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So the James Beard semifinalists were announced last week, and it pretty much reads like a laundry list of my very favorite chefs in the Northwest. Thank goodness there are a couple more rounds before the final nominees are chosen – as it currently stands, there is no way I could choose a single chef to root for. And even though I still think it’s likely the award will go to Ethan Stowell this year, I’d really love to see Jason Wilson make it to the final round. His ultra-chic restaurant Crush, located in a remodeled Tudor house at the unlikely intersection of 23rd and a vacant lot on Madison in the Central District is truly one of the great culinary gems in the City.
And so it was on the fourth anniversary of Crush’s opening last weekend on Valentine’s Day, that my partner and I were lucky enough to procure reservations for one of chef Wilson’s outstanding five course tasting menus. It was a gorgeous, if brisk February evening and we were greeted by Jason’s wife Nicole Wilson in the Victorian foyer before being escorted into one of the two cozy dining rooms across from the open kitchen. Crush is unapologetically minimal, all creamy white walls with dark chocolate trim and retro modern chairs like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights are low and there is always something appropriately downtempo on the sound system. It’s all very swoony and romantic.
We began with a bright red Cupid’s Kiss cocktail and shared a tiny plate of Petit Agour cheese gougères – a tiny puff pastry with a subtle, mild flavor that was perhaps a touch too dry. The first course was a trio of seafoods, served fresh, warm and chilled. I was already excited, since I had originally fallen in love with Crush during my pescetarian days and knew Wilson did fish particularly well. I was not disappointed – a single soft poached kushi oyster in a tiny glass bowl of wagyu broth with slivers of cucumber, a sweet and fresh crudo of hamachi over slices of Asian pear, and a succulent piece of grilled bluefin tuna over hearts of palm. Each a bite or two of superb flavor and craftsmanship. I had opted for the Sommelier’s wine pairing for the evening, and one of the highlights was the Cuvée 1785 Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne from Reims that was served with the seafood trio. It was mellow and dry, with hints of fresh fruit.
There was a rosemary bread service with sea salted French butter, and then a bowl of celery root soup with a perfect seared sea scallop topped with caviar. The scallop was plated over a fragrant truffle and watercress purée, and our server slowly poured the thick, creamy soup from a tiny pitcher around the edges of the bowl, comingling the flavors. It was rich and silky and colorful and we savored each bite. Next up was a piece of sautéed black bass served over a Meyer lemon sabayon with octopus and fennel. The octopus was tender and smoky and pretty much stole the show.
And the meal just kept getting better and better. Sausage stuffed pheasant, credited to McFarlan Farms (Crush is yet another Northwest restaurant rocking the local/sustainable tip). Had I ever eaten pheasant? If I had, it was certainly not as memorable as the piece in front of me – the skin was crispy and the roasted meat was salty and moist. It had a deeper, firmer texture than chicken, and certainly more flavor. The pheasant was served with wild mushrooms and a chiffonade of caramelized onions and bacon soubisse. It was an outstanding dish, each element complementing and enhancing the other.
We had finally reached the main and final dinner course, the only actual option on the menu for the evening – I chose the grilled Wagyu beef New York strip loin and my partner selected the butter poached Maine lobster tail. The steak was absolutely incredible. I’ve eaten Wagyu, but primarily ground up in hamburgers (à la Skillet) or as the base for a broth (à la Monsoon). This was probably the single best steak I’ve ever eaten (next to the steak au poivre I had at Les Halles in NYC, but I’ll save that story for another day). The rich flavor of the beef was only enhanced by the addition of a bone marrow sauce and potato gnocchi. To round out the perfection, this course was served with one of the best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons I’ve had in ages (2005, from a winery named Terra Valentine). It was wonderfully balanced, smelled like cedar, tasted big and juicy and reminded me of all the things I love about Napa Cabernet. The lobster was also flawless, buttery and delicate, with sous vide root vegetables (!) and sorrels. But that Wagyu was on an entirely different level.
We finished with a trio of Valrhona chocolate, my favorite being a warm chocolate vanilla beignet with cherry jam (although it was hard to argue with the ganache chili cake). And while I sipped on the last of my Banyuls Cuvée Mediterranée (which is the best substitute for Port I’ve yet tasted), our server brought us a plate of dainty mignardises – a lemon ginger Madeline no larger than my thumbnail, a tiny pink peppercorn marshmallow, chocolate hearts. A small gesture to cap a truly epic meal. We thanked the chef and rolled out, astonished that despite the variety and number of plates we’d dined on, the portions were such that neither of us felt over-full.
It was just about the perfect Valentine’s Day.
Just up the hill from the International District, crammed into a tiny strip mall on the corner of 12th Ave. and S. Main, is one of the best culinary adventures you can find in town – the Malay Satay Hut. Malaysian cuisine is virtually nonexistent in Seattle, so if you haven’t tried it yet, you’re in for a wonderful surprise. Blending Indian, Chinese and Thai styles of cooking and spices, you never know exactly what you’re going to get, but chances are it will be tasty (and HOT).
Indeed, half the fun of the Malay Satay Hut is ordering blindly off the inscrutable menu – cryptic descriptions like Spicy Silver Noodle Soup or Buddhist Yam Pot are accompanied by tiny photos begging to be sampled. I can’t even identify some of the ingredients in these dishes (what exactly is this particular “salted fish” I’m eating?), but it keeps me coming back. Chef Sam Yoo cooks with a perfect balance of spice and flavor that often defies description (I blame myself; when it comes to Eastern cooking and ingredients, my knowledge and vocabulary is desperately lacking).
Even though I do like exploring the menu, there are obviously some greatest hits that should not be missed. For starters – Yoo’s famous roti canai with a side of curry and potatoes. Pulling apart the flaky, fried flatbread, dipping it into the savory hot curry and then stuffing it into your face is a transcendental experience. People write odes and sing hymns to this roti. My other absolute favorite on the menu is the Dry Curry Vegie Tofu. I’m pretty sure this is the only restaurant I’ve ever seen prepare a dish “dry curry style”, and I’m pretty sure I still don’t know what that means. But the tofu is soft and moist, and the mélange of vegetables (long green beans, onions, baby corn, straw mushrooms, whole cloves of garlic and okra) are stir fried perfection. The entire dish is coated with a thick, sticky curry which tastes slightly grainy to the tongue, and has a deceptive, cumulative heat (you’ll be wiping your brow by the time you finish). Note that nearly everything on the menu can be ordered with this dry curry – chicken, beef, lamb, shrimp, crab, fish head.
I must confess that the actual satays at the Malay Satay Hut are not particularly earth shattering. The chicken in particular is lightly coated with yellow curry, grilled up and served with a traditional peanut sauce for dipping. I know a lot of people swear by these satays, but they honestly don’t do much for me. Maybe I’m just not into meat on a stick. On the other hand, I love the spicy and pungent Belachan string beans served with prawns, or the sweet mango tofu salad with slices of crisp red, green and yellow peppers. And there are a million things on the menu I’ve yet to try (next up: black pepper crab and Hokkien Mee).
The restaurant space itself has a fair number of tables, but it can still get pretty packed in the evening. The walls are lined with bamboo, and in the center of the restaurant is the eponymous hut which serves as a wait station and cashier stand. You should also know that it’s not necessarily cheap eats, although they do have great lunch specials if you happen to be near Little Saigon during your break. And while I do enjoy eating there from time to time (the waitstaff is friendly and responsive), this is one of my very favorite places to take food to go on any given night of the week. And like most curries, it usually tastes even better the next day. Go check it out.