OF ALL THE INNOVATIONS Tamara Murphy has pioneered in this town—and there have been plenty—my longtime favorite appears on the menu of the veteran restaurateur’s new Capitol Hill restaurant, Terra Plata.
Roast pig with clams and housemade chorizo has been on Murphy’s menu since the early days of her Belltown Iberian restaurant, Brasa. The dish has changed little from its debut in the late ’90s: It’s still a big hank of moist pork shoulder anchoring a brothy stew of clams in the shell, fiery chorizo, pickled onions, smashed potatoes, cilantro aplenty, and the pork rind that ate Manhattan.
It’s still admirable, still a fun collision of herbs and pig meat (another of Murphy’s contributions: her devotion to pork, earning her the lamentable nickname the Pig Lady), still one of Seattle’s legendary dishes. Only now, to our porked-out, pickled-out palates—no longer exactly the thrill it once was. The chorizo overwhelmed the quieter shoulder meat. And now that pork rind is kind of everywhere—perhaps no longer as cleverly retrograde as it is just…chewy.
Terra Plata is a restaurant that makes a person think about a restaurateur’s evolution. From her days racking up acclaim as executive chef at the fancy French destination Campagne to her decade helming the creamy Brasa, Murphy has evolved, atmospherically anyway, by devolving: Terra Plata is as comfortable and casual as an old pair of jeans. Tucked into the narrow point of the Melrose Market triangle, it’s rustic from its concrete floors to its wood tables and timber rafters; on the walls that aren’t workingman’s brick, glass windows pull the heart of Capitol Hill into the room. A bustling open kitchen across the short wall spills into an intimate triangular bar. Murphy fought hard to hold on to this smallish space when a dispute with the landlord nearly derailed the deal, and it’s no wonder why: The room itself is a warm embrace.
Its address at the junction of First Hill, Capitol Hill, and downtown unites constituencies from Capitol Hill hipsters to middle-aged parka-sporters to seventy-somethings on double dates. Few top-drawer chefs in town boast such broad appeal, and the reason is Brasa. Though lovely, that restaurant was cavernous and ill located; problems Murphy corrected by launching her most famous invention in this town—the happy hour with half-price bar food. Not only did her innovation touch off a city’s infatuation with happy hours, it packed Brasa with folks looking for $7-ish plates of mussels marinière and crusty paella in an elegant setting. Murphy became the most popular great chef in town.
So when she finally threw over Belltown for Capitol Hill—“I wanted to go where the action was!”—a legion of fans was only too willing to follow. And who wouldn’t follow this star, particularly when she’s taking them this many places? One sun-drenched brunch involved baked oysters, arrayed in their ruffly shells on a bed of rock salt and topped with a Southern comfort of breadcrumbs and creamy chard and chorizo and fontina, a shot glass of spiked tomato juice on the side. Across the table: Korean-marinated hanger steak with fried eggs and a mild kimchee. Terra Plata is Murphy gone global.
At dinner, spot prawns arrive bright with chimichurri and suffused with smoke from the grill, spangled with cilantro and pockets of unbilled roe in some of the shellfish like briny little surprises. Seared scallops sit atop celeriac puree—luscious caramel on luscious vegetable—alongside a citrusy profusion of greens, oranges, and celery, the whole piqued with truffled sunchoke chips. Brilliant flavors, brilliant textures: brilliant dish.
To be sure, Murphy also trots out European homages, from a velvety brick of rabbit liver terrine (her charcuterie is unassailable) swathed in salted oil and swooningly offset with cherry compote to a wildly overbreadcrumbed cassoulet. (The kitchen’s not immune from lazy errors, as in an overcharred cauliflower plate.) The best desserts sounded similarly Continental notes, like an apple-quince galette with cardamom ice cream and terrific pastry and a sticky toffee pudding confection involving nearly liquid date cake, caramel sauce, walnut streusel, and candied orange.
But the biggest homage at Terra Plata, however, is the one Murphy pays to herself. Where have I tasted these churros before…? I pondered while dredging one of the (somewhat leaden) cinnamon dough rods through its dipping sauce of chili chocolate ganache. Oh, right: the Spanish doughnuts at Brasa. Ditto the beautiful little knuckles of cappelletti pasta, stuffed with squash and served in browned sage butter with a dusting of hazelnuts and Parmesan. Ditto the fries with garlic aioli. Ditto the Mediterranean mussels in Pernod cream.
Terrific dishes, make no mistake, but preparations she refined into crowd-pleasers at a very different restaurant, in a very different time. Their revival here contributed to a nagging feeling it took me three visits to identify as tedium. This was an unexpected response to an innovator like Murphy, an outright novel response in a culinary theme park like Seattle—and testament to how far our palates have come in 20 years of boundary-pushing dining.
Eating several parts of a butchered pig in a single dish—been there. Crowning it with a pickled complement—done that. What’s more, we’ve been there and done that in large part thanks to the brainy bravura of Chef Pig Lady. Terra Plata grants her fans a world tour of Murphy’s oeuvre—which for many, in quarters this winning (look for a rooftop deck this summer!) will be enough.
Me, I’m itching to see how much further she can take us.