The Whale Wins will have you at hello. This new restaurant from chef Renee Erickson (of Boat Street Café and The Walrus & the Carpenter fame) is bright and airy by day, then at night becomes romantically lit, with an installation of downward-facing light fixtures spelling a huge artistic HELLO in two directions.
The Whale Wins can be found in the Fremont Collective along with the relocated Joule restaurant and Evo’s flagship store—selling skis, skates, and snowboards. (Word is that there’s a skate park in the basement.) While there will soon be patio space out front, the action is currently in the L-shaped dining room, where there’s also a friendly bar (serving predominantly French wines and cocktails) and an open kitchen. Olives, salt, and Boat Street Pickles are among the many items on pantry shelves. White walls and wood logs contribute to a country cottage feel, with bowls of food out on the counter begging to be sampled. You might find yourself with an urge to snag a sardine or some roasted fennel.
That’s all part of the plan, as Erickson explains on her website: “Piles of delicious, ripe, seasonal vegetables, wood oven–fired meats and fish, and pickled treats—favorites from my childhood and my travels—will be displayed in abundance and served to share in a bright, beautiful setting.” Those travels include England and southern Europe, while the locality and seasonality of the Pacific Northwest added their influence. Erikson told me that she’ll be sourcing ingredients from where it makes sense to find them, like area farms and gardens, and even foraged from such places like local beaches.
The menu is simply divided in two halves: Pantry and Oven, with several items available as large or small portion. Pantry currently consists of small, shareable plates like Salumeria Biellese Culatello & Butter, Vegetable Hummus with Braised Greens & Pickled Peppers on Toast, and Rogue Flora Nelle Blue Cheese & Ballard Bee Company Honey. But with the wood oven a big, visible feature of the restaurant, it’s hard to resist the roasted meats and vegetables it produces. Look for such things as marrow bones, clams, cauliflower, and even Butter Roasted Zucchini Bread. And if anything also includes Erickson’s renowned Boat Street Pickles, it won’t just be the whale that wins.
Fish fans can check out the Whole Roasted Trout with Roasted Lemons & Walnut Sauce ($16). This dish offers nice big chunks of fish, and the roasted lemons—tangy and light—can be eaten rind and all. Even the walnuts in the sauce are roasted, then puréed with bread, oil, garlic, and lemon juice.
Like several of the menu items, Roasted Radicchio (with Hazelnuts, Buttermilk Poppyseed Vinaigrette & Buttery Crumbs, $12) is served at room temperature, as some would say the flavor is fuller when not too warm. The creamy poppyseed vinaigrette plays off the bitter radicchio, while the hazelnuts and breadcrumbs provide textural contrast to the “slippery” leaves.
Toast is currently a popular menu item at restaurants, with The Whale Wins serving up its own: Sardines with Curried Tomato Paste & Shaved Fennel on Toast ($8). The sardines themselves are rich, meaty, and oily against the creamy-textured curried tomato paste—with the fennel offering a light and fresh counterpoint.
Der Belsnickel ($10) commands attention from the cocktail menu. Made with fernet, brandy, egg, cinnamon, and allspice, it’s a fall drink that’s creamy and somewhat cider-like, with the star anise tipping off the licorice notes.
At Boat Street Café, the Roasted Pork Rib Chop (with pickled raisins) gets rave reviews. At The Whale Wins, the Braised Pork with Winesap Apples, Onions & Mustard ($14 small, $20 large) may follow in its footsteps, with an accompanying mustard sauce, bold and bright, as a complement to the juicy, tart apples.
Spot Prawns with Roe in Anchovy Butter ($16) are absolute finger food, accented by the tiny eggs on top. Any leftover anchovy butter begs for slices of Columbia City Bakery bread to sop it up.
A traditional English dessert typically made with strawberries, this Wild Black Huckleberry Eton Mess ($8) features a favorite Pacific Northwest fruit. Originating at Eton College in the 19th century, the “mess” contains meringue pieces and the freshest of whipped cream, making this a fairly light and refreshing treat.
A look down the counter to the bar at The Whale Wins. Upon entry, the bowls of roasted items and desserts on display look tempting.
(Originally published at Serious Eats on December 5)