Arts & Culture

Last Night: Tilikum Place Cafe

By Erica C. Barnett November 17, 2011

Fall and winter in Seattle can sorely test a person's devotion to seasonal eating. CSA box after CSA box filled with squashes, greens, turnips, beets, and celery roots can lead to bowl after indistinguishable bowl of orange-green-gray glop, with Delicata squash-ginger soup merging into chanterelle chowders and an endless array of potato-parsley root-celery root-cauliflower purees. For the home cook, at least, winter food can be uninspiring at best, drudgery at worst.

So it's inspiring to see a restaurant like Tilikum Place Cafe---whose praises PubliCola's onetime FoodNerd Angela Garbes sung here---take on the challenge of winter's monochrome palette and emerge with a menu as inspiring as any spread of just-picked summer tomatoes, zucchini gratins, and sun-ripened peach tarts. As someone who despises all winter fruits, all orange vegetables, and most things that grow under the ground (beets, I'm looking at you), I was a bit dismayed to discover a turnip, squash, or potato component to nearly every dish.

But I shouldn't have worried. Three appetizers---duck paté, octopus salad, and deep-fried smelt wrapped in shoestring potatoes---combined complex execution (I repeat: Smelt, wrapped in julienned potatoes, and deep-fried) with simple, straightforward flavors.

Because the menu changes daily (and isn't online), my advice is just: Go. Whatever's on the menu, you won't regret it. I'm convinced that Chef Ba Culbert could make a leather shoe taste like filet mignon.

And if you go now, I highly recommend the octupus salad (breaded, grilled tentacles---soft, not chewy or rubbery---served warm on top of a pile of bitter greens); the oysters (which arrive unadorned ice-cold on a bed of rock salt, beside a huckeleberry reduction that was delicious but a bit superfluous); the smelt, three lovely little fish encased tightly in blankets of shoestring potatoes and buttery, crisp-fried potatoes and served alongside a crisp, vinegary celery root remoulade and lemon and cranberries poached in simple syrup; the pan-seared chicken (two gorgeous, crisp pieces nestled in a bed of crisp-tender roasted Brussels sprouts and unctuous mushrooms); and the pork loin (a surprisingly rich hunk of pork topped with huckleberries, pickled fennel, and an indescribably rich potato/turnip gratin that a home cook could replicate with a mandoline and about a gallon of cream; pictured).

Tilikum's food is hard to characterize: Seasonal but not overbearingly so (no paragraph-long sourcing documentation here), fancy but rustic (those smelt, for example, wouldn't be out of place at a late-night hole in the wall bar in Barcelona, and a bowl of duck meatball soup was a satisfying riff on humble Italian wedding soup), sexy (that gratin!) but restrained (a mixed-green salad was virtually unadorned except for a pungent lemony dressing and a few shavings of salty Parmesan). Best of all, unlike more recent fancy upstarts further uptown, at Tilikum, two diners can spend substantially less than a day's wages and leave very, very happy.
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