A James Beard Level Dinner or Just Another NW Meal

In a Chef’s eyes, the James Beard Award (Read #17) is like an Oscar for a movie star. It is the acknowledgement that you can duke it out with the best. A James Beard award tells young cooks to look up to you. It increases business, and increases the talent pool that wants to come work for you.

Some critics mock it for being an over-glorified dog and pony show(see Eater: Anthony Bourdain). He has a valid point. Often times, the people that win seem better connected than those that lose. Many times, young chefs are merely put on the short list year after year to no avail. Until some new comer, with no more than 2 years experience takes the cake. Maybe they really are the better chefs. Who knows. I have worked for Chefs who have won it and those who haven’t. I never thought one set of food was better than the other. We always just made good food.

Nevertheless, I decided to visit the Whale Wins. Chef Renee Erickson was the 2016 Jame Beard Award winner of the Best Northwest Chef category. I had worked for a previous winner of this award in 2013 and I wanted to see how the places stacked up. The reason many people question the award is because it is often voted on by your peers and past winners. So it is hard to tell what is skill vs. who you know.

Whale Wins has a Menu that is one page, clean and simple. Of which, none of it feels like the standard NW “we go to farmer’s markets and always have a beet salad on the menu” type menu. Working in the industry, I remember a time when most fine dining places had to have Draper Valley Chicken Breasts on the menu or a Beet and Goat Cheese Salad. You could literally tell which chef worked where because each menu would have a few dishes from their previous place of employment. For a good 5 years or so, this was the case. This was so painfully obvious as a cook who worked at some of these places. It was almost upsetting. I am not saying a Chef needs to reinvent the wheel every time they move kitchens. However, when you open up Eleven Madison Park’s cook book and literally find the exact same dishes being done at Canlis. You begin to question the skills of the chefs designing menus.

Lets get back to the main point, and away from my rant.

Whale Wins fights against that cookie cutter, pre-formatted menu. They have dishes like Tomatoes and Chantrelle Ragu with Green coriander, or Halibut wrapped in Figs Leaf served with Spicy Cashews.

Dishes that actually perplex the palette, rather than play off the NW flavor combinations. Like beets and goat cheese, or peas and mint. Sometimes this can be a little concerning. Creativity is great in the hands of an experienced Chef, but can create poor combinations in the hands of those who aren’t as certain. I was in for a pleasant surprise.

My trip to Whale Wins was only for a quick drink with a friend. I will eventually have to go back and have a full meal. We only ordered three small plates. We ordered the the Togiak Herring Butter on Toast with Pickled Onion, Broccolini, Anchoiade, and Mustard, and Burrata, radishes with Garlic. Most of these were pretty safe choices if the dishes themselves were done well. The one thing Whale Wins does do that is similar to a lot of places out there, is the concept of small plates. Whether you love or hate small plates, it is a great business strategy. Charge 20% less and serve 40% less.

 

Togiak Herring Butter on Toast with Pickled Onions

The three dishes came sequentially in that order. The first being the Togiak Herring Butter on Toast. I have what one might reference as a fetish for smoked fish and crusty bread. When you put a rich fatty smoked piece of fish on a rustic piece of toast. Honestly, there is nothing more I need to be happy.  This goes back to my first meal at Cafe Juanita(before I worked there). Their smoked Sable Fish dish knocked me back and ruined me for some future fishes courses to come. At Cafe Juanita, they served it with a room temperature tomato broth. The combination of tangy, sweet, smoky, tomato and fish should be mounted on a wall. It is a combination that should exist more often. This small plate was a strong contender for that food memory.

Of course, then you put pickled onions on top, and I am in heaven. The bread was grilled with just enough bitter char which was cut by the fatty Herring butter. Then the sweet and tangy pickled onion tied the entire package together. I could not complain about this dish. I would not ask for it in another form. This was a safe flavor combination. However, it isn’t done enough. I am sure now it is a different story, but when I had this meal originally. I know I did not see flavor combinations like this at other restaurants in Seattle.

Broccolini and Anchoaide

The second small plate came out. Broccolini and Anchoaide. I was very excited about this combination. I recall having to make anchoaide at my first restaurant gig. You take roasted garlic, anchovies, bread and a little olive oil. Then you blend it all together using a food processor until it is super smooth. The flavor of garlic and anchovies together, you can take a spoon to it. Put that on bread alone and call it an award winning dish. Paired with a vegetable like broccolini, it really has a chance to shine. Combine the bitter, grilled Broccolini with the salty, some what sweet garlic puree. If you open the Flavor Bible, you know those two items are right next to each other. The best part is, they are not creating a crazy new flavor combination. However, they are still creating a dish we don’t see enough in the northwest. Putting a roasted garlic and anchovy flavored sauce next to Broccolini is not rocket science. It does not require 20 years of experience in cooking to know that it tastes good.  It was the perfect accent on a simple dish. Like the diacritical that sits above a Latin “a”. It elevated the dish.

Burrata and Radish

Finally, Burrata, whenever I see it on a menu, I am inclined to order it. It is not that Burrata itself has complex flavors. In fact, it really just tastes like an empty canvas of cream and cheese. However, when you mix it with flavors like spicy radish and astringent green garlic you end up with a Monet of flavor. Throw in the crunchiness of some focaccia croutons and it really takes the cake. Yes, that is the dish that you see above. The radish was a great raw bit to the dish. Burrata, as explained earlier, really is just fatty goodness. There is no real flavor beyond that. So adding the spicy radish was a clear example of good chefing. It doesn’t require too much skill and lets the cold line have an easy dish to plate. Most of everything on this plate could even be made to order. Except the foccacia. So even if they ran out of prep, they could quickly make it all.

I will point out, I was very confused by the pool of oil. I often see this happen and get…well confused. I get a little oil to garnish a plate. Sure, that makes sense. However, when half of the bottom of my plate, which you can see is not an exaggeration is swimming in olive oil…it is a bit of a what the f*** moment. Were you rushed? Did you think this would taste good? Isn’t that kind of a waste?

If it came from the garlic puree, then you are doing something wrong. In no way should you have that much oil breaking from your sauce. A little bit of oil breaking from it is fine. A large amount, well that just is a culinary sin.

I was still happy with the flavors, and food. It does make me question the skill of the chef who saw this plate go out of the kitchen. It wasn’t even a busy night.

All in all, the three small plates were each a good mix of flavors. Not one was too salty, too bitter, too anything (except too oily). They each incorporated familiar flavors and each ingredient played off each other. In many cases, James Beard winners may only gain their fame through back room deals and tight relationships. I know this wasn’t the case with Renee Erickson. The food I had was on point. The flavor combinations was a mix of NW flavors and small twists from local farms.

Renee Erickson has been in the news a lot lately. She has a lot of new places she has open up. All of which are really good. I do think she earned her James Beard Award. I do also think there are many other Chefs that should go before her. I will never understand how the James Beard awards are truly done. How do they really decide the winner. Why put Cafe Juanita on the list every year for a James Beard Award for service when it never wins? What is the point. I have many questions, but  a satisfied stomach.

I would recommend this place for date nights, catching up with an old friend and celebrations. Please feel free to recommend some of your own favorite places that I can go visit. Maybe you can join me!

Please feel free to recommend to me your favorite restaurants. Whether your favorite restaurant is in Seattle or somewhere else. I love to hear about new places and most importantly try new places. The best way is word of mouth! Relying on other sources that only tell you about places that are currently popular…or maybe good(Whale Wins is just one of so many places!)

Tags: James Beard Awards, How to win a James Beard award, Who is the best Chef in Seattle, Menu Development, Food, Chef

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