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I’ve been meaning to get to one of Craig Hetherington’s Northwest Farm Dinners at TASTE Restaurant in the Seattle Art Museum for a while now, but they always manage to sell out before I get around to calling. So when I got the news that the latest multi-course menu was featuring Salmon-Safe farms and wineries, I immediately raced to the phone and finally managed to book a seating. I actually had no idea that TASTE was another staunch adherent to the local/sustainable/ organic approach to food preparation, but I would soon learn otherwise throughout the evening.
TASTE is a delightful restaurant to visit, irrespective of its farm dinners or affiliation with SAM. It’s very artful and contemporary, all straight lines and creamy lights. Despite being located in the heart of downtown, the room is quiet and comfortable. For the dinner last weekend, individual tables were pushed together so we could enjoy some communal face-time with our neighbors (who as luck would have it, were particularly affable). Throughout the evening, Chef Hetherington would briefly appear to explain each dish and then introduce a representative from the particular farm providing the ingredient(s) used in that course. Essentially, the Salmon-Safe folks work with Northwest farmers to promote conservation practices and habitat restoration, and all of the farms featured on the menu were Salmon-Safe certified. The dinner was both educational and delicious.
We began with an amuse of salmon “neat”, a tiny carpaccio of salmon lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon zest. A quick bite later, and we were served a fragrant cauliflower flan with impossibly vibrant, foraged miner’s lettuce and tiny cubes of rhubarb gelee (courtesy of Nash’s organic produce in Sequim). The flan was warm and creamy and topped with strips of buttery melted leeks. We drank a young, light-bodied Riesling from J. Bookwalter which worked well with the aromatic custard. Actually, all of the wine pairings throughout the evening were impeccable and generous (and the sommelier was, um, very enthusiastic about his job).
Next up was a fried green tomato from Hedlin Family Farms served over triticale tabbouleh with green garlic tzatziki. The tomato was juicy, but the tabbouleh really stole the show – huge, toothsome grains that practically popped when you bit into them. The tzatziki tasted like mint and cucumber, and the garlic generated a nice spicy heat. The dish was accompanied by a crisp, clean Chehalem INOX Chardonnay from Willamette Valley which had zero Oak flavor (I heartily approve).
And then on to the main event – an impressive piece of grilled, wild Alaskan King salmon from Cape Cleare Fishery. It was supremely rich and topped with a dollop of crème fraîche and truffles (which was, admittedly, a little bit overkill). Additionally: a very sweet rutabaga-cipollini gratin, more of that gorgeous miner’s lettuce and a glass of Rex Hill Pinot Noir (<3 <3 <3). I should probably also mention that the serving was about the size of a typical restaurant plate. It was seriously a gigantic piece of fish.
In fact, the portions may have actually been a bit too much. I was already feeling full, and there was still a lot more to come. Specifically, a duo of chicharrón and meatball “caprese” supplied by Thundering Hooves grass-fed livestock in Walla Walla. I have never eaten a pork rind before, so I was a little apprehensive. Of course, as Hetherington explained, his chicharrón was actually a fancy version of the pork rind – roasted “shoulder/butt” meat, pan-fried after the fat was rendered to create a crackling, chewy glaze around the moist meat. As if the chicharrón wasn’t intense enough on its own, the pork was then covered with a potent chimichurri sauce – finely chopped red onions and parsley, olive oil, and lots of garlic and black pepper. I have to confess I only made it through a few bites before surrendering. The meatball caprese was even higher-concept, but much more satisfying. Loosely packed moist beef, stuffed with ricotta on a tiny nest of savory, basil pesto vermicelli. I was overfull at this point, but I somehow managed to finish it off (and particularly enjoyed those tiny noodles). The wine served with the duo was the best discovery of the night: Seven Hills Tempranillo from Columbia Valley. Buttery, dry and just about perfect.
The only real misstep was the dessert course, which was somewhat surprising given everything I’d heard about TASTE’s resident rock star pastry chef, Lucy Damkoehler. It was an oatmeal semifreddo, covered in more of that triticale tabbouleh from earlier, with a compote of rhubarb and huckleberry and a wicked strong basil oil syrup. I dunno, maybe I was too full to genuinely appreciate the dessert, but nothing quite seemed to gel for me (the dry triticale grains didn’t work with the texture of the frozen mousse and the basil oil was screamingly sweet). Also least of the evening was the Terra Blanca Late Harvest Riesling paired with the semifreddo, but again, I don’t have much tolerance for super sweet.
Still and all, I’d say the dinner was a great success. It was genuinely informative listening to the speakers from each of the farms and learning about the Salmon-Safe organization and Stewardship Partners – an evening of unabashed locavore love. Now if they could only work on those portion sizes…