From a chef who has spent time in Michelin-starred kitchens comes Bramble House, a destination restaurant on Vashon Island.
I live 40 miles and a ferry ride from Bramble House. Having been there twice, I’m plotting how soon I can finagle a return trip. I want another slice of Lia Lira’s brioche French toast, another bite of braised duck chilaquiles, and maybe another melon and roasted-beet salad before the summer wanes.
During an August brunch at this charming Vashon Island retreat, grilled peaches and whipped mascarpone adorned the vanilla-kissed brioche, cut brazenly thick and creamier than bread pudding within its golden brown exterior. A sunny-side-up duck egg capped the chilaquiles. That robust mingling of duck, roasted tomatillo salsa and freshly fried corn tortillas worked very well with a bottle of Vashon-made Irvine’s Vintage Cider.
I had the jewel-toned beet and melon salad at dinner. Every bite revealed subtle gradations of sweet, the tang of cilantro crème fraîche and tart slivers of pickled watermelon rind. As an opening act, it rivaled the lime-dressed green salad laced with hearts of palm, radish and avocado; the lilting corn soup grounded with chive oil and bits of chorizo; and the warm focaccia spread with fresh ricotta.
Bramble House ★★★
17123 Vashon Highway S.W., Vashon
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; brunch Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: $$$ (dinner starters $7-$16; pasta & grains $23-$25, mains $28-$38; brunch $8-$28; this is a no-tipping establishment; all prices include gratuity)
Drinks: Beer, cider, Northwest and French wines
Service: some staffers are a little green but all are nice as pie
Parking: free on site
Credit cards: all major
Access: wheelchair-accessible ramp in rear of building
Both the bread and the cheese are made in house. The ricotta is also used to fashion Parisian-style gnocchi flecked with black pepper and lemon zest. Those dainty dumplings joined a garden party of fresh corn and diced zucchini paired with skillfully seared rockfish.
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The food here isn’t fussy, but the execution has the precision you’d expect from a chef who toiled in Michelin-starred kitchens. Bramble House represents a homecoming for Lira. She grew up Lia Bardeen, living with her mother in Tacoma but spending weekends and summers on Vashon with her dad and stepmom. Her first restaurant job was at Vashon’s country club during her college years.
After graduation from Evergreen State, a bigger island beckoned. The English and Russian literature major moved to New York City and worked her way up in restaurant kitchens. She became executive sous chef at the three-Michelin-starred Jean Georges then helped open other restaurants for the company in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
Marriage took her to Mexico for two years, where her husband, Cesar Lira, has family. A job as culinary director for Sugar Mountain in Seattle brought them back to the Northwest. “I think I always thought I would come back,” Lira says. “I loved living in New York and what it offers. It was amazing for me professionally.” Opening her own restaurant was always a goal.
Coming up with a name, she says, was the hardest part. It’s called Bramble House because most of her childhood memories of the island involve blackberries. Several businesses have occupied the building, but for much of its 73 years the two-story house was actually a home. It has a fairy-tale look, with its gabled roof, picture windows and a mouse-hole door now painted the color of berry sorbet.
Flavors here ring as pure and true as the color of that door. A pair of grilled shrimp rode in on risotto that was properly creamy but the rice was too soft, a flaw I almost didn’t mind because the dish was so vividly infused with basil. Tart sumac teased out the sweetness of carrots that escorted a duck breast expertly cooked to a rosy medium-rare beneath its crackling skin. Broccoli pureed with jalapeño was a lightning-bolt of flavor alongside peppercorn-crusted short rib, a yielding slab of beef mounted on a rectangular cake of pressed Arborio rice, its edges as brown and crisp as hash-brown potatoes.
All the desserts were on a par with that unforgettable French toast. They included chiffon-like chocolate mousse veiled in passion-fruit caramel; perfect buttermilk panna cotta with blackberry confit; and a blueberry cobbler sassy with candied ginger. The cobbler puffed up like a soufflé and was served like one: At the table, Cesar poked a hole in the top and poured in basil crème anglaise.
The Liras live upstairs and did a good bit of the labor on the renovation themselves. They stained the exposed ceiling rafters a dark walnut, had the original fireplace, mantle and hardwood floors restored, and opened up the kitchen to accommodate a four-seat granite counter.
The décor reflects Lira’s personal style. She wanted the restaurant to feel “like I’m inviting people into my home.” The sage-green walls are trimmed in ivory molding and hung with lithographs of vegetables by Vashon artist Art Hansen. She chose high-backed, comfortable Parsons chairs for the three adjoining dining rooms that seat about 40 cozily. She foraged for plates and accessories at the island’s antique shops and estate sales.
Experienced servers have been harder to find and keep. Two of the three they started with when they opened in June recently left for college. Hands shaking with nerves might uncork your bottle of wine and the pacing of the meal may be erratic, but the staff couldn’t be nicer. If you live on Vashon and haven’t yet tried Bramble House you should. Memo to mainlanders: It’s a nice day trip for very good food.