Tamara Murphy's latest venture, Terra Plata on Capitol Hill, is a casual, convivial restaurant that presents its earth-conscious, locavore mission in every plate.
Looking like a mischievous gnome in her peaked Caseycap and striped apron, Tamara Murphy frequently pops up tableside to hug old friends, but mostly this James Beard Award-winning chef is content to preside over the gleaming show kitchen that anchors her new Capitol Hill restaurant, Terra Plata.
It’s easy to see why Murphy wanted to hang on to this triangular space at the pointy south end of the Melrose Building, the subject of a long drawn-out legal dispute with the landlord. Bound by sliding glass walls on two sides that meet in an apex at the front door, it’s a thrilling wedge of urban pie. Icicle lights still glowed around the perimeter in mid-January, but once the weather warms up, the rooftop garden is bound to be one of the most sought-after venues in town.
Not that it’s easy to get a seat now, especially around the bar, a generous curve railed with graceful metalwork that will look familiar to habitués of Murphy’s memorable Brasa. Shuttered in 2010 after more than a decade of success, Brasa emanated 20th-century supper-club swank, whereas Terra Plata is planted firmly in the here and now.
Casual and convivial, with tables, chairs and wine cubbies carved from whiskey-gold wood, Terra Plata’s artisanal, Mediterranean-meets-Northwest style syncs smoothly with the kitchen’s earth-conscious, locavore mission.
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Murphy sometimes acts as midwife in the earth-to-plate journey. She packs fresh fennel and a pinch of saffron in a bath for fat Mediterranean mussels. She swaddles cauliflowers-of-many-colors in brown butter, and then aggressively nips the richness with lemon and capers. She sweetens a roasted marrow bone with fig butter, jazzes plain-Jane sunchokes with flamboyant Serrano ham, and dresses up beets with citrus, pistachio and ricotta salata.
Other times, Murphy plays magician. Churros are so light they should almost be tethered to the plate. Frumpy potatoes become the wispiest waffle chips imaginable. She sprinkles them with truffled sea salt, and spikes the sour cream and chive dip with pecorino.
Water buffalo morphs into a tender burger, one that rockets to the top of this town’s burgeoning canon. She builds on the meat’s muscular flavor adding taleggio cheese, oven-dried tomato, and pickled vegetables whimsically skewered on a long bamboo spindle spiking the soft, sesame bun.
A duck leg pokes exultantly from the cassoulet, a triumphant, smoky stew of creamy beans veiled in toasted breadcrumbs and loaded with duck confit and wonderful lamb sausage. Cabrales butter lends a welcome sharpness to grilled lamb sirloin, another earthy delight. With rosy slices of meat tangled among many different mushrooms, the occasional cippolini, and chewy grains of purple barley, the plate looks like a deliciously disheveled forest floor.
Both rabbit and fennel-crusted albacore are citified dandies in comparison. Set against vibrant orange squash purée and sauced with a vivid jus, the rabbit saddle is wrapped in Serrano ham and stuffed with a multihued mosaic of carrots and herbs. Bacon-boosted heirloom beans and a gentle saffron cream sauce flattered the seared tuna.
Murphy’s signature roast pig lacked its usual bravado, though all the elements were present: clams, chorizo, chickpeas and supple pulled pork, all in a smoked-paprika swirl of pan juices. But the chicharones barely crunched, and a dry hunk of pork lurked at the bottom of the bowl.
The superb house-made charcuterie is not to be missed. Like the menu as a whole, selections change often. The array I swooned over included lush and lusty chicken liver pâté; firm salami; soft, subtly spiced cottechino and olive-studded mortadella. The promised toast was missing, a situation swiftly remedied by our server who grabbed a basket of Columbia City bread and said, “OK?” Oh yeah!
For a new restaurant with an ad hoc menu, service is exceptionally smooth. Well-briefed on the food, the wait staff is less confident advising on wine. (The red-heavy wine list focuses on France, Italy, Spain and the Northwest, with many bottles you won’t find everywhere.) Skilled at reading the customer, adept at pacing the meal, the staff operates like a tag team, which guarantees many watchful eyes on the floor. Not least are those of Murphy herself.
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