We had company calling this weekend and, as I’ve discussed at length before, I was hardly surprised when the inevitable breathless request was made for Northwest Seafood!TM I’ve long since realized that this actually means “I want salmon”, but please allow me to iterate my erstwhile complaint – for a city whose local cuisine is famously synonymous with all manner of high quality maritime delights, why are there so few restaurants dedicated to actually elevating the cuisine? Please do not object with your Anthony’s, your Elliott’s, your Chinook’s – that seafood is just fine thanks, but I can hardly tell one from the other looking at a menu. Where’s the imagination? The innovation? I think Flying Fish comes closest to raising the bar, but the dishes are so inconsistent that I rarely want to take a chance with guests. And honestly, you can pretty much find a kickass piece of fish brilliantly executed at just about any notable place in town. But wouldn’t you rather order the goat tagine instead?
So then, in these situations we are both resigned to and grateful for Ray’s Boathouse and Café. The most stalwart of our local seafood institutions, the quality is unwavering, the preparation flawless, the dishes simple and good (and expensive). It’s the definition of reliable. Picturesque waterfront seating overlooking Shilshole Bay, the islands and the snowcapped Olympics in the distance – Ray’s is undeniably perfect for showing off to visitors. Enormous neon letters flashing R-A-Y-S are mounted on a tower near the building, and an equally enormous painted, carved salmon greets you when you first walk through the door. The Café and a cozy wooden deck are located upstairs where dining and drinks are slightly more affordable; the restaurant proper is downstairs, tables and booths positioned against huge plate glass windows with that immaculate view of the Puget Sound.
And the food isn’t bad either, it’s just very textbook. There are no surprises. If I want a Niçoise salad, I know I’m going to get a Niçoise salad and I know it’s going to be good. Big, juicy slices of seared pepper-crusted Ahi tuna with olives and potatoes and eggs over green beans. Check. You want a bowl of clams? Ray’s does an awesome bowl of clams. Steamed in beer and butter with a touch of dill, simple and good. You want salmon? You get the picture. And on this particular evening, oh my yes the people wanted salmon. In addition to the predictable grilled Alaskan and Coho salmon preparations, the special of the evening was a freshly caught Columbia River (!) King Salmon with a mild raspberry and red onion gastrique, leafy pea vines and buttery fingerling potaoes. Next stop: Adventure!
It’s worth noting that Ray’s Boathouse has a reputation for being one of the first restaurants on the West Coast to prominently feature regional Washington and Oregon wines on their menu. And the wine list is admittedly exceptional, with a lot of local producers that you don’t see very often. We settled on a righteous bottle of Adelsheim Pinot Noir (although notably, I was thrilled to see that they had that Cristom I like). I should also mention that both the sommelier and our server were extremely affable and courteous.
I’ve eaten enough salmon for one lifetime, so I ordred the Chatham Strait sablefish in sake kasu – an oily black cod served over jasmine rice and choy sum. The sweetness of the fish contrasted well with the saltiness of the kasu, and the flavor was markedly enhanced by a honey soy sauce. The meat was flaky and smooth and sufficiently tasty, the steamed cabbage crisp and tender. No complaints, but no fireworks either. It was just as I remembered, just as I expected. And I guess that’s why an institution like Ray’s continues to do such great business and garner so much esteem (well, that and the view): No surprises.