Spring may already have spread its wings in L.A., but in Seattle, the sun bursts through the platinum clouds only occasionally. That's fine with me, because I'm not here to bask in the sunshine; I'm here to eat. And in Seattle, it's serious business.
Wolfgang Puck of Seattle); Rover's (favored by the Microsoft and tech crowd); Canlis; the Seattle-area Herbfarm; and the latest glitzy downtown spot.
But for food lovers willing to explore other neighborhoods and more modest venues, Seattle offers a wealth of wonderful dining.
Young and/or maverick chefs are banding together to create a scene well off the beaten path. They're idealistic and passionate. They don't have tons of investors or big-name designers or, in some cases, any designer. It's all about the food and an almost purist's aesthetic for honest, authentic cooking grounded in the place that is Seattle, a city that's down to earth and in touch with nature.
The restaurants profiled here are remaking the local food scene in their own homegrown image. With Seattle friends in tow, it took me two visits to explore all of them, the best antidote to L.A.'s glut of glitz.
SITKA & SPRUCE
Sitka & Spruce, set in an unpromising strip mall between a kebab place and a Subway sandwich shop, is even smaller than Hollywood's hole-in-the-wall wine bar Lou. It doesn't take reservations unless there are five or more in your party and you can fit at the communal table.
Propped on the bar, a child's chalkboard is scrawled with the words "Food worth standing up for." And stand up they do. People lean against the bar and the big chalkboard where the menu is written each day, waiting for one of the half-dozen tables.
Matt Dillon, the chef and owner, all of 34, in a tweed cap and cartoon tattoos, ambles between the kitchen and the dining room.
My friends and I start with Stellar Bay oysters with a pink grapefruit and Campari granita, its bittersweet bite delicious with the oysters. That's followed by a beguiling salad of warm beets and wild watercress and an order of grilled oyster mushrooms with shallots, freshly cracked walnuts and wood violets. Chicken livers sautéed with sultana raisins and a splash of rosé are wonderful and earthy. I love the fat white beans heaped with charred octopus tentacles in a bright green salsa verde too.
Most dishes come in regular and half portions, the better to taste one's way through the menu. Sometimes, there's quail or poussin al mattone with creamed celery root and leeks, hangar steak topped with a poached duck egg, or shredded braised beef shank, fried and presented with yeasty homemade lavash, and wilted radicchio.
Another must-stop is Lark, in an old barn of a place, a former woodworking shop, with pitched roof, exposed beams and walls painted the color of buttermilk. Panels of sheer fabric carve the space into smaller areas, conferring a coziness without messing with the dining room's appealing airiness.
Here too no reservations are taken. As soon as you arrive, check in with the maitre d' before heading next door to Licorous, a spinoff of Lark, for an aperitif and a small bite while you're waiting. Inside the demure, wood-framed building, it's three deep at the bar, with others, the lucky ones, disposed about on comfy little sofas, deep in conversation. Licorous is sophisticated and fun. Most requested drink: the Lark, which is Prosecco, freshly squeezed pink juice and a dash of Campari.
By the time our table is ready at Lark, we're happy and relaxed instead of grumpy. Chef-owner John Sundstrom knows how to write a small-plates menu: We want to order everything on it, and the prices -- nothing over $20 -- mean you almost can.
We start off with plate of Fra' Mani salami toscano with mostarda di uva (grape mustard) and sublime prosciutto di Parma with spring onions and Taggiasca olives. Penn Cove mussels cooked with Calvados, bacon, apples and cream is a fabulous combination. Crusty roasted potatoes, topped with a dollop of ivory clabbered cream, come in a cast-iron skillet. Spinach is swirled with Meyer lemon butter.
But the favorite that night is soft scrambled duck egg with spicy chorizo, green garlic and ramp. Dessert is a brilliant pineapple tarte Tatin with rum-spiked caramel or a silken vanilla bean pot de crème with wonderful old-fashioned rhubarb rose hip preserves.