Dining Is Slightly Off the Mark in Walla Walla Wine Country

PeoPeoMoxMox (Yellow Bird), who was head chief of the Walla Wallas.

PeoPeoMoxMox (Yellow Bird), who was head chief of the Walla Wallas.

My Facebook feed is constantly full of Seattle friends visiting Walla Walla. The plan is primarily about the wine. When I’ve asked for feedback about the food, most have said it’s fair at best, and a few have remarked that they don’t remember—because of the wine!

I recently took a quick trip to Walla Walla, limiting my drinking to small sips of wine at just one meal. Food was my focus. As my stay was brief, I was selective about where I dined, revisiting a couple of places I’d tried previously, and dining at a few other restaurants that were most recommended to me, including one that wanted to host me.

I was most eager to return to Colville Street Patisserie, which I’d enjoyed in my first visit to Walla Walla in 2010. Either the quality of the pastries has gone down, or my knowledge about them has gone up. I suspect it’s the latter, as I made a trip to Paris to sample lots of viennoiseries in the intervening years, and have also come to appreciate the high quality of such products in Tokyo during my annual visits there.

Colville Street Patisserie pair 2105Colville Street is a pleasant place to enjoy some sweets, and I hear positive reports about some of their other treats, but I was disappointed with both my croissant and kouign amman. They weren’t awful, but both were dry and lacking in buttery flavor. (Side note: I just tried Trader Joe’s kouign amman, which you can find in the frozen food section. Overnight proofing proved inconsistent, but for $1 apiece and the ability to eat them warm, they’re well worth a try.)

Bacon & Eggs shrimp and grits

Better for breakfast, I’d bet, would be Bacon & Eggs. I went for lunch and was impressed with the shrimp and grits, cooked to be deliciously runny. The flavor of the smoked mozzarella and sharp cheddar cheese shined through, and the over-easy eggs were prepared perfectly, adding to the runniness of the dish. The wall of hot sauces enabled me to play with lots of peppery heat. I get a sense of good quality ingredients going into dishes cooked with care at this breakfast and lunch restaurant.

My other revisit was to Andrae’s Kitchen, though this time to the restaurant inside a gas station as compared to the food truck parked at a gas station. Before, I chose and enjoyed a burger from the truck’s limited menu. Now, Andrae’s offers an interesting array of food, from schnitzel sandwiches to Halal-style chicken to gyros—all in a unique location.

Andrae's Kitchen ramen

Andrae wanted my opinion on his ramen, so he hosted me for a bowl and was gracious in asking me to hit him hard with feedback. His ramen is a work-in-progress and an ambitious undertaking, as he’s been making both the noodles and the double soup (he showed me the dried sardines for the dashi broth) recipe from scratch. I share here what I shared with him: I admire the effort but don’t see the need to make noodles from scratch, especially for the small volume of ramen that he sells. It’s hard to make consistent noodles, and the ones I tried were too soft. Better to focus on the broth(s); Andrae’s had good flavor, and I can see it getting better over time. (Note that there were out of menma, which would normally be in the bowl.)

Brasserie Four soup

Brasserie Four is an inviting place for lunch or dinner, serving some classic French food like steak frites, bouillabaisse, and charcuterie plates. For my springtime lunch, I went seasonal and started with cream of asparagus soup with ramp pistou. Nice presentation with gorgeous color, but with muted flavor until the addition of a generous amount of salt.

Brasserie Four quiche

The same would be true for the kale, ramp, and chive quiche. Both the crust and the filling would have benefited by a hit of salt. That said, good flavors, and the side salad offered a nice variety of greens, delicately dressed. With such attention to fresh ingredients and pretty presentation, I was surprised by the lack of seasoning.

Public House 124 burger

For a “late”-night bite, I made a stop at Public House 124, featuring live music and a very lively mid-week scene. (Stay in Walla Walla for some time, and you’ll see that everyone seems to know each other, especially those in or connected to the wine industry. It’s a small town, and drinking is a big part of life there for many.) One of my dining companions ordered steelhead salmon with house-made ramen noodles, pickled Japanese mushrooms, ginger scallion sauce, and a sunny side up duck egg. Ramen always tempts me, but this was a generous use of the word “ramen,” as it was really just a dry noodle dish. I went with the “Public Burger,” which contains bacon, cheddar cheese, pickled onions, and aioli, all on ciabatta bread. Not my favorite type of bun, as it’s unwieldy, with ingredients sliding everywhere. Meat quality was fine, but far more cooked than the medium rare I requested, and the cheddar cheese was a gelatinized, chewy mess. Sadly, while I finished the salad, I simply carved away at the meat after giving up on the burger as a whole.

Marcus Whitman Hotel (Photo courtesy of Marcus Whitman Hotel)

Marcus Whitman Hotel (Photo courtesy of Marcus Whitman Hotel)

My biggest meal was at The Marc Restaurant, located at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, which hosted my stay in Walla Walla. The rooms in the tower feature “rich Renaissance styling,” which means a classic feel, as I found in my comfortable suite. The location makes it easy to explore the downtown area, and the hotel is just steps from a transit center, which is where I caught a bus (only 50 cents, complete with country music!) to teach a class at the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College.

The lobby at the Marcus Whitman Hotel (Photo courtesy of Marcus Whitman Hotel)

The lobby at the Marcus Whitman Hotel (Photo courtesy of Marcus Whitman Hotel)

Pre-dinner at The Marc, I took a quick tour of the kitchen and the vast network of spaces where I saw prosciutto aging, herbs and microgreens growing in indoor hydroponic gardens, and other interesting in-house operations. (Another example: The Marc is working on making its own balsamic vinegar.) The restaurant touts Antonio Campolio as being a James Beard recognized chef (which means he’s cooked at the James Beard house in New York City) who “creates progressive modern American menus that blend traditional Northwest influenced cuisine with molecular gastronomic twists.” He was absent the day of my visit, but my tasting reflected the regular menu offerings.

The Marc bread

Consistent with the hotel, the dining room has a classic look with booths offering a relative degree of privacy. I appreciated the space between tables, keeping the noise level low, though groups traipsing through the dining room en route to the Vineyard Lounge disrupt the experience to some degree. The bread basket photo gives a glimpse of the dining room, and a first look at the bounty of balsamic vinegar in my meal.

The Marc amuse bouche

Amuse bouche: blue cheese crumble with balsamic caviar and herb oil. A flavorful start!

The Marc cheese and asparagus

On the left side: Humboldt Fog goat cheese with crisped prosciutto and microgreens. On the right side: grilled asparagus with poached egg. Pulling the two sides together: a streak of balsamic reduction. The cheese was good, but I would have preferred to enjoy the house prosciutto fresh instead of cooked hard. And while I was glad to sample some early asparagus and generally adore a soft-poached egg, the texture of this egg was off, and I found some shell pieces on the plate.

The Marc agnolotti and pork belly

Left: roasted beet agnolotti with pork belly, Monteillet causse noire, heirloom spinach, and pear. Right: pork belly with beet chip and beet caviar. Also beet puree, and the requisite balsamic reduction. A lot of beet action on this plate, but some textural issues, as the agnolotti was rather rustic and “gooey” (for lack of a better word), while the pork belly was slightly overcooked, and therefore too firm.

The Marc sweetbread and crepinette

After an intermezzo of raspberry mango sorbet, the next plate arrived. Left: lamb sweetbread with orange marmalade, maltese sauce, and blood orange. Right: Italian spring truffle crepinette with miner’s lettuce, soft-poached quail egg, and pickled asparagus. I love sweetbreads, particularly for their sponginess, but that texture was lost in this preparation. With a hard shell batter, the sweetbread had a hushpuppy feel to it. The marmalade was delicious, though quite strong. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the pickled asparagus, with acidic brightness necessary to counter the earthiness of the crepinette.

The Marc lamb

Next: Upper Dry Creek Ranch lamb loin and braised lamb ravioli with midnight kale, toasted sunflower, hazelnut and parsnip puree, and balsamic-infused lamb jus. I liked the loin (with coffee and cocoa notes in the crust) more than the ravioli (with similar textural issues as the agnolotti), with the puree a refreshing counterpoint to the meatiness of the dish. But with lemon crème fraiche to the side and a salad of oil-cured olives and tomatoes on top, I believe one problem at The Marc is that there are too many elements to each dish, causing flavors to clash. With entrees pushing the $40 price point, I expect better flavors and textures. Maybe diners coming from the east will find this food “exotic,” but coming from west, I feel I can enjoy far better fine dining at a better price in Seattle. (To be fair, prices tend to run a little high throughout Walla Walla.)

The Marc chocolate custard

Dessert would be my favorite course at The Marc, as the numerous elements actually worked well together. I enjoyed the chocolate custard with foie gras gelato, espresso gelato, and caramelized bananas. The “tower” actually has a chocolate sponge base along with banana cremeux and dark chocolate custard that’s sprayed with white chocolate that’s been colored yellow. The action included butterscotch, caramel, and espresso extract. Or something like that!

With some exception, my experience was that food is slightly off the mark in Walla Walla. I’m hopeful for future change, but for now, maybe drinking is the secret to fully enjoying the dining scene in Washington’s wine country.