One week from tonight, four chefs from Seattle and one from Portland will be in New York anxiously awaiting announcement of which is Best Chef Northwest per the James Beard Foundation.
One week ago, all five came together to prepare a feast for a James Beard Best Chefs Dinner and Tweetup, held at Crush.
This was an intense dining experience, a gluttonous affair. Any of the dishes, served with a salad, would have been sufficient for a fine dinner. But the lucky group of food writers in attendance ate course after course. And this followed foie gras “popsicles” and other passed appetizers, including my favorite: geoduck crudo with celery, chili, lime and mint. Ethan Stowell’s preparations can be so sublime, I couldn’t resist seconds of an oversized spoonful of this refreshing hit of chewy texture and complementary flavors.
Each chef did a dinner course, started with Stowell (Union, Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf, and Anchovies & Olives), who presented a plate of six Shigoku oysters topped with uni, radish and cucumber. I thought this was a dish to share with my tablemates until I was shocked to see a plate per person. Impressive. But a bit of mixed reaction: Some new to uni loved the combination, whereas some uni lovers, like me, actually considered taking the generous layer of sea urchin off of each oyster to enjoy the two components separately. But, really, how much can one complain when eating dream foods like this?
Next up was host Jason Wilson’s (Crush) fish course: roasted Neah Bay halibut. I see halibut on a menu and I shudder, as I think it’s a fairly unexciting fish that’s served far too often. But Wilson’s preparation was fabulously delicious, served with spring morels and ramps, caviar urchin sauce, lovage, green garlic, and one of my favorite ingredients: sea beans. Wonderful tastes and textures, which never surprises me, as Wilson won best chef of 2008 in my Sound magazine “Dish-Off” competition. (See the “Rock ‘n’ Roll”-themed playoff here at my Gastrolust blog.) I’m sure that if I happen to have more halibut this season, I’ll look back at this preparation as the gold standard.
Bring on the meat before I get too full, I thought, and the next three chefs did. Maria Hines of Tilth went whole hog in preparing Skagit River Ranch pork cheek with trotter cake, charcroute, and parmesan broth. The pork cheek was tender and paired nicely with the panko-battered gelatinous cake of pig’s shin and foot. The sauerkraut-like charcroute helped cut through all the pork fat. While the wine pairings were great overall, I was really craving a beer with this course—something different to toast Hines’ fine head-to-toe effort. (Note: I’d really like to see occasional beer pairings at meals like this.)
Another whole animal fan is Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez (Harvest Vine and Txori), who offered a Brazilian mini-burger with foie gras and caramelized onion foam. Instead of ketchup, he fried tomato in beef fat. Homemade touches like Guinness mustard and potato chips rounded out the dish. The burger would be a winner on any given day, but some thought it was a little lost in the context of the event’s other dishes. Regardless, it was illustrative of Jiménez de Jiménez’s whimsy, which was also on display when he prepared Rocky Mountain oyster sorbet (and a host of other offal) for me as part of the “Gizzards, Scrapple and Tripe” competition in the current issue of Sound. (Currently at newsstands or online, with more here.)
I was ready to wave the white flag when the Portland representative, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, served up enormous portions of Abacchio alla Cacciatore—a sculptural masterpiece. Piled on the plate were irresistible pieces of braised, milk-fed spring lamb, though at this point, craving green vegetables, I was especially digging the artichoke alla Romana, prepared with white wine, garlic, mint and parsley. With food this good, there’s always space available in the stomach! If forced to choose, this old-school dish was my favorite of the night, with Whims providing great incentive to make a road trip to Portland.
Room for dessert? Jennifer Volk (Crush’s pastry chef) created a “Take me out to the ballgame” plate of double chocolate stout (there’s my beer!) caramel tart and ice cream (with black cardamom ganache, marcona almonds, and home-made pretzels). Taking small nibbles, I enjoyed eating this dish with my eyes as much as with my mouth.
I had hoped to entertain my virtual audience with Twittery witticisms throughout the meal, but due to technical difficulties, the router didn’t work, and laptop users like me couldn’t do any tweeting while eating. Maybe that was okay. While the concept was intriguing, and with great potential in certain settings (I’d still like to give it a try), I found the technology a little distracting. In some ways, the focus was on the phones more than on the food, resulting in less sharing of the “oh, wow” moments together.
And there were oh-so-many “oh, wow” moments to share. It was an honor and fun privilege to see these Beard-nominated chefs working together. I hope this will be the start of a Seattle tradition, and wish the best to all the worthy nominees as they head to New York.