The chefs show off their shellfish
As a kid, I’d comb the beach for the best shells. They were my treasures. Never did I imagine that years later I’d treasure what’s inside those shells: mussels, oysters, clams and scallops. The tastes and textures of these bivalves delight me. So for this month’s Dish-Off, three restaurants accepted the challenge to blow me away with a bivalve-themed dinner.
Each meal would start with oysters, but at Ponti Seafood Grill, it’s the shellfish trio appetizer (perfectly paired with beer) that really tickles my fancy—especially the cornmeal-crusted Penn Cove clams and razor clams. Two soups follow. I’m excited to see Thai miso soup, as I love the baby clam version I get in Japan. It’s good, but I’m a little let down by hopes for Thai spiciness. Meanwhile, scallop soup is super-rich; the scallop is delicious and I like the earthiness of the truffle butter, but I wonder if this might be better over pasta.
Soupy still is the first entrée: shellfish paella. I always love how paella showcases bivalves, as happens here. And I actually like the natural broth that Chef Giles van der Bogert prefers over “dry” rice. But paella’s a tough task because of different cooking times, and in this case the crawfish is overcooked; the pancetta, a bit hard; and the accompanying asparagus, a little tough.
Eye-opening are seared scallops served on rounds of potato and goat cheese hash, topped with lamb’s lettuce, fried shallots, and blood orange wedges (with blood orange gastrique). The dish grows on me, though I ultimately like the components separate rather than combined, as the hash overpowers the scallops. Same for a candied scallop atop Hawaiian sweet roll Kahlua bread pudding. I had a hunch someone would sneak a bivalve into a dessert, with the natural sweetness of scallop making it the best candidate. Points to Ponti for being adventurous. And for a good showing. I’m being a tough critic, but like the beachcombing kid, I’m looking for the best.
The introductory oysters at La Rustica are “al forno”—baked in spinach, marscapone and romano cream sauce and served with lots of diced tomatoes and artichokes. Interesting, but I want the oysters’ taste in addition to their texture. Next, garlic and stone-ground mustard provide the punch for delicious bruschetta with salmon ceviche (and more diced tomatoes), but the mussels on the plate seem like an afterthought. Same for a couple of nicely seared sea scallops that come with spinach and beet salad.
Zuppa di vongole (clam soup) features a wonderful (bacon-enhanced) fennel and tomato broth, while the cioppino has a mild saffron broth imparting flavor on a selection of seafood, including clams and mussels. I’d enjoy taking either across the street to eat at the driftwood-filled beach; on this evening, they overlap as menu choices.
Most intriguing is sepia ink spaghetti (sepia is cuttlefish, its ink sac producing a grey-dark brown color) with calamari, clams and cherry tomato sauce. It’s my favorite of the night, but as with most of the other dishes, the spotlight doesn’t shine enough where it should. My memory of the meal will be tomatoes as much as bivalves. But, heck, this is Italian food. And while this charming café just south of Alki feels slightly disconnected from the freshness of fish I’d hope for given its proximity to water, La Rustica offers a nice neighborhood experience, and Chef Tony Radelich does a decent job beyond bivalves with a big menu that features lots of mollusks, meats and more.
Lastly, I travel to the other end of Alki to Salty’s, and their oyster tasting immediately captivates me with color. And taste—especially the Kumamotos with ponzu jelly and pickled ginger. Given my pork-loving ways, you’d think that of the scallops three ways, the bacon-wrapped or prosciutto-studded would be my favorite, but instead I savor the scallop with soy tobiko in uni butter. Rich and unctuous, though in contrast, lobster aioli overwhelms the scallop crudo which follows.
Perhaps the highlight of the meal is the clam chowder, its base a simple purée of manila clams and cream, with sea air (cream, konbu and sea salt) added. Along with purple potatoes, celery, and leek are three clams: poached surf clam (mildly sweet), fried razor clam (even sweeter), and raw, sliced geoduck (the largest bivalve, with great texture). Oh…and a giant, house-made oyster cracker. This is one intense soup—and a time I can honestly say that very clammy means very, very good.
More clams (along with mussels) appear with “linguini” that are actually strands of squash, zucchini and carrot served with Portuguese sausage, preserved lemon, and a quail egg. And I appreciate the idea of flat-iron steak with crispy oysters—but the oysters are so salty that I’m devouring the delicious apricots that Chef Jeremy McLachlan just preserved and includes with the dish.
Salty’s bounces back, though, with a sweet ending. Pastry Chef Jane Gibson sends out a gorgeous, huge scallop shell made of milk chocolate. And inside is a white, scallop-shaped, hazelnut chocolate truffle. The kid in me comes out. After combing three quality restaurants, I’ve found the prettiest shell, a perfect view, and the most prized bivalve experience. Salty’s is a treasure—indeed, the pearl.
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.