Golden Beetle in Ballard is Maria Hines's homage to the lusty cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa.
I’m bewitched by Golden Beetle, Maria Hines’ homage to the lusty cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. I could blame my infatuation on ras al-hanout, the Moroccan spice blend considered an aphrodisiac. Among its dozens of ingredients is the one that inspired the Ballard restaurant’s name.
Ras al-hanout traditionally perfumes bisteeya, a pastry-wrapped meat pie that in Maghreb would be made with pigeon. Here bisteeya becomes “Skagit River chicken pie.” The fragrant bundle of moist poultry and vegetables encased in the sheerest phyllo under a snarl of kale and wild mushrooms looks like a fascinator worthy of a royal wedding and tastes divine. Moreover, it epitomizes what Golden Beetle does so successfully: merging ancient cuisines with a modern sensibility and a zeal for local, organic and wild foods.
The truth is my crush on Golden Beetle started long before I fell for the chicken pie, one of a handful of large plates on a menu comprised largely of nibbles. It was love at first bite of herb-dusted, nigella-speckled pita, spread with muhamara, a pungent walnut dip pierced with pomegranate molasses.
Everything I tasted had my mouth longing for more: French fries ruddy with za’atar, a tangy blend of sumac, herbs and salt, dunked in fiery mustard; delicate phyllo-rolled spinach-and-feta “cigars” dipped in tzatziki; boldly seasoned lamb kibbeh meatballs bolstered with sweet date purée and tart eggplant relish.
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Crunchy, bite-size falafel comes two ways: one made with fava beans, cucumber and lemon; the other with wild halibut and charmoula, a sassy green sauce of parsley, cilantro and mint. Rabbit fills flaky pastry pockets, a riff on Turkish boregi. Its tiny kidneys are grilled with spiced apple, cured olives and onion on skewers that are served poised like scimitars across a pistachio-laced salad sharply dressed in cumin vinaigrette.
Flavors run strong and deep but not amok. Preserved orange and pickled Serrano peppers electrify the butter-rich broth of steamed clams topped with cilantro and mint. Allspice and cinnamon tiptoe through sultana-studded hazelnut pilaf. Paprika, cumin and garlic murmur in a lamb tagine with cauliflower, couscous and pungent green olives. Yogurt-based tarator sauce, thickened with breadcrumbs and ground hazelnuts, cools the zing of cumin, coriander and pepper coating the edges of seared St. Jude’s albacore. So deft is the seasoning overall that I never made use of the tabletop condiments: a pot of harissa, Murray River sea salt and toasted, ground cumin.
Golden Beetle is the flip side of Tilth, where Hines’ contemporary American cooking earned her a James Beard Award as Best Chef Northwest in 2009, but both restaurants are certified organic and committed to sustainable, seasonal ingredients.
Before opening Golden Beetle in February Hines ate her way through Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, taking along Seattle photographer Frank Huster. His striking black-and-white photos cover the sky blue walls of the erstwhile Market Street Grill, a key design element along with the jewel-toned Turkish lanterns that hover over diners like illuminated butterflies.
Her experiences drive the creativity of the kitchen, headed by chef de cuisine Forrest Brunton, a longtime sous chef at Tilth, and even inspire the drinks. Bartenders employ tinctures, bitters or infusions made with clove, sumac, pink peppercorns, tamarind, rosewater and more. The house-made charmoula soda is a minty, food-friendly, nonalcoholic refresher. Most wines come by the glass, quartino or bottle. The list assembled by general manager Andrew Bresnick touches down in Europe, Washington and Oregon, and includes a red and white from Chateau Musar near Beirut.
A Turkish family shows up regularly for weekend brunch, delighted, they tell the staff, to find this sophisticated taste of the old world in the new. Go elsewhere for waffles or French toast. Come here for fruit crepes, a harissa-spiked lamb scramble or fried potatoes thrumming with cilantro, preserved lemon and Aleppo pepper. Try cardamom-spiced doughnuts and dainty cinnamon-scented almond pastries drizzled with rose syrup. Taste fuul, a fragrant fava bean mash that you pack into pita with hot pickled cucumber and soft-boiled egg. It’s an Egyptian’s idea of breakfast, and now mine, too.
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