A vibrant Seattle restaurant scene is made all the more interesting with a mix of old-school traditions and new ways of imagining them. In 10 pairs of eateries, we see how local chefs are continuing to mix it up.
IN THE FAST-PACED world of haute couture, clothing styles change from year to year, season to season. In the equally fast-paced realm of restaurants, though, fashion has a longer life. Trends transition. It’s more about refining and refreshing — taking that new idea and making it pay in exciting new ways.
At some restaurants, newcomers are furthering the legacy of culinary pioneers. At others, familiar faces are in new places, rethinking and tinkering with the tried-and-true. Whether it’s re-imagining classic cocktails and the traditional steakhouse, pursuing simplicity without sacrificing sophistication, or committing to sustainable agriculture and aquaculture as good-neighbor practices, all are contributing to a dining scene that has remained dynamic despite the economic slump.
With a nod to the past and a salute to the future, here are restaurant pairs that help connect the dots from “then” to “now.”
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GROW YOUR OWN, THEN SLEEP ON IT
14590 N.E. 145th St., Woodinville
The wind at The Willows (Woodinville wine-country’s boutique lodging) blows over a fairy-tale cottage. It’s a fussy setting for the dramatic production within: The Herbfarm’s five-hour, nine-course dinners themed to celebrate the seasons.
The audience comes from afar to eat local: produce from five acres of nearby farmland tended by Herbfarm staff. House-made breads spread with house-churned butter. Herbfarm birds contribute their eggs; bees, their honey. Native waters yield salt and seafood. Native woods give up their mushrooms and Madrona bark (used as spice and steeped for tea). A lavish feast, lavishly priced.
220 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland
Brian Scheehser’s staff tills a plot adjacent to The Herbfarm’s, tempting the appetites of locals as well as guests at Kirkland’s Heathman Hotel. With one foot on his vintage tractor and another in the hotel’s root cellar, the chef makes the most of his produce. Pickling and putting up what he can’t use fresh, he even cultures his own vinegar.
In this contemporary fine-dining room, guests nibble caramelized-orange flatbread with homegrown arugula or chips made from freshly dug potatoes. Showstoppers like Pacific seafood soup are unveiled tableside in Staub cast-iron. Specials include prix-fixe menus, a mere $29 for three courses.
425 N.W. Market St., Seattle
Bruce Naftaly isn’t big on change, yet he’s been changing the way Seattle dines for decades with his seasonal mindset, his organic imperative, his kitchen garden. In Ballard since 1985, he’s paid homage on his menu to those who help provision his prix-fixe: poultry growers, cheesemakers, fishmongers.
With a French accent but a decidedly Northwest knack, Le Gourmand unwittingly wrote the blueprint for the kind of restaurant Seattle neighborhoods have come to nourish: small, chef-driven places like Lark, Crush and Spring Hill.
Together with his talented pastry chef-wife, Sara, Naftaly has embraced the 21st century, creating a jewel-box of a cocktail lounge (the adjoining Sambar) and updating the dining room to a white-on-white canvas that underscores the elegant visuals on the plates. An a la carte menu is now de rigueur, the prix-fixe extended to seven courses.
1411 N. 45th St., Seattle
Two decades after Le Gourmand’s debut, Maria Hines stepped away from a high-profile gig at the W Hotel’s Earth & Ocean and planted herself in Wallingford. The diminutive dynamo had a big vision for a small space: a certified organic restaurant built in a bungalow.
Three years later, her allegiance to local farmers, ranchers, foragers and fishers has brought an avalanche of national acclaim.
Diners wax rhapsodic over “names” like Pete Knutson’s sockeye salmon, Skagit River Ranch’s grass-fed beef or petite poussin and Bluebird Grain Farms’ grains. Have it your way, via the tasting menu or one at a time in small or entrée-size plates.
ASIAN TRENDSETTER, THEN AND NOW
1401 Third Ave., Seattle
In 1989 Rick and Ann Yoder defined the Pan-Asian ideal, broadening our perception of “Asian food” and the kind of restaurant that served it. They hired cooks from China, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere, and with a top-notch bar and service team built a reputation for excellence and culinary excitement.
Fragrant Duck and Sichuan green beans, Malaysian laksa and Singapore-style crab became standards while tourists nearly outnumbered the locals genuflecting at its altar: a satay bar built to bring the sight and scent of marinated meats and other treats into focus. A midtown move (in 2000) and a new Bellevue twin (at The Bravern) have widened the Ginger’s embrace.
Kaya Asian BBQ & Grill
20109 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline
With its powerful flavors and textures, and reputation for spotty service in scant settings, Korean food has yet to make many foodistas’ “love it” list. Come to Kaya and change your mind. This Shoreline newcomer has a grand entrance, handsome furnishings and a mission to turn you on. They’ve got your goat, served in a bubbling caldron — if you’re ready. Beginners will have luck with a service staff fluent in introducing the menu. Yes, that’s kimchi among the complimentary banchan (side dishes). Sure, you should try the stews and soups, both spicy (with shredded beef) and icy (with chilled buckwheat noodles). But it’s the DIY tabletop grills that make for Korean-food fun. Indulge in high-quality rib-eye and chicken, step it up with bulgogi and pork belly or go combo.
ITALIAN FORMAL, AND NOT SO
Il Terrazzo Carmine
411 First Ave S., Seattle
Pioneer Square is not the attraction it once was, but don’t tell that to the elite who eat at Il Terrazzo. For a quarter-century, Carmine Smeraldo’s “terrace” has been the hidden headquarters for the old guard, a place to have a three-martini linguine lunch or a celebratory filetto with a bottle of barolo.
The interior and menu may seem dated to those who clamor for crudo at the industrial-chic Anchovies & Olives, but remember this: Carmine has been purveying sweetbreads and carpaccio since Ethan Stowell was wearing ballet shoes. He treats royalty like royalty and the rest of us to osso buco and eggplant parmigiana.
3650 Wallingford Ave. N., Seattle
Noisy, utterly unfussy Cantinetta is centered on a bar scene and the eat-what-you-may expression of its owners. Trevor Greenwood handles the door and the floor while partner Randy Quarry tends bar, crafting cocktails and laughing it up as if he were in his own living room entertaining friends.
These guys imported a youthful crew of kitchen magicians, led by chef Brian Cartenuto, to showcase the season’s bounty, highlight house-made pastas and put to use ingredients (rabbit, beet greens, farro) that speak to simplicity. Their menu is brief, the flavors intense, the execution admirable, making this Wallingford corner a neighborhood hit.
LITTLE SAIGON GOES BIG BRITCHES
1207 S. Jackson St., Suite 104, Seattle
Nearly 20 years ago Lien Dang could be found waiting tables in the cramped strip mall that houses her Vietnamese café. There, she introduced many of us to the joys of fish sauce and explained what to do with the tray of fresh herbs and lettuce set before us. We learned to appreciate the spicy soups, the rice-flour noodles.
Dang’s still there, as is her son, Scotty, who stands in for his mom when she’s off tending to their Hanoi restaurant. I keep returning to Huong Binh, indulging in the street-food stylings of sticky caramelized grilled pork, the delicate shrimp cake wrapped around a sugarcane skewer and the knowledge that food this good rarely comes cheaper.
Long Provincial Vietnamese
1901 Second Ave., Seattle
First it was the Banh family who captivated us with their contemporary spin on Vietnamese food at Capitol Hill’s Monsoon. Next, the Nguyens got into the act by planting Tamarind Tree in the ramshackle recesses of Little Saigon’s Asian Plaza. But just as the Banhs have since brought Vietnamese finer-dining to Old Bellevue, the Nguyens have set their sights on downtown Seattle.
The name Long translates as “dragon,” defining a voluminous menu that borrows from the Tamarind Tree playbook with signatures like shrimp-topped turmeric coconut rice cakes. Bold flavors and a preoccupation with presentation add to the drama of this multitiered space. Choosing what to eat is a tough task with finger-licking fancies like tamarind-lacquered quail, crisp soft-shell crab and banana blossom salad.
SEAFOOD SERVED WITH SASS
Xinh’s Clam & Oyster House
221 W. Railroad Ave., No. D, Shelton
Eating shellfish at its source is part of the fun of traveling to sleepy Shelton — home to the Taylor Shellfish Farms and the company’s Vietnamese-born chef, Xinh Dwelley, whose diner-style seafood house is Mason County’s homey answer to fancy food.
Perhaps you’ve seen Xinh (say “sin”) yukking it up on TV with Jeff Corwin or “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe. Few can shuck an oyster faster or laugh louder at hard work than Xinh.
Her simple way with shellfish can make your heart sing — for more of her geoduck sashimi, clams in black bean-hoisin sauce, curry-soaked Mediterranean mussels and plump pan-fried oysters.
Frank’s Oyster House and Champagne Parlor
2616 N.E. 55th St., Seattle
Let’s be frank: In Cape Cod, where Sarah Penn spent childhood summers, shellfish didn’t get the kind of treatment it gets at Frank’s. Penn minds the store at her Ravenna yearling (sibling to nearby Pair), keeping her eye on the chic Champagne parlor and its adjoining oyster house (whose rustic, reclaimed woodwork makes it a casual take on the classic surf-and-turferies her granddad Frank once enjoyed).
Husband Felix runs the kitchen, where classics are cleverly rendered. Lobster rolls come as miniature buttered homemade buns; pristine oysters nestle in clever custom ice trays; and one might plumb the depths of a “petite clambake” to find bites from land and sea floating in a lobster broth.
CUTTING INTO A SLICE OF LIFE
Abruzzi’s Pizza & Pasta
17817 First Ave. S., Normandy Park
When “Pizza Nick” Finamore died in 2000, Seattle’s legendary Abruzzi’s — where he’d spun pies for nearly 40 years — was already “redeveloped” into extinction. Cut to 2008, when Nick’s ex-wife, Mary Lou Sigette, redeveloped a strip-mall spot south of Sea-Tac airport, brandished the family recipes and hung the Abruzzi’s sign back up.
As news spread, her place became a mecca for memories. So what if the crust isn’t as thin and Mary Lou yaks on the phone instead of taking your order for a “Nick Jr. Special” oozing with mozzarella? Her sauce tastes the same, the sausage will take you back, and if you were a regular from the old days, the boss will remember you, “honey.”
1415 N.W. 70th St., Seattle
Ballard didn’t need another pizzeria when East Coast transplant Brandon Pettit opened Delancey. So what’s with the line out the door? It didn’t hurt that his bride, Molly Wizenberg, is the vibrant voice behind Orangette, an internationally acclaimed food blog that gave birth to “A Homemade Life” — a yummy memoir of the couple’s romance with food and one another.
Today that life revolves around their business, whose focus is a wood-fired oven and a brazenly brief menu. Delancey takes as its mantra the words “simplicity” (see Pizza Margherita), “seasonality” (foraged mushrooms, fresh-fruit desserts) and “char” — the appropriate amount of which has become a subject of hot debate, fueled by the intentional blistering of Pettit’s thin-crusted creations.
The best seat in the house is at the counter fronting the oven, sipping from a well-filled wine glass, taking it all in.
SUSTAINING THE ‘HOOD: WITH SUSHI
3130 E. Madison St., No. 106, Seattle
Tatsu Nishino made his mark on the city with a menu that nodded to Latin America (papaya salsa, jalapeños) and the Mediterranean (crème fraîche, arugula), setting trends by matching finned favorites with accents other than his own. Today, crossing cultures at Seattle sushi bars is as commonplace as premium sake and California rolls.
Madison Park regulars have flocked to this standard-bearer since 1995 for good reason: Nishino and his creative cohort are as adept at pairing sevruga caviar with toro as at divining which sea creatures (live shrimp? sweet uni?) will fulfill the food fantasies of an “omakase” omnivore.
4725 California Ave. S.W., Seattle
Like Nishino, Hajime Sato was a young gun when his restaurant made its West Seattle debut 15 years ago. “Shut up and eat!” was his motto. He scoffed at the notion that women had no place behind a sushi bar; Mariah Kmitta has been doing the sushi samba at his side for nearly a decade.
Fans of this fabulously funky hangout keep abreast of his special events on his goofball Web site, proudly displaying its URL on their bumper stickers. And if your cheating heart is doing a lip-lock with someone other than the “Lazy Hawaiian” or “Mr. Oyanagi” (among the many American-style maki rolled here), be advised: the Webcam is live, and you’re on candid camera.
Last summer, Sato got serious. And exceedingly green around the gills. Mashiko was reborn as a sustainable sushi restaurant, one of only a trio nationwide to just say “No!” to endangered, unsustainably raised seafood. Today Sato turns patrons on to shiny bottom-feeders, local albacore and thoughtfully farmed sea treats, permanently 86-ing perennial favorites like bluefin tuna.
STEAKING OUT NEW TURF
2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle
The “Canlis Experience” — nearly 60 years young — remains unmatched in this city. At this Seattle sophisticate, it’s all about you: whether you’re a nervous first-timer knocked out by the Lake Union view, Muscovy duck-for-two and the four-star service, or an old-timer knocking back a Manhattan and a New York steak (seared on the legendary copper grill). Third-generation restaurateurs Mark and Brian Canlis have made it their business to infuse their legacy with a new vitality. They’ve hired New York export Jason Franey to up this aerie’s ante. For customers hooked on classics, the Canlis salad and (grandfather) Peter Canlis Prawns remain. For the adventurous, there’s the chef’s tantalizing new tasting menu, where fresh geoduck tops melons in many colors and foie gras awaits union with peaches, honey, fromage blanc and a beautiful warm lavender brioche.
John Howie Steak
The Shops at The Bravern
11111 N.E. 8th St., Suite 125, Bellevue
He came to fame at Palisade in Magnolia, went out on his own with Bellevue’s Seastar, then opened its sibling in Seattle. Now chef Howie has put his signature above the grand double doors at the Eastside’s haute-est new address: The Bravern.
Here, the Jimmy Choo-shoed and others less well-heeled find their way past the bar (fleet-fingered piano man, top-shelf booze, glam bar snacks) and into a surprisingly understated inner sanctum.
Friendly tableside service accounts for the room’s bacon perfume; oysters are given the most delicate of Rockefeller treatment; sweet lobster adds luxury to a tony tub of mashed potatoes; and cherries celebrate their jubilee by getting drunk on cognac. Hoist a 2-pound rib-eye on the bone, compare a 4-ounce filet of true Kobe beef to its American Wagyu counterpart and employ the resident wine geeks to assist with partnering your porterhouse.
BE KIND TO ANIMALS
2901 E. Madison St., Seattle
Before Greenwood met Carmelita and Wallingford welcomed Sutra, Madison Valley’s Café Flora put us on the garden path to memorable meatless meals. But from the start, vegetarians and vegans weren’t the only ones impressed by this café that rode the early wave of sustainability in a green-built setting.
As time marched on, so did Flora, now with a bar offering creative cocktails and a cosmetic makeover trading on a rustic theme, courtesy of new owner Nat Stratton-Clarke. Veteran chef Janine Doran raises the bar, too, keeping classics like Oaxaca Tacos but playing the field with fresh fruits and local produce.
1429 12th Ave. E., Suite B, Seattle
Makini Howell, chief cook and lifelong vegan, makes life easy for others who share her food culture. As the upmarket entry into the Hillside Quickie restaurant family, her Pike/Pine bistro is the place for a coffee klatch or a full-blown meal, her menu a multitude of delights.
Glorious greens (collards) and grains (quinoa, millet) are part of the all-organic offerings, and the chef doesn’t hold back on spice, sauce or smoke, transforming tofu, tempeh and seitan into mighty sandwiches (BBQ po’ boy, “tofustrami” on rye), sensational salads (like the avocado-laced “Mama Africa” with tempeh bacon) and other inventive fare.
Nancy Leson is a Seattle Times staff food writer. She blogs at seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat. Mike Siegel is a Times staff photographer.