Henri Nol, the chef at the busy Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar downtown, is committed to food — so much so that his fingers are tattooed with the words “rice” and “bean.”
“I got this when I was 27, I believe, or 26,” he said. “It was the first thing I remember eating. It was the start to my culinary career.”
In the dishes he makes for the bar, Nol goes way beyond rice and beans — and way beyond oysters, too, though fresh, local and sustainable seafood is, of course, a staple.
He incorporates seasonal produce and professional technique with flavors inspired by his roots in Mexico to create such dishes as crisp-skinned whole trout with a spicy pepper salad and an octopus mole that wowed customers last year.
“Mexican food is third-world food, but with so many different things that you can do — with resources and techniques — I am able to turn third-world food into high-end food,” said the chef, a Los Angeles native who grew up spending a lot of time with extended family in Puerto Vallarta and Guanajuato, Mexico.
For the octopus mole, he combined a French method of gently cooking octopus with his own mole recipe, based on one his mom used to make. “People still talk about it,” he said.
The trout, his favorite dish on the current menu, brings back childhood memories. “It’s great to get an entire fish with the head and the fins,” he said. “It takes me back to being a kid and going to a restaurant that would be cooking fish on an open fire on the beach.”
Nol’s cooking — along with the oysters, most harvested from Chelsea Farms’ own beds on Eld Inlet — has earned accolades from foodies and critics alike. Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement, for one, called the oyster bar “as lovely as Seattle’s loveliest.”
All of that has helped the restaurant at Olympia’s 222 Market grow. Last month, it expanded into space formerly occupied by The Creperie, doubling its size to about 80 seats, adding the stone hearth oven that gives the trout its crispy skin, and renovating to reduce the level of ambient noise.
That success is good news for the restaurant’s fans and, Nol says, for the Olympia culinary scene.
“I feel that Chelsea Farms has kind of paved the way,” he said. “People in Olympia are still getting used to trying new things and trying different things. We try to be as creative as possible, as sustainable as possible and as seasonal as possible, but we still have to keep the simpler things on the menu.”
That means burgers and fish and chips along with oyster ceviche with spicy salsa seca, beef tartare with jalapeño tamari, mussels with smoked tomato butter, and a seasonal salad with squash, roasted beets, radicchio and chile oil. (A month ago, the salad also included lardons, strips of pork fat that added salty and savory notes to the salad’s mix of sweet, bitter and spicy flavors.)
For those who haven’t yet visited Chelsea — or those who’ve stuck to familiar menu items — there’s no time like the present to try Nol’s Mexico-meets-the-Northwest dishes.
That’s because another change is coming: Nol has given his notice and will leave Chelsea at the end of the year.
Elise Landry, the restaurant’s sous chef, will take over the position, said Kyle Lentz, who owns the restaurant with his sister Shina Wysocki.
“She grew up in the Midwest, and she also worked in New Orleans, so she has influences from both of those places,” Lentz told The Olympian. He said the restaurant will continue to showcase sustainable and local foods as its menu evolves.
Nol said he’s ready for a change: He’s been working in restaurants for two decades — and he’s only 35. “I’ve done every job in a restaurant from serving to hosting to now executive chefing,” he said.
He’s not sure what’s next for him, but it seems a good bet that food will be involved, considering the words tattooed on his fingers and his appreciation for their significance.
“In every civilization, there is a form of rice and beans,” he said, “a grain and a bean or a legume or something. It’s a foundation of civilization.”
Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar
- What: The recently expanded restaurant, which opened in December 2016, offers a menu that goes way beyond oysters, ranging from original Mexican-Northwest fusion dishes to burgers and fries.
- When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
- Where: 222 Capitol Way N., Olympia
- How much: Whole roasted Idaho trout, $36; burger, $18; fish and chips, $18; oyster ceviche, $20; beef tartare, $18; mussels with smoked tomato butter and mustard greens, $19; seasonal salad, $16
- More information: 360-915-7784, chelseafarms.net