Color Me Organic

Culinary whiz Maria Hines gives "down-to-earth" new meaning at Tilth, her organic stunner in Wallingford.

December 1, 2008

Ave Maria Chef Hines upholds the highest flavor convictions.

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.

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A September visit yielded wild sockeye salmon carefully wrested from the sea by Pete Knutson, Hines’s fishmonger of choice. It was crispy–skinned on top, served over chickpeas in a crimson pool of sweet summer–pepper sauce, then encircled by an emerald moat of herb coulis, and finally garnished with a curl of red pepper and scattered chives. The dish was every bit as vibrant upon the palate, each element indispensable. Ditto an intense cream of mussel soup, which arrived as a satiny ribbon poured from a pitcher into a shallow bowl containing a nugget of pork belly and a swirl of parsley coulis. Ditto a gratis amuse bouche, which preceded one dinner this fall: a tiny ramekin of radicchio and apple matchsticks, their flavors deepened and enlivened with bacon and a red wine vinaigrette.

Much of Hines’s success is based on the courage of her flavor convictions. (Her failures are too—as when she boldly gave porcini mousse a sugar brûlée crust and crowned it with vanilla foam: “Crackerjack foie gras!” my companion declared.) But Hines’s culinary intelligence goes beyond bravery. She’ll take the most traditional dish on her menu—tender seared top sirloin (from grass–fed livestock), served with fingerlings and a traditional béarnaise sauce—and archly embellish it with a leaf of bitter grilled radicchio. This irreverent Goth–at–a–garden–party gesture provides the perfect foil. She serves her signature dish, crisped pork belly with French lentils, scallion coulis, and tomato vinaigrette. “I love fat, and I love acidity,” she explains. “When you put the two together, it heightens the flavor and the finish lasts a long time.”

Hines’s favorite balancing act is textural. Grainy grits appear alongside fork–tender meats; al dente beans speckle oily fish. There’s not a crunch in her salads that isn’t offset by a creamy contrast: pears, arugula, and walnuts arrive with an almost liquid ewe’s milk blue cheese. This food may be organic, but don’t go mistaking it for virtuous.

Likewise, a lot of trends show up at Tilth—sweet–savory pairings, cheese plates, flavored foams, a menu that credits food sources, a small–plate option. (This last is done very well here, with every dish available in a dinner size and an affordable tasting size.)

But it would be all wrong to call Tilth trendy. The little house with its 1917 leaded glass windows and central hearth is entirely too salt–of–the–earth for that. Witness its hard chairs, unupholstered surfaces, and drafty interior; the charming Tilth puts on as few airs as the farmers and foragers and fisherfolk who supply it. (The combination makes Tilth more of a spring and summer restaurant than a winter one.) Even the servers evince a candor rare among their kind. “It’s easier for me to tell you what’s not great on the menu tonight,” answered one, upon my request for a recommendation.

On another night, upon my admiration of an ethereal Skagit River Ranch breast of chicken, another server sighed: “You can taste when an animal’s been cared for.” I can sure tell the restaurant has been.


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