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Ever since James Beard-nominated Basque master chef Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez and his partner Carolin Messier opened their second restaurant Txori in Belltown almost a year and a half ago (that’s pronounced chōr-ē), I have been dying to take a trip to Northern Spain. Thankfully I don’t actually have to, since I can just eat at Txori. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore The Harvest Vine, Jiménez’ flagship dining experience, but Txori is so much more relaxed, so breezy and light, that I repeatedly find myself returning for another casual meal (it’s also considerably less expensive). The space is small and narrow, with high ceilings and hardwood floors and a large open bar which fills the room with heavenly scents. There is a tiny brick patio to covet when the sun is out, and quite possibly the most wonderful artwork hanging in a restaurant space in town. I love those little birds.
Txori is a love letter to the tapas bars of San Sabastian, so technically it’s a pintxos bar (pin-chō, see how that works?), but it’s the same basic idea. One bite, two bites, a bit more if you order the larger raciones. There are simple roadmap descriptions on the menu, but be prepared for surprises. Feel free to question the waitstaff – they are super sweet and friendly and knowledgeable. Maybe start with one of the bocadillos, a small sandwich served on the softest bread rolls you can imagine (courtesy of Columbia City Bakery). Brushed with olive oil and filled with thinly-sliced Spanish jamón serrano and sweet, pickled piquillo peppers (or even better, smoky cured chorizo sausage and roasted garlic purée), these tiny sandwiches are perfect for sharing.
And that’s a good thing, because you’re going to want many of these pintxos all to yourself. From traditional vinegar cured anchovy boquerones (oily, salty, intense), to a flaky caramelized onion tart with a potent sherry reduction sauce, you’re going to crave just one more taste of that fleeting flavor. Jiménez mixes up the menu fairly frequently, and a recent visit found one of my very favorite plates no longer available – rabo de toro, braised oxtail served over creamy panaderas potatoes. In my memory, the rich, meaty shredded chunks of oxtail are still melting in my mouth. But not to worry – two new offerings are already demanding repeat visits: a duck confit served cold over romaine lettuce with tiny slices of mandarin orange, and braised lamb shank wrapped in a thin pastry and served over creamy, soft white beans. Both are simply outstanding, the execution flawless, the savory flavors and textures interwoven and inspired. Each bite is pure joy, a thing of beauty.
You will find this easy artistry in much of the cooking at Txori, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the calamares en su tinta – stuffed squid, served with ink on fried bread. What this description fails to reveal is that the squid is actually stuffed into itself – the tentacles are deftly inserted into the soft mantle of the squid, and then the entire grilled cephalopod is doused with thick, black ink. The result is an intense, pungent, salty sea flavor and a texture that is at turns chewy and creamy. The squid ink will stain your lips and fingernails, and the smell will linger in your nostrils throughout the day. It’s a remarkably ambitious dish, and worth trying at least once.
I haven’t even mentioned the epic Basque wine and spirits list. Your server should be able to help you pair with your plates, or steer you towards a special that might not be listed. But it’s Springtime, so I’m all about the rosado at the moment (Ochoa Rosado de Lágrima – fresh, crisp, pink). Txori has a great happy hour each night, and a communal four course dinner on the first Monday of every month. If you can’t tell from my breathless account, I am head over heels for this restaurant. The veracity of the cooking, the leisurely atmosphere, the genuinely gobsmacking food – it rarely gets better than this.