SEATTLE, Wash. — "Heads up!" said Shawn (Boat) Roe as a 10-pound salmon came sailing through the air.
With the deftness of a circus juggler, Roe caught the slithery fish and tossed it on top of the growing pile at Pike Place Fish in the heart of Seattle's Pike Place Public Market.
On a bluff overlooking Puget Sound, this bustling farmers' market gives eloquent testimony to the bounty of the Pacific Northwest.
Bing cherries, wild mushrooms and fresh cauliflower are just in from the Yakima Valley; Walla Walla onions and apples from nearby orchards are piled high and fresh salmon, dungeness crab, pink scallops and tiny Olympia oysters fill iced bins.
In recent years a new appreciation of these superb natural ingredients has given rise to a culinary bonanza that makes dining in Seattle a pleasure.
Imported and Expensive
"Fresh produce here is more accessible than in many cities," says Barbara Figueroa, executive chef of the Hunt Club at the Sorrento Hotel. "In New York, where I worked before, everything was imported, expensive and battered about. Here you get into your car, drive about a half-hour and you're at the source of production."
Figueroa features fresh Northwest ingredients at the Hunt Club, a small room with brick walls and dark mahogany paneling. We tried a garlic cream soup ($4) that was thick and rich with the aroma of roasted garlic and flavored with lemon thyme.
Salmon, duck and country pates ($5.75) were served with toasted squaw bread, small dark rolls flavored with molasses. Then came Northwest king salmon marinated with thyme, tarragon and fennel and served with a Pinot Noir butter sauce (priced seasonally--ours was about $10). The salmon was perfectly fresh and had a light, peppery crust.
We also tried poached trout in an orange and rosemary sauce ($8.50). For the topping, a delectable, crispy concoction of currants and bread crumbs, Figueroa took a 17th-Century recipe described by Samuel Pepys and lightened the concept. For dessert we had a rich chocolate-truffle cheesecake and a refreshing sorbet of grapefruit and ginger.
Several of Seattle's best restaurants happen to be in hotels. Another standout is Cafe Alexis in the Alexis Hotel near the waterfront. Like Figueroa, young chefs Emily Moore and Jerry Traunfeld create imaginative dishes from local ingredients.
A ginger flan was light and served as a subtly-flavored complement to smoked trout, scallops and oysters, all from Skagit, a company that offers seafood smoked in the traditional Indian manner--cold smoking with a hot finish.
Braised Lamb Shanks
Next came braised lamb shanks in a sauce of red wine, oranges, preserved lemons and rosemary, served with small, polenta-like corn cakes ($10.50). Dessert was a chocolate truffle torte in a lemon sabayon. (Desserts and appetizers are $4 to $5.)
At the Seattle Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Fuller's is one of the prettiest dining rooms anywhere. It's a showcase for Northwest art, and houses a museum-quality glass collection that includes works by Dale Chihuly and William Morris. Twenty-four-year-old chef Caprial Pence incorporates Chinese, Japanese and Thai influences into an eclectic cuisine.
We began with a mild soup of roasted garlic and Northwest cheese ($4.50) and a green salad in a hazelnut vinaigrette ($4.50). The poached salmon in a roasted shallot tarragon butter ($18.95) was not fresh but frozen by a special technique designed to preserve quality. Many Northwest food lovers swear by the process, but we found this salmon lacking in flavor.
Poached Pear Crepes
Ellensburg lamb (from a town in eastern Washington), was served in a green peppercorn and fennel sauce that overpowered the taste of the lamb ($22.50). Dessert was a trio of crepes stuffed with sliced pears that had been poached in white wine and cinnamon. The crepes were served in a sauce of orange juice and white chocolate.
Freshness is also a trademark at The Other Place, a slick, sophisticated restaurant with Art Deco lamps and leather and chrome furnishings. Owners Robert Rosellini and Steve Burnell have been at the forefront of Seattle's culinary renaissance since 1974, when they opened The Other Place in its former location and immediately went in search of the freshest, highest-quality seafood available.
"We won't serve fish if it's more than two days out of the water," says Burnell. Whatever the reason, the fish we had was outstanding.
Intensity of Flavor
The sablefish, or black cod, we tried was not only fresh but delicious, with an intense flavor and a soft, buttery texture ($5.75). A house pate ($5) had a bright, fresh taste and was served with a fruit chutney and blackberry vinegar. Peach sorbet was light and refreshing.