IF YOU’RE MARIA HINES, it can’t be easy opening your second restaurant.

The young chef nabbed James Beard’s Best Chef Northwest in 2009, for her first restaurant Tilth of The New York Times’s top 10 new restaurants of 2008, one of Seattle’s most imaginative and elegant showcases of Northwest fare, and one seriously tough act to follow. Her storied devotion to organic ingredients earned the Wallingford dinner house the country’s second-only organic certification from the strictest certifier in the land, Oregon Tilth.

The restaurant she opened this February, Golden Beetle, is now only the third in the country with that designation. And it represents all-new culinary territory for Hines: the sumptuously oiled, exotically spiced cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Culinary greatness, pristine purity, and now mastery of a whole new chunk of the planet? Oh the pressure.

Not so much, says the unflappable Hines: “The flavors from Lebanon and Egypt and Turkey and Morocco, they’re bold and they’re bright and I love them.”

Golden Beetle is more casual, more cocktail-oriented, more affordable than Tilth, and more street—foodwise, a Beirut street. Decorwise a welkin of Turkish lanterns above sky blue walls murmur softly of the exotic East—unmistakably by way of Ballard. Like Tilth, the place has a home-decorated feel, from the not-that-comfortable chairs 
to the too-small-for-the-room scale of the lanterns.

Hines’s organic commitment is as fully engaged here as at Tilth. The menu—separated into dips, little bites, and plates—calls out her sources. The ground-beef skewers polished with tamarind glaze and served with pickled peppers are organic, grass-fed Skagit River Ranch beef; the lamb in the caramelly tagine comes from Redmond’s organic Aspen Hollow Sheep Station.

What isn’t organic is underlined on the menu—and there isn’t a lot of underlining. Hines’s gyro, for instance, is stuffed with turkey in the Israeli style but made with nonorganic lamb fat, along with savory herbs and pickled onions and a luscious yogurt mousse. With its intertwining flavors and textural satisfactions, it’s hard to imagine even the most dogmatically organic diner damning the lamb fat that makes this dish taste like…this.

Hines has mastered cooking these complex cuisines, and she is indeed doing the cooking, at least until Golden Beetle gets off the ground. Her hummus is smooth and lush, touched with tahini and pickled serrano peppers; her muhammara, a Syrian dip made of ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses, an uncommonly tart-sweet offset. The fluffy homemade pita bread disappears handily. Her creamy carrot soup features the nutty, welcome grit of duqqa, an Egyptian spice blend she makes of pumpkin seeds and dried herbs. This menu may win the all-time pretension award for its sheer number of undefined exotics—duqqa, za’atar, muhammara, gum mastic—though our curiosity did encourage interaction with our affable and deeply informed waiter.

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Ballard’s New Beetle The place is casual and cocktail-oriented, with a home-decorated feel.

As we made our way across the menu’s fertile landscape—pausing at the spanakopitalike bar snack, “cigars” of crackling phyllo stuffed with buttery Bloomsdale spinach all lit up with the Mediterranean’s citruslike berry, sumac—we reveled in the satisfying otherness of the Levantine flavor palate. In Seattle, Eastern Mediterranean restaurants are rare as rhinos; the cuisines spied mostly as exotic punctuation at our highest-end restaurants: North African and Middle Eastern influences consistently creep into the French and Northwest preparations at Rover’s, Sitka and Spruce, and Bastille.

Ditto for Hines, whose travels to Morocco and Greece a decade ago piqued her culinary interest. Just before opening Golden Beetle she traveled back for inspiration, taste-testing kibbe meatballs and falafels at street stalls in the run-up to the Arab Spring. “Bombs were going off outside Cairo and I was this stupid tourist eating falafel on the street,” she laughs.

But boy did she learn how to make falafel. Her decidedly Northwest rendition, Pacific halibut with fava beans (Hines prefers these to the standard chickpeas), is a deftly nuanced production lightly resembling cod fritters, served between pita flaps with coriander and chilies and lemon screaming out from the charmoula. “Now this is interesting!” pronounced one of my companions.

It’s not that Hines’s straight-up Mediterranean classics weren’t interesting; they were great because these cuisines are great. It’s that the halibut falafel was great because Maria Hines is great. Her inventive riffing on the classics elevates the experience to what foodies have come to expect from Maria Hines.

About a third of the menu features such innovation, the finest of which was a platter of seared albacore with grilled cucumber, fresh cucumber chunks in lemon vinaigrette, nutty pilaf, and the Turkish aiolilike sauce called tarator. In it Hines waves every one of her trademarks—her penchant for two treatments of one food on a single plate, her pristine sourcing of fish, her perfect palate for complementary sweets and savories, crunchies and meaties and smooths.

Some won’t be happy that she didn’t go all Maria like this on every dish. Indeed two tables for four at Golden Beetle produced less consensus than I’ve ever gotten in a restaurant. Aside from the executionary slipups that everyone noted—fries perfect one night and overcooked the next, gummy puff pastry in the rabbit pies—nobody could agree on a verdict.

Me, I walked away with three. Golden Beetle is a solid Mediterranean restaurant. It’s sometimes a stunning Maria Hines restaurant. And…it’s not easy being Maria Hines.

This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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