Spice Lab, new to downtown Tacoma, has a familiar chef
Chef Blake Lord-Wittig dug deep into hyper local ingredients at his last restaurant, De La Terre.
With Spice Lab, his new restaurant opening in downtown Tacoma on October 21, the concept goes global in scope and spice.
Lord-Wittig’s glazed carrots, for instance, are fueled by Middle Eastern and Moroccan ingredients: harissa, dukkah and labneh yogurt. And the parsnip soup? Gussied up with pomegranate molasses instead of the vanilla and maple I recall from De La Terre, the restaurant Lord-Wittig operated in Steilacoom from 2015 to 2019.
And then there is his take on Parker House rolls, the fluffy rolls that are about as American as American cuisine can get. Until Lord-Wittig gets his hands on them. “It’s like a brioche hybrid. I mixed it up with nutritional yeast, and topped them with that, then I brushed on za’atar too,” said Lord-Wittig. They’re listed on the menu with smoked tomato butter.
“The idea for Spice Lab came from wanting to use mainly vegetables and kind of build flavors around spices and other kinds of pantry items,” said Lord-Wittig.
“When I started playing with that idea, I thought about building this profile that’s not any specific region or cuisine, but I just started building my own kind of New American cuisine based around this idea of the pantry and the spices you might find,” he explained last week as he was prepping to open Spice Lab inside the Harmon in downtown Tacoma.
The restaurant will be a pop-up concept – or a restaurant within a restaurant. It’s the second such pop-up restaurant I’ve written about this month. Last week, I wrote about Bliss Small Batch Creamery, which will pop up inside Top Pot’s Proctor location a little later this year.
SPICE LAB MENU FOUNDATION
The Spice Lab menu “pulls from North Africa and all the way into the Middle East,” said Lord-Wittig. But he’s not limiting himself to just those regions. Rather, he’ll go as global as his whims take him.
“The main goal of each dish is to never hold back on flavor,” he said.
Will he change the menu more than 100 times in his first year, as he did at De La Terre?
In short: No.
“With food, it’s always about a time and a place. With De la Terre, it was so dependent on me to come up with things constantly, I got different levels of burning out. I feel this is a more sustainable restaurant aspect. I can have more attention to details,” he said.
He’ll be able to focus on the food because he can leave the day-to-day running of the restaurant space to Eric Powers, who acquired a majority ownership of the Harmon, where Spice Lab will operate. Founder Pat Nagle, Nagle’s parents and Mardy Betschart continue to share a minority ownership.
Powers also operates the Hub Gig Harbor, the sister restaurant to the Harmon in downtown Tacoma. The company has scaled back significantly. It closed The Hub locations in Tacoma’s Stadium neighborhood and South Hill. (Those spaces now hold Odin Brewing and Costella’s, respectively, with different owners).
SPICE LAB’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE HARMON
Redefining the Harmon and Hub are high priority for Powers. Lord-Wittig is part of that plan. The two met through mutual friends and bonded over a passion for natural wines, which Lord-Wittig has experience in as a sommelier. He most recently landed as the beverage director at Rider inside Seattle’s Hotel Theodore after he closed De La Terre last year.
“I’ve been on a constant search for passionate and talented individuals since acquiring Harmon last year,” said Powers. “We have a great team but really needed leadership in our business to help change our culture. I think over the last few years, Harmon had fallen off and lost track of its identity and goals. Partnering with Blake will help us get back to where we want to be. I hope to continue to grow our business in various ways, including bringing back the brewery at some point.”
He added, “However we do grow, it will be from a quality foundation.”
Lord-Wittig will serve as executive chef at the Harmon and Hub and will shore up the food and beverage programs while simultaneously operating his Spice Lab dinner-only concept inside the Harmon.
Lord-Wittig said that while Spice Lab is more experimental, locals should expect that the Hub and Harmon will stay true to their roots as pubs. “It still needs to be a tavern, but it can be a well done one,” said Lord-Wittig. “We’ll bring in better ingredients, have a thoughtful presentation and use more care with everything.”
He’ll develop a concept for each restaurant. They won’t be mirrors of one another.
“We want each individual restaurant, whether the Harmon or Hub Gig Harbor, to have its own distinct style,” he said. “They should be more like each of their own neighborhood restaurants.”
Added Powers, “Hub Gig Harbor and Harmon Pac Ave will always be pubs, but we think we can do casual food in tavern environments while still managing the highest quality. For example, at Harmon, we will continue to serve a burger but we want it to be the best burger around … Similarly at Hub we make a great pizza dough in house that goes through an extended fermentation process to really develop a great flavor – still serving simple fun pizzas – but doing everything the best we can. Blake will lead us further along that path.”
MORE SPICE LAB DETAILS
Spice Lab will operate cooperatively with the Harmon, offering dinner only from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Spice Lab will take over the front of the Harmon space where the brewing equipment once resided. Think of it as approachable, but suitable for date-night with a full-fledged concept that includes cocktails, beer and wine.
“It’s pretty much empty and under utilized, so it’s the perfect home for a six-table restaurant,” he said. It’s enough space that they’ll be able to offer well-spaced tables following current pandemic restrictions.
They’ll offer a take-out/carry-out menu for those not yet dining inside restaurants. They’ll also take reservations for dine-in service using Tock.
Did I mention that vegetarians, dairy-free and gluten-free diners will find much to love at Spice Lab?
“Funny enough, when I started doing all this, I realized many things fit the niche of being gluten free and dairy free,” said Lord-Wittig. “I wasn’t trying to do that, but when you start playing with these flavors and ingredients; they lend themselves to those diets,” he said.
He said several menu items will be perfect for those skipping dairy and gluten, with absolutely no modifications. “As a diner, I love menu items where you don’t have to change a thing to be able to eat it, whether dairy or gluten-free or a regular diner, you don’t have to ask for any modifications,” he said.
SWEETS AND COCKTAILS
A cocktail and dessert menu will be the bookends for a perfect date-night at Spice Lab and Lord-Wittig has big plans for both. For dessert, he’s touring the spice trade route again, but this time from Britain to India. He described a sticky toffee pudding infused with Indian and Middle Eastern flavors: dates soaked in chai spices, and a flavor profile that includes garam masala and honey. He’s also playing around with sesame-banana ice cream to go with that pudding.
And the cocktails sound like they’re going to be among the best cocktail offerings in downtown Tacoma, with cocktails the same level as En Rama, Devil’s Reef and Gilman House. He has plans for a sumac negroni and a take on an old fashioned spiked with allspice dram.
Make reservations now.
SPICE LAB AT THE HARMON
Where: Inside the Harmon, 1938 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-383-2739
Reservations and online ordering: https://www.exploretock.com/spicelabharmon/
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