When Bon Appétit Magazine recently announced its list of the 20 most important restaurants in America, perhaps no one was more astonished to find The Walrus and The Carpenter on it than Renee Erickson, executive chef and co-owner of that always-busy Ballard oyster bar.
“Places that define how we eat out” is how the magazine editors describe their eclectic roster, commending The Walrus for feeling “less like a night out and more like eating at a friend’s place.”
That is true, as well, of The Whale Wins, the impressive new venture by Erickson and her Walrus partners, Chad Dale and Jeremy Price. What Erickson started at Boat Street Café and extended at The Walrus and the Carpenter, she takes to a more ambitious level in Fremont at The Whale Wins, which this week was named a James Beard finalist for best new restaurant.
As at all her restaurants, European style and American warmth effortlessly entwine. You feel it in the casual, country-chic ambience. You see it in the crisply aproned staff; friendly but formal, they are well-schooled in matters of food and drink.
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Most important, you taste it in the rustic, elegant fare prepared here by chef de cuisine Marie Rutherford and sous chef Robert Palmquist. It’s French in spirit and execution, but like much contemporary American cooking, borrows freely from many cultures.
The wood-fired oven is central to the process. Its hungry maw, a glowing crescent embedded in pale marble, is the focal point of the front dining room, a high-ceilinged space where butcher paper covers marble-topped tables snugly aligned beneath light fixtures that spell out a cheery “HELLO, HELLO” to anyone looking up.
Mostly I was looking down, entranced by the perfectly pitched flavors and refreshing simplicity of dish after dish.
Everyone should begin a meal here with the incomparable house pickles. An astonishing array of vegetables contribute to this nuanced carnival of color and crunch: fennel, daikon, chard stems, baby turnips, coral-hued radish rounds, tiny gray mushrooms and hot pickled peppers are just some — each with its own distinctive taste.
Narrowing the choices after that is harder; so many dishes make a forceful impression. Extraordinary roast chicken (from Mad Hatcher Farm) sported salty, bronzed skin dotted with fried capers and crisscrossed with fine slivers of preserved lemon. Whole roasted Snake River trout, presented with its crackling skin curled back to flaunt sweet, expertly filleted flesh, comes with roasted lemon slices and a silky garlic emulsion thickened with bread and ground walnuts, a variation on the Middle Eastern tarator sauce.
In every composition the textures are right and the tug of acid, spice, salt and fat is just taut enough. A sweet-tart bouquet of raisins, capers and pickled shallot accompanies marrow bones. A cushion of tangy yogurt tames the heat of harissa coating roasted carrots and fennel. A halfway-to-hard-boiled egg does a similar service for braised greens with a side of herbaceous North African sauce. Lemon and cumin chase each other through a mound of pine-nut-speckled roasted cauliflower planted in eggplant purée.
Those vegetable dishes are served at room temperature. So is filet mignon. Salt roasted to a uniform medium rare from edge to seared edge, the tender meat is sliced and nestled in cream whipped with fresh horseradish, alongside fingerling potatoes cloaked in a vivid green sauce heady with the licorice taste of tarragon.
Some may find the cool temperatures off-putting, but it amplifies the carefully calibrated flavors. Those cool dishes taste no less vibrant than mussels roasted with potatoes and leek in a creamy, pale green curry sauce fragrant with coriander.
Desserts, on lavish display just opposite the entrance, include giant meringues destined for a bowl of “Eton Mess,” a dreamy concoction of whipped cream and crumbled meringue laced with wild huckleberry compote.
There’s ample opportunity to examine all the sweets if you arrive at peak dinner hours because, as at Walrus, the only downside to dinner at The Whale is the wait. Even coveted seats at the bar in the snug rear dining room are subject to the waitlist. Instead, come for lunch. The mood is mellow and the menu is virtually the same. Or while away a Happy Hour (or two) in the late afternoon, just as you might in the home of a friend, one very adept in the art of hospitality.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.