Photo: John Autry
Seattle is a city of the verge of so many things. Unlike the more staid, settled food destinations whose stories and signature dishes are already so well known (there's not a Seattle equivalent of Boston clam chowder or Chicago deep dish), the Emerald City's culinary scene is still building to its boom. It's a place of constant revolution, of paradigm shifts that come like the changing of the seasons, where notions of corporate versus local and historic versus cutting-edge are debated in every dining room of note and on every menu worth tasting. It's where a young, hungry chef can still make his mark, can still change the course of things from behind the pass of a small, fiercely independent restaurant, and establish himself as elemental and indispensable, all, it sometimes seems, in a matter of months.
Those looking for a simple description of Seattle will be disappointed. It is not a "steak town" or a "fine-dining destination." Rather than having a single cuisine that identifies it, the city has a food culture that makes good use of all the disparate influences spread through its neighborhoods. It's difficult to navigate but (contrary to reputation) surprisingly welcoming to all those who approach it with willing appetites. This was not always the case.
For most of its history, Seattle has been a blue-collar town with blue-collar tastes—a boom-and-bust city where dining was fine when everyone was flush, but sometimes seemed the last thing on anyone's mind. Before Boeing, Starbucks, or Microsoft (and before the floods of money and notoriety that came with them), it was a place where a fat steak, a baked potato, a fried fish, or a plate of clams was the height of cuisine.
These days, there's a kind of punk rock, do-it-yourself ethos at play here, borne out in the profusion of pop-up and walk-up restaurants, as well as food trucks. Skillet mixes its cultural metaphors with abandon, serving scratch-made Thai curry or a simple tomato-basil soup, and the Korean-Hawaiian sensation Marination serves kalbi tacos alongside its tofu rice bowls.
West Seattle has the spot Mashiko, where Chef Hajime Sato serves the area's first 100 percent sustainable sushi menu, offering only fish caught responsibly or farmed properly (with no antibiotics and no harm to surrounding waters).
And in Belltown, Mistral Kitchen is run by Chef William Belickis, who closed down his superhigh-end Mistral only to open this more casual, more user-friendly space where he could cook the same eclectic, modern food for a larger spread of the population, offering everything from rustic wood-oven pizza and brilliantly simple hamachi crudo to deeply flavorful butternut squash soup with black trumpet mushrooms and a lace of bright basil oil.
Dana Tough is one of the chefs currently standing at the forefront of the food revolution in Seattle.
"With the scene we have here now, there's no room for mediocre food," he says. (At least among the city's more ambitious chefs, that is.)
Spur, the restaurant that Tough and his partner, Brian McCracken, run in Belltown, is a perfect example of that—an innovative place where two chefs from decidedly classical backgrounds use every trick in the modern kitchen toolkit, finding ways to make those traditional impulses work in concert with their interest in molecular gastronomy. The result is an ever-changing menu that perfectly blends the traditional with the modern, grounded in local ingredients (mushrooms, salmon, potatoes, leeks, and bacon). Their handmade tagliatelle with smoked oyster mushrooms mimics the flavor of a carbonara. It's topped with shaved Parmesan and Parmesan foam, then served with a sous-vide duck's egg, cracked at the table, to create a sauce.
And yet, what's the first thing Tough wants to discuss when interviewed last summer about the evolution of Seattle's dining scene? Strawberries.
"I just got back from the market a few minutes ago," he says. "I got the first of the season's strawberries. They're beautiful."
Then the only question becomes how best to use them. The answer is in an artistic riff on French toast, with housemade mascarpone and lemon—simple, perfect, beautiful.
Seattle is a place where ingredients rule—a city of farmers' markets (everything from the iconic Pike Place Market to dozens of smaller, producer-driven neighborhood markets), and of dedicated farmer-fisher-chef relationships.
"People don't have to boast about going local here. Everyone who's good already does that," Tough says.
One can easily make a day of shifting through Seattle's neighborhoods like a spy in the heart of the city without ever touching on the cuisine of the same continent twice. From the waterfront and the heart of downtown, it is just a short trip to the international district, where the flavors of Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan all rub shoulders and a person with a little cash and a healthy sense of adventure can find anything from a 100-year-old sushi restaurant like Maneki, which opened in 1904 and still boasts a wait for prime-time seating, to traditional pho shops and Vietnamese restaurants like Huong Binh (206-720-4907), where eaters crowd into the tiny, lantern-hung dining room for bun cha Ha Noi (vermicelli with charbroiled pork) and shrimp balls speared on sugar cane.
One thing Seattle isn't yet? Settled. Because of the vast array of produce available, the chefs who know their farmers by name, the heirloom growers and ranchers, and the stunning natural bounty of the land; because of the young chefs just coming up and coming into their own; and because of the wild and sometimes contrarian influences that course through the heart of the dining scene, eating in Seattle right now, today, is like bearing witness to a riot in the Garden of Eden. No one yet knows where the city's chefs and restaurants will end up—only that they are all going somewhere.
And honestly? That makes it a great time to be on the ground in Seattle—eating and experiencing a revolution in the making.
BREAKFAST AT VOLTERRA
Volterra hosts a weekend brunch that those in the Ballard neighborhood can't seem to get enough of. And with good reason. Chef Don Curtiss (who named Volterra after the small town in Tuscany where he married his wife and partner, Michelle Quisenberry) makes chestnut flour pancakes with sautéed apples that are justifiably famous.
The kitchen's scramble of organic eggs, foraged mushrooms, and truffled cheese is earthy without being overwhelming. And Francesco's Eggs—a mix of Italian sausage, spinach, pecorino Romano, and mushrooms—make a good start to any morning.
LUNCH AT LA CARTA DE OAXACA
Posole is infinitely customizable. Though the recipe is fairly standardized, there are as many variations as there are cooks who make it. At Seattle's La Carta de Oaxaca in the Ballard neighborhood, lunch crowds descend for the kitchen's pulled pork version with homemade tortillas.
DINNER AT CRUSH
At Chef Jason Wilson's Crush, the menu is borderless, shifting effortlessly between Japanese, Mediterranean, and American regional.