If you took a culinary snapshot of 2012, what would it taste like? Beyond the strong locavore focus and the eager seasonality of menus, Seattle restaurants have a unique spirit, a feel all their own. We celebrate this special Seattle flavor by calling out the restaurants that define our city—and the trends they exemplify. This is where to go to taste Seattle.
Artisanal pasta amid romantic, refined rusticity
Our hearts soar when we think about dinner at Spinasse. Hidden behind fine lace curtains on a side street, away from the bustle of the 12th Avenue food corridor, heavy wooden chairs, the warm scent of sage and roasted game, the soft buzz of laughter and clinking of wine glasses awaits. It’s a beacon when you’re searching for a dinner that must be perfect, but not precious—a salad of firm garden greens hiding marinated rabbit, maybe, and a plate of sublime pasta. We’ve wooed friends from bigger cities in the warm, amber light; we’ve romanced our one true loves at the bar; we’ve gathered to celebrate. At Spinasse, we sup on food that deserves a starring role, but is so purely just food—made exceptionally well—that, unlike the offerings at fussier restaurants, it can take a backseat to the pleasure of the company at hand.
File under: Italian, romance, locavore, seasons on a plate, nose-to-tail cooking
See also: Altura, Cafe Juanita, Cuoco
Really good neighborhood restaurants
Restaurant years are like dog years: One equals five, or six or seven. So this year’s 15th anniversary is a milestone that La Medusa can be utterly proud of. The Columbia City mainstay offers a warmth, a comfort and the sincerest of welcomes to the neighbors who fill up the reservation book on a weekly basis. Those bookings aren’t made for sentimental reasons, or not entirely.The food is better than ever with chef Gordon Wishard at the helm. La Medusa’s Sicilian bent—think anchovies, olives, capers and chiles—is echoed in seasonal inspiration: handmade pasta topped with black trumpet mushrooms; and Wednesday farmers-market dinners, for which fresh ingredients are foraged from the nearby Columbia City market. One recent dinner—the kind of unplanned, startlingly great night out that happens not often enough—proved that, even on a wintry Thursday, one might luck into a broad, thick steak cooked to a deep bronze on a hot grill and sent out with glistening fingerling potatoes dressed in garlic, anchovies and capers. It was the steak of the year, and I had it at the little neighborhood restaurant down the street. Surprise, surprise.
File under: Beloved neighborhood haunt, locavore, seasonality, affordability, warm welcome
See also: Eva, Cantinetta, Pair, Olivar, Terra Plata
Sitka & Spruce
The seasonal local cultural mash-up
Though Matt Dillon’s Sitka & Spruce was born in a humble strip mall on Eastlake Avenue, it has since become a mecca for seasonal foraged foods, outgrowing both the space and the underdog persona. After four years, Dillon has moved to more sophisticated, airier new digs deep inside the vibrant mixed-retail Melrose Market. The menu’s flavors have likewise expanded, reaching from that early rustic Northwest base into far-reaching corners of the world: braised veal pulled into hunks atop tender flatbread fresh out of the wood-fired oven, served with tahini, harissa and chickpeas; roasted beets topped with tangy house-made yogurt and the unexpected nuttiness of brown butter. Dillon’s experiments with the warm seasonings of the Middle East, with those wood-fired breads and house-preserved this ’n’ that, with raising his own vegetables and greens on the restaurant’s farm on Vashon Island—all of this makes dinner at Sitka & Spruce personal, revelatory, fresh, inspired. Dillon could’ve easily ridden the seasonal/local/foraged train (which he helped usher into the Seattle mainstream), but playing with new spices and dreaming up new dishes seem to be far more fun for him. It sure is for us.
File under: Nose-to-tail cooking, small producers, everything made from scratch
Masters of meat
House-made sausages and charcuterie at restaurants have excited diners for at least a decade now, but at Dot’s Delicatessen, the butcher shop/luncheonette/takeout joint in upper Fremont, what’s new is the prominence that the meat craft takes. The display case, filled with neat rows of sausages, layered terrines and gorgeous hunks of dry-aged meat, is both the décor and the main event. A little cook smoke in the air, some classic New Wave on the stereo, a few vintage butcher posters above the banquette—that’s about it for ambiance. But that’s all you need to accompany chef/owner Miles James’ handcrafted brats and hot dogs, Reubens and pulled-pork sammies (or, if you’re feeling Frenchy, his spot-on steak tartare). Oh, and did we mention the glorious hand-cut fries or the mustard-spiked potato salad? (The house subspecialty is potatoes.) In a single stroke, Dot’s has made lunch the day’s most luxurious meal, but if you want more for dinner, you can stop by in the early evening and get it to go from the takeout menu.
File under: Lunch is the new dinner, charcuterie, grass fed, house made, new neighborhood haunts, sandwich craze, gourmet takeout
One of the things they don’t tell you when you move to drizzly Seattle is just how deeply connected you’ll become to your neighborhood bakery. And suddenly, there’s a really good one in nearly every neighborhood. With windows fogged up from conversation and rain jackets hung to dry on the backs of chairs, hot ovens put to heavy use, the endless high whine of milk foaming in small metal pitchers, and buttery, flaky, utterly perfect pastry—it’s how Seattle survives the long sunless stretches that devour the months between Indian summer and…July 5. Since he opened Cafe Besalu in 2000, James Miller has been setting the bar high for pastry in Seattle. In his petite bakery, you’ll see him standing just steps away from the front counter, folding pastry dough, hand-rolling croissants, filling quiche shells with eggs the texture of velvet, creating biscuits studded with fiery crystallized ginger. Miller’s pastries are absolutely, unquestionably outstanding—legendary, even. There’s a reason we’re all willing to stand in line (and jockey for table space) after all these years. And it’s not because we’re suckers.
File under: Excellent pastry, warmth, Sunday-morning ritual
A never-ending crush on fresh Asian flavors
Revel bills itself as a purveyor of Asian comfort food, and reviewers rave about especially indulgent dishes such as the pork belly pancake and the short-rib dumplings. But Joule chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi aren’t satisfied with just merging meaty goodness with irresistible starch (which, of course, they do very well). It’s the more nuanced, layered flavors that will keep you coming back for more, despite the weekend crowds. (Try lunch if you can—same menu, less mayhem.) The pleasures of Revel lay in the worldly reframing of Asian spices and techniques within a modern, casual setting: the handmade seaweed noodles in a bowl of curried crab; the salad with rosy slices of corned lamb draped throughout, the excellent kimchi and pickles that punctuate so many plates; and the fantastic collection of house-made condiments that come with every meal.
File under: Dumpling mania, loud restaurants, open kitchen, swinging second restaurants, affordably chic, sticky fingers, wood-fired barbecue on the terrace
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Oyster chic and small plate stand-outs
If there is one thing we know is better in Seattle than anywhere else in the country, it’s oysters. And though we have long had outstanding oyster service, no one had yet created as perfect a frame for Puget Sound bivalves as Renee Erickson (along with co-owners Jeremy Price and Chad Dale) has with The Walrus and the Carpenter, where the oysters are gathered by the bushel into icy wire baskets on the bar. Light and airy, with a hint of midcentury French industry, the Walrus is a raucous gathering place, a cocktail joint par excellence and, oh yes, a place to down local oysters like you’ve never done before. Enjoy the icy shellfish, but don’t overlook the various small plates that cluster around you—spry garden greens, a perfectly appointed hunk of Vashon cheese and spicy prawns that stain your fingers brick red as you pry off the shells.
File under: Garrulous atmosphere, Francophilia, extreme local scene, chic décor, Frank Bruni
See also: Elliott’s, Anchovies and Olives, Le Pichet, How to Cook a Wolf, Blind Pig Bistro, Ocho