Seattle’s Top Restaurant Dishes

I suppose normal people fantasize about Brad Pitt or J.Lo, expensive race cars or sleek yachts. Food writers fantasize about the best dishes they’ve ever tasted.

Seattle enjoys more than its fair share of fantasy dishes. The creations I’ve singled out encompass the appetizers, main courses, and salads I really relish; those I relive in my mind’s eye and my olfactory glands; those I spend my own money to consume.

Seattle’s best dishes are an eclectic, often eccentric lot. I classify some as the brilliant and singular creations of their chefs, such as Tom Douglas’ Cold-Smoked Salmon with Corn Bread Pudding and Shiitake Relish (served at Etta’s Seafood) or Thierry Rautureau’s Scrambled Egg with Lime Crème Fraïche and White Sturgeon Caviar (Loulay Kitchen & Bar).

I always appreciate a chef who plays with his or her food, so other “bests” include whimsical, yet successful dishes such as Palace Kitchen’s Caesar Salad (which sports one fist-sized, perfectly gilded crouton atop a raft of generously dressed whole romaine lettuce leaves) and Restaurant Zoë’s Fresh Ricotta Raviolo with Seasonal Garnishes (a luscious pillow of house-made pasta plumped with fresh ricotta cheese and sauced with heirloom tomatoes and basil in the summer or butternut squash, brown butter, and amaretti cookie crumbs in the winter).

In a class by itself is Chef Anthony Polizzi and Chef/Owner Kevin Davis’s Caviar Pie at Steelhead Diner.

Finally, there are the recipes that have become Seattle classics, as well as those that best represent a particular class, such as Seattle’s best fried chicken, shellfish appetizer, and seafood tower. In addition to the handful of dishes I’ve recommended above, you’ll find other faves described below. I encourage you to make a reservation and see for yourself what the fuss is all about. Maybe, just maybe, your fantasies will take on a new and fresh life all their own.

Dungeness Crab Salad

Etta’s Seafood
2020 Western Avenue
(206) 443-6000

Dungeness crab is one of those near-perfect foods, which has always made me wonder why it is often served atop a hearty salad and doused with thick, overly sweet dressing made of mayonnaise and chili sauce. Chef Tom Douglas must agree, for his version at Etta’s Seafood is almost pristine in its simplicity, a Zenlike ode to crab that respects the taste and texture of the shellfish. According to the recipe in Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen, Dungeness Crab Salad is made from Bibb lettuce, asparagus, avocado, ruby grapefruit sections, and fresh cooked crabmeat. At the restaurant, I’ve had it augmented with watercress, baby tomatoes, and sliced artichoke hearts. Soothing Lime Vinaigrette made of fresh lime juice, lime zest, rice vinegar, fresh ginger, honey, olive and peanut oils lightly coats the greens. For contrast, a semolina flat bread cracker is served alongside, but I prefer to pair it with rustic white bread and unsalted butter, which better mirrors the soft textures of the salad.

Fried Chicken

icon Grill
1933 Fifth Avenue
(206) 441-6330

Everyone who fantasizes about Southern fried chicken has heard that the pickings are good at Ezell’s, the Kingfish Café, and the Alki Homestead (even though, technically, the latter’s chicken is pan fried, not deep fried). But real connoisseurs crow about Chef Nick Musser’s version at the icon Grill. On the plate, three perfectly browned, crispy pieces of chicken—half a bird—arrive steaming hot, along with buttermilk mashed potatoes and home-style cream gravy. The slightly salty chicken is tender and not the least bit chewy, while the crust manages to be simultaneously light, yet crunchy. To achieve such perfection, Musser brines the bird overnight in a water-and-salt solution and mixes his flour with “cryptic seasoning blend” (New Mexico chile powder, cumin, curry, cinnamon, coriander, and 10 secret herbs and spices) plus a hint of cornstarch “for extra crispness.” The chicken pieces are dipped in buttermilk before dusting in spiced flour, then fried in canola oil for 15 minutes. Musser reports about 100 orders of icon’s  “consistent big seller” go flappin’ out the door each week.

Lamb Burgers

Café Campagne
86 Pine Street
(206) 728-2233

For a town renowned for its high-quality seafood, Seattle enjoys a credible number of outstanding red-meat dishes. I’m always wowed by the Cabrales-Crusted Beef Tenderloin at Andaluca or anything on Canlis’ menu that involves Washington-grown, Kobe-style Wasyugyu beef. Chef Kerry Sear of Cascadia has grown almost as famous for his Tenderloin Mini-Burgers as for his multicourse tasting menus, while Ovio Bistro’s Braised Beef Short Ribs are nothing short of ambrosial. But for sheer unadulterated pleasure, my vote goes to Café Campagne’s Lamb Burger with balsamic onions, roasted red peppers, aïoli (garlic mayonnaise), and pommes frites. Like any good burger, it takes two hands to handle this whopper. Once you pick it up, it’s difficult to put down, like a really tasty, tender sausage (no casing to contend with!) with a spicy bite. The sweet-tart onions and charred peppers add a Mediterranean flair that just can’t be replicated by mere tomatoes or a pickle. Just beware the creamy aïoli sauce dribbling down your chin.

Poulet Rôti à Votre Commande, Ragoût de Lentilles et Chanterelles

Le Pichet
1933 First Avenue
(206) 256-1499

Jim Drohman, chef and co-owner of Le Pichet, wants Seattleites to realize that you can very easily (and pleasurably!) spend an hour or longer eating dinner. This fact becomes critical at Drohman’s restaurant when you order the Roasted-to-Order Chicken. The plump bird arrives steaming hot with a burnished, buttery skin (that crunches!) and the most succulent breast and juicy dark meat you’ve ever experienced. Which is fine, except that to experience such lusciousness, you must allow an hour of prep time and order it for two. No phoning ahead; Drohman insists that you enjoy an aperitif and appetizers while he “does the chicken the way it has to be done.” He begins by selecting a good-quality, 3 1/2-pound, Washington-grown, chemical-free chicken. Sprinkle with sea salt, baste with butter, roast the bird in a 500-degree oven for exactly 55 minutes, break apart and serve. Drohman’s side dishes change with the season, but creamy lentils studded with country ham, carrot cubes, and copious quantities of chanterelles suited me just fine.  Ooh-la-la!

Steamed Mussels Pigalle

Place Pigalle
Pike Place Market
(206) 624-1756

The idea for steamed mussels dressed with bacon-rich balsamic vinaigrette was inspired almost 25 years ago, long before balsamic vinegar became a household staple and mussels became a commonly ordered item in Seattle. I figured this unusual dish was discovered by Place Pigalle owner Bill Frank while wandering the backroads of France. WRONG! Back in 1982, Frank and then-chef Connie Miller Cheifetz were trying to incorporate the philosophy of the restaurant (which Frank describes as “unusual preparations of good raw products without being off the wall”) into a new appetizer. Frank also appreciates dishes that combine meat or animal components with seafood, which is where the rather offbeat (albeit brilliant) idea of pairing bacon and mussels was born. In today’s version, plump mussels are placed lip to lip like upright soldiers in a pristine porcelain ramekin, then topped with a thick balsamic vinaigrette laden with chunks of celery, shallots, and chewy lardons (bacon bits). Don’t be embarrassed to sop up the vinaigrette; luckily, Frank supplies tangy sourdough rolls, strategically suited for dipping.