LAKE STEVENS — The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the sun and into LJ’s Bistro on a Friday afternoon was the alluring lack of light.
“Sorry it’s so bright in here,” bar manager Andrew Greulich said as he dimmed the lights of the Lake Stevens bistro even more, bringing the candles around the bar to life.
The second thing that caught my attention happened as I sat on a barstool chatting with co-owner and head chef Lindsay Herschlip. (Lindsay is the L part of LJ’s: Her brother Josh is the J.) My eyes darted to Greulich, who was in the corner of the bar, intensely sawing at a fat block of ice.
After making cut lines, he tapped the block with a hammer to gently carve out perfectly clear cubes for the bistro’s cocktails. No cloudiness in sight.
It is one of many examples of LJ’s unofficial motto: “You don’t have to do this, but we do.”
The Lake Stevens bistro is quietly top tier, for both the comfort-seeking and the adventurous. Even if all you want is a rum and coke or a classic Old Fashioned, they’ll make sure it’s your best one yet.
“What makes us stand out is our approachability compared to our level of standards,” Greulich said.
LJ’s, if you’re not familiar, is a melting pot of occupations, appetites and motives: It serves as an impressive and intimate first date spot, a neighborhood stop for a solo after-work burger and beer, Sunday brunch with friends. Even if your date goes terribly, or you had the worst day at work, the food and drink will save you.
Tucked in a plaine beige shopping plaza, LJ’s is like a speakeasy: Both an easy-to-miss bistro and a badly kept secret among locals. Herschlip opened LJ’s with her brother in 2013, then moved the bistro to its current location in 2019.
Currently, they serve spring on a plate in the form of asparagus toast ($14), with all the lovely green fixtures: Yakima-grown asparagus, dill, parsley, mint, za’atar, grilled spring onions. The whipped feta gives fat, brine and tanginess. No hunks of meat here, but this thick and juicy starter requires a steak knife.
If you want to use your steak knife on actual steak, order the filet mignon ($42), sourced from RR Ranch in Washington, or the richly flecked wagyu bavette ($70), which has a marble score of 9. If you are like me and had no idea there was a marble score, 9 marks the highest grade of American wagyu and is “very very special” (as quoted by First Light Farms in New Zealand). LJ’s also offers ribeye, among other cuts.
Herschlip is intentional in her sourcing of produce and meats, buying local where she can and staying with the season: Come June, that asparagus toast will be gone. On the other hand, the steak and potatoes part of the menu is forever. She also serves bread from Choux Choux Bakery in Everett.
For seafood lovers, the fresh Alaskan halibut ($34) with an English pea and bacon risotto and grilled spring onions, may challenge your ability to pace yourself.
Wash your meal down with one of Greulich’s spring creations: The Razzle Dazzle Milk Punch is both a delicious drink and evidence that the bar is a cross between a laboratory and if Willy Wonka opened a cocktail factory.
The raspberry punch is made in a Very Scientific way I can’t quite explain: Something about milk clarification (a 300+ year-old process that preserves and de-clouds the drink), resulting in a clear, beautifully punch-pink and cohesive cocktail that magically doesn’t taste alcoholic (so be careful) — and pairs perfectly with those see-through ice cubes.
The Bonita Smash (tequila, house rhubarb and hibiscus shrub, citrus, soda) and The Pickaxe (rye, spice-infused and smoked honey, citrus) are both $14 and taste like warm days ahead.
If you’re in a silly goofy mood or down in the dumps, you should head to LJ’s on Tiki Tuesday. The mood lifter started in January.
“We just came out of a two-year pandemic, and this winter felt particularly dark,” Herschlip said. Tiki Tuesday became a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek respite: “The drinks are really elaborate and everything is on fire,” she said, laughing. Plus, Greulich and other staff members wear Hawaiian shirts (think Trader Joe’s but worse).
LJ’s is now open seven days a week, with bar, indoor and outdoor seating available. Their Sunday brunch is required eating, and if you don’t believe me, I’ll drop several hints here: prosciutto benedict ($15), chicken fried ribeye (read again: ribeye) ($18), a gouda-topped wagyu beef burger ($17), cinnamon roll bread pudding ($9), harissa-marinated steak hash ($16). Veggie sausages and mock steak can be substituted in some of the dishes as well.
“From a kitchen standpoint, I like the food to be playful,” Herschlip said. “But I mean, it’s pretty serious.”
Serious, intentional and consistent, with an occasional side of parrot tiki mugs.
If you go:
430 91st Ave. NE #1, Lake Stevens
For the 21+ crowd, check out LJ’s cool younger sister, The Pines, which serves elevated pub fare at 805 Frontage Road in Lake Stevens.
Reach reporter Taylor Goebel at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 425-339-3046. Join The Daily Herald’s food-centered Facebook page, SnohomDish.