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.