As more customers shed their cabin fever and start booking dinner reservations, I have a prediction I’m certain about: Your next best fine-dining experience will be the tasting menu.
During this pandemic, the most memorable meals I’ve had shared one thing: They were all prix fixe menus, featuring a procession of five to 11 small plates selected by the chef.
Many tasting menus had a plant focus. A few had a running time as long as Doctor Zhivago. But the dishes were imaginative with a narrative thread that speaks to our local seasons — root veggies, koji and fermented noshes during the dark of winter and, now, asparagus and other bounties of spring.
If you haven’t stepped into a restaurant on weekends yet, bring your patience, because the industry is still flailing from arguably the worst labor shortages in recent memory. That means service is frequently slow. Dishes sometimes don’t come out in the correct sequence.
The tasting menu may be the only way around these shortcomings until those help-wanted ads for servers and cooks get filled.
Why? Because a tasting menu allows a chef to do more with less. It reduces some needs for staffing and concerns about inventory when both labor and supply chain issues are problems. For a party of four, a line cook usually needs to make four of the same dish on a tasting menu as opposed to syncing up four different dishes on an a la carte menu.
It’s not a coincidence that during the pandemic, fancy restaurants such as Canlis and Cafe Juanita ditched the a la carte model for tasting menus. Even the biggest restaurant opening during the pandemic, Tomo in White Center, went straight to a five-course set in the dining room with only a limited food offering at its bar.
A set menu takes most decision-making out of your hands, but you’re in good hands when your meal is curated by James Beard award-winning chef Brady Ishiwata Williams of Tomo or an old hand like Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland.
The best meal I’ve had during the pandemic was at Cafe Juanita. Weekend reservations for this Northern Italian-inspired tasting menu are booked out weeks in advance, with a long waitlist. But you can score a table easily if you dine on a Tuesday or Wednesday at 5 p.m. or after 8 p.m. Cafe Juanita recently raised the price of its meat and seafood tasting menus from $165 to $195. But you can also score some stellar tasting menus for half that price around town.
Below are my current four favorite tasting menus in the Puget Sound area.
9702 N.E. 120th Place, Kirkland; 425-823-1505; cafejuanita.com
Tasting menus (11 plates): Carnivore or pescatarian ($195), vegetarian ($145) and vegan ($140).
At Cafe Juanita you get the sense that your experience is quietly yet firmly in good hands — and, like the best restaurants, it will usher you to a great night without ever feeling pushed or cajoled. There’s a calming sense that the front and back of the house have everything under control. It’s a feeling that begins when you hand over your car keys upon arrival at the front door of the restaurant. The service is as muted as the black attire that the staff wears, but there’s a confidence and competence that doesn’t need to over-talk. The food they bring does the most important talking.
No one plates a more exquisite tasting menu than James Beard award-winning chef Smith, who orchestrates a well-paced dining experience with 11 bites and small plates over the course of two to three hours.
Even if you’ve never been to Northern Italy, you’ll sense that Smith is transporting you to a specific region in the Old World — 30-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano appears throughout. The pasta might be stuffed with oxtail or rabbit. Barolo and Barbaresco wines are prevalent.
The menus vary each week with a range of soup, pasta, meat and vegetarian dishes. The kitchen starts your palate off with something fresh or raw — maybe a medley of spot prawns, Hokkaido sea scallop and octopus perched in a pool of cuttlefish ink with a puree of oyster.
The best bread basket resides at Cafe Juanita: from a wink to the Cheez-It cracker to a focaccia that — thanks to the sorcery of a great extra virgin olive oil — tastes as if it were wrapped in lardo.
Cafe Juanita ranks right up there with Mike Easton’s Il Nido and Chef Nathan Lockwood’s Altura when it comes to pasta royalty around the Sound.
For the meat menu, caramelle, a pasta shaped like a hard candy and stuffed with shredded lamb, drips with the unctuous juices in which the meat was braised. For the seafood tasting menu, an equally memorable eggy tajarin, made briny with white sturgeon caviar and also creamy with a citrusy creme fraiche, then paired with a flute of Champagne.
Even something as bland sounding as a cabbage roll is something to behold here. The leaf skin tastes meaty from a simmer in a bone stock of rabbit, chicken and squab with hints of allium and black truffle.
On paper, some of these food pairings — with vermouth or hard cider, for instance — shouldn’t work but they really do, thanks to the imaginative mind of sommelier Alexandra Stang, a rising star in the industry.
Twenty-two years into its run, Cafe Juanita under chef Smith is as good as ever.
806 E. Roy St., Seattle; 206-324-0599; cookweaver.com
Seven-course tasting menus: meat or and vegetarian option ($85); or five courses ($60).
One of the best values for tasting menus, this set course is priced about $30 cheaper than the going rate for such an eclectic lineup. Cook Weaver’s pivot to a tasting menu has turned out to be a great second act for Zac Reynolds, one of the city’s unheralded chefs who deftly melds Asian, European, South American and African flavors with low- and highbrow touches — from a Cheetos-crusted casserole to a Champagne foam.
His plant-based focus lineup includes stinging nettle dumpling and smoked beet “kofta.” One of his best vegan dishes, Reynolds’ fermented carrots are roasted in cumin and chili oil and finished in a smoker with applewood for a savory twang. Served in a taco of spongy injera, they call to mind a transnational carnitas. For procrastinators, or those inept at planning date night, this Capitol Hill bistro is still under-the-radar enough that you can often score a last-minute reservation.
9811 16th Ave. S.W.; White Center; tomoseattle.com
Tasting menus: five-course meat or vegetarian ($78)
This plant-centric bistro doesn’t update its menu online since the cooking team experiments with fresh bounties as late as two hours before service. Former Canlis chef Brady Ishiwata Williams lets the season dictate what’s for dinner. He served the best vegetarian dish I had last year, squash bathed in an eggy miso and then grilled and served with hemp pudding, toasted hemp seeds, pickled squash and an arugula-infused oil. The combo imbued the plant with nutty, smoky and peppery flavors.
Tomo is all about exploring the boundaries of veggies, from foraged maple blossoms to celery root steamed in dashi broth. As at Cook Weaver, if you opt for the carnivore tasting menu, meat and seafood will still play a supporting role. Eat your veggies is the mantra here. With the high cost of meat and the plant-based diet movement along with all the environmental considerations, Tomo hints at what our future in fine dining may look like.
2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-283-3313; canlis.com
Tasting menu: meat, seafood and vegetarian options ($165)
Canlis remains one of the hottest reservations in Seattle as seemingly every New and Old Money Seattleite, and those celebrating a special occasion, wants a seat for the debut of executive chef Aisha Ibrahim.
Seattle’s most storied fine dining institution prides itself on being cutting edge, so of course, Canlis can’t offer just the usual tasting menu format. The post-pandemic Canlis (at least for now) offers a limited three-course menu with choice of vegetarian, seafood or meat for starter and entree.
The Canlis magic starts after you place your order, as one by one, artfully plated bites appear that didn’t appear on your menu.
Among the unlisted courses is the famous Canlis salad. The other surprises are the fingerprints of Ibrahim, who has worked at triple-Michelin-starred restaurants Manresa and Azurmendi and whose dishes lean toward Japanese umami influences. Depending on the whim of the chef, you might get a cod cocooned in a tempura batter or an aged kampachi wrapped in shiso leaf. You can read more about Canlis in our first review after a hiatus from my colleague Bethany Jean Clement.