Some things about Renee Erickson just don’t change.
If Martha Stewart doesn’t yet offer the paint color Renee Erickson White, it’s only a matter of time. Erickson’s Boat Street Cafe, which she opened in Belltown in 2003, is a whitewashed French farmstead; the Walrus and the Carpenter, which she launched seven years later in Ballard, a bleached and barnacled boathouse, complete with the single coolest white faux-coral chandelier in existence. Right on theme, the Whale Wins opened last October as a white wood-sided cottage, suspended like a stage set beneath the soaring rafters of the Fremont Collective warehouse. It’s named for a painting she loves, of a whale obliterating a whaling ship.
White cinderblock walls, tidy framed windows, white marble counter and tabletops—this is her breeziest beach house yet, a springtime pastoral with jars of her pickles and relishes displayed on shelves, wildflowers bursting from a vase, freshly cut firewood stacked neatly above the wood-fired oven. Walking into the turquoise restroom is like plunging into a pool. We came for dinner on a gusty night and were seated by the sliding glass doors that in summer will open onto a patio. In winter we were just cold.
Erickson’s Whale menu also rings familiar bells: similar French implications as at Boat Street, similar simplified vision as at Walrus. Both Walrus and Whale are only kind of restaurants—the former more of a small-plate nosh bar with oysters and tipples, the latter a shareable-plates-on-shared-tables place where the wood oven dribbles out orders in whatever order it will. So you may get your spiral of braised pork shoulder on grainy mustard in a sauce of large-cut apples and onions before you get your Alaskan spot prawns with surprises of orange roe and a bold wash of anchovy butter. Vegetables are an emphasis in this house, and you may get them by themselves...before your meat arrives.
None of which is the end of the world, as this is pure and lovely food, inscribed with Erickson’s signatures—pristine sourcing (Carlton Farms pork, Local Roots vegetables), devotion to bold flavors, and real enthusiasm for what wood smoke does to meat and vegetables, in terms of complicating and deepening their flavors (in her words, adding “a bacon element without any bacon”).
The roasted Mad Hatcher Farms half chicken is the headline example. Erickson’s chef de cuisine here, Marie Rutherford, comes from Boat Street, which almost always has a roasted poussin on its card; she knows what she’s doing. Her wood-oven version boasts an even crispier crust, even more impossibly moist flesh—including its white parts—and that inimitable smoky savor, served here with root vegetable puree, fired capers, and preserved lemon. It’s killer.
Erickson’s taking some heat for her room-temperature dinners. I’m not talking about her pickle plate (her well--deserved calling card), or cheese plates (a wedge of Neal’s Yard Blue Cheese with jammy pickled plums is tart and funky—winning with slices of Columbia City Bakery baguette), or salads (like her breathtaking tower of lettuces, herb speckled and pocked with fistfuls of whole pistachios, moistened evenly with a dewy vinaigrette, then lavished with a fluffy haystack of grated Yarmuth goat cheese). One expects these to be cool.
It’s when the kitchen presents slices of salt-roasted filet mignon with potatoes and horseradish cream at room temperature, or a tangle of roasty, woodsmoky carrots and fennel on a bed of sinus-irrigating harissa yogurt—these are items many want to enjoy hot. Both were stunning at room temperature; I happen to like the vivid flavors brought by roasting to char, then cooling. But then, I like picnics.
And ultimately, that’s the way to understand the Whale Wins: as a really fine picnic. You drop in (reservations are only for large parties); you admire the essential outdoorsiness of its charms (right down to the wood fire); you shiver a little; you nibble on this cooled dish, then that; you don’t linger long in these hard seats at these shared tables, no matter how much you’re loving the rich, rich butter-roasted zucchini bread—a legend of a dessert from the moment the kitchen scattered salt across the first slice. If there’s culinary error afoot, it’s in that realm of richness unmitigated: a whole trout, skin crisped in the oven, ringed with a heavy walnut sauce; a thick slather of smoked herring butter and pickled fennel on toast, where the butter predominates. Nothing wrong with dishes like these; it’s just that they’re best enjoyed alongside other dishes.
This may or may not happen at the Whale Wins. Accommodating (and at times chilly) servers try hard to bring dishes in requested pairings, but it’s not always possible. Candidly this makes me pine for the gastronomic bliss of Boat Street—still, by my measure, the best of the Renee Erickson Whites—back when Erickson was in the kitchen (she’s behind the scenes on all three of her properties now) and her plates were composed with memorably enlivening contrasts. Erickson’s particular gift as a chef lends itself to complete plates.
But her gift as a restaurateur—casting an atmospheric spell—is in full flower at the Whale Wins, ruinous leviathan notwithstanding.