Food Matters: Return of white tablecloths

Food Matters: Return of white tablecloths

Food Matters: Return of white tablecloths

What I was going to do was grab a cold beer and some fish & chips on the all-day Happy Hour menu at BeachHouse Bar & Grill (1927 43rd Ave. E.), only to find, behind the same doors, a newly opened, white-tablecloth dinner house called Park Place. Packed, but not rowdy and full of good cheer. The new owners are locals who’ve been off in the San Juans for the past five years.

Lopez Island is a tranquil spot, less hectic and touristy than, say, Orcas. Thirty square miles and two thousand people. Warm and dry summers, relatively flat topography that makes it appealing to weekend cyclists. A clutch of pretty good restaurants (Ursa Minor, Haven, Eden Wild, Bay Cafe). A winery, a couple of hotels, a scattering of farmhouse bed & breakfast lodgings. People wave to one another along the lanes and byways; it’s a tradition. Kristin and Tim Shea moved up here from Bellevue five years ago to take over the Bay Cafe; he’d been the general manager at Bis on Main. But the charms of island living present problems for an ambitious restaurant. Unlike burgers or pizza, fine dining is really seasonal; and on a sparsely populated island, the labor pool is limited.

So, after five seasons, the Sheas packed up and headed back to the mainland. At just about the time that Ricky Eng was ready to sell his Madison Park property. (He still runs the BeachHouse on the Kirkland waterfront.) They haven’t changed much: the upstairs still sports a cozy bar and one of the most pleasant private dining spaces in town with an unobstructed view of the water and a full complement of high-tech gadgetry for private meetings. Downstairs, the dining room has been decked out with artwork by Lopez Island artists. White tablecloths, too; how long has it been since we saw those in egalitarian blue-jeans-at-the-opera Seattle?

Yet the menu itself is not stuffy. As you might expect, a couple of pastas, a couple of steaks, a baked chicken, a braised lamb shank. Appetizers are in the $10 range, main courses in the mid-$20s. I enjoyed the orechiette con salsiccia. The pasta, shaped like little ears, originated in Bari, in southern Italy, where it’s still handmade by local housewives and set in the streets to dry. The kitchen crew at Park Place, under the direction of exec chef Nels Christiansen, prepared it with garlic sausage, marinara, and rapini. Now, rapini (often called broccoli rabe) is a vegetable you don’t see a lot in restaurants, but it’s a staple of Italian cooking, often added to soups and pastas. It’s quite bitter, though, so it benefits from blanching. Alas, someone forgot that step. To cover the bitterness, I added quite a bit of salt, which turned out to be fine, since the kitchen had also under-salted the dish, and I ended up scarfing up every little ear.

Our warm summer afternoons may be over but, regardless of external temperatures, there’s an energetic kitchen crew at Red Cow. Sous chef Matt Wilson serves up a meltingly tender brochette of hanger steak that gets two hours of sous-vide treatment, then salt, pepper, and the hot grill. The best fries I’ve had all year came courtesy of line cook Natosha Warnack. Her secret: frozen product from Idaho (counter-intuitive but more consistent).

And a final word this month in honor of Jon Rowley, who died last month at the age of 74 of kidney failure. Acknowledging his incalculable contribution to our appreciation for Copper River salmon, Julia Child called him a “fish guru.” The folks at Taylor Shellfish called him their oyster guru. With his pocket refractometer, he was the point man for Metropolitan Market’s annual Peach-o-Rama. He was a slow-moving, deeply thoughtful, quick-witted man with sparkling eyes and infallible palate. He was more than a gourmet, more than a connoisseur; he was an evangelist for the Northwest’s bounty and our ambassador of good taste. Over the decades, he touched every plate in Seattle.

Ronald Holden is a restaurant writer for Pacific Publishing. His latest book, a history of local food titled “Forking Seattle,” available through local bookstores and on Amazon.