10 Best Restaurants 2009

By Kathryn Robinson September 21, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met

THERE ARE MAYBE two dozen cities on the planet where the top 10 restaurants are tougher to call than in Seattle. Lucky us. Thank our extravagance of edible resources, entrepreneurial enterprise, and culinary exuberance. But man it makes a restaurant critic’s life hard.

Anointing just 10 has a choosing-your-favorite-child whiff to it. Each has its lovable qualities, its lovable quirks. One worships at the altar of the finest Shigoku oyster, the freshest heirloom tomato. Another sets family-style feasts upon banquet tables, inviting a shared communion that goes much deeper than dinner.

But here’s what it came down to for us. Whose service best captures the intelligent flavor of Northwest hospitality? Who bestows beauty and precision to plate and place, at every single meal? Who transforms the world’s finest raw ingredients into dishes that shimmer with invention and intention—but, mostly, that taste good? Who expresses the rooted sense of place that imbues a restaurant with a soul?

This year’s ultimate short list—take our word and our belt size for it—was culled from a list a whole lot longer. For each restaurant (listed in no meaningful order) you’ll find the chef or owner’s vision, my critical appraisal, and a list of the place’s noteworthy dishes.

Read it…and eat.

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Serious Pie
316 Virginia St, Downtown, 206-838-7388; tomdouglas.com

“I sat down with our cooks and bakers to drill down on a simple idea: how to make a better pizza. Not better than anyone else—better to our taste. For me, I like something other than Neapolitan style, which is the trend now. I was looking for a firmer crust. A slower heat, a longer bake. The best cheeses in the world. I think people recognize that no matter what you’re making—whether it be a taco or mac and cheese or a pizza—you can make something really low end and awful, or you can make it to that high end of imagination and thoughtfulness and care. I personally love cooking at the big stone hearth oven at Serious Pie. It’s cooking like the cavemen. Just you and the fire.” Tom Douglas, owner, Serious Pie

In the last two decades, Tom Douglas has become such an industry it can be hard to remember why we fell so hard for him. Serious Pie reminds us that he is the culinary maverick who freed fruit from the garnish ghetto and made upscale restaurants safe for burgers.

In this warm, little 48-seat ski-cabin of a room, Douglas distills his signature playfulness. A salad consists of red and golden beets, whole pistachios, shreds of mint, and anchovies. Shockingly, naturally, it’s a stunner. A peach from the Pence family orchard in Wapato (meaningful to food nerds and, it turns out, anyone with taste buds) arrives sliced and strewn with basil and pine nuts, alongside a schmear of the sweet creamed mozzarella, burrata. It’s perfect. Fruit still looms large in Douglas’s universe.

And when your pizza emerges from inside the big wood-fired oven—all funny-shaped and topped with Penn Cove clams, housemade pancetta, and lemon thyme; or Spanish truffle cheese with roasted chanterelles—it’s the finest pie you’ve ever tasted, and you can’t decide if that’s because of the blue-ribbon toppings or the chewy, golden, melt-in-mouth crust. Suddenly you’ll recall that this man also owns the Dahlia Bakery.

The mastery extends through dessert, where potent Italianate fruit-and-pastry masterpieces come with a side of raw guilt when you see the knot of hungry diners at the door. Yes, there’s always a wait. Yes, tables are communal. Nowhere in the Douglas empire are his graceful, good-­humored servers more vital to the operation. Serious Pie is not a place to linger over fine Italian wine or boutique beer, though seriously comfy stools (this restaurateur thinks of everything) invite it.

It’s a joint to enjoy some of Seattle’s giddiest yet most exacting cuisine, performed with the kind of focus and immediacy that Douglas’s big corporate outfits don’t allow.

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2576 Aurora Ave N, Queen Anne, 206-283-3313; canlis.com

“I think we have a different philosophy from other restaurants of our caliber. Most other restaurants put their food or their chef or their wine in the spotlight—and that’s not wrong. We too have a lot to be proud of. But a food museum, or an homage to a famous chef, or a great wine list—that’s not how my family wants to do it. When you see that Canlis sign on Aurora, we want you to think, ‘There’s people I can trust. I came into your restaurant and I gave you my most treasured possession—my time with my family, my big business meeting, my daughter’s 16th birthday—and you honored that, uplifted it, protected it with everything at your disposal.’ What Canlis puts in the spotlight is the guest.” Mark Canlis, owner, Canlis

Seattle’s most legendary restaurant, now going on 60, genuinely keeps getting better. Yes, the valet still magically remembers your car without a claim ticket. Yes, the waiters still ply the far frontiers of guest service. Yes, there’s that sweeping Lake Union view, that stone-hewn midcentury design—which, taken together, create the most sublime restaurant setting in the Pacific Northwest. And, yes, there’s still a Canlis at the helm—two, actually: brothers Mark and Brian, who trawl the floor, greeting regulars and welcoming newcomers just as their parents Chris and Alice did before them, and their grandfather, founder Peter Canlis, before that.

With Louis Armstrong crooning through the sound system, your table strategically oriented toward the view, your Scotch cocktail stiff and flawless, the wine list heavy in your hand (it’s a marvel, having earned for the last several years Wine Spectator ’s rare Grand Award)—even restrooms that were up for a Best Restroom in America award—you’re sumptuously nourished before your food hits the table.

When the food does arrive, it’ll be the best it’s been in years. New chef Jason Franey (from Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, which The New York Times just gave four stars) has retained and mastered the Canlis Salad, the steak tartare, the prime steaks—the man’s not suicidal—but brings new levity to the tasting menu and the specials, where a slice of grilled watermelon might show up with greens and goat cheese and frisky speckles of balsamic.

Probably not how old Peter would’ve done it. Better.

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Boat Street Cafe
3131 Western Ave Ste 301, Belltown, 206-632-4602; boatstreetcafe.com

“The original Boat Street was a unique and odd restaurant for Seattle, a cross between a shack in New England and a sunny spot in Provence. It was on the north end of Portage Bay, at the end of a gravel road with potholes. The building leaked. It wasn’t trying to be part of that whole ’90s dot-com restaurant scene. It had an end-of-the-farm-road feel. When we had to move it didn’t seem right to reopen just anywhere. I think the new space at the foot of Denny holds some of the same old sweetness and charm, but in a more urban location. I love the white. Everything I own is white: my car, my house, my dog. I guess my cooking style compares to the white—food that’s about the ingredients, food that’s simple, comforting. The more I cook the more I’m drawn to grandma’s French food. I don’t love a list of 25 things in my dish.” Renee Erickson, owner and chef, Boat Street Cafe

Improbably, the sunken space in the farthest corner of Belltown in the Northwest Work Lofts Building captures the airy essence of Boat Street’s dockside original, with its whitewashed walls and mismatched chairs, its chalkboard menu and panorama of twinkling votives. The idiosyncratic charm of the decor—check the dog art, check the Chinese umbrellas—exquisitely reflects the postmodern-farmhouse sensibility of owner and chef Renee Erickson.

It comes through on the plate in the form of simple compositions, mouthfilling textures, brainy contrasts, and fat Provençal flavors. Medjool dates oozing sugars are sautéed in olive oil then spangled with fleur de sel; crab cakes are crammed with crab crisped in the pan, then served with banana–hot pepper confit and ­Erickson’s own homemade pickles. Lately she’s been pickling anything that isn’t nailed down—wax beans, huckleberries, figs; each in a unique brine—which isn’t so French, but is very Erickson; owing to her fine-tuned belief that something has to balance out the richness of her creamy cuisine.

The results are dinners—and, in next door’s Boat Street Kitchen, lunches and brunches—that reveal brilliance through contrast. Add in gentle service and a tranquil atmosphere, and you’re dining at the most winsomely romantic restaurant in town.

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2319 E Madison St, Madison Valley, 206-302-7874; chefjasonwilson.com  

“Our original vision was a neighborhood bistro with more modern design than you see in Seattle restaurants, to reflect the natural, farm-raised food that we saw as a more modern approach to cooking. Our interior designer thought the restaurant would be driven by the food experience, not the bar scene, so she persuaded us to go all white, thinking that the food and wine should provide the color—a tomato salad blossoming against a table. A ­couple years in, we realized that diners were treating Crush as more of a fine-dining restaurant than a neighborhood bistro—so, to respond to our customers, we changed. We concentrated on taking service to a higher level. We removed a few tables to give diners more space. I wouldn’t want Crush to be perceived as a special-­occasion jewel box. But I don’t think Seattle would let me have something other than a fine-dining restaurant. That’s what I do well.” Jason Wilson, owner and chef, Crush

When Crush opened in 2005, the stark setting confused everyone. Chic white Philippe Starck chairs and white leather banquettes in a refurbished Tudor? At the gritty inner-city corner of 23rd and Madison? The stylish little pocket of LA with its consequent other­worldliness drew Beautiful People in droves—even as Crush proved it was considerably more than just a pretty face.

Owner and chef Jason Wilson, who had opened the Pacific Place outpost of the glitzy California-based Stars in the bet-a-million ’90s, merged a down-to-earth delight in natural, farm-raised food with the kind of culinary refinement that longs to sous vide a short rib. It’s a killer combination. Dishes soar with both sophistication and earthiness, as when Wilson sears a lobe of foie gras and coats it with a glaze of huckleberries, or when he sautés a hunk of Alaskan halibut to serve with sea urchin mousseline over fresh, native fiddlehead ferns. It was the nonsurprise of the century when, just a year after Crush opened, Food and Wine pronounced Wilson one of the Top 10 New Chefs in America.

Best, Wilson’s plates nearly always offer “the yum factor”: that undefinable element that makes fine cuisine into good eatin’. Exhibit A: His buttermilk fried sweetbreads, with crisped potato, mustard coleslaw, and bourbon sauce.

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Cafe Juanita
9702 NE 120th Pl, Kirkland, 425-823-1505; cafejuanita.com 

“When I took over Cafe Juanita I wanted to show Italian food in a way that wasn’t getting a lot of play: different Northern regions in a younger, more modern approach. Not ‘classic’ dishes, but always more playful, always through a prism. When I started I assumed the clientele’s food preferences would be safer and more predictable—but tastes were more sophisticated than I was expecting. We opened in 2000, and the very first dish out of the kitchen was octopus. Octopus. Back when the only restaurant around serving octopus was Harvest Vine. It was awesome! I wanted to listen to our guests, and they took me in a direction I was very happy to go.” Holly Smith, chef and owner, Cafe Juanita

Inside Cafe Juanita the quietly lovely white-­tableclothed dining room tucked into green woods is classic; Holly Smith’s food is anything but. The 2008 James Beard winner–turned– Iron Chef contestant (airing on the Food Network this month—and no, we don’t know how it turns out) rocks one feisty culinary aesthetic, developed years ago under Tom Douglas and refined to Northern Italian specs within an insanely dynamic imagination. The recipe for her signature Arneis-braised rabbit? Came to her in a dream.

So a hunk of buttery, pan-seared sablefish arrives over whipped Yukon Golds, speckled with pancetta, ringed with warmed cantaloupe-­lime puree, and topped with truffle-oiled arugula leaves. If it all sounds precious, it never is. It tastes real. Executionwise Smith’s simply never off: in the gelati Smith now peddles out of her mobile business, Poco Carretto Gelato, or even in her menu’s few unadorned classics, like the ravishing tangle of tagliatelle Bolognese.

That menu, along with the admirable wine list, springs to life in the care of Smith’s fleet of career waiters, who intelligently flesh out descriptions and hold diners’ special occasions in trusty hands.

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Cascina Spinasse
1531 14th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-251-7673; spinasse.com

“I knew that the original chef, Justin Neidermeyer, was looking to ease out of Spinasse; in his heart he’d been wanting to get back to Italy for a long time. This was a great opportunity for me. I’ve been to Piedmont, that’s the food I just love to make. I love the way they eat in Piedmont. The wine is so amazing, they keep the food simple so as not to overwhelm it. I’m not going to change the pastas. Everyone who comes here gets pasta. But if anything bugged me about the menu, it was that the big family-style portions kept people from ordering anything else. Other areas were getting overlooked. We added more portion-size flexibility so people can comfortably have antipasti, primi, and secondi. In Piedmont pasta is the centerpiece of the meal—but still a piece of the meal.” Jason Stratton, chef, Cascina Spinasse

Will you still make us pasta when you are a star?

That’s Pike/Pine peeking through the lace curtains, but in the steamy room with the wrought-iron chandeliers and the long, hand-hewn plank tables—those tables filled with sybarites lingering over Campari or lush semifreddo—you’re deep in the chestnut hills of Piedmont.

Cascina Spinasse is the most Old World restaurant in Seattle. It opened a year ago with Justin Neidermeyer at the helm, an artisan pasta maker so enamored of his source material he soon decamped back to the Piedmont where he apprenticed. Enter Jason Stratton, who trained with Neidermeyer and therefore knew just how many egg yolks it takes to fashion the rich, delicate pasta called tajarin. Each strand is still hand-cut daily; the miraculously featherweight ragu is the paragon of that dish in this town, perhaps in this country. Other pastas are reliably first rate; the tajarin is special.

Yes, the new regime brought changes: less of an emphasis on communal dining, friendlier and more grounded service, and desserts—cue that semifreddo—more various and memorable than before. But the food continues to pay dazzling tribute to the authentic cuisine and wines of Piedmont. Every bottle on the list is from that region. Side dishes and salads make glorious use of seasonal and simple ingredients, like chicory, common to the Northwest and Northern Italy. And Spinasse’s underheralded meats remain its best-kept secret, as in a recent preparation of roasted quail, its crispy golden joints perched on a bed of polenta sweetened with whole corn kernels and the first of the year’s chanterelles. It’s every bit as good as the pasta.

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622 Broadway E, Capitol Hill, 206-324-1108; poppyseattle.com

“I wasn’t intentionally trying to go the absolute opposite of the Herbfarm, but I did have in mind very clean, modern, Scandinavian design. The idea was to make the food the focus. I just wanted to make food that was more approachable, less fussy. I was tired of all the petals and garnishes. That’s why I was so excited when I went to India and discovered thali —all these different small plates on a tray, very fresh and healthy, each about flavor. It was a matter of about an hour between having the idea and starting to work on it. Diners love this idea of not committing to one dish. And it’s small plates, a lot of them, but designed to go together. Looking back I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned the word India—a lot of people still come in expecting Indian food.” Jerry Traunfeld, chef and owner, Poppy

With its brick walls and concrete floors, unupholstered blond wood and wall of people-watching windows, Poppy at the north end of Broadway looks a lot like an urban cafeteria. So why do folks flock here as a destination? Because owner and chef Jerry Traunfeld once ran the region’s most venerated culinary destination; that bastion of nine-course, straight-from-the-garden meals, the Herbfarm. And he is, at the moment, the best chef in Seattle.

He’s fastidious, for starters. Every detail is in place—the staff efficient and appealing, the postage-stamp herb garden in back finely manicured, the hand-drying machine in the restrooms startlingly high-tech. Even desserts are not afterthoughts: Traunfeld hired pastry pro Dana Cree to produce an array of herbal and floral panna cottas and tarts and sorbets that are consistently the best in town.

But it’s all just the right showcase for Traunfeld’s culinary skill set. Diners order thali —an Indian method of eating in which 10 small plates arrive together on a tray—or Traunfeld’s lighter American accommodation, “Smalli,” with just six plates. (Nimbly, he added more of these along with larger starters when thalis proved initially intimidating.) The dishes reflect Traunfeld’s obsession with seasonality and his facility with herbs, so a midsummer thali might contain a cool cucumber gazpacho, bright with lemon basil, along with a dish of English peas with fresh fennel and an inspired combination of leek strands with taggiasca olives and savory.

A maestro of flavor layering, Traunfeld completes Wagyu steak with sweet onions and farro; a sockeye filet with sea beans and bacon and a creamy pinot noir sauce (a supple dazzler that Herbfarm devotees will recognize). Then he’ll add a gratin, something pickled perhaps, a slab of naan (his one Indian convention). It’s a lot of food, but Traunfeld’s touch is light and healthful.

Every little dish contains its own universe of flavor—but is designed to enhance every other dish on the tray. Thus Traunfeld has revolutionized the traditional small-plate model, composing combinations like, well, the chef, rather than leaving that important business to the diner.

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2808 E Madison St, Madison Valley, 206-325-7442; rovers-seattle.com

“I wanted Rover’s to be a three-Michelin-star restaurant without all the fuss, where the food is top notch but the ambience is like you’re in my home. I took the ‘Chef in the Hat’ persona because I wanted to demystify this pompous, aristocratic reputation. Yeah, there was a time we only had a set menu. That did scare people. And I know it’s not your everyday restaurant. But my cooking continues to move away from my classical French training. Being in Seattle, you go to the Market, go to Chinatown, find all this new stuff you can’t wait to incorporate into your food. So my background is French, but the upgrades—like on Microsoft Windows—they happen every day!” Thierry Rautureau, owner and chef, Rover’s

The tone of the service hasn’t changed: It’s still smart and elegant, never false or pretentious. And the food still has its trademark poise: No dish of game confit or Maine lobster will leave the kitchen without platings intelligent and painterly enough for the ­Musée d’Orsay.

What has evolved is chef and owner Thierry Rautureau’s sensibility. To be sure, Rover’s always felt très français. But something’s loosened up. There’s now the occasional Moroccan breeze, as in the swirl of harissa Hollandaise on the pork belly Benedict that Rover’s served during its spring and summer Sunday brunches. And there are preparations that defy classical conventions in favor of borderless innovation. Like one recent dish of spot prawns over pickled vegetables beside a verdant smear of pea puree, all in a tangy wash of chermoula—a dish that transcended formality to land closer to the neighborhood of unrestrained glee.

Make no mistake: Money will be spent. (And in the case of the eight-course $130 Grand Menu Degustation—big money.) Rover’s is no drop-in neighborhood joint. But when Rautureau saunters over in that silly hat, his welcome genuine and his smile down-to-earth, it can feel like one.

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Spring Hill
4437 California Ave SW, West Seattle, 206-935-1075; springhillnorthwest.com

“My goal was to have a restaurant that represented the Northwest, focused on the ingredients we have around us. We focus on shellfish, our abundance of different oysters, our clams, mussels, spot prawns, Dungeness. When I was cooking at the Dahlia Lounge, I put a lot of thought into whether there was a regional style of cooking—and no, I don’t think there is. I do think my own style has evolved. I’m getting simpler as I get older. Simple, as in fewer ingredients on the plate. We definitely mess with our ingredients, deep-frying potato cracklings for the beef tartare, that kind of thing. We do not cut corners. Things are good when you work hard at them. So presentations are simple—but preparations are not.” Mark Fuller, owner and chef, Spring Hill

The joys of Spring Hill, the restaurant Mark Fuller owns with his wife Marjorie Chang Fuller, are made of simple elements. Raw shellfish. Housemade charcuterie. And the aroma of wood smoke, which in this minimalist and hard-edged room turns out to be the most vivid atmospheric component in the place. (There’s a distinct chill at Spring Hill, from both the room and the cool staff.)

To his diners’ distinct pleasure, Fuller then takes these basics and embellishes them with luscious extras. Oh, he’ll present a barely adorned plate of Belon oysters on the half shell. But some of Seattle’s finest comfort food issues from his disciplined kitchen, including the colossal bacon burger —with house-cured bacon, natch—or the crispy sweetbreads he serves with housemade ranch. Virtuous poached chicken breast arrives sliced over celery-root fricassee, with a sinful cap of crisped chicken skin. A chickpea-and-chard strudel with sesame yogurt and roast cauliflower is a vegetarian’s dream, with the textural swoon of stunning pastry. Even a plate of spare soppressata comes with sumptuous alder-smoked oysters, roasted peppers, and potato cracklings.

Mark Fuller just gets food—the rudiments of it, the chemistry, the way a pour of clarified tomato broth will activate a drizzle of basil oil, or a tenderly herbal butter-lettuce salad wants only the thinnest sliced radishes, or an unadorned egg yolk will exalt a charred shrimp better than any foofy French sauce. His almost studious command of flavor makes Spring Hill one of the most consistently rewarding dinner houses in the city.

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Shiro's Sushi Restaurant
2401 Second Ave, Belltown, 206-443-9844; shiros.com 

“Twelve years ago I opened Shiro’s. I’ve tried to do here what I did at [my first restaurant] Nikko—present real and simple seafood. It’s a traditional sushi house, like in Japan. I trained in Tokyo. I don’t do fusion. This area has the best seafood in the world, and every day I can get the best local ocean smelt, the best spot prawns, the best local albacore. That’s why I say don’t use too much soy, don’t use too much wasabi. You want to taste the healthy fish taste.” Shiro Kashiba, chef, Shiro’s Sushi

The room is boxy and vanilla flavored; the servers unremarkably gentle and efficient. The place is no longer the only game in town for sushi, like it was four decades ago, when Kashiba cut Seattle its first piece of raw fish. But there is no more exhilarating seat in all of Seattle than Shiro Kashiba’s sushi bar.

The fish itself is thrilling: in its pristine freshness, in the traditional precision of its cuts, and in the sure-handedness with which it’s presented. Many pieces come with just the right amount of wasabi tucked between rice and flesh, along with clear instructions from the maestro about how much, if any, soy sauce should be applied. (“Soy sauce cheap. Fish expensive.”) Defy the maestro at your peril. When it’s done according to his instructions, the flesh of the albacore will be velvety, its flavor rich and vivid. And Kashiba’s boyish smile ebullient.

He has trained his colleagues well, just like he trained half the folks who would go on to become his competitors, now flashing knives from Chiso to Shiki to Hana. And he’s not even sole owner anymore, having partnered with the I Love Sushi people a couple years ago.

Still, it’s Kashiba’s exacting sensibility and old-country standard that set the tone at the restaurant that bears his name. (Pssst: Look for him behind the bar Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.) No trendy rolls here; this is a place for freshest ocean smelt and maybe even monkfish liver, best enjoyed as part of the chef’s-choice multicourse feast, omakase, which is really the only way to eat at this legendary place.

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