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In Seattle, it's all about authentic dining

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Seattle

Spring may already have spread its wings in L.A., but in Seattle, the sun bursts through the platinum clouds only occasionally. That's fine with me, because I'm not here to bask in the sunshine; I'm here to eat. And in Seattle, it's serious business.

It doesn't take a genius to ferret out the icons of the dining scene: any or all of Seattle phenom Tom Douglas' half-dozen places, such as the Dahlia Lounge and Etta's (he's more or less the Wolfgang Puck of Seattle); Rover's (favored by the Microsoft and tech crowd); Canlis; the Seattle-area Herbfarm; and the latest glitzy downtown spot.

But for food lovers willing to explore other neighborhoods and more modest venues, Seattle offers a wealth of wonderful dining.

Young and/or maverick chefs are banding together to create a scene well off the beaten path. They're idealistic and passionate. They don't have tons of investors or big-name designers or, in some cases, any designer. It's all about the food and an almost purist's aesthetic for honest, authentic cooking grounded in the place that is Seattle, a city that's down to earth and in touch with nature.

The restaurants profiled here are remaking the local food scene in their own homegrown image. With Seattle friends in tow, it took me two visits to explore all of them, the best antidote to L.A.'s glut of glitz.

SITKA & SPRUCE

Sitka & Spruce, set in an unpromising strip mall between a kebab place and a Subway sandwich shop, is even smaller than Hollywood's hole-in-the-wall wine bar Lou. It doesn't take reservations unless there are five or more in your party and you can fit at the communal table.

Propped on the bar, a child's chalkboard is scrawled with the words "Food worth standing up for." And stand up they do. People lean against the bar and the big chalkboard where the menu is written each day, waiting for one of the half-dozen tables.

Matt Dillon, the chef and owner, all of 34, in a tweed cap and cartoon tattoos, ambles between the kitchen and the dining room.

My friends and I start with Stellar Bay oysters with a pink grapefruit and Campari granita, its bittersweet bite delicious with the oysters. That's followed by a beguiling salad of warm beets and wild watercress and an order of grilled oyster mushrooms with shallots, freshly cracked walnuts and wood violets. Chicken livers sautéed with sultana raisins and a splash of rosé are wonderful and earthy. I love the fat white beans heaped with charred octopus tentacles in a bright green salsa verde too.

Most dishes come in regular and half portions, the better to taste one's way through the menu. Sometimes, there's quail or poussin al mattone with creamed celery root and leeks, hangar steak topped with a poached duck egg, or shredded braised beef shank, fried and presented with yeasty homemade lavash, and wilted radicchio.

LARK

Another must-stop is Lark, in an old barn of a place, a former woodworking shop, with pitched roof, exposed beams and walls painted the color of buttermilk. Panels of sheer fabric carve the space into smaller areas, conferring a coziness without messing with the dining room's appealing airiness.

Here too no reservations are taken. As soon as you arrive, check in with the maitre d' before heading next door to Licorous, a spinoff of Lark, for an aperitif and a small bite while you're waiting. Inside the demure, wood-framed building, it's three deep at the bar, with others, the lucky ones, disposed about on comfy little sofas, deep in conversation. Licorous is sophisticated and fun. Most requested drink: the Lark, which is Prosecco, freshly squeezed pink juice and a dash of Campari.

By the time our table is ready at Lark, we're happy and relaxed instead of grumpy. Chef-owner John Sundstrom knows how to write a small-plates menu: We want to order everything on it, and the prices -- nothing over $20 -- mean you almost can.

We start off with plate of Fra' Mani salami toscano with mostarda di uva (grape mustard) and sublime prosciutto di Parma with spring onions and Taggiasca olives. Penn Cove mussels cooked with Calvados, bacon, apples and cream is a fabulous combination. Crusty roasted potatoes, topped with a dollop of ivory clabbered cream, come in a cast-iron skillet. Spinach is swirled with Meyer lemon butter.

But the favorite that night is soft scrambled duck egg with spicy chorizo, green garlic and ramp. Dessert is a brilliant pineapple tarte Tatin with rum-spiked caramel or a silken vanilla bean pot de crème with wonderful old-fashioned rhubarb rose hip preserves.

TILTH

Another standout is Tilth, an organic restaurant in a two-story Craftsman house in the Wallingford neighborhood just west of the University of Washington. The tiny woman with the yard-long dark braid down her back is chef-owner Maria Hines, formerly chef at Earth & Ocean in Seattle's W Hotel, who has returned to her roots at Tilth.

Hines has a subtle touch in dishes such as a salad of pale quartered beets with emerald arugula and blue cheese or dark, velvety, house-cured prosciutto with a salad of miner's lettuce and foraged wood violet leaves. A baked Granny Smith apple stuffed with fresh Dungeness crab meat is bound with a little crème fraîche to delicious effect. I can order normal or tasting portions, so I can try more dishes, such as the earthy beef tongue ragù with heirloom beans, horseradish and shallots.

Wild sockeye salmon is crackling crisp on one side and almost rare on the other, the better to experience its every nuance. The accompaniments are magic. That salmon, for example, comes with an artichoke barigoule and a creamy polenta cake. Mini duck burgers, four to an order, come with fabulous fingerling potato chips. The pan-seared gnocchi, strewed with fried capers, Parmigiano and swatches of dark lacinato kale are pretty dreamy too.

To finish, we order several cheeses, including hoja santa from Texas (soft goat cheese wrapped in hoja santa leaves). Dessert is a sublime heirloom apple galette with cinnamon ice cream laced with bits of candied bacon and a pine nut tart with fromage blanc, caramel and thyme. As we walk out the door at 9:30 p.m., people are still coming in to eat. Small wonder.

PAIR

Pair is a sweet little restaurant in a simple clapboard building in the Ravenna area of northeastern Seattle. Chef-owner Felix Penn and his wife, Sarah, live upstairs. Out front are a couple of wooden benches and flowers spilling from galvanized tin pots. The dining room has a raffish, hand-hewn charm with its deep pumpkin-colored ceiling, pierced tin lanterns and gingham curtains.

The menu is small-plates Mediterranean -- house-made rabbit rillette with red wine prunes, steamed asparagus with blood orange beurre blanc, and cinnamon roasted lamb with preserved lemon, potato purée and minted Moroccan olives. I know some people who come just for the beef brisket with fresh horseradish cream and chives, others for the duck confit with creamy polenta, braised red cabbage and cherry ginger sauce, all under $20.

The dishes aren't highly original, but they're cooked with care and respect, including a magnificent Yukon Gold potato and cauliflower gratin topped with Gruyère and panko breadcrumbs.

MATT'S IN THE MARKET

When I visit Seattle, my friend Roberta usually picks me up at the airport, and we head straight to lunch at Matt's in the Market on a second-story perch overlooking the Pike Place Market sign. Matt's serves terrific soups, sandwiches and seafood based on ingredients from the market. It started out as a tiny counter, but after a lengthy remodel, it has reopened and has nearly quadrupled in size.

Owners Matt Janke and chef Eric Cannella didn't take Matt's upscale when they expanded. They're still turning out the same all-American fare that has made Matt's a hometown favorite. That means three hearty soups every day, a butter lettuce wedge salad with avocado, bacon and cava vinaigrette, big bowls of steamed clams and Penn Cove mussels with fennel and a touch of cream. Fried catfish or oyster sandwiches come with a spicy mayonnaise on bread from Seattle's beloved Macrina Bakery.

For dessert, the rich bread pudding with caramel sauce is irresistible.

If you want a table, reservations are essential; walk-ins, though, can usually find a spot at one of the two counters. Seattle knows how to do lunch.

WORLD SPICE MERCHANTS, SPANISH TABLE

After a stroll through the market to marvel at all the Northwestern seafood, we head down three or four flights of stairs to the street below to World Spice Merchants (1509 Western Ave; [206] 682-7274, www.worldspice.com), where you're enveloped by the heady scent of curry and spices. The tiny shop carries some unusual stuff -- black lemon from the Middle East, ajwain and amchoor ghost chile from India, plus its own curry blends for Sri Lankan, Caribbean and Singaporean cooking. Across the street is the Spanish Table (1426 Western Ave.; [206] 682.2827; www.spanishtable.com) with paella pans in every size imaginable, Bomba rice from Valencia, high-quality saffron, books on regional Spanish cuisine, cookware and a good selection of Spanish wines.

STEELHEAD DINER

Steelhead Diner on Pine Street around the corner from the market is a sprawling space decorated with hand-tied fishing lures. Light bouncing off nearby Elliott Bay floods the room. Chef-owner Kevin Davis, a New Orleans native who used to cook at Sazerac and the Oceanaire here, turns out updated diner fare with a local bent.

Brutus salad features crisp Romaine strewed with toasted pine nuts and Parmesan in a juicy citrus vinaigrette. A single giant crab cake arrives like Clarabell the Clown, wearing a frizzle of deep-fried beet threads. Underneath, it's all Dungeness lump crab meat sparked with habanero chile and sauce Louis.

Clams are steamed to order for the Manila clam chowder, which is laced with Yukon Gold potatoes, apple-smoked bacon, shiitake mushrooms and fresh peas.

Andouille sausage gumbo is loaded with chicken and sausage, but almost too rich and concentrated. When I add a spoonful of water, the gumbo backs off and the flavors purr. Dessert is an apple pandowdy, basically a pie crust filled with diced apples, dried cherries and raisins in a caramel sauce. But the clincher is the cinnamon-laced ice cream melting into the apples.

LA CARTA DE OAXACA

This last visit, we had a quick lunch at La Carta de Oaxaca in northwestern Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Ever since Roberta first mentioned this small, authentic place tucked in among Ballard's edgy bars and boutiques, I'd been dying to go. We grabbed a couple of stools at the counter in front of the beautiful oaxaqueña making tortillas to order. The chips for the creamy guacamole are deep-fried to order too, tossed in the air to cool, then delivered straight to the table still so hot that they burn your fingers.

It's windy and cold, so when I see the bowls of pozole with big, tender chunks of pork at the communal table behind us, I order that. And it's terrific. Tasajo, thinly sliced beef cooked on the grill and served with those supple, fresh tortillas dipped in a green sauce and embellished with crumbled Oaxacan cheese is wonderful too. There's also lamb birria and tamales (pork or chicken) with a silky, complex mole negro. This is some soulful cooking.

That night, we head back to the neighborhood to check out a newish tapas bar called Ocho around the corner. It's hard to spot, especially at night and in the rain, because there's no sign. But we do. And from the packed seats at the then-9-day-old establishment, I would say people were having no trouble finding it.

When we walk in, a waitress is standing on a chair, erasing dishes from the blackboard to the groans of the crowd. We step up to the bar and order a crisp vinho verde from Portugal and a lovely manzanilla sherry, little realizing that the real specialties here are the cocktails, the $10 El Tesoro Anejo tequila margaritas and the made-to-order sangria.

The food is simple and rustic -- lipstick-red piquillo peppers topped with Idiazábal cheese, pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato), beans with chorizo, tortilla española, diced potatoes and chorizo with a fried egg on top. But it's not dinner.

We have a another round of drinks, including the sangria, and then head off to another new tapas bar across town called Txori that was opened by the team behind the wildly popular Spanish wine bar Harvest Vine.

Txori doesn't take reservations either, but unlike Harvest Vine, it's open all day and not far from downtown.

I love the look of the place -- a long, narrow space with shelves to the ceiling stocked with jars of rice, mushrooms, vinegar, olive oil, stacks of cazuelas (terra-cotta casseroles) and bottles of wine. When someone orders a Rioja or Ribera del Duero, a server climbs a library ladder to fetch it.

Because Txori serves pintxos (San Sebastian-style tapas), we start with a crisp, minerally Txacoli from the same region, the Spanish Basque country. Our server pours it into a thin-sided, stemless glass from 2 feet up, the way they do it in Spain. (It's supposed to aerate the wine.)

The food is flat-out fabulous. The owner comes from San Sebastian, and these are real pintxos -- a chunk of slow-braised pork, caramelized and crispy on the outside, perched on a slice of baguette soaked in tomato. A section of octopus tentacle is secured to a piece of bread with a bamboo toothpick. Piquillo pepper stuffed with morcilla (blood sausage), then battered and fried.

But my favorite has to be the butterfish. Pan-sauteed and finished off in the oven, the palm-sized whole fish is presented in a parsley and garlic sauce. It's simple and delicious.

On my way out, I peer over the counter and realize the two young cooks are turning out all this food with only two electric burners, a griddle and an oven.

That kind of grit and improvisatory spirit is a big part of what makes this new generation of Seattle restaurants so exciting.

Or maybe that's not the word I mean. Satisfying or soulful is more like it.

virbila@latimes.com

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