Beyond Burger Toppings (Sound 5/09)

Three chefs drive “Cheese and Onions” out of the fast food lane

I have always thought
in the back of my mind
Cheese and onions
I have always thought
that the world was unkind
Cheese and onions

Do I have to spell it out?
C-H-E-E-S-E-A-N-D-O-N-I-O-N-S-oh-no

“Cheese and Onions”
from The Rutles
by the Rutles

On my teen budget, “cheese and onions” was a question I got at takeout joints, forcing a decision about toppings or extras. On a cold sandwich, cheese meant a battle between American and (the usually neutral) Swiss as best match for the meat, while raw onions were just the standard yellow and white varieties with a sharp, hot taste. On pizza or a burger, cheese turned into a gloppy, gooey, gorgeous mess, while onions were slow-cooked until caramelized, breaking down the sulfurous compounds and making them a sweet addition.

Today, I still crave that childhood food, but I’ve also come to appreciate the diversity and versatility of these two ingredients in finer dining. In this month’s Dish-Off, I’m looking forward to seeing how three chefs seriously treat the subjects of the Rutles’ silly little “Cheese and Onions” song.

A revelatory “but of course” moment occurs when Chef Anita Ross, of Anita’s Crepes, begins my first meal with French onion soup. It’s made with mushroom and chicken stocks, but the long caramelization of the onions gives the soup a robust, beefy taste that’s terrific. While my mom layered mozzarella cheese over Pepperidge Farm croutons, this version features comté over pain de campagne—a classy take on comfort food that’s sophisticated, yet also stringy and stretchy fun. The same is true for the similar-tasting braised short rib entrée. Beecher’s cheddar combines with the beef and both white and yellow onions to yield a slightly unwieldy open-face sandwich that’s rich with taste.

Anita\'s Crepes: Fromage sucrée crepeFinally, it’s time for a namesake crepe. Anita’s arose out of farmers market success, where crowds gather to watch the griddles in action and enjoy sweet and savory options. I’ve always been intrigued by crepe-making; Ross immediately senses this and invites me to give it a try. It’s this energy and enthusiasm that makes Ross and her restaurant endearing. My attempt is amateurishly good, but my professionally made crepe—the fromage sucrée— is beautiful and delightful. I knew that of the two Dish-Off ingredients, cheese would be the choice and lead to some tangy desserts, but chantilly and powdered sugar add balance to the ricotta, making this crepe a sweet treat. Besides, no one would dare put onions in a dessert, right?

Wrong. How about onions on cheesecake? I was hoping for something startling at Smith, which advertises itself as “rustic pub fare” and serves marrow bones and more intriguing dishes, and Chef Eliot Guthrie delivers. He confesses the dessert is a gamble; he’s made the goat cheesecake before, with its pleasant tang and texture, but the blood orange and sweet onion marmalade topping is frontier territory. It’s a durian-like experience: When I bring the first bite to my mouth, my nose catches a whiff of the oniony odor and tells my brain, “Oh no you don’t.” But I’m a food writer, so I do—and I don’t regret it. It’s not date food, as I’ll have lingering onion breath, but the combination works and the dessert is compelling and memorable, making Smith the only restaurant to serve both cheese and onions in every dish.

Smith: Confit duck legThe dessert comes after enjoying more stinkiness in the previous plate: confit duck leg (nice and crisp) with glazed pearl onions—a nice choice for their cute bursts of sweetness. Taleggio cheese “gravy” (with a swirl of saba vinegar) is pungent though just short of ripe; it’s diluted with cream, but still buttery and fruity. It’s a creative entrée, and indicative, says Guthrie, of the food he likes to prepare. His starter is a salad of spring onions, cauliflower and oil-cured tuna with dandelion greens. The many competing ingredients overshadow the fried ricotta “croutons,” which I wished had packed just a little more punch to make this otherwise wonderful salad even stronger.

Boat Street Cafe: Beet saladIn contrast, the beet salad at Boat Street Café allows both the cheese and onions to shine. Spoonfuls of slightly salty, slighty sweet, and oh-so-creamy requesón cheese sit like snowfall amidst a field of reds and greens: bite-sized cubes of beets along with lots of thin-sliced spring onions. (This followed an amuse bouche “bonus dish”: Shigoku oysters with a delicate lemon and shallot mignonette that didn’t determine the outcome, but certainly didn’t hurt.)

Spring is on Chef Renee Erickson’s mind, which explains her excitement to showcase the early, mellow tastes of a variety of onions. In fact, she had wanted to participate in the Dish-Off last year, but couldn’t spare a moment due to the start of her pickling business. I can see why. Erickson’s pickles add herbal pop, preserved ripeness and flavor to her dishes. Pickled raisins pack a powerful punch, jazzing up an already juicy Carleton Farms pork chop while cutting its fattiness. As good as that is, the accompanying leek gratin is emblematic of the Dish-Off theme. It’s fabulous, with layers of mild-tasting leeks mixed with Beecher’s cheddar cheese. Dessert brings more pickles—this time figs over seductively sweet but still slightly tangy goat cheese ice cream. Balsamic reduction adds more vinegary zing. Despite being stuffed, I savor every creamy spoonful. My meal exemplifies Erickson’s approach—elemental flavors from high quality ingredients prepared right—elevating this Provencal-inspired bistro into something special.

With all due respect to the Rutles, the world known as Seattle is far from unkind, with three restaurants serving up some spectacular cheese and onion dishes. Anita’s is the permanent home of incredible crepes, and the restaurant also features other comfortable classics on its seasonal menu. Smith may have a taxidermy-enhanced, bar-like feel, but beyond the bar is a kitchen willing to do bold things, and most items are priced in the single digits. And this month’s winner is Boat Street Café, where Renee Erickson has already been deemed the princess of pickles, and is also now the champ of the “Cheese and Onions” challenge.

The menus

Anita’s Crepes

  • French onion soup
  • Beouf (braised short ribs on toasted Tall Grass Bakery bread with Coastal cheddar, served with green beans)
  • Fromage sucrée crepe (sweetened ricotta cheese with candied orange, garnished with chantilly and pistachios, and dusted with powdered sugar)

Smith

  • Spring onion, cauliflower and oil-cured tuna with fried ricotta
  • Confit duck leg with glazed pearl onions, Taleggio cheese and roasted apple
  • Goat cheesecake with blood orange and sweet onion marmalade

Boat Street Cafe

  • Shigoku oysters with lemon and shallot mignonette
  • Beet salad with spring onions, pine nuts and requesón cheese
  • Carleton Farms pork chop with leek gratin and pickled raisins
  • Goat cheese ice cream with pickled figs and balsamic syrup

All photos in the post by Rina Jordan. (Click to enlarge them.)

Here are photos of the other dishes from this Dish-Off.

Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.

Anita's Crêpes on Urbanspoon

Smith on Urbanspoon

Boat Street Café / Boat Street Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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#BoatStreetCafe
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