COMMUNION RESTAURANT & BAR – or Communion R&B, as chef and owner Kristi Brown styles it – is an extraordinary place. It exists at the intersection of past and future, located off 23rd Avenue on 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 redlining, then gentrification that pushed many Black residents out of the historically Black neighborhood. “We are making a stand …” she says, “making sure that people understand what this area represented.”
Brown’s own family story weaves the CD together with Kansas City, and she’s intentionally bringing all that together with Seattle’s diverse cultures, both on her menu and in Communion’s very happening dining room. Her ethos stands in opposition to any prefab upscale restaurant concept, sometimes taking the form of poetry: The floor just inside Communion’s door spells out “I AM HOME, ”while the nearby chalkboard might say“ Love is a doin ‘thing !!! ” with hearts as the dots on the I’s. One night, the bartender’s shirt reads “LOVE IS DOPE.” While making a stand is part of the journey, the destination of Communion is right there in its name.
Brown calls Communion’s cuisine the “vehicle,” and it’s a vehicle that’s going places. In the short time since she forged forth with her son Damon Bomar to open during a pandemic, Communion R&B has been named one of the top 12 best new restaurants on the planet by Condé Nast Traveler. It’s been selected as one of 50 favorites nationwide for The New York Times’ “The Restaurant List.” And it’s earned Brown a semifinalist nomination from the James Beard Awards. 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, plus service to the community. Communion is not, she’ll be the first to tell you, about the kind of recognition that comes from lists or prizes.
WITH ALL THAT’S going into it, past and present – and with all that’s intended, in terms of the future – Communion, in actuality, feels like the city’s best party. The music – the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, slow jams, contemporary hip-hop or vintage jazz – plays good and loud, while Sunday brunch may bring gospel at a volume that ensures everyone is risen.
The place is packed with a crowd that includes multigenerational families as well as date nights (or mornings after) and gatherings of friends, spanning a representation of different races not often seen in Seattle. (Surprisingly, it’s not the elders who complain about the volume; more “The middle people,” Brown says.) Bursts of laughter come from parties intermingling at the big communal table. At the corner bar, discussions might wend from how much people love banana pudding (get it!), To a discovery that the person sitting next to you also went to nearby Garfield High (go Bulldogs!), And that she knows Brown from both their sons going there, too.
Super-stylish staff carry trays of icy cocktails and hot plates wafting smoke, sweet and spice through the equally stylish room, which mixes old-fashioned coppery tile ceiling panels with a gleaming open kitchen.
What’s on those plates takes you places. Brown calls her cuisine “Seattle Soul,” and it’s a fabulous celebration. Her catfish po’boy-meets-banh-mi looks to the versions found around New Orleans, paying tribute as those do to local Vietnamese cuisine with pickled daikon and carrots, while Communion’s jalapeños get grilled, the pate housemade. That same catfish, crispily cornmeal-crusted and luxuriously soft inside, also centers the catfish and grits – the latter taste like sweet cream with Parmesan low in the mix, and a classic spicy shrimp Creole sauce brings it all together, with tri-colored peppers and twists of scallion for a pretty presentation. The sauce, Brown says, is pure Paul Prudhomme; she’s “a huge fan” (witness the worn cookbook on the shelves by the host stand, which she’ll gleefully tell you she swiped from a favorite instructor at Seattle Central’s culinary program long ago).
Brown tops a suite of deviled eggs with tobiko, onion jam and smoked oysters, each iteration marvelous in its own way. Praise the egg whites to the sky – they’ve never been cooked so perfectly set yet still soft, anti-rubbery. The thick, creamy yolk-mix gets Dijon instead of dry mustard, and yes, there’s cayenne, but that’s just one part of the proprietary seasoning mix that she calls Sez ‘.
“I got to start selling it soon…” Brown says. “It’s like 16 different spices – it’s like hella stuff in that thing.”
Brown’s exemplary grilled half-chicken, the bird soft and full-flavored, gets a nuanced, glossy brick-red berbere sauce that builds heat, with that Ethiopian spice blend sourced from Sebhat Bakery & Grocery in the South End. Her “PTL Wings,” lacquered with a chile sauce that’s both spicy and fruity-sweet, stand as an extremely worthy “shoutout to Thompson’s Point of View !,” the much-missed, majestic Central District soul food classic.
Spicy Laotian sausage from local Vientiane Grocery gets nestled with Washington clams and mussels in a coconut broth spiked with lemon grass; it also transforms eggs Benedict at brunch. A roasted pork neck-bone stew is Brown’s mom’s recipe, the smoky meat shredding lushly into ideally soft, herby lima beans. Brown herself is a genius of soup – her superb corn chowder, served last winter, and more recent buttery-rich lima bean stew both rate as legitimately thrilling and, inconceivably, vegan.
Please don’t be mad if you can’t find some of this when you get yourself to Communion. Brown is at work on a new menu as we speak, with only a few dishes planned to carry through. (Regarding the corn chowder: “It could make a comeback.” Yesssss.) The thinking, though, will have continuity, as will the heart.
“We love the Laotian sausage that we use,” Brown says, and she also loves supporting Seattle small businesses, “so we got to keep it around.”
She speaks tantalizingly of testing the sausage in an interpretation of the wonder that is the Scotch egg. And speaking of support, desserts will continue to be mostly outsourced to fellow women-of-color makers, with the vaunted banana pudding coming from The Sugah Shack; coconut cream pie and more from Black Magic Sweets; and ice cream from Kryse.
“I wanted to give them an opportunity to shine …” Brown says, “help build where they’re at.”
Bomar runs Communion’s cocktail program, and some of the concoctions sound like they could get complicated, but party-starting (and -continuing) balance is found. The Cherie Amour keeps its promise of a mezcal play on a Hemingway daiquiri without too much smokiness; it’s gorgeously apricot-colored and nicely tart with a housemade grapefruit shrub, garnished with cherry and lime. Larger-format pre-bottled options include the refreshing Purple (ish) Drank, a hibiscus-and-guava rum-and-tea punch that’s pleasantly floral yet not too sweet, deeply drinkable and probably best shared.
AMIDST IT ALL, don’t miss the wall that’s a collage of vintage black-and-white photos: dignified figures holding very still in the late 1800s, smiling portraits of the following century, various happy couples, women in gowns, men in hats. Brown says she is the keeper of handed-down family photos; she doesn’t know every person pictured here, but they’re all connected to her in some way, collected through time.
Everyone depicted is Black, yet, she says, “I’ve had different folks from all walks of life say, ‘Hey, that looks like my dot-dot-dot.’ Such a huge part of this “- of communing at Communion -” is that we are more alike than different … given the opportunity to peep into other people’s cultures, you’ll see that. ” Brown speaks of the lack of diversity in portrayals of culture in general.
“What we can do to dismantle that,” she says, “is to show up, and show ourselves, and then people have no other choice but to start questioning what they’ve always known.”
Along that same wall, a marble-topped antique side table stands like a still life. It holds five framed photographs, five funeral orders of service, a silver bell, a gorgeous bouquet. Yes, Brown says, it is an altar, one for closer family, “to honor their presence… If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. So I definitely want to recognize their support for me to get here and to continue to be here. And I feel that I’m very protected in a lot of ways because of them. ” This, too, is Communion. Respect.
“We’re in a good place,” Brown says, “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…” she says. “I want to be that stand for the community – the stand of resilience, the stand of joy.”