AFTER 26 YEARS in the game, what makes a restaurant critic’s heart beat faster?
The big-bucks steak house with the Italian upholstery? The six-course chef-narrated feast? The mobile sous-vide corn dog cart with the raw-food relish bar and more Twitter followers than Britney Spears? Come with me to a cozy brick-walled boite in Belltown and I’ll show you.
Tilikum Place Café opens off leafy Cedar Street at the Seattle Center edge of Belltown, and if it weren’t for the statue of Chief Seattle out the window—or a certain iconic Needle looming overhead—you might think you were in the West Village. Close the drafty glass door behind you and note the genuine warmth of the smiling greeter, along with other simple tags of authenticity: raw wood timbers, original paned windows, humble orange marigolds popping brightly from bud vases. Folks in jeans or arty theater-wear sit solo or in pairs along the bar or in livelier groups at tables, sipping bowls of celeriac puree or brawny Manhattans. Tilikum Place Café is in Belltown, but not of it.
Local girl and South Seattle Community College Culinary Arts Program grad Ba Culbert conceived Tilikum as a neighborhood haunt you could visit in sweats with a newspaper for brunch, then revisit for your anniversary dinner. Her name’s not really Ba, it’s Diana, but it hung on from when a sibling couldn’t say “baby.” Name notwithstanding, Culbert’s no neophyte. Her resume includes gigs at Tom Douglas’s Palace Kitchen, the private dinner club the Ruins, and the Mediterranean masterpiece Vios. Along the way she found an angel who esteemed her talents enough to become a silent partner in a venture all her own.
So here it is. Smart angel.
One drizzly Wednesday we found ourselves before a cup of that celeriac puree, velvety with cream, and finished with a sweet crown of caramelized pear. A bacon, potato, and Gruyere tart arrived on a plate beside a generous toss of greens, lacquered in a gentle herbal vinaigrette. And the crust! A flaky testimonial to the miracle of butter. Perfect.
By the time our entrees rolled around, we’d gone wordless. The pork chop over the sagey polenta cake was thick and meaty, its smokiness brightly balanced by braised greens and lush grilled figs. A house specialty, pan-seared chicken, was expertly crisped on the outside and served with a poppy-seed dumpling and big rustic hunks of onion and sweet pepper in a feisty paprikash.
The chicken was so rich we “couldn’t possibly touch dessert” (read: ordered just one) and it was as moist and flavorful an amaretto bread pudding as the consummate Boat Street Café version. Could all the desserts be this good? (Read: How long might it take us to eat our way to the end of the long list on the specials board?)
We gave it our best. Over the next few happy weeks we savored a venerable chocolate cake, featherweight cookies of various buttery persuasions, crackly profiteroles oozing profoundly vanilla housemade ice cream, a spicy pumpkin cake drizzled with honey and festooned with pumpkin seeds.
And it wasn’t just the dessert list we explored. We devoured quiches in which pancetta, sun-dried tomatoes, and fontina combined into an improbably creamy filling inside more of that perfect crust; lunchtime sandwiches in which Essential Baking Company bread was packed with thick-sliced roast beef and soaked through with blue-cheese sauce and horseradish aioli.
And it was all exactly right. Okay, the sandwich was a little soggy. But I adored it anyway, all by myself over lunch one day. There was the sandwich—hugely generous for its $12 price tag—along with a heap of subtle, savory, refreshing cole slaw and a pretty flourish: a cornichon and a ruffle of sweet pepper on a toothpick. A meaningful embellishment, harmonizing as it did with the rest of the plate. No thoughtless garnishing here. This Ba Culbert is, above all else, careful.
Yes, she makes delish comfort food. Yes, they’re classics—tweaked. Yes, the food is buoyant with seasonal freshness. And no, it’s not always perfect, as the occasional overcooked joint or watery soup demonstrate. But what really stands out in this most comfortable cusp of Belltown is a chef who consistently takes the extra step to gratify her guests, in every area from complimentary bread (a dying convention, folks), to glorious housemade salad dressings, to waiters whose brows will knit in sympathetic focus while they troll the list to find you the perfect wine, to soups clearly conceived in the mind of a dessert maker—like the curried roast-cauliflower puree topped with caramelized apple and walnut praline.
And all that care—in this underpriced, underheralded, and most lived-in of cafes—is rare, getting rarer, and a genuine thrill to discover. Simple as that.
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