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COMMUNION RESTAURANT & BAR — or Communion R&B, as chef-owner Kristi Brown calls it — it’s an extraordinary place. It exists at the intersection of past and future, located on 23rd Avenue at East Union in Seattle’s Central District, in the new liberty bank building on the site of the first black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest. Brown has worked to educate those who don’t know about the red line, then the gentrification that drove many black residents out of the historically black neighborhood. “We’re making a stand…” he says, “making sure people understand what this area represents.”
Brown’s own family history ties the CD to Kansas City, and she intentionally ties all of that to Seattle’s diverse cultures, both in her menu and in Communion’s lively dining room. Her ethos runs counter to any prefab luxury restaurant concept, sometimes taking the form of poetry: the floor just inside Communion’s door spells “I AM HOME,” while the nearby chalkboard might say, “Love is something you make!” with hearts as the dots on the I’s. One night, the bartender’s shirt says “LOVE IS DOPE.” While resisting is part of the journey, the Communion’s destiny is right there in his name.
Brown calls the Communion kitchen the “vehicle,” and it’s a vehicle that goes places. In the short time since it opened with his son Damon Bomar during a pandemic, Communion R&B has been named one of the 12 best new restaurants on the planet by Condé Nast Traveler. He has been selected as one of the 50 national favorites by The New York Times“The list of restaurants”. And it has earned Brown a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination. But she’s been cooking since 1993, including at Seattle’s beloved Kingfish Cafe (where she created her famous black-eyed pea hummus) and decades of catering, in addition to community service. Communion is not, she will be the first to tell you, the kind of recognition that comes from lists or awards.
WITH ALL THAT Looking at it, past and present, and with all that’s intended, in terms of the future, Communion actually feels like the best party in town. Music such as A Tribe Called Quest, slow jams, contemporary hip-hop, or early jazz sounds good and loud, while Sunday brunch can deliver the gospel at a volume that’s sure to get everyone on their feet.
The venue is packed with a crowd that includes multi-generational families, as well as date nights (or later mornings) and gatherings of friends, encompassing a representation of different races not often seen in Seattle. (Surprisingly, it’s not the elderly who complain about the volume; more “the middle people” says Brown.) Outbursts of laughter come from the festivities mingling at the large communal table. At the corner bar, arguments can range from how much people love banana pudding (get it!), to discovering that the person sitting next to you also went to nearby Garfield High (get it! come on Bulldogs!), and that he knows Brown from both. his children also go there.
Super-sleek staff carry trays of icy cocktails and smoky hot dishes, sweets and spices through the equally elegant room, which combines antique copper-tiled ceiling panels with a gleaming open kitchen.
What’s on those plates takes you places. Brown calls his kitchen “Soul of Seattle” and it’s a fabulous celebration. Their po’boy-meets-banh-mi catfish resembles versions found in New Orleans, paying homage to local Vietnamese cuisine with pickled daikon and carrots, while Communion jalapenos are grilled and the pate is made at home. That same catfish, crispy coated in cornmeal and luxuriously soft on the inside, also centers catfish and grits; the latter tastes like sweet cream with Parmesan cheese in the mix, and a classic spicy shrimp Creole sauce ties it all together, with tricolor peppers. and chive twists for a pretty presentation. The sauce, says Brown, is pure Paul Prudhomme; she’s “a big fan” (check out the well-worn cookbook on the shelves next to the host booth, who will gleefully tell you she stole it from one of his favorite instructors at Seattle Central’s culinary show a long time ago) .
Brown tops a set of deviled eggs with tobiko, onion jam, and smoked oysters, each iteration wonderful in its own way. He praises the egg whites to heaven: they’ve never been cooked so perfectly curdled and yet soft, rubbery. The thick, creamy yolk mix has Dijon instead of dry mustard, and yes, there’s cayenne, but that’s just part of the proprietary seasoning mix she calls Sez’.
“I have to start selling it soon…” says Brown. “It’s like 16 different spices, it’s like cool stuff in that thing.”
Brown’s exemplary grilled half-chicken, the bland, flavorful bird, gets a nuanced, bright brick-red Berber sauce that builds heat, with that blend of Ethiopian spices sourced from Sebhat Bakery & Grocery in the South End. Their “PTL Wings,” smothered in a fruity sweet-spicy chili sauce, stand out as an extremely worthy “shout out to Thompson’s point of view.” the majestic and long-awaited classic of soul food from the Central District.
Local Spicy Lao Sausage Vientiane Supermarket snuggles with Washington clams and mussels in a lemongrass-enriched coconut broth; also transforms Eggs Benedict at brunch. Brown’s mom’s recipe is a braised pork neck braise, the smoked meat lushly shredded into ideally mild herbed lima beans. Brown herself is a soup whiz: her superb corn chowder, served last winter, and the latest buttery-rich fava bean stew both qualify as legitimately exciting and, inconceivably, vegan.
Please don’t be upset if you can’t find any of this when you get to Communion. Brown is working on a new menu as we speak, with only a few dishes planned for takeout. (Regarding the corn chowder: “It could come back.” Yes.) Thought will have continuity, though, as will heart.
“We love the Lao sausage that we use,” says Brown, and he also loves supporting small businesses in Seattle, “so we have to keep it.”
She tantalizingly talks about trying the sausage in an interpretation of the wonder that is the Scotch egg. And speaking of support, desserts will continue to be largely outsourced to other women of color, with the acclaimed banana pudding coming from Suga’s hut; coconut cream cake and more Black Magic Sweets; and ice cream x.
“I wanted to give them a chance to shine…” says Brown, “help build where they are.”
Bomar runs the Communion cocktail show, and some of the concoctions It looks like they could get complicated, but the balance is found to start (and keep) the party going. The Cherie Amour keeps its promise of a mezcal game in a Hemingway daiquiri without too much smokiness; it’s gorgeously apricot in color and pleasantly tart with a house-made grapefruit bush, garnished with cherry and lime. Larger-format prebottled options include the refreshing Purple(ish) Drank, a rum punch and hibiscus-guava tea that’s pleasantly floral but not overly sweet, sips deep, and is probably best shared.
IN THE MIDDLE OF EVERYTHINGDon’t miss the wall which is a collage of old black and white photos: dignified figures standing very still from the end of the 19th century, smiling portraits from the next century, several happy couples, women in dressing gowns, men in hats. Brown says that she is the guardian of the inherited family photos; she doesn’t know all the people represented here, but they are all connected to her in some way, collected through time.
All of those depicted are black, however, he says, “I’ve had different people from all walks of life say, ‘Hey, that looks like my dot-dot-dot.’ A big part of this”, of being in communion in Communion, “is that we are more alike than we are different… given the opportunity to take a look at other people’s cultures, you will see it”. Brown speaks of the lack of diversity in representations of culture in general.
“What we can do to dismantle that,” he says, “is show up and show ourselves, and then people have no choice but to start questioning what they’ve always known.”
Along that same wall, an antique marble-topped side table stands like a still life. Contains five framed photographs, five funerary service orders, a silver bell, a beautiful bouquet. Yes, says Brown, it is an altar, one for the closest family, “to honor their presence… If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. So I definitely want to acknowledge your support for me getting here and staying here. And I feel like I’m very protected in a lot of ways because of them.” This is also Communion. Respect.
“We’re in a good place,” says Brown, “to be able to tell an old story and a new story at the same time…
“I definitely feel like we’re setting a new standard…” he says. “I want to be that support for the community: the support of resilience, the support of joy.”