Choose among five, seven or nine courses at this new Spanish restaurant in Frelard, and leave the rest up to chef Perfecte Rocher. He’ll impress you.
There is no printed menu at Tarsan i Jane. Guests must only decide whether they want five, seven or nine courses. Each menu is the chef’s choice.
Spanish-born Perfecte Rocher, lately of Smoke.Oil.Salt in Los Angeles, is the decider-in-chief at this intriguing Frelard newcomer. Not everyone will be comfortable with the concept, but I was impressed every step of the way through seven beautifully plated courses, from the blood sausage amuse-bouche to the citrus-and-cinnamon crema Catalana and the farewell miniardises: sweet and sour “gummy bears” and teeny chocolate truffles clinging to a rock.
Trust me, Rocher says. Here are several reasons why you should: Smoked cherry, beet and red pepper gazpacho, electrifying in its intensity, with pearls of goat cheese hiding in its dark red depths. An oyster on the half shell with sea beans poking through orange-lemon-lime granita, and a dollop of piney, sprouted basil seeds nestled in the crushed ice. Carrots flaunting their sweetness three ways: confitted, puréed and masquerading as guacamole.
Tarsan i Jane ★★★½
4012 Leary Way N.W., Seattle
Reservations: accepted by phone only
Hours: 6-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; paella 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; summer patio menu 5-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Prices: $$$$ (prix fixe chef’s choice tasting menu: five courses $63, seven courses $83, nine courses $103; optional wine pairings $49-$69-$89; Sunday family-style paella menu $55 per person)
Drinks: gin and tonic variations plus other Spanish cocktails; local beer and cider on draught; Spanish beer and wine by the glass or bottle
Parking: on street
Sound: gets loud when full
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
He paired mussels escabeche with grilled escolar cloaked in a pungent mantle of garum, a tapenadelike blend of olives, lemons, smoked paprika and many herbs. Plump morels were baked in a cocotte with puréed celery root, Idiazabel cheese, a splash of truffle oil and a precisely poached 64-degree Celsius egg.
The meal’s climax was a caldron of arroz caldos — rice simmered with whole chanterelles, red pepper, rutabaga and three different beans, each giving its essence to a vegetable broth heady with saffron and smoke.
Arroz caldos is one of more than 200 traditional rice dishes in Rocher’s native region of Valencia. He grew up in the small village of Villalonga, where his grandmother was a butcher and paella was the specialty at his grandfather’s restaurant, Tarsan. Cooking over a wood fire is customary there and that’s how they cook here. Ripping out the kitchen line and installing a wood-fired grill and oven was the one big change he and his partner Alia Zaine (Jane to his Tarsan) made to the space that was all too briefly Tray Kitchen.
The couple moved to Seattle this spring, intending eventually to open a restaurant. They expected it would take a year of doing pop-ups and exploring the area. Instead they happened on an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. In May, with no investor backing, they opened Tarsan i Jane. “To not have investors is a risk,” Rocher acknowledges. “You suffer financially but they take your soul. We really wanted to make something personal.”
Tarsan i Jane pays tribute to its namesake by making paella the centerpiece of Sunday lunch, a five-course family-style meal accompanied by a press pot of cinnamon-scented coffee.
“Authentic paella is a very thin layer of rice with very few toppings,” the menu instructs. It varies week to week. The one I had contained only vegetables — fresh artichoke hearts, fava beans, chard and maitake mushrooms. Saffron and smoke drifted from the hot pan. The rice was perfectly cooked and though there was definitely some char around the edges, there was no socarrat, described on the menu as “the black crust that sticks to the bottom of the pan, also known as Valencian caviar.”
Achieving the socarrat is tricky. “Sometimes the paella will burn before the socarrat forms,” Rocher told me in a phone interview. “Some people overcook the rice to get the socarrat. I take it off the fire when the rice is ready.”
Small plates preceded the paella. Cherry gazpacho and escolar with mussels escabeche appeared again. This time around, the rich, white fish was sliced raw and mingled with orange segments; sweet black garlic purée dotted the mussels’ brisk, vinegar sauce.
A poached egg (less precisely cooked this time) nestled among ember-blackened potatoes and bite-size chunks of llangonissa, house-made sausages. They currently make three types, using Berkshire pork and Iberico fat: the pale, herby blanca spiced with cumin; the chorizolike roja; and, my favorite, botifarra, a blood sausage made with chickpeas instead of rice, following Rocher’s grandmother’s recipe.
The summer patio menu showcases all three sausages, along with drinks served in a porró — a glass pitcher with a long narrow spout. Spaniards are crazy for Kalimotxo (equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola). I’m partial to Aigua de Valencia — refreshing as a Mimosa but with a Screwdriver’s wallop.
Drink options also include four iterations of Spain’s favorite cocktail, the gin and tonic. They come in large-bowled stemware, which amplified the aromatics of the botanicals in the gin, as well as the various flavorings: grapefruit, ginger and rosemary in one; cardamom, pink peppercorn and mint in another.
Rocher and Zaine (who also butchers, cooks and waits table) know that having no menu may be off-putting to many, especially because Spanish food is less familiar to many Americans than some other cuisines. But it allows them the flexibility to be creative and to make use of exceptional ingredients that may only be available in limited quantities.
“I don’t do food to make money,” Rocher says, “Otherwise I would do a burger place or a pizzeria.” (If he did, perhaps their patio would be overflowing like the one in front of Frelard Pizza next door.)
Ultimately they want to educate people. They are learning, too. Dinner guests now leave with a handwritten list of the dishes they’ve had. “It takes time for people to know you,” he says. “We want to make something good for the city, for us, something great. It’s a project. In three or four years, I think this restaurant is going to be spectacular.”
I think it will happen sooner than that.