesome piece of meat and we're going to have awesome sides and with Jake and Nicole on board, we know there's going to be great service and a big wine program. After that, hopefully we'll have the bandwidth to have other things that will really surprise people.

Do you think the classic steakhouse is going away?
I do think it's not a tradition that a lot of people have gone on to explore. I think personally that it's a tradition that is in a certain way representative of being boring or unadventurous. I don't think anyone would attach the words "adventurous" or "exciting" to "steakhouse" — certainly not in the last 20 years. Now, you could say "awesome" and "steakhouse." For me, I think there's so much opportunity to do stuff in that space and that's why it's exciting. When was the last time really that somebody has taken a look at the steakhouse and mixed things up a little bit? It's amazing. Everywhere you go it's the same thing.

Who's doing the build-out?
Dovetail (Whale Wins, Joule, La Spiga). I'm really excited to work with them.

Why Seattle for this concept?
Seattle's a great town. I grew up in Portland so it's always been kind of the big neighbor. My school, for whatever reason, every year we did our big field trip to Seattle and see "the big city." I felt like if I could ever do another city with ChefStable, Seattle just seemed like a super logical fit. It's a bigger more diverse city, but I think it's very similar spiritually. I just feel like the vibe and the ethos is super similar.

Why do you think more people from Portland and Seattle haven't crossed over city limits to open restaurants?
Yeah, the crossover doesn't happen and I'm not sure why. The only thing I can think of is the guys from Matador — they came down to Portland and just killed it. I don't know why there isn't more back-and-forth. I think Pok Pok would destroy it in Seattle! I understand why Seattle people might not come to Portland, because from a regulatory perspective Portland is as easy as it gets, it's such a great city to open a restaurant in. Seattle's more complicating and Washington is more complicated than Oregon. But from a tax perspective, Oregon is much more complicated than Washington. It's a more expensive state to do business in. And frankly, I don't think restaurant people, except for corporate restaurant people, make decisions based on things like that; they just kind of fly by the seat of their business. We do have a sandwich concept in Portland that I think could go all over the country called Lardo. I'm thinking of bringing it up to Seattle once we get a foothold here.

The dreaded question: What is your target opening date?
I've opened 16 restaurants in the last four years and the rule is: who knows? I have no idea. I would love to get open as soon as we can, but so much has to do with what they discover after demolition and once they really start getting into the guts of the building. It can be anywhere from 12 to 18 weeks, depending on what they find. It's not that we're trying to be coy, it's that there's really no way to know how long it's going to take.

So, is Red Fin just getting completely gutted? Starting over from scratch?
There will be nothing left. At some point...oh man, are you kidding me?

(while on the phone, Kurt walked to his car and discovered a parking ticket)

I came out to plug my meter because it expired 13 minutes ago. I can't believe this. Wow! He gave me a ticket exactly two minutes after...ah, man.

Welcome to Seattle!
You're incredibly efficient here in Seattle. Amazing.

· Confirmed! Jason Wilson Steakhouse On Its Way [~ESEA~]
· ChefStable [Official Site]
·Crush [Official Site]


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