Chris Cvetkovich knew he was taking a gamble by putting balut — a boiled, fertilized duck egg — on the menu at his recently-opened Capitol Hill restaurant, Nue.
"I didn’t know if I’d have people in baby duck outfits protesting," Cvetkovich says. "But and then I had people say, "Oh you should make it like this challenge, the balut challenge, and you get a T-shirt.' But that’s not the point of this. The point is that this isn’t extreme food. It’s to introduce it to people. Millions of people all over the world eat this every day. And they don’t do it to impress their friends; they do it because it tastes good."
If there's one take-away from Nue, this is it: Cvetkovich isn't serving international dishes to exoticize it or the cultures that create it; instead, he wants people to try something they can't get anywhere else in the city.
"People who are coming here are coming here to try something new, something different. We have sold so many baluts, and not from people saying, 'Oh man, this is weird.' It’s from people who have heard about it and they didn’t even realize they could get it here. And they’ve been so into it. And not like, 'Ew, balut,' but like 'Oh, balut! I need to try this!' We have repeat balut customers and it’s fantastic. They’re so excited about the next thing we’re gonna offer and the next thing we’re gonna do."
Cvetkovich's diverse menu is inspired by his extensive travels to places like Romania, South Africa, Korea, Trinidad, and Portugal. Most of the dishes are based on street food dishes, though because Cvetkovich's crew is working with a full kitchen, the dishes tend to be a bit more elevated than what you'd buy from a street vendor. He's incorporating modernist techniques like making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, too.
Cvetkovich is a former 3D animator with a serious wanderlust bug. He recently drove around Europe for four months, stopping in some 20 countries. One of his stops was in Portugal, which is where the idea for Nue took hold.
"There are these little unassuming bar/restaurant/sandwich places all over, and they're packed with young people, old people, different classes, guys in suits, construction workers, and they're just popping in or a quick bite to eat, a pork sandwich and a glass of beer or a small glass of wine. It’s just such a cool vibe, that’s one of the things I loved," Cvetkovich says. He knew then that he had to bring the idea back to Seattle in some form.
The small space at Nue, coupled with Cvetkovich's desire to build community around food, meant communal tables were a must. But would the infamous Seattle freeze derail those plans?
"I was like, 'Shit, what did I get myself into here?' You always have these ideas of what you want, this vision in your head, but is that really what people want? I was worried about people being put off sitting in between a bunch of other people," Cvetkovich says. "But I’ve seen people sharing food. With strangers, all the time. They’re sharing food and starting up these conversations. I see people exchanging phone numbers and sharing a bottle of wine. There’s no way I could have anticipated that happening and it’s so cool."
Though Cvetkovich is now too tied down with his new restaurant to travel, he's taking dish suggestions from diners via Nue's website. "We've gotten a lot of great suggestions," he says, and he's working to incorporate them into the menu. But he's running into challenges sourcing some things found only in other countries. "You'd think that in the day of the internet and living in a big city you would be able to get all these things. But there are so many things you just can’t get."
Each morning, Cvetkovich says he visits around five different ethnic markets around Seattle to buy ingredients.
"We try to go as accurate as we can," he says. "We will sometimes take our own liberties wit things but we’re not dumbing it down. We’re using the actual herbs, the flavorings, the amount of seasoning they would use in that country."
And judging by the number of people who come into Nue to eat dishes from their home countries — and praise them — Cvetkovich is doing something right.
"That's what I wanted but I couldn't force it to happen," he says. "One of our most popular dishes is the Trinidad goat curry. I was like, 'I wonder if we’ll ever have someone from Trinidad in here.' And the next day a guy from Trinidad comes in for the goat curry and said it was fantastic. He said it was a taste of home."