Memorable moments, from wagyu to waffles.

This year sputtered, restarted, sped ahead, and this month got knocked back on its rocker by Omicron. Dining felt a little bit that way, too. Restaurants waged daily campaigns against staffing shortages, supply chain shitshows, and—oh yeah—a pandemic. And they still did some pretty amazing things. Here are my most memorable dishes of 2021.

Crab Pizza at Moto

Pizza was practically its own reopening phase (remember those?) in the state plan this year. Pizza by the slice, naturally fermented pizza, and certainly deep-dish pies of multiple stripes. In February, Lee Kindell and Nancy Gambin turned a West Seattle holdout cottage into a citywide pizza destination. Their pie is Detroit style, thick but tender, with a bulwark of custom-blended cheese around the perimeter. Steel baking pans galvanize it into something browned and crunchy. Laws of flavor and mass dictate all that cheese should overwhelm the soft pile of dungeness crab on top. But Moto is all about defying convention.

Chilled Corn and Peach Soup at Eight Row

Like just about everything else at David Nichols’s Greenlake restaurant, the tasting menu feels relaxed and unfussy, even as it blows your mind with thoughtful renditions of Washington produce. Over the summer, the lineup included a soup of chilled corn from Alvarez Farms and peaches from Nichols’s family orchard. Chunks of hearty rock shrimp held their texture even in that beautiful soup. Throw in a little crisped quinoa for even more texture and you’ve got a standout dish in an overall standout meal.

Montana Potatoes at Drae’s Lake Route Eatery

During my wild and crazy high school days, a trip to Shari’s for a farmer’s skillet was the best way to offset that single Zima before sliding in the door just ahead of my 10:30 curfew. This friendly breakfast spot in old town Rainier Beach delivers a version that’s far superior to even my rosiest (admittedly Zima-tinged) memories: a mound of perfectly browned potatoes entangled with cheese, peppers, and sausage. On top, two perfect eggs.

Lobster Cream Tagliarini at 84 Yesler

This fine dining restaurant tiptoed into Seattle in early 2020, a concept and a neighborhood not well suited to our Covid reality. Then it defied a roulette table’s worth of odds to become one of the best special occasions in town. Our server provided context that this dish was “more about lobster flavor than lobster meat” but this ornate bundle of hand-cut tagliarini delivered a richer sort of luxury than delicate lobster meat can achieve. The original chef, Shawn Applin, is no longer in the kitchen, but a version resurfaced recently as a special with shaved white truffles.

Pandan Waffle at Phin

Chewy like a gummi worm, warm and comforting like a waffle. Phin owner Bao Nguyen drew inspiration from food stalls he visited during childhood celebrations at temple and gave Seattle an absolute banger of a snack (and yes, it gives great Instagram). But any visit to Nguyen’s coffee shop in Little Saigon is also an excuse to order a sua chua ca phe—his iced coffee with housemade yogurt.

Seafood Tower at L’Oursin

L’Oursin’s pandemic pivots were particularly smart: Turn the dining room into a market, the kitchen into a Southern takeout joint, and transform the underused strip of front patio into a limited-edition experience for two. Some of my fondest dining memories in a deeply suboptimal year happened on this patio—the raclette, and this fearsome tower of chilled Northwest seafood. Chef JJ Proville retired this indulgence when L’Oursin resumed its dine-in menu, but it lives on in my dreams.

Catfish and Grits at Communion

Kristi Brown’s neck bone stew gets a lot of (justifiable) love, but let us turn for a moment to a filet of catfish crispy and juicy as the most come-hither pile of fried chicken. But even better because it’s in repose atop some parmesan polenta grits.

Hay-Smoked Porterhouse at Bourbon Steak

The technique of smoking something in hay surfaces occasionally in higher-end establishments. Sometimes it comes off as theatrics and gimmickry. And then there’s the majestic 30-ounce porterhouse at Bourbon Steak, which arrives in a massive Le Creuset emitting enough smoke to rouse the Rat Pack. It legit adds to the flavor, even when sampled cold as the next morning’s leftovers.

Roti Jala at Kedai Makan

Every time I visit, I wonder why I’m not there on a weekly basis. The “net bread” is technically a simple starter, served with a bit of dal. It’s visually stunning, yes, but the flavor and texture keep pace with the aesthetic.

Chilacayote Squash at Tomo

Tan Vinh already sang the year-end praises of the summer squash dish at Brady Ishiwata Williams’s new restaurant. So instead I’ll pause to remember a more recent creation, beautiful confetti-size bits of chilacayote squash marinated in shio koji, then roasted and pickled. They come in a bowl of spent cream with drops of oil made from dandelion and smoky chilhuacle negro chiles from Oaxaca. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of a dish, by turns smoky, tart, and salty.

Everything Cookie Bar at Susu

The pandemic scuttled this Chinatown–International District spot’s intended identity as a dessert bar. For now we’ll just have to settle for precise and often playful baked goods from chef Muhammad Fairoz A. Rashed. His oeuvre is more about tea cakes, pâte à choux, and (back on the farmers market days) rolled ice cream. But do not underestimate this man’s way with a cookie, like the “everything” number I ordered this summer—it was tall like a bar, but round like a cookie, and packed with sweet and salty bursts.

Pao de Queijo at Manolin

Liz Kenyon’s summer outdoor beach party menu led off with Brazil’s eggy, fluffy cheese bread, rather like a supersize gougere. It’s the sort of carb situation so good that you order a second one—then circle back for a third round in place of dessert. The restaurant has mostly resumed operations as the Manolin we know and love (plus a bagel bakery that operates in the morning, NBD). But, huzzah, Kenyon recently put these back on the menu.

Vegetable Hash at Peloton

Granted, this dish arrived in my life in the midst of a robust string of restaurant meals that had me craving vegetables. But its simplicity is so thoroughly considered: lots of brassicas, roasted in lots of butter. Chunks of hash browns, goat cheese, and just the right amount of pesto. Two tremulous eggs on top. This bicycle shop–slash–cafe could skate (er, pedal?) on novelty, but instead it puts out a breakfast menu that can do no wrong.

Shaved Wagyu at Canlis

A celebratory friend dinner in the venerable restaurant’s first month back in the dining room included a ribbon of rare wagyu, folded over itself and set atop an oyster emulsion. Rare meat met ocean flavors in a memorable introduction to chef Aisha Ibrahim.

Grilled Snap Peas at Aki Kushiyaki

As I worked my way through multiple gorgeous courses of chicken grilled on skewers, I was already anticipating the cool crunch promised by the snap pea course listed on the menu. What I got instead was a quartet of what appeared to be delicate breakfast sausages. Andy Tsang stretches the thinnest of pork belly over each pea, then grills it crisp. It’s not often you experience these vegetal charms encased in sizzling meat. Alas, Aki closed this fall so Tsang could tend to some family matters; he hopes to open another Aki in the future.

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