Savoring the Northwest
If you ask chefs in Washington and Oregon if there is such a thing as a Pacific Northwest regional cuisine, some respond with laughter. Others fall silent.
Jack Czarnecki, chef-owner of the Joel Palmer House, resists characterizing his food as Northwestern. Instead, he calls what he does “freestyle,” because the spices, herbs and techniques that he uses are borrowed from areas the world over. (“Freestyle” does seem an appropriate characterization for Czarnecki’s signature hearty, earthy elk cassoulet.)
Tom Douglas, chef-owner of Dahlia Lounge, Etta’s Seafood and Palace Kitchen, three of Seattle’s best-known restaurants, says that “the Northwest’s proximity to Asia” has a lot to do with why “it seemed natural that [Asian culture] would soak in here.” Asian culture has soaked in to such a degree that bento boxes and sushi are among the most popular lunches in Seattle. Though Douglas keeps Asian staples such as rice vinegar and fish sauce on hand in his pantry, he resists calling his culinary style “fusion” or “Pacific Rim.” Most chefs here admit they don’t like those terms, and aren’t even sure if they know what the terms mean.
The food that is now being labeled as “Pacific Northwestern” regional cuisine isn’t a style that is rooted in ethnic influence. Few chefs name any mentors aside from the late James Beard, a Portland native, whose influence is still felt deeply nationwide. Most Northwesterners, it seems, are at a loss as to how to identify their cuisine simply because their cuisine is so simple. “Our food is informal,” says Susan Sokol Blosser, president of Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee, Oregon. “We keep preparations pretty straightforward and simple because—being so close to the source—foods are already at peak flavor.” Rather than garnishing grilled fish with sauces, she says, local chefs may give it “a touch of fresh dill—or maybe not even that.”
Those who see Seattle’s copious fresh-food supplies firsthand will understand why the city’s restaurants are keen on offering only what’s fresh, and what’s in season. At sunrise, as the morning commuters disembark from the ferries, chefs arrive at the city’s venerable Pike Place Market to find what will be on their dinner menus. The market is filled, stall after stall, with Bing, Lambert, Chelan, Lapin, Sweetheart and Ranier cherries; Walla Walla onions; damson, Italian, yellow, friar and Santa Rosa plums; berries of all kinds, fresh water chestnuts and every kind of squash that you can imagine. But don’t expect to see all of these ingredients at once. Growers who may specialize in, say, tree fruits or Asian greens sell only when local crops are in season. Likewise, the fishmongers will have king, sockeye, chum or dog salmon depending on which river is running. Razor clam season lasts maybe two days.
Northwest Restaurants’ Recipes
It is their hearty dedication to local produce and simple preparations that is the pride of so many Northwestern chefs, many of whom consider themselves first-generation pioneers whose jobs it is to carve a niche for Northwestern cooking.
In 1999, Kerry Sear, a former Four Seasons executive chef, opened Cascadia, an upscale outdoorsy oasis in the heart of Seattle’s downtown where ingredients such as citrus and sesame oil are left off the menu because, as Sear says, “those things don’t come from here.” Instead, as the restaurant’s name (and its serene forest-tone décor, complete with flowing water and etched mountainscape glass wall between the kitchen and dining room) implies, he cooks only what can be gathered, grown, hunted and fished nearby. Lopez Island lamb, a pasture-fed lamb from Lopez Island in the San Juans, and handcrafted Oregon cheeses regularly show up on Sear’s menu, as do ceps, chanterelles and black trumpets that are foraged by a local logger who shows up at the restaurant’s back door whenever he has fresh products to sell. And when he’s very lucky, Sear snaps up all the Olympia oysters (the only true local variety, and very difficult to come by) that he can.
For some of his dishes, Sear adapts the oldest Northwest traditions—Native American techniques, such as alder-planking salmon and wrapping game birds in hay or grasses. “I sear the squab or quail, then wrap it in hay or wheatgrass, with herb stems, before baking,” the chef explains. “It’s similar to the French method of baking in parchment. But Indians would steam the wrapped game in skin bags and infuse aromatics.” On Cascadia’s multicourse seasonal tasting menus, you’re likely to find any of a rainbow of the purest Northwest flavors, such as Olympia oysters, Kerry’s Designer Soup in a Can, salmon, quail, lamb, cheese and perhaps a Douglas fir sorbet. Sommelier Jake Kosseff’s always-changing wine list (he revises it up to four times a week to keep up with supplies from small producers such as Buty Winery, Lemelson Vineyards, Spring Valley Vineyards and Stange- land Cellars) is fat with Oregon and Washington pairing possibilities.
When another of Seattle’s restaurants, The Edgewater, an urban lodge perched on a pier downtown, needed an update, Robbin Haas wisely stuck to the hometown recipe for success: Northwest look, Northwest food, Northwest wine. Haas, who is vice president for restaurant concepts of Noble House Hotels and Resorts, used the same strategy for Six Seven, another pier-perching restaurant that opened in the city last June. Haas and Thomas Haas, vice president for food and beverage for the same company (and no relation of Robbin’s) looked for local wines that complemented the day’s freshest entrées. Before the restaurant’s grand opening, Robbin Haas, Thomas Haas and others experimented with pairing Robbin’s dishes with regional wine favorites. What they found was that Haas’s pan-seared halibut cheeks with braised leeks was a natural match with the green-apple, melon and pear notes in King Estate’s 2000 Pinot Gris; the flash-cooked salmon and warm potato salad went stunningly with the aromatic medium body and citrusy finish of Barnard Griffin’s 1999 Fumé Blanc. The restaurant’s gently spiced comfort-food version of lamb osso buco picked up the intense black cherry of Archery Summit’s 1999 Pinot Noir.
“We knew the matches would be here,” says Thomas Haas of why the restaurant has seen such success. “The wine world has broadened and the old barriers—such as no red wine with fish—have fallen. Our objective was a list that even a novice can’t go wrong with—none of those oaky California monsters.”
Wines of Their Own
“Since wine came to the Willamette Valley,” says Sokol Blosser, “the truck stops in Dundee, the epicenter of Pinot Noir growing, have turned into white-tablecloth restaurants.”
Wines from Washington and Oregon are now playing roles in most of the region’s best restaurants, however small they might be. Former pastry chef Susan Vanderbeek, who now has her own eight-table restaurant, The Oystercatcher, in Coupeville on Washington’s Whidbey Island, has planned a number of winemaker dinners with David Lett, who started Eyrie Vineyards in 1966 and is arguably the don of Oregon winemakers; Mark Vlossak at St. Innocent in Salem, Oregon; and others. For food-friendly St. Innocent Chardonnay she prepared smoked trout; shellfish to go with Pinot Blanc; salmon and greens in raspberry vinaigrette with Pinot Noir. “The longer you taste someone’s wines, the more fun [pairing] is,” laughs Vanderbeek. “With David’s wines, I have such a memory. Bookend tastings give you such a sense of someone’s style and continuity.” With Lett’s Eyrie Pinot Gris she matched the famous delicate mussels from Penn Cove bathed in basil, but what to pair with a 1996 Pinot Meunier was a puzzle.
“[The Pinot Meunier] was for the second course, between a very rich halibut and Dungeness crab bisque paired with reserve Chardonnay and duck with Pinot Noir,” remembers the chef. “[The dish] needed to be light, although the wine has a lot of spice in the nose. I decided on savory greens with cipollini onions. I had to say ‘trust me, David, this will work’—and he did and, with the aromatics, it did.”
Vanderbeek thinks a lot about flavors, how to balance acid and how to render a dish “with not too much sour or sweet.” Cory Schreiber, chef-owner of Wildwood Restaurant and Bar in Portland, goes for “tried-and-true vertical flavor combinations—Hood River Bartlett pears with goat cheese, hazlenuts and Pinot Gris or pork chops with fingerling potatoes.”
Winemakers think about food, too. DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, Washington is a leader in crafting Washington meritage wines. Chris Upchurch, DeLille’s winemaker, says that “when we started making our Bordeaux-style blend…we believed we were building wines with greater complexity, balance and silky ripe tannic softness—the three classic attributes for successful pairing with food.” Upchurch thinks that Washington Syrah will soon come into its potential. Producers such as Powers Wines are starting to show that it’s a splendid match for the strong outdoorsy flavors of barbecued game and grilled meat.
The Ponzi family, who started their Oregon winery in 1970, recently opened the Dundee Bistro, with a wine tasting bar and gourmet food products for sale. King Estate, farther south in Lorane, grows plums, pears, apples and organic herbs for its culinary program, in addition to its 225 acres planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and other wine grapes. On its website, Washington’s Canoe Ridge Vineyard posts seasonal recipes for the supersweet Walla Walla onions to pair with its Merlot (www.canoeridgevineyard.com).
“The development of the wine industry and restaurants have paralleled each other here in the Northwest,” says Lett proudly. Not many other regions can make a similar claim. What’s next for Seattle and the Pacific Northwest? Surely, whatever is in season.
Recipes for a Northwest Dinner