Root, Root, Root For The Home Team
Full disclaimer: I tend to be a fickle team player. I can network like a mad woman, but throw me into a let’s-all-get-along group dynamic and it’s not always handled with Oscar Award-worthy grace.
That was not the case on a recent Monday night for the nominees of the 2009 James Beard Foundation Best Chef Northwest Award. More than two dozen food writers showed up at Crush restaurant in Seattle to “Tweet and Eat” during a 6-course dinner presented by the five nominees. The roster of local culinary luminaries included Maria Hines (Tilth), Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez (Harvest Vine), Ethan Stowell (Union), Cathy Whims (Nostrana), and Jason Wilson (Crush).
"This event involved the most agreeable menu planning," said Stowell. "The dinner shows that we all get along, we’re not competitive and we can come together and have a good time," he added. It’s this very dynamic I find so refreshing about Seattle’s burgeoning culinary scene. Seattle restaurants are hip without being tragic; low-profile but increasingly lauded. And menus often hinge on the holy trinity of the sustainable food movement—fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients, which in the Northwest means delectable Coho salmon, foraged mushrooms, and artisanal cheeses.
Here’s a glimpse of what the five chefs whipped up in the teeny tiny kitchen at Crush:
Passed Appetizers & Champagne
Ethan Stowell – Union
Shigoku Oysters :
uni, radish, cucumber
2005 Monte Carbonare Suavia, Soave Classico
Jason Crush – Crush
Roasted Neah Bay Halibut
spring morels, caviar urchin sauce, green garlic
2007 àMaurice Viognier, Columbia Valley
Maria Hines – Tilth
Skagit River Ranch Pork Cheek
Trotter cake, charcroute, parmesan broth
2006 Montinore Estate Gewürztraminer, Willamette Valley
Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez – Harvest Vine
Cleo’s Braba Hamburger
Foie gras, carmelized onion foam
2006 Gorrondona Hondarrabi Beltza, Bizkaiko Txakolina
Cathy Whims – Nostrana
Abacchio alla Cacciatore
cattail creek lamb, artichokes alla romana, sage
2004 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba
Jennifer Volk – Crush
Double Chocolate Stout Caramel Tart & Ice Cream
Black cardamom ganache, marcona almonds, pretzels
Fonté Coffee Service
The post-play report
Stowell primed palates with a dish he recently made for his wife, Angela’s 30th birthday – Shigoku oysters with a refreshing dice of radish and cucumber, topped with swaths of sweet, bright orange hued uni. These new bivalves are the brainchild of Taylor Shellfish, a locally-owned shellfish company. Willapa Bay oysters are grown in floating bags, attached to stationary lines that rise and fall with the tides, resulting in small, dense oysters that get tumbled twice daily.
In true to Crush form, Wilson’s Neah Bay Halibut dish was visually striking and equally delicious. Pops of tiny fish eggs swimming in a rich urchin sauce complemented the crisp exterior of the halibut, creating complex flavors and wonderful mouthfeel.
Hines made an Alsatian-inspired dish – pork cheeks atop a trotter cake made from separately braised pig shins and feet in a parmesan broth. The dish takes three days to make from start to finish; a true “labor of love,” she confessed.
de Jiménez’ three bite Cleo’s Braba Hamburger was unsuspecting, yet lick-your-fingers good cooked in foie gras and topped with caramelized onion foam, tomato puree and handmade potato chips.
Like Hines, Whims tapped the rustic, comfort food vein, with a roasted, milk-fed lamb served in a classic Italian, Abacchio alla Cacciatore, style. Artichokes alla Romana rounded out the dish perfectly. Small confession: at this point of the meal, I begged mercy and had to take some of Whim’s dish home, which was equally delicious on round two.
Lastly, Crush’s pastry chef, Jennifer Volk riffed on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with her beer-based dessert served with de rigueur pretzels.
Although the tech-component of the evening didn’t quite live up to expectations – the constant stream of food and wine proved too much of a distraction, and frankly, I prefer the banter of co-diners than that of my Blackberry – the enthusiasm of the Pacific Northwest chefs was infectious. Although each nominee has the talent to be highly competitive, they come together over and over again to promote something greater – the spirit of the Pacific Northwest culinary scene. When it was all said and done, Maria Hines of Tilth took home the 2009 James Beard Foundation Best Chef Northwest Award.
Tilth, 1411 N. 45th St., Seattle, WA; (206) 633-0801
The Harvest Vine, 2701 East Madison, Seattle, WA; (206) 320-9771
Union, 1400 First Ave., Seattle WA; (206) 838-8000
Nostrana, 1401 SE Morrison St., Portland, OR; (503) 234-2427
Crush, 2319 E. Madison St., Seattle, WA; (206) 302-7874