WHEN MARIA HINES was a young chef, 28 years old and itching to bust out of her hometown, San Diego, she narrowed her short list of destinations to three: New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. The first two, the top culinary Valhallas in the land, were pricey to live in and tough markets to break into. So she visited the third—and thereby knew the sound of one jaw dropping.
“There were all these cool mushrooms!” Hines burbles, still gleeful after seven years here. “And fiddlehead ferns! Berries and salmon and mussels! This was a place you could really eat from the land. Pull something out of the ground and eat it right there.”
Over the ensuing years as chef at Earth & Ocean, she drew raves from diners and critics (Food & Wine pronounced her one of the Best New Chefs of 2005). All the while she was working “eat from the land” and “pull something out of the ground” into a business plan.
She found a cozy bungalow in Wallingford, the old Mandalay Café, and rolled up her sleeves for an arduous transformation. The restaurant Hines would plant there wasn’t going to be just any fresh and seasonal New American dinner house. At Tilth, named for soil at its most fertile, Hines reaches for the gold standard of fresh and seasonal food: organic certification.
If keeping kosher requires stricter compliance, it couldn’t be by much. Tilth is one of just two certified–organic restaurants in Seattle (the other is the Sterling Café, certified by the USDA), and only the second in the nation to be certified by an even tougher standard–bearer: Oregon Tilth, which requires that restaurants purchase 95 percent of their food from certified–organic sources. Their yearly audits compel Hines to save and file every last receipt. Inspectors snap photos and scrutinize all food storage areas, ensure that seafood and other wild foods, unclassifiable as organic, are stored separately from organics, and monitor all cleansing solutions.
Hines went further still, specifying sustainable bamboo hardwoods for the tables in her little house–restaurant; that the spring–green paint on her walls leeched no toxic VOCs (volatile organic chemicals). She even ordered hemp aprons for her staff. “It all adds up to an environmental benefit, a health benefit, a benefit for the small farmers, for the local economy, for the land,” Hines reflects about the restaurant she built. “But mostly, I gotta say—it’s the flavor.”
Fork–deep in a creation like her smoked Northwest butterfish with chilled mussels, cannellini beans, and caraway crème fraîche—one can only concur, and deliriously. The flavor all but leaps up off the plate and belts out an anthem. This is due to the purity of the ingredients, each of which tastes somehow more like itself. But it also owes to this chef’s pitch–perfect instinct for compatible combinations. So the smoky fish and the earthy beans, the briny mussels and the tangy caraway cream, convey bracing originality—and taste outlandishly good.