BY: AMBER GIBSON
As a gateway from North America to Asia and a waterfront city with equally fertile fisheries and farmland, Seattle has all of the raw materials to sustain a rich culinary scene.
Although Seattle diners have traditionally been a more cautious crowd, the booming tech and e-commerce industries have brought an influx of newcomers, encouraging a new breed of dynamic chef.
Canlis has been the premier fine dining restaurant in Seattle for 67 years and three generations, finally winning a long overdue James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program this year on its tenth nomination. Sunset views over Lake Union, meticulous service and flawless Pacific Northwest flavors hit every note. Snacks arrive out of nowhere to whet my appetite, including an exquisite tater tot topped with padrón pepper relish and uni.
Live piano music adds to the elegant ambiance. The soundtrack ranges from La La Land and stripped down pop songs to Les Misérables. Mark Canlis himself, one of the current owners, ricochets between tables greeting guests and delivers a surprise from the kitchen – caviar floating on sweet buckwheat foam – to pair with my Bollinger champagne. Ingenious flavor combinations include sweet, crunchy cucumbers with briny geoduck and sockeye salmon over wild rice studded with diced green tomatoes.
All the wide banquette tables allow couples to dine side by side. I am at Table One, formerly founder Peter Canlis’ office in the middle of the dining room. A vintage rotary dial phone rests beside me, ringing at the conclusion of dinner to summon me for a tour of the kitchen and wine cellar. Couples can book the alcove upstairs, a private dining room for two. The only thing that could make this evening more perfect is if Ryan Gosling were serenading me on the piano.
Many of Seattle’s best contemporary restaurants balance a casual atmosphere with fine dining culinary prowess. The neighborhood spots most beloved by locals are multi-cultural and remarkably affordable, proof that a great meal doesn’t have to be only for special occasions.
Tom Douglas is Seattle’s most prolific restaurateur and at Lola, he gives brunch an inventive Mediterranean touch. Order Tom’s favorite breakfast, a tender octopus hash with sweet and spicy peppers, sumac yogurt, scallions, zucchini and a soft-poached egg. For more Middle Eastern flavors, head to Mamnoon, where even seemingly simple muhammara and shamandar spreads pack beautifully complex flavors.
Chef Shota Nakajima recently reconcepted his Japanese Adana restaurant from an elaborate kaseiki tasting menu to a more approachable three-course prix-fixe. Diners choose between three options for each course and the entire menu flips each month. The 28-year-old Japanese-American chef trained in Osaka and brings a perfectionist attention to detail to chilled sweet corn chawanmushi and white fish with ponzu daikon and sweet soy shiitake mushrooms.
THE OVERNIGHT GETAWAY
Spend a peaceful day on Lummi Island at The Willows Inn. The inn has been around for 105 years, but it wasn’t until Chef Blaine Wetzel took over the kitchen eight years ago that the restaurant became a nationally acclaimed fine dining destination. Wetzel cooked at Noma for three years with Rene Redzepi and he’s bringing the same philosophy of respect for exploration of local ingredients to the Pacific Northwest.
A peek in the Willows Inn pantry reveals fastidious preservation and experimentation with a vast array of indigenous ingredients. I find myself eating a few too many fermented rye bread chips, crisped in grapeseed oil, at lunch and chide myself knowing that a lengthy 22-course dinner awaits in just a few hours.
My summertime meal begins with a series of raw snacks from the farm sitting outside on the patio. The one-acre farm just a half mile down the road supplies nearly all of the herbs, vegetables and fruit that appear over the course of the evening. Both the wine and juice pairings are excellent and make me wish I could find sorrel or bay leaf juice at my local juice bar.
Wetzel relies on a few local fishermen for mussels, dungeness crab, rockfish and albacore tuna, the latter of which is the final savory course served with an array of grilled and smoked peppers. The only meat on this summer menu is a single bite of aged venison served on a skewer with tendon and chanterelles.
Linger the following morning for a sumptuous feast that will put the fanciest hotel breakfast to shame. The brand new Hilltop House is the newest on-site accommodation, a beautifully appointed contemporary home with a full kitchen, which you certainly won’t need during your stay. Charter a flight with Kenmore Air from Seattle to Lummi Island if you don’t fancy the long drive to the short ferry ride from Gooseberry Point.
THE COOL HOTEL RESTAURANT
Goldfinch Tavern in the Four Seasons could easily fall into a stuffy hotel restaurant trap. But ever since the hotel brought on one of Seattle’s most successful restaurateurs, Ethan Stowell, to revamp the space and menu, it’s been a hit with guests and locals alike.
If you’re feeling indecisive – easy when everything on the menu sounds so good – just elect to trust the chef and be bombarded with an array of off-the-menu items for just $75 per person (optional wine pairing for $45pp). A half dozen appetizers hit the table simultaneously for sharing, followed by a pasta, entree and dessert. All impeccably prepared and delivered with panache.
Scout at the Thompson Seattle is another hotel gem, casually decked out in plaid and even edgier. Chef Derek Simcik has even prepared off-site cannabis paired tasting menus.
THE SWEET FIX
Capitol Hill is the ice cream capital of Seattle, with a half dozen craft ice cream shops in the neighborhood and Portland’s Salt & Straw too. Molly Moon’s is the busiest and biggest homegrown chain, with eight locations around town. Cupcake Royale makes ice cream and cupcakes, even blending cupcakes right into the signature red velvet ice cream.
Try a boozy float with a scoop of marionberry or Theo chocolate chunk at Bluebird Ice Cream, where they make their own ice cream, soda and beer. Frankie & Jo’s appeals to vegans with creamy cashew and coconut milk-based flavors like salty caramel ash and tahini chocolate.
Unassuming Kurt Farm Shop is my favorite of all though, serving super small batch ice cream made from the milk of 16 grass-fed Jersey cows. Jersey cream is akin to Italian fior di latte, with sweet, grassy notes and lemon verbena is simply ethereal.
If you prefer chocolate to ice cream, Seattle’s got you covered too. Watch the bean-to-bar process at Indi Chocolate’s cafe and factory in the Pike Place Market expansion. Theo Chocolate, North America’s first organic and fair-trade chocolate factory, offers daily tours and ample free samples.
For the most unusual flavors, like lavender jalapeño and celery caraway, visit Intrigue Chocolate in Pioneer Square and let their creamy fresh truffles melt in your mouth, releasing layers of aromatics and flavor. Intrigue hosts happy hour each Thursday from 6-8pm so swing by for a swig of sipping chocolate and to try whatever new flavors botanist-come-chocolatier Aaron Barthel has whipped up.
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