Do you love Alinea? Are you still regretting that you never got to Tulum for Noma’s pop-up? Do you wish that Willows Inn and Aelder weren’t quite such a trek? Me, too.
Those of us in Seattle who find boundary-pushing chefs fascinating and are not averse to forking over a chunk of our paychecks for dinner need travel no farther than Frelard for a thrilling culinary ride. It’s an unlikely location for a world-class restaurant, but there, adjacent to a pizzeria on Leary Way, you’ll find Perfecte and Alia Rocher’s Tarsan i Jane, under a sign with no name, just the image of a crouching rabbit.
The rabbit logo, the restaurant’s name and their popular paella-centered Sunday lunches honor the chef’s grandfather, the original Perfecte, who was such a dead ringer for Johnny Weissmuller his nickname was Tarsan. That’s also what he called his restaurant, too, famous for its paella, in the family’s home village of Villalonga in Spain.
At Tarsan i Jane, the current Perfecte invents dishes his abuelo probably wouldn’t recognize. The flights of fancy on his modernist menus often spring from his Valencian roots, but they’re impossible to pigeonhole. His food is informed by his travels throughout the world and a career that has taken him to Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, to San Francisco’s Campton Place and Manresa, and to Los Angeles, where his paellas at Smoke. Oil. Salt won praise from the late critic Jonathan Gold.
I perceived glimmers of greatness from Tarsan i Jane’s inception two years ago, when the restaurant earned three-and-a-half stars. Since then, the Rochers have married, conceived a daughter (due in October) and diligently pursued and refined their vision of a singular dining experience. Their latest iteration, unveiled in May, deserves a full four stars, The Seattle Times’ highest rating.
If I could choose one dish that illustrates how this 40-year-old chef’s cooking has evolved over two years, it would be pastanaga, carrot in Catalan. The dish always explored texture. Initially the carrot was presented three ways. Now the three ways — confit, kimchi and guacamole — are seamlessly integrated with fermentation rounding the flavors. What was a term paper is now a master’s thesis.
The couple have also significantly upgraded the facility. Diners enter through a sheltered, herb-filled patio. Greenery, candles and dark-stained wood mellow the formerly barnlike interior that now includes a cozy lounge where you might sip a pre-dinner gin and tonic or an after-dinner sherry. Instead of multiple tasting menus, there is only one, 12 courses ostensibly, but in reality, a few more, for $185 plus beverages, tax and 20 percent service. They’ve whittled the number of seats to just 10 at a chef’s table. (A nearby private nook conceals a table for four.) The paring down has been deliberate, done in pursuit of perfection.
The semicircular chef’s table faces a dais where Rocher and his team prep and plate, framed against a vast wood-burning hearth that is the kitchen’s only heat source. It’s like a proscenium stage. The chef and his team are both the stars and the ushers. Alia is the poised, articulate master of ceremonies, an interlocutor who welcomes audience participation. With a background in zoology, marine biology and butchering, not to mention a Ph.D. in Perfecte, she provides fluent context for a meal that might involve a hundred ingredients transformed by fire, smoke, fermentation and all sorts of other molecular manipulation. (Trust her advice on beverage pairings, too, whether you are drinking wine or the house-fermented juices.)
The chef’s fermentation locker contains meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, dairy, even tempeh, in various stages of microbial breakdown. Shrewd use of those ingredients allows him to toy with texture, deceive with trompe l’oeil and plate like he’s Joan Miró, without sacrificing flavor. On a recent tasting menu, there was little overtly recognizable as Spanish. A lovely opening array of “snacks” leaned toward Japanese simplicity. A few nibbles — Idiazabal cheese crisps, dehydrated smoked cuttlefish, and kimchi and sea urchin wrapped in roasted nori — were tucked into the chinks of a sculpted log. Small bowls held cuttlefish consommé, a bite of blood sausage topped with yuzu curd, and a collard leaf pouch filled with mackerel confit, quinoa and a sauce distilled from the coral and scraps of crab.
Things got rowdier with a wild berry “ceviche” that tasted as intense as its gaudy fuchsia hue suggested. Liquid spheres of broccoli garum “gnocchi” bobbed in an earthy chrysanthemum and dashi consommé, before they exploded, literally and figuratively, in your mouth, releasing their pungent fermented elixir. Some dishes were pretty straightforward, while whimsy took hold in others. Caper-like berries of wild chamomile (sometimes called pineapple weed) topped salt-cured hamachi. Flame-licked rockfish came with pickled sea beans and two harmonizing sauces: one bright with piquillo pepper, the other a vibrant puree of basil, pistachio and fermented green walnuts. But what looked like half an avocado rimmed in cilantro foam was a facsimile molded of seaweed salad and fermented tomatillo. And what appeared to be a flower was indeed a celery blossom, but its green “leaves” were a mosaic of shaved celeriac, spinach, Fresno chile and fermented tempeh mounted on a thin buckwheat pancake that owed its delicate crunch to the addition of cricket flour. (Yes, milled insects.)
We picked up that blooming pancake and ate it with our hands. We did the same with a chickpea-flour bun filled with rhubarb, cheese and sobrasada (cured pork creamed with the fat of Iberico pigs). The bun was crusted with toasted sesame seeds that had been swabbed with curry leaf oil and wasabi vinegar, sort of a Spanish hum bao. The final savory course also employed bread that we ate with our hands. The Ethiopian flatbread injera accompanied cap i pota, a traditional Catalan stew. They added a bracing dose of nuoc cham to the tripe, chickpeas, sausage and tomato and crowned the taco-size injera with cactus salad and a relish of chile peppers, preserved lemon and pickled shallot.
Serving each course involves choreography. The entire kitchen corps steps in front of the prep counter, backs to room and, in unison, each picks up a pair of dishes, turns, then steps forward to set them in front of diners. I half expected they would break into song.
Dinner crescendos with a chorus of sweets. The prettiest was palate-refreshing pine ice cream mochi dusted with plum powder, nestled in a pine bough. The wittiest: marcona almond-milk ice cream on a stick, dipped in Valrhona chocolate, dusted with fennel pollen and dotted with gelled pearls of parsley oil, truffle oil and balsamic — the ultimate Magnum Bar. The most interesting was rose ice cream with aloe vera relish, mint kombucha granita, lavender and white chocolate. When the hinged wooden chest of petit dolcos arrived, I wished they were in a take-home box. I’d reached my limit but couldn’t resist a bite of Valencian nougat (turró), lemon-filled shiso cake and a tiny olive-oil gummy bear clinging to a chocolate truffle.
By the time everyone settled their bill, the kitchen was tidy, the fire was banked and the stage was empty, but for rockfish heads dangling above the embers, being smoked for a future consommé. The entire staff was at the door to say good night, as if we had been guests in their home. Tarsan i Jane will never attract throngs like the pizzeria next door. The Rochers aim to fill two seatings a night, three nights a week. That’s just 60 people. Shouldn’t be hard.
Tarsan i Jane ★★★★
4012 Leary Way N.W., Seattle
Reservations: advance ticket purchase required
Hours: dinner Thursday-Saturday 6-10 p.m.; paella lunch Sunday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: $$$$ (prix fixe tasting menu, 12+ courses, $185; Sunday paella lunch, $75)
Drinks: limited cocktails; all-Spanish wines by the glass or bottle; beer; cider
Service: highly attentive and personal
Parking: on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
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