RESTAURANT CRITICS ARE promiscuous by necessity—but oh, how we long to be faithful. What we wouldn’t give for a long, slow evening with the roast chicken from that swanky little bistro we discovered last year; a steady dalliance with the one chocolate dessert that keeps pestering our dreams. After 25 years of professionally flitting from this to that flavor of the month, my palate delights in returning to the classic dishes of our tried-and-true restaurants—the ones that time, talent, and incomparable popularity have rendered nothing less than legendary. Here are 15 entirely deserving of such regard, and the tales of how they came to be created.
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Tango

El Diablo

Bittersweet chocolate mousse with cayenne pepper, dusted with cocoa powder, served on burnt meringue, and embellished with tequila caramel sauce, spiced toasted almonds, and cocoa nibs
“I was given carte blanche to design the dessert menu before Tango opened, and I wanted one good kick-butt signature chocolate dessert,” recalls Bennie Sata, Tango’s opening pastry chef, of the dessert that’s been applauded by the likes of the Food Network. “My first inspiration was to make the world’s deepest, darkest, chocolatiest, spiciest devil’s food cake. I wanted not only an homage to devil’s food, which is my favorite dessert of all time, but also to black mole, which my mom cooked a lot back when I was growing up in Texas. It seems really common now to find chocolate and chilies together, but it wasn’t so much in the mid-’90s. The meringue was great because it also allowed for a utility of resources, using the egg whites whose yolks went into the mousse. And there were almonds for crunch, and the tequila in the caramel sauce to lend a bitter, husky note to a sauce that’s usually sugary sweet. It just all came together. I remember sitting on my rooftop in Belltown with my sketchbook, piecing it all together. Suddenly I could taste this dessert in my head, and I thought, Oh my gosh—this thing’s going to be really popular.” Tango, 1100 Pike St, Capitol Hill, 206-583-0382; www.tangorestaurant.com

Brasa

Roasted Pig

Roasted pig with clams, housemade chorizo, hot smoked paprika, bay-scented potatoes, and pickled onions
“We’ve been serving roasted pig since day one, but it started out as something different,” recalls owner and chef Tamara Murphy, whose broadly catalogued love for pork has given her the nickname “the Pig Lady.” “We used pork legs, and they were never done in time. One day my sous chef suggested we bring in a whole pig. I thought it sounded like a good idea, but that first whole pig came and, quite honestly, back then I did not have a clue as to what to do with it. At first we broke down the whole pigs in manageable sections, then roasted them, filling all of our ovens and hoping for the best. But it was flopping—diners would ask for certain parts, or it wasn’t ready, or too dry because we cooked it too hot. Or they’d make a special trip for it and be really disappointed if we didn’t have it. How early does one have to arrive to cook whole pigs to be ready by 5pm? Very early! It took approximately two years to figure out I might try roasting my favorite meat in my very large wood-burning oven. So one evening we cut the pig in half, took the coals out of the oven, put the pig in roasting pans with wine and spices and vegetables, covered it in foil…and closed the doors [of the oven and the restaurant]. I spent a very restless night wondering what was happening in that oven. I returned early the next morning and anxiously peeled the foil back. It was golden, moist, apricot-colored, full of juice and flavor—the perfect roasted pig! Though it evolved to include the chorizo and the smoked paprika, it is the dish that has always remained on Brasa’s menu. It is the dish that has given me the most pain and the greatest reward.”
Brasa, 2107 Third Ave, Belltown, 206-728-4220; www.brasa.com
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Monsoon

Bo La Lot

Marinated flank steak wrapped in la lot leaves and grilled
“When my sister Sophie and I first arrived in Seattle from Alberta, we wanted to try something different from the usual Vietnamese dishes,” says Eric Banh, Monsoon’s owner. “So Sophie, who is the cook, experimented with the classics. La lot beef is one of what the Vietnamese call “the seven courses of beef”—a special-occasion feast back in Vietnam where there are literally seven preparations of the meat. But there beef is a luxury protein, so the dish is usually made with ground beef. In the Northwest, where beef is so inexpensive, she thought, why not use flank steak instead? That’s how our la lot beef appetizer came about. The flank steak adds a lot, and the la lot leaves give the meat a wonderful smokiness. Vietnamese people even love it!”
Monsoon, 615 19th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-325-2111; www.monsoonseattle.com

Bis on Main

Crispy Garlic Chicken

Marinated boneless free-range half-chicken with garlic, mashed potatoes, and a seasonal vegetable
“When we reopened recently after a six-week remodel closure, people came running for the crispy garlic chicken like they hadn’t eaten since we’d closed,” laughed Joe Vilardi, owner of West Bellevue’s favorite neighborhood bistro. “It’s marinated overnight, served with roasted garlic, and it’s always really crispy on the outside and tender within. It started when I worked as a waiter for the original Spago in West Hollywood. I was interning in the kitchen then, and learned these methods for how to bone a chicken. I developed my own variation and it became a centerpiece of the dinner-party business I did as a caterer. And then I opened Bis, and it’s been our number-one seller for nine years. I often tell people that if it weren’t for that dish, I’d have gone out of business nine years ago!”
Bis on Main, 10213 Main St, Bellevue, 425-455-2033; www.bisonmain.com

Café Flora

Portobello Wellington

Grilled portobello mushrooms, leeks, and mushroom-pecan pâté in puff pastry with Madeira wine sauce, seasonal vegetables, and mashed potatoes
“Let’s see…it was around 1993 or 1994, after [opening chef] Jim Watkins had left,” recalls former Café Flora sous chef Karen Jorgeson-Sando. “Jim had already created his mushroom pâté, basically a mushroom duxelles, that was sliceable and delicious. At the time I was working on trying to create a decent vegetarian sauce. Before Flora I had worked with Peter Cipra at Labuznik, and he had a very specific method of cutting and caramelizing vegetables that added tremendous depth to sauces. So we experimented with the same processes—of course minus the meat!—and came up with this amazing deep Madeira sauce. So we thought: We have a duxelles, we have a sauce, we can use big meaty portobello mushrooms—and the Wellington just proceeded naturally from that. In flavor and texture, it ended up being one of the best things we ever came up with. The challenge in vegetarian cuisine, always, is coming up with a focus piece for a plate—and the portobello Wellington really succeeded. It’s the vegetarian plate for meat eaters.”
Café Flora, 2901 E Madison St, Madison Valley, 206-325-9100; www.cafeflora.com
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Place Pigalle

Steamed Mussels Pigalle

Steamed mussels in a balsamic-bacon vinaigrette with butter, shallots, and
white wine

Bill Frank, the original owner of this Pike Place Market classic, was coaxed out of retirement to comment on the appetizer current owners say is so popular they will “never, ever take it off the menu.” “Myself and then-chef Connie Miller were looking for a wintertime mussel preparation, something slightly unusual, warming, not another steamed-with-white-wine mussel dish,” muses Frank. “My bent is always to combine meats with different things from the sea. So that’s how we started. We just started playing around. At that time—it was the winter of 1982–1983—we weren’t seeing a lot of balsamic vinegar around yet. Anyway, it took off. It’s just a dish that eats extremely well. I don’t usually define dishes in terms of classics, but I was never able to come up with anything that was better than this.”
Place Pigalle, 81 Pike St, Pike Place Market, 206-624-1756; www.placepigalle-seattle.com

Pagliacci Pizza

Agog Primo

Fontina and mozzarella cheeses with cloves of roasted garlic, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, goat cheese, parsley, and kalamata olives on an olive-oil base
“Oh yeah, the Agog has always been popular,” says Dorene Centioli-McTigue, who founded Seattle’s favorite pizza chain as a single U District storefront in 1979. “My mother-in-law, who was French, was the inspiration. She used to do this thing with olive oil and roasted garlic and goat cheese on French bread. And I thought—hey! We can do that on pizza! We can roast the garlic in the pizza oven! We added kalamatas just because I love kalamatas, and tomatoes because it needed color. ‘So, what’re we gonna name this thing?’ we wondered, and we thought about the garlic and the olives and the goat cheese, and someone said ‘G-O-G’ and we thought, Agog! Everyone’s agog over this pizza!—and it stuck. This was back in 1994, before too many people were roasting garlic. I’d say we were one of the first in the country to put it on pizza. Before long the Agog was so popular we had to take it out of our seasonal rotation and put it on the regular menu.”
Pagliacci Pizza, 21 locations; for delivery call 206-726-1717 in Seattle or 425-453-1717 on the Eastside

Mona’s Bistro and Lounge

Arugula Salad

Baby arugula with roasted red peppers, pistachios, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, and truffled honey
Newest of the classics described here is the salad that goes to “almost every table” at Mona’s. It was conceived just three-and-a-half years ago by then-chef Kyo Koo, who admitted from his current gig cooking in San Sebastián, Spain, that he didn’t foresee this salad’s huge appeal. “I started off just thinking of arugula as the green instead of everyday mesclun mix, because of its pungent and peppery flavor. The rest of the salad came into focus over a couple of days. We experimented with accompaniments, and in the end roasted red bell peppers were chosen for sweetness and color, roasted pistachios for crunch and a savory edge. Humboldt Fog chèvre is one of my favorite cheeses because of its complex flavor. Then I added honey for sweetness—but it was still missing something. And that’s where the white truffle oil came in. The overall flavor of the salad got much deeper when we added the truffle oil.”
Mona’s Bistro and Lounge, 6421 Latona Ave NE, Greenlake, 206-526-1188; www.monasseattle.com

Marco’s Supperclub

Fried Sage Leaves

Fresh sage leaves dredged in rice flour, water, and poppy seeds, then flash-fried crisp
“Years ago I had something like them at Soul Kitchen in Chicago, only they were done with milk, so the leaves were soft,” remembers the eponymous proprietor of the hippest joint in Belltown, Marco Rulff. “I thought, These are only halfway there; these should be crisp! So we played around with them. A little rice flour, some poppy seeds, and made them into chips. Later, on researching it more, it turns out that they’re Sardinian, used to smother fresh whole fish. We never adopted that. For us it’s not sustenance, it’s not meant to be sustenance—it’s just a fun and tasty treat. And it’s the one item that never leaves our menu.”
Marco’s Supperclub, 2510 First Ave, Belltown, 206-441-7801; www.marcossupperclub.com
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Canlis

Canlis Salad

Romaine, mint, oregano, bacon, and Romano cheese in a dressing of lemon, olive oil, and coddled egg
“My grandfather, Peter Canlis, created it,” says Mark Canlis, the third-generation owner of the restaurant that bears the family name, speaking of the salad that has been on Canlis’s menu since its first day of operation 57 years ago. “His father, who was from the island of Lesbos near Istanbul, was quite a cook. He was tapped by Teddy Roosevelt to be his private chef on African safaris. His mother, Sito, was Lebanese. So the salad was born of my grandfather’s Mediterranean influences—the fresh mint, the oregano, the lemon, and the Romano cheese. It has to be Romano. Parmesan will ruin a Canlis salad. It was an instant hit. It’s been all over the news, on Good Morning America. For us it’s just our family salad. It’s what we eat with pizza.”
Canlis, 2576 Aurora Ave N, Queen Anne, 206-283-3313; www.canlis.com

Andaluca

Cabrales-Crusted Beef

Cabrales-crusted beef tenderloin with Marsala glaze, grilled pear, and Idiazábal mashed potatoes
Andaluca’s signature stunner arose from the brainstorm of Seattle culinary diva Kathy Casey and her consulting team, which midwifed at the birth of the Spanish-themed hotel restaurant in 1996. “We did the whole concept—cocktails, menu, and room,” recalls Casey. “Our aim was to use really fun Spanish products in tasty ways. That’s where the Cabrales and Idiazábal cheeses came in. Our team was great—there was Don Curtiss [see Volterra], whom we brought in as chef, and Diana Isaiou [the post–Tom Douglas chef at Café Sport, now a food stylist], who as I recall actually worked hardest on this particular dish. I don’t remember all of the process now—I just remember we all agreed it was incredibly delicious.”
Andaluca, 407 Olive Way, Downtown, 206-382-6999; www.andaluca.com

Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger Fragrant Duck

Fresh duck with fragrant skin spiced with cinnamon and star anise, served with pickles, steamed buns, Szechuan peppercorn salt, and sweet plum sauce
Owner Rick Yoder didn’t exactly invent the item that’s been the star of his restaurant’s menu since Wild Ginger opened 18 years ago. “This Szechuan dish is probably more than 300 years old,” Yoder explains. “It was invented by necessity. Without refrigeration they needed a way to preserve meat, and they found that peppercorn was a preservative. So they’d take the slaughtered ducks and rub them with a salt and peppercorn mixture, which would retard bacterial growth. So it’s a very traditional dish, and all the steps to making it are very straightforward—but it is a pain in the butt to make. You have to do a dry marinade at least 24 hours—preferably 48 hours—ahead. There are a number of spices. Then you have to steam it. Then double deep-fry it. I wrote it all down once and it filled two full pages. But we make it all the time. We probably do about 150 orders a day.”
Wild Ginger, 1401 Third Ave, Downtown, 206-623-4450; www.wildginger.net
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Café Campagne

Lamb Burger

Grilled lamb burger with balsamic grilled onions, roasted red peppers, aioli, and pommes frites
Tamara Murphy (see Brasa) was chef and Peter Lewis the owner when their elegant country French restaurant, Campagne, spun off its more casual satellite in 1994. Which one was responsible for the dish that would fix Café Campagne on the gastronomical map of a thousand foodies? “I think it was me,” remembers Lewis, who sold the café a couple years back but remains a nominal presence in the restaurant—as “Minister of Culture,” he quips. “The idea was that we needed a burger to make the menu accessible, because of the location in Pike Place Market. But I wanted to give it a Provençal twist. So we made it from lamb, seasoned it with rosemary and garlic, and topped it with roasted red peppers and aioli.”
Café Campagne, 1600 Post Alley, Pike Place Market, 206-728-2233; www.campagnerestaurant.com

Volterra

Oil Soup

Cannellini bean and pancetta soup, topped with focaccia croutons and a generous drizzling of Volterra’s own Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil
Don Curtiss, proprietor and chef of Volterra, found inspiration for his restaurant’s signature item on his wedding trip to the Tuscan village of Volterra. “The night after our wedding, our friend who had catered it, Genuino del Duca, took us to a wonderful villa on a beautiful Tuscan hillside next door to his merlot vineyard,” Curtiss recalls. “And we had a soup there that was absolutely amazing—a bean soup topped with, I’m telling you, two, maybe three inches of pure, amazing olive oil. There was more oil than soup. It was incredibly fresh, right after the olive crush, and I said, ‘This is perfect.’ When we got home we played around with the recipe, added more beans, removed an inch or so of oil—sometimes you have to Americanize a bit—but still drizzled a good tablespoon over each bowl. Now we have our own olive-oil blend, made just for us in Tuscany. I think we’d have an uprising if we ever took this soup off the menu.”
Volterra, 5411 Ballard Ave NW, Ballard, 206-789-5100; www.volterrarestaurant.com

Etta’s Seafood

Crab Cakes

Dungeness crab cakes, pan-sautéed, served with green cocktail sauce, French fries, and a seasonal vegetable
“I first learned how to make crab cakes at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware—but that’s certainly not the first time I ate them—no, no, no,” says Tom Douglas, the busiest restaurateur in Seattle and architect of its finest crab cake. “From the boardwalk to the boardroom crab cakes rule the mid-Atlantic menu. Reputations are at stake. Careers can blossom or die with the simplest critique of a chef’s crab cakes. When I arrived in Seattle during the fall of ’77 there wasn’t a crab cake to be had in this town, so I seized the opportunity. Of course I transitioned from my Chesapeake Blue crab to meaty Dungeness, but I never forgot my ‘cheap’ white breadcrumb roots. My cakes have a crispy butter-crumb surface and creamy, herb-laced centers, heavy on the crab.”
Etta’s Seafood, 2020 Western Ave, Pike Place Market, 206-443-6000; www.tomdouglas.com

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