Critic's Notebook

My Favorite Restaurant Dishes of 2016

The 10 most unforgettable creations of the year. Holy crap, I love my job.

By Kathryn Robinson December 29, 2016

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Pig's Head Candybar at Eden Hill.

Image: Olivia Brent

What was an uncommonly prolific year for Seattle restaurant openings was also a seriously tasty one, in places both farther up the fanciness spectrum—see Copine which improved upon a throwbacky paradigm, see Marine Hardware which made prix fixe feel casual—and farther down—see eat-breakfast-while-getting-your-bike-cranks-tightened Peloton—than one typically locates original excellence. 

Herewith, in no meaningful order, the 10 dishes that made me happiest. Note that this could’ve been “The 20 Dishes That Made Me Happiest,” maybe even the 30, without dipping into realm of the merely very good. It was that exceptional a year. And though most of these dishes remain in some form on their menus, remember that preparations come and go and evolve.

Eden Hill Crispy Pig Head Candybar

Okay so chef Maximilien Petty could’ve called it headcheese, but gross. It’s the stuff that comes off the head of a pig when boiled, here with star anise, fresh herbs, and lots of garlic. He sweetens it with hoisin and fermented black beans and caramelized onions, then presses it onto a sheet tray and cuts into candybar shapes. Any of these particulars he may have switched up in recent versions. All I know is that when I got mine, breaded and fried into crunchy yielding comfort-loveliness in a puddle of pear and champagne soup, alongside pretty exclamations of pickled merlot cabbage—it blew me away with its blend of artistry, whimsy, soaring intelligence, and simple comprehension of what a person wants in her mouth.

Harvest Beat Smoked Carrot and Ginger Bisque with a Black Lemon Orange Gastrique

One of the lovelinesses of the year was the re-emergence of the vegan masterpiece in Seattle. Harvest Beat in Wallingford hit the ground running with just half of its precursor Sutra’s ownership team but every inch of its passion and precision, in dishes like this velvet soup you can’t believe wasn’t made with cream. (Credit a chinois sieve which brought the carrots and vegetables to their impossibly smooth state. Also a splash of coconut milk.) Besides the extraordinary texture was the flavor of freshest organic carrots, smoked on Harvest Beat’s back patio. Then, drizzled on top, a bright gastrique of mirin, orange, and the aggressive glory that is black lemon: the sweetish-tartish powder that comes from petrified limes. Harvest Beat makes its own black lemon, natch, even passed one of the black lime pellets for the guests to touch. God I love this place.  

Upper Bar Ferdinand Bay Leaf Ice Cream

Like a cluster of chanterelles in a fir forest, Matt Dillon’s Upper Bar Ferdinand glows in the timbered depths of Chophouse Row. Given Dillon’s frequent presence in its kitchen and his idiosyncratic vision for its food and wine, it’s a stunning little window into the aesthetic of a man I do not lightly call a genius. Not to mention his cojones—for here, right next door to his buddy Kurt Timmermeister’s stunning ice creamerie, Kurt Farm Shop, Dillon makes ice cream, which ends dinner just about every night. My first flavor was bay leaf—one of those fashionably savory flavors sophisticates are supposed to love, but which always sound mildly deflating to me. And then I tasted it. The bay leaf flavor was its usually quiet, herby self, but elevated with the burnt honey Dillon uses in most of his ice creams; like bay leaf in caramel form, with a long lush aftertaste. Fresh strawberry-rhubarb syrup formed a little lake at the bottom. It’s a different flavor every night, but it really doesn’t matter—ice cream made this way is a revelation.

Peloton Roasted Vegetable Hash

Everyone loves the breakfast burritos here, but I come for the bike tuneups and the roasted vegetable hash. The vegetables change seasonally; my plate was a fry-up of leeks, purple potatoes, cauliflower, and dollops of chevre, with chipotle aioli, and topped with soppy eggs and a profusion of greens. Man! Is it that freshness like this isn’t what you expect this close to bike mechanics? Is it that chef/co-owner Mckenzie Hart has a venerable pedigree from London Plane and Sitka and Spruce? Is it that this kind of sumptuous and healthful freshness is simply food at its best? Finest use of $12 I can think of right now.

Manu’s Bodega Puerco Asado Plate

2016 was the year Manu Alfau imported his Dominican Republic delights to a secondary stall at 15th and Madison. But the larger menu at his Pioneer Square bodega (hidden away at Yesler and Prefontaine Pl) continues to shine, as I discovered on a recent visit to check out his defining specialty, the puerco asado plate. My God man: Everything about this $13 dish screams perfection, from the melting shreds of marinated roast pork to the slaw, the chimichurri sauce…even the fluffy jasmine rice with pinto beans, so intentionally crafted as to seem like the star of the plate. Oh yeah, and the fried plantain chips known as tostones, thick and toothsome with just the right amount of grease. The whole production is just insanely good.

Copine watermelon h0zobw

Ahi tuna crudo at Copine. Ain't it pretty?

Image: Sarah Flotard

Copine Ahi Tuna Crudo

This may be the prettiest dish I saw in a restaurant this year. It’s certainly one of the prettiest restaurants, hewing to an old-school definition of pretty whose classic lines and paned windows blend formality with charm, and preserving an old-school version of kindness in service that is simply pretty to experience. But back to that crudo, which arrived in a silken mound atop a disc of compressed watermelon—a denser and more concentrated version of watermelon whose texture and color mimics, whaddya know, ahi tuna. Now add some crisped rice on top for texture, a little mizuna salad, fling around some jalapeno circlets, ring the watermelon filet with a drizzle of sweet-spanky chile gastrique—then spangle the drizzle with blue edible flowers. Yeah, you can see the pretty. But tasting it was every bit as extraordinary, as chef/co-owner Shaun McCrain is a maestro at composing a plate where every element is essential and none is extraneous. Glorious eating.

Anar Mujadara Bowl

Call 2016 Seattle’s Year of the Grain Bowl, with a version from Anar—the Mamnoon folks’ vegetables-and-juices storefront downtown—one for the ages. Upon a warm foundation of brown rice and green lentils, the Mujadara featured bright magenta cubes of pickled turnip, flecks of fresh cilantro, pumpkin seeds spiced with Aleppo—the dried chile whose name recalls the worst of 2016—and a creamy dollop of Seattle’s own Ellenos yogurt. This dish mingled the sour with the tart, the sweet with the savory, the high notes and the bass notes, along with a brilliant spectrum of textures and colors. Super fun to eat.

Marine Hardware Corn Risotto with Parmigiano Reggiano and Summer Black Truffle

In years of reviewing restaurants I’ve developed shorthand tricks in my under-the-table taking-of-notes that help with recall. One is the use of capital letters to denote unusual excellence. Herewith, some direct quotes off my notepad from my first visit to Ethan Stowell’s Marine Hardware: “AMAZING!!! Summer truffles in a heap over sweet, SWEET corn risotto”—this was August—“enlivened with pepper and herbs, dusted with the reggiano OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW PERFECT THIS IS. Truffles INSANE. Toothiness of risotto DIVINE.” It goes on; I think you get the idea. Later, Stowell told me his Marine Hardware chef Michael Gifford masterminds the seasonal risottos, which (if available) can be ordered a la carte or hoped for on a tasting menu.

Bateau Veal Sweetbreads with Elderberry Capers, Pickled Elderflowers, and Buerre Blanc

Recently a Seattle chef I called for another reason asked why I chose the French steakhouse Bateau to be our 2016 Restaurant of the Year. I respect [owner Renee Erickson] enormously, he explained; it’s just that it’s a steakhouse—not the most challenging or creative arena for a chef. I told him Bateau was no ordinary steakhouse, combining its devotion to dry-aged beef with a full-on French menu, rife with challenge and creativity. Chef Taylor Thornhill’s imagination soars in plates like one I relished on an early visit, where the tender milk-braised sweetbreads were brightened with pickled elderberry capers and elder flowers, all of it thrumming with the caramel richness of the French butter sauce. Striking both classic and inventive notes—this dish dazzled both intellectually and delectably.

Mbar Soft Local Polenta with Mascarpone and Rabbit/Foie Gras Bolognese Bianca

Okay, so you’re staring at the menu in the gorgeous new Jason Stratton rooftop restaurant trying to decide between the grilled trout and the duck confit, and your waiter keeps mentioning the polenta. Finally you give in and order it, thinking that anyone who downsells this hard (it’s the cheapest item on the mains menu) must have a reason, and then it arrives, bubbling hotly in its cast iron skillet, and you dip your fork in, and—okay! Found the reason! This creation (which reportedly hasn’t yet left the menu) represents the single finest comfort food in Seattle at the moment; a nostalgic nod to the rabbit dishes of Stratton’s former Cascina Spinasse, a rare siting of a tomato-less white Bolognese sauce, and as fine an exploitation of the wickedness of foie gras as I’ve ever encountered. In short, extreme decadence. The soft polenta arrives sweetly pooled with mascarpone, draped in orange carrot sauce, richly enrobed with the meaty Bolognese (starring forever-braised rabbit), then embellished with curls of parmegiano. “Rabbit and cream,” Jason Stratton sighed, when asked about its provenance. “Such a lovely thing.”  Touche.

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