Pairings: Savoring the Northwest

Pairings: Savoring the Northwest

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
for Success
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 (

“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

Smoked Salmon on Onion Garlic Sticks

This recipe is compliments of Kerry Sear, chef-owner of Cascadia Restaurant in Seattle, Washington.

  • 2 ounces unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon puréed garlic
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 ounce dried onion flakes, soaked in water
  • salt
  • 3 ounces smoked salmon, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 375F. Combine butter, garlic and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add flour a little at a time, starting by making a paste and gradually folding it into the mixture. Return to heat and gather dough into a ball. Set aside to cool and then add eggs, one at a time, using hands to mix if necessary. Scoop dough into a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip. Pipe out 3-inch sticks onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle with onion and salt. Bake at 375°F for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown. Cool sticks, remove from baking sheet, and then wrap with salmon. Serve standing up in a glass garnished with mixed greens.

Wine Recommendations: Sommelier Jake Kosseff likes the Argyle 1989 Late Disgorged Brut sparkling wine for its yeastiness and intensity; he says that it doesn’t get lost in the tanginess of the salmon, garlic and onions. Other great pairings for this dish, says Kosseff, are young Washington Sauvignon Blancs with body and intense fruit, such as those by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Arbor Crest.


Buttermilk-fried Quail with Corn and Blueberry Salad

This recipe is adapted from Tom Douglas’s Seattle Kitchen (William Morrow, 2001).

  • 4 semiboneless quail, trimmed of excess fat
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • vegetable oil
  • 6 cups arugula, washed, trimmed and dried
  • 1 cup corn kernels, cooked and cooled
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, cut into strips
  • lemon vinaigrette (any recipe, substitute lemon for vinegar)

Preheat an oven to 400F. Combine quail and buttermilk in a bowl. In another bowl, combine flour, salt and pepper. Dredge each quail in the seasoned flour mixture. On stovetop, heat about 1/4-inch oil in a heavy skillet and brown quail on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer quail to roasting pan and place in oven, roasting at 400F to cook through, about 15 minutes. In a bowl, toss together arugula, corn, blueberries and basil with vinaigrette to taste. Mound this salad mixture on 4 individual plates and place a quail on each. Serves 4.

Wine recommendations: The sweet corn, berries and quail with pungent basil and vinaigrette need a sturdy red wine to balance it out. Cavatappi’s fruity, mouth-filling Maddalena, a Nebbiolo-based wine, won’t overwhelm the nuttiness of the arugula and corn. The chef also like Powers Lemberger and Arbor Crest Cabernet Franc with this salad.

Red Lentil and Fennel Ragout

Adapted from chef Cory Schreiber’s Cooking from the Source in the Pacific Northwest (Ten Speed Press, 2000). This quick stew is excellent as a main course or as a side dish.

  • 4 ounces sliced bacon, cut into 1¼2-inch strips
  • 2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 bulb fennel, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup dried red lentils, soaked in warm water for 1 hour and drained
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook bacon until crisp. Remove bacon to paper towel to drain. Add carrots, fennel, onion and salt to bacon drippings in skillet and sauté for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in stock, thyme, pepper and lentils and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, or until lentils are double their original size and absorb most of stock. Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest, juice and bacon. Serves 4.

Wine recommendations: The stew texture is hearty and the flavors subtle, says Schreiber, which calls for either a red or white wine with medium body and more fruit than spice. Schreiber’s choices are the 1999 vintages of Rex Hill Kings Ridge Pinot Noir, Cristom Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Pinot Noir, or Waterbrook Chardonnay.

Yellow-footed Chanterelles with Ramps

This recipe is adapted from Jack Czarnecki’s A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms (Artisan, 1995).

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 pound ramps (wild leeks), washed, roots and leafy part trimmed away
  • 10 thin slices fresh ginger (or 1 teaspoon ground ginger)
  • 14 ounces fresh yellow-footed chanterelles, well rinsed
  • soy sauce
  • salt
  • sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with
  • 1 tablespoon water

In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add ramps and ginger and sauté for 1 minute. Add mushrooms and sauté for another 3 to 4 minutes. Continue cooking to reduce mushroom liquid by about a third. Season to taste with soy sauce, salt and sugar. Stir in cornstarch mixture over heat, until thickened. Serves 4.

Wine recommendations: Czarnecki likes a medium-bodied, earthy Pinot Noir to enhance the warm, spicy notes and earthiness of this dish. He suggests the 1999 vintages of Witness Tree Vintage Select Pinot Noir, Chehalem Stoller Vineyard Pinot Noir or Adelsheim Pinot Noir.


Oregon Pinot Noir Raspberry Sorbet

This recipe is adapted from Tom Douglas’s Seattle Kitchen cookbook.

  • 2 pints fresh raspberries
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup Pinot Noir
  • 2 cups water

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and force mixture through finest plate of a food mill (or a sieve). Chill and then freeze in an ice cream maker. Follow manufacturer’s instructions to finish. Makes 1 1/2 quarts.

Wine recommendations: Mouth-filling shimmering berry-cherry fruit is what matters. The chef suggests any Domaine Drouhin or Adelsheim Pinot Noir (for making the sorbet and for sipping with it). Or, for a complementary sweet sipper, try Whidbey Island loganberry liqueur.


Pairing Pinot with Northwest Delicacies

Oregon Pinot Noirs are extraordinarily food-friendly. Lately some producers—Chelahem, Cristom, Ken Wright Cellars, Rex Hill Vineyards and Sokol Blosser among them—have turned to vineyard-designation and small-lot production. While some Oregon winemakers dislike the term terroir, these wines do reflect distinct differences among growing areas, soils and winemaker preferences. And they give diners a broad spectrum of pairing choices. Jack Czarnecki at the Joel Palmer House has 150 red wines on his list; 145 of those are Oregon Pinot Noirs. “Pinot Noir lacks the aggression of Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says. “While there is aging potential, you can enjoy rich earthy flavors right out of the glass. Any Oregon Pinot Noir and truffles—just shave some on a piece of garlic toast—fills your mouth with Northwest essence.” Yes, but there is more to savor.

The end of the 20th century produced some extraordinary vintages when, says Cascadia sommelier Jake Kosseff, “people who had never made a good Pinot Noir made great Pinot Noir in 1998 and 1999.” And multiplied the pleasure of pairing possibilities. With simple food flavors—say, unadorned fruit, butternut squash soup or summer squash dishes—try a bursting-with-cherries-and-cream Pinot such as Ponzi Willamette Valley, berry-filled Bridgeview Blue Moon or Firesteed
Oregon. When grilling or roasting vegetables, chicken or mushrooms, you’ll need wines with denser fruit and more complexity. Witness Tree Willamette Valley and Archery Summit Première Cuvée will play well opposite a grilled portobello or a roasted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes. Squab, quail, other game birds, venison and even pungent mushroom dishes pair well with wines such as St. Innocent Willamette Valley Reserve and Adelsheim Yamhill County Penta Reserve that have some earthiness along with the fruit. Likewise, a cheese course, especially when it combines mild sheep’s milk cheese and sharper Oregon (or other) blues, calls for Cristom Willamette Valley Jessie Vineyard or Rex Hill Jacob-Hart Vineyard Reserve. Chef Susan Vanderbeek perennially prepares pan-roasted duck breast, stuffed with cherries and currants to serve with the elegant Eyrie wines. With a hamburger? Pick a Pinot with a touch of oak such as Yamhill Valley Vineyards Willamette Valley Reserve.

Published on April 1, 2002

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