Restaurants were smokin’ this year — everything from tofu to pig head. Chefs were also fired up, frittering around and in a pickle. You might say some had an “offal” good time. So did I.
Where there’s smoke
At The Old Sage, almost everything on the menu is smoked. Particularly magical was amberjack. Arranged with tiny radishes and their greens, mustard seed and black garlic, the fish is presented in a cloud of hickory smoke trapped under a glass dome.
Joule’s smoked tofu salad dressed up with soy sauce, truffle oil and mushroom confit managed to make bean curd sexy, while chunks of house-smoked brisket made Brass Tacks’ mac and cheese unforgettable.
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Great halls of fire
Wood-fired cooking was a trend that’s not showing any signs of waning. (See the recent opening of Miller’s Guild.) Bar Sajor, equipped with a wood-fueled oven, rotisserie and grill, turned out a stunning chuletón de buey. The Basque preparation involves a massive rib-eye steak, dry-aged for weeks, seared over hot coals, then allowed to rest in salt and vinegar.
Also spectacular: At The Whale Wins, oven-bronzed roast chicken with fried capers and preserved lemon, and at Westward, oh-so-tender braised lamb shoulder.
Fermentation fever is running rampant, but not all house-made pickles are created equal. These were the standouts: The pretty pickle plate at The Whale Wins included chard stems, mushrooms, radishes and baby turnips. Westward fills a canning jar to overflowing with bite-size vegetables and fruits, among them pear slices, grapes and pale green romanesco. Bar Sajor’s unusual array included pickled parsley root, ginger, kale, green almonds, rhubarb and grains of kamut.
Fritters were everywhere. Who doesn’t love something deep-fried, especially dough? The most audacious dessert fritters of the year were made with chocolate-chip cookie dough coated in crushed Rice Krispies. At the Capitol Hill restaurant Manhattan, they came with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.
I loved the cinnamon-sugar-dusted beignets at Von’s 1000Spirits GustoBistro, the ricotta and apple beignets at RockCreek, the nutella-filled zeppole at Bar Cantinetta, and the honey-glazed rice pudding fritters I dipped into caramel sauce at Agrodolce.
There were two outstanding savory fritters as well: Agrodolce’s boldly seasoned chickpea cakes (panelle) and Bar Cantinetta’s arancini, risotto balls stuffed with smoked scamorza cheese.
Snout-to-tail cooking requires chefs to get creative with innards, organs and other little-used animal parts (offal). Radiator Whiskey’s menu is full of “heady” stuff. I’m fondly recalling fried beef-lip terrine and pork cheek stew (served with a bag of Doritos). The showstopper was half a pig’s head, brined and smoked, with crisp slivers of ear and tender slices of tongue and loin served alongside. Their corn-flake-crusted chicken livers soused in Frank’s Red Hot Sauce were also high on my list of favorites this year.
Duck liver demands more refinement. At The Old Sage, roasted matsutake mushrooms, pine nuts and pear accompanied creamy tourchon of foie gras, cold-smoked over pine. I also fancied the foie gras tofu at Miyabi 45th, soft as custard, subtly earthy and sweetly crowned with roasted figs. (For the record, Miyabi 45th’s “Famous Uni Shot” — sea urchin and a raw quail egg snuggled in a Chinese soup spoon — was the best single spoonful of the year.)
Some fine seafood-focused restaurants debuted this year: I was smitten with the piquant lobster roll at Ballard Annex Oyster House. Tanglewood Supreme wowed with curry-sauced Alaskan Weathervane scallops paired with small green eggplants and puffs of naan. At RockCreek I fell totally in love with bonito crudo splashed with soy sauce and lime, mussels cooked with garbanzo beans and merguez lamb sausage, and crisp-skinned arctic char with lentils and bacon.
But the most exquisite fish dish of the year wasn’t at one of these newcomers. It was dorade fillet with a brown-butter and graham cracker crust surrounded by puréed eggplant, figs and chanterelles, enjoyed at Canlis, which turned 63 this month.
A variety of greens stepped up to the plate this year. Stoneburner made an amazing caponata with Swiss chard; their sophisticated riff on Caesar salad uses escarole, salt-cured tuna loin (mojama) and hominy bread croutons.
At Agrodolce, bitter dandelion greens tangled with house-made tagliarini in a lemon-bright béchamel crunchy with toasted pistachio.
At Bar Sajor, chrysanthemum greens and pine nuts made a unique pesto.
Joule’s briny seaweed risotto astonished.
Move over, kale.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.