- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Tall pines split the thin and rapidly moving clouds that quickly evaporated, revealing a golden sun and gentle blue sky. My light rail train had departed from a station at the airport where an art display honored Native American culture and a soundtrack of pulsing, meditative drum rhythms filled the air, and it weaved along the tree line and over cottage homes as we traveled into town.
I would eventually pass through an industrial part of town, then catch glimpses of the modern behemoths home to the Seahawks and Mariners, before arriving downtown, but my introduction to Seattle carried the frequency of that buzz you get when entering a mythical place. The excitement came less from a meeting of expectations than the revelation of the unknown.
Seattle had long been, for me, a city shrouded in the veil of mystery. I knew it was home to tech, aerospace and coffee giants, as well as some of the best sports fans in the world. And I understood its importance in the history of rock ’n’ roll. But I could never wrap my mind around what it was.
It turns out that two of my biggest preconceptions of the city were wrong. The weather was fine — my trip landed in the middle of one of the longest consecutive streaks of no rain in almost a decade, according to many locals. But what surprised me most was that the city was still growing, still evolving — despite the fact that I’d been hearing about Seattle as being “the next cool place” since my freshman year of college in California 25 years ago. Seattle certainly has its voice, its earthy style and surprisingly laid-back pace, but it is not a city bound by its past.
You can see cranes and new construction throughout the city. Despite its historic areas (Pioneer Square) and much-photographed locales (Pike Place Market), the ever-expanding city feels more akin to a young city like Austin than an older one like San Francisco. Seattle’s dining scene brims with the same sense of potential and promise. The pioneers of the city’s culinary world, like chef Tom Douglas, proprietor of more than a dozen restaurants, and second wave of award-winning and empire-building chefs, like Ethan Stowell and Renee Erickson, laid the groundwork and gave Seattle gravitational pull. But the city is bursting with young chefs and exciting concepts in neighborhoods all over town.
Eden Hill chef-owner Maximillian Petty, a Seattle-area native, knew all of those names growing up and now finds himself cooking with the city’s heralded talent at events and seeing his name mentioned alongside theirs come award time. The 28-year-old who worked as chef de cuisine at South Austin fine dining early mover Olivia until 2014 was visiting Seattle on vacation when he stumbled upon a French bistro with an owner eager to sell.
The charming cafe that seats about a couple of dozen at tables and bar is located atop a hill on a tree-lined avenue in the residential Queen Anne Neighborhood a few miles north of downtown, an area not traditionally known as a fine dining destination.
“I wanted to jump right into the neighborhood feel, but I wanted to challenge them and take them out of their norm. I wanted to bring a little edge to the Hill,” said Petty, who opened Eden Hill in the fall of 2015.
That edge includes foie gras in both savory and sweet dishes, and whole-animal cooking, a lesson he learned from chef James Holmes at Olivia, resulting in dishes like Eden Hill’s signature crispy pig head candy bar spotted with fermented black beans and laced with jalapenos, sitting in a pool of rich white butter and Champagne soup.
Seattle’s dining conventions don’t resemble those Petty knew as a kid, the city having graduated from boilerplate clam chowder and smoked salmon dishes to a competitive and growing landscape of inventive chefs and modern concepts. Petty, whose a la carte menu features about a dozen dishes, offers a blind tasting menu ($100) that exhibits artistic flourishes, like a sweet corn spuma flecked with espelette pepper and gold leaf that hides strands of duck confit, and the swanky comfort of salty brie cheese and honey-drizzled pickled foie gras dusted with candied pecan atop green apple crisps.
The high-minded restaurant, with a propensity for rich dishes like striploin topped with butter-poached lobster, isn’t afraid to indulge in playfulness, either, evidenced in the childlike glee of its Lick the Bowl dessert, an upturned mixing bowl smeared with foie gras batter and accompanied by sliced strawberries and olive oil cake. You eat the dessert, dotted with a confetti of birthday cake sprinkles, with a spatula.
Petty, who has earned two James Beard semifinal nods for Rising Star Chef for his creativity and whimsy, believes the Seattle scene’s blend of historical and contemporary elements makes for an exciting time to be cooking in the city.
“I’m very lucky to be a part of it. And we’re just getting started,” Petty said.
You get a sense of the city’s history and architecture as you meander through Pioneer Square. The city’s original downtown more than 100 years ago, the neighborhood that stretches to the shores of Elliott Bay has experienced a renaissance driven by restaurants, bars and eclectic shops.
The neighborhood will make you want to commune with the past, and what could be more timeless than a plate of pasta? Chef Mike Easton, a veteran of Seattle restaurants who moved to the city at the end of the ’90s, opened his tiny Il Corvo in 2013 after operating the concept as a pop-up operation.
Think of it as the Franklin Barbecue of pasta in Seattle. The line generally forms before opening (I queued at 10:45 a.m. and was eating by 11:30); the restaurant is only open for lunch (weekdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.); you order at the counter; you’ll likely dine next to equally excited strangers; and there are only a handful of things on the menu, all executed beautifully.
If you’re a tourist, you’re likely not on the email list detailing the daily menu, but the surprise is part of the fun. The tiny menu’s centerpiece is a trio of seasonal pastas, each priced around $10, with the stalwart being the pappardelle alla Bolognese. The wide ribbons tuck, curl and wind their way through a hearty and aromatic sauce made with chicken livers, beef and pork shoulder. Balancing that richness and depth on my summer visit was a mound of mixed varieties of pasta, tubes, twirls and nobs elevated with mint and parsley and backed by the nutty notes of almond pesto. Bits of pattypan squash clung to the ribbed lining of firm rigatoni sheened with lemon and butter, proving that summer can be both sunny and sumptuous.
Walk off the carb load with a stroll through Occidental Square, where I saw old men trying to outwit one another on a life-size chess board, and listen for the ghosts of rock ’n’ roll as you pass Central Saloon, reportedly the home to Nirvana’s first Seattle gig, before enjoying a perfect Manhattan at the cheekily named Damn the Weather cocktail bar and restaurant.
The time-worn, brick-laid Pioneer Square neighborhood is contrasted by the steel, glass and concrete of other parts of nearby downtown. Chris and Anu Elford opened their beer-centric bar No Anchor last year a block from their warm cocktail bar Rob Roy, and though the business is located in a cold mixed-use building, the personable and impressive beer list and precise-but-not-pretentious plates make for an inviting experience.
I didn’t have many specific expectations of Seattle’s dining and drinking scene, but No Anchor certainly checked the two boxes that did exist: beer and fish. The beer menu is charted on a helpful grid that ranges from modern to traditional and approachable to esoteric.
The surprising island fruits and subtle bitterness of a Hop Nectar Double IPA from Matchless Brewery in Tumwater, Wash., and the bright, fruity El Dorado hops of Seattle-based Cloudbrst Brewery’s Plays Well With Others Double IPA (what can I say, I like IPAs) both paired nicely with the refreshing pile of downy Dungeness crab overflowing from its tawny roll, and a gorgeous board of spruce-cured salmon, smoked sturgeon and soy-marinated albacore. In a nod to both its Northwest locale and No Anchor’s pub roots, glazed lamb sweetbreads were served with a nettle pudding and draped with pickled black radish. Elegance, imagination and an introduction to new flavors — despite my initial misgivings about its locale, No Anchor proved to be everything I’d want in an elevated beer bar.
Located in the evolving Central District neighborhood across the street from an athletic field on the campus of Seattle University, L’Oursin is another fresh-out-of-the-box restaurant to spring up in a mixed-use building. But, as with No Anchor, this seafood-inspired French brasserie belies its nondescript location with a warmth that extends from the wood furniture, honeyed walls and globe light fixtures to the attentive service.
Chef JJ Proville and partner Zac Overman saw parallels between the farmers markets of Proville’s parents’ native France and the Pacific Northwest’s variety of produce, seafood and meat. But you don’t need to have visited France to appreciate the interplay of meaty head-on prawns with the brawn of braised pork cheeks.
The airy brasserie, which features a lovely patio decked with woven rattan chairs, flexes muscle with unctuous marrow bones that ooze onto crusty, buttery slabs of grilled bread, and it turns out a classic beurre blanc for a crispy and meaty rockfish contrasted by the funkiness of one of wine director Kathryn Olson’s natural wines (listed with colorful descriptions). And the kitchen does delicate as well as it drops the velvet hammer, as seen in an artful plate of marinated scallops intermingled with the bitter-grassy-tart-bright medley of purslane, cucumber, blackcap raspberries and basil.
If the plates at L’Oursin are fit for a coffee table book about the hybridization of French-Pacific Northwest gastronomy, the dishes at Tarsan I Jane might be considered worthy of an art gallery. Which makes sense given that Perfecte Rocher and Alia Zaine’s austere restaurant, all somber grays and blacks colored with dangling geometric light fixtures, feels like it could be a Los Angeles art gallery.
The husband-and-wife team moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, opening Tarsan I Jane last year. The restaurant, named in part after Rocher’s grandfather’s restaurant, Tarsan, in Spain, honors the chef’s Valencian roots.
If you visit Tarsan I Jane’s website, don’t expect to find dishes from their 12- and 18-course dinner menus or many specifics. You will find a few gorgeous food photos, but mostly you’ll read about how seriously they take their techniques and traditions and how you need to trust them. The serious tone of the website extends to service in the restaurant, but once the affectations of fine dining start to feel like natural extensions of the restaurant and its respect for tradition and craft, the ice begins to thaw, as we experienced at a five-course brunch built around paella.
And how can you not succumb to pretty much anything a restaurant wants to do once presented with a pan con tomate that almost dissolves in your mouth, the tingle of anchovy and sweet acidity of tomato melting into a garlicky, oily glow? A salpico of octopus, Mediterranean mussels and albacore enhanced by avocado puree and bay leaf oil, and a glass of tart cherry gazpacho countered by the earth of beets and a sprinkle of togarashi were presented with museum-installation delicacy and had the flavor to back up the ceremony of presentation.
The wood-burning fire you see when entering the restaurant, the space’s largest blast of color (a conscious decision that makes the chef look like a superhero bursting from the pages of a black-and-white graphic novel), tells the story of what is to come at brunch. The brunch’s centerpiece was a paella de muntanya dish for four, the size of a warrior’s shield, a half-inch layer of bomba rice covered with earthy mushrooms, the vegetal twang of artichokes and fava beans, and tender hunks of duck. We took turns grasping at the shield’s edge to stab mercilessly at the brittle but stubborn socarrat forged to the metal dish by the intense fire. After such a restrained meal, the crescendo felt like we were jackhammering into the basement of a museum, a tradition encouraged by Zaine.
If Los Angeles imports Rocher and Zaine represent the new blood flowing into Seattle’s dining scene, chef Renee Erickson might be considered a large part of the community’s backbone. The 2016 James Beard award winner for Best Chef Northwest opened her first restaurant at the turn of the century, and her empire now includes four restaurants, a bar and a doughnut shop. (Tip: If you can’t get into the Walrus and the Carpenter for white wine and oysters, visit the adjacent bar Barnacle for a bitter Italian aperitivo and sardines served in a tin.)
Her latest, Bateau, plays against type, switching from the seafood dishes for which she became famous to sustainably raised beef. The steaks are dry-aged and butchered in-house — you can view the meat locker from the dining room — and the variety of cuts, many which you won’t find at traditional steakhouses, are listed daily by farm and cut on a large chalkboard in the dining room.
After you finish early courses that might include a salad of red-wine Dijon vinaigrette-splashed chickpeas and pickled veggies scattered with Lego-size cubes of salami, or beef carpaccio swooned by the tannic depth of coffee aioli, sit back and let the kitchen select five courses of steak for $85 per person. Make the slices of petite round, sirloin tip, coulotte, and filet your own by enhancing them with anchovy or vadouvan-spiked butter. By the end of the meal, beef tallow cake may feel like overkill, but pine ice cream with smoked juniper will feel like a palate cleanser, while placing you squarely in the Pacific Northwest.
Savory steaks with inventive butters and pine ice cream: nothing and everything I expected from Seattle. And two of many reasons I’ll be back.