Arts & Culture

Tilikum Place Cafe: Seattle, Get On This

By Angela Garbes March 10, 2010

Tilikum Place Café (407 Cedar St, 282-4830), has been open, relatively quietly, since November 2008.

I say quietly because while I hear its name tossed around constantly by Seattle foodies, writers, and chefs, its popularity doesn’t seem to have spread widely throughout the city. When I arrived there for dinner at 7:30 on a Friday night, the place was packed—as it should be. But by 9 pm, the dining room was pretty much dead. The room was similarly empty at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon.

That's got me scratching my head, because people should be lined up outside the door. They do it all the time—and for much less. If you find yourself putting your name on a two-hour wait list for pizza, for chrissakes, do yourself a favor and come to Tilikum Place Cafe instead.

Tilikum Place takes its name from the park it overlooks. Just off Denny, in the shadow of the Space Needle and Queen Anne, it's oddly both close to and far away from everything. From a culinary standpoint, this area is better known as a land of pizza, greasy bar food, and 7-11 snacks. But Chef Ba Culbert’s food is something entirely different: homey, thoughtful, fantastic.

Culbert and her team make as much as possible from scratch—sausage, pasta, pickles, condiments, pastries. The time and care show—not just in the obvious places, but in the little details like the tiny shortbread cookie that sits on your saucer, hidden momentarily by your cup, when you order a pot of French press coffee. It shows in the constantly shifting menu; dishes change with the seasons, of course, but also, it seems, just when someone in the kitchen feels inspired to do something new.

The food is mostly European-inspired, but the kitchen clearly feels at ease drawing from other influences, as evidenced by a few dishes with unexpected, perfectly executed Middle Eastern elements. The food here feels more personal and laid-back than it does at other fine dining restaurants.

Even on a gray day, Tilikum’s space sings with light, courtesy of sky-high ceilings and an endless front wall of windows. The old wood floors, laid in a chevron pattern,  delicate floral wrought-iron lanterns, and stunning view of ... a Christian Science reading room—all the details only add to the offbeat charm that makes you want to wile away hours here.

Though I was tempted by the day’s lunch special of housemade bratwurst and sauerkraut with German potato salad, I opted for the Tilikum Fry-Up, an almost obscenely generous amount of food for just fourteen dollars. This is hearty comfort food at its finest: a pile of baked beans with an uncommon depth of flavor, courtesy of three types of pork and a little kiss of maple syrup sweetness, two grilled pieces of buttered baguette, two slices of bacon, a hand-formed sausage patty, and seared tomato halves, all topped with a perfect sunny-side-up egg whose runny yolk bound things together perfectly.

Tilikum’s other signature daytime dish is the Dutch baby (pictured above), an eggy, impossibly airy pancake that’s baked to order in its own tiny cast iron skillet. A savory Dutch baby of housemade chorizo and cheddar ($8) was a beautiful blend of softness and spice, creaminess and tang.

Come dinnertime, Tilikum’s dining room transforms into a cozy, dim space warmed by the glow of nearby neon signs and little white lights lining the windows. Housemade pate ($9 for a hefty portion) is pleasantly rustic and chunky, studded with pistachios, purple and golden raisins, and laced with the scent of clove. Lamb kefta ($12), three free-form patties of moist ground lamb, come swimming in a cast iron skillet of spiced tomato sauce, and get an extra briny, flavor boost with kalamata olives and feta cheese. The kefta comes with grilled bread—ideal for wiping the skillet clean. The hand-cut pasta with sage butter and Parmesan ($11) had some textural problems—it sat for a while and became gluey, but its flavor was delectable, the butter rich and woodsy from sage, and the finely diced toasted hazelnuts on top crunched and popped like bread crumbs, adding a lovely sweetness all the while.

The dinner special, whole grilled trout ($20), stuffed with first-of-the season nettles, carrot shavings, lemon slices, leeks, parsley and thyme, was sublime: juicy, bright, and clean, with the trout’s mild flavor shining through clearly. Topped with an almond nettle pesto—verdant, earthy, nutty—the whole dish tasted of early spring itself.

A word on Tilikum’s desserts: they’re incredible, and I say this as someone who is entirely ambivalent about desserts and sweets in general. I enjoyed the profiteroles ($7 for a plate of six), wee puff pastry sandwiches filled with vanilla bean ice cream and topped with an addictive, smoky Earl Grey caramel sauce, but I was downright mad for Tilikum’s orange semolina cake ($7). This traditional Sephardic recipe, in which a whole orange is cooked down and pureed, was sweet with the slightest tinge of bitter, crunchy and moist, and topped with an unusual and utterly refreshing fennel and citrus salad. I would have ordered it again, but sadly, it had already been taken off from the menu on my next visit.

Considering its location, scores of people should be catching a bus from downtown or Belltown to Tilikum Place for lunch, or crawling down off Queen Anne for dinner, getting away from the inferior and overpriced places that blanket that neighborhood. And, folks on nearby Capitol Hill: There’s more heart and soul and flavor in one of Tilikum’s dishes than on entire menus of restaurants that have popped up in the Pike/Pine corridor.

Seattle, we’ve got an unpretentious, honest-to-great restaurant in our midst. It’s right under our noses, twinkling away under the Space Needle, hanging out next to the statue of Chief Sealth himself. Get on this.
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