As more and more guests shake off their cabin fever and start booking dinner reservations, I have a prediction I’m certain of: Your next best gastronomic experience will be the tasting menu.
During this pandemic, the most memorable meals I’ve had shared one thing: they were all prix fixe menus, with a procession of five to 11 small plates selected by the chef.
Many tasting menus were plant-based. A few had a lifespan as long as Doctor Zhivago. But the dishes were imaginative with a narrative thread that speaks to our local seasons – root vegetables, koji and fermented bites during the darkness of winter and, now, asparagus and other spring bounties.
If you haven’t walked into a restaurant on the weekend yet, be patient as the industry is still grappling with the worst labor shortages in recent memory. This means that service is often slow. Dishes sometimes do not come out in the correct order.
The tasting menu may be the only way around these shortcomings until these help announcements for servers and cooks are filled.
Why? Because a tasting menu allows a chef to do more with less. This reduces some staffing needs and inventory concerns when labor and supply chain issues are an issue. For a party of four, a line cook typically needs to prepare four identical dishes on a tasting menu instead of synchronizing four different dishes on an a la carte menu.
It’s no coincidence that during the pandemic, fancy restaurants like Canlis and Cafe Juanita have abandoned the a la carte model for tasting menus. Even the largest restaurant open during the pandemic, Tomo in White Center, went straight to a five-course set in the dining room with only a limited food offering at its bar.
A set menu takes the guesswork out of most decisions, but you’re in safe hands when your meal is curated by award-winning James Beard chef Brady Ishiwata Williams of Tomo or an alumnus like Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland.
The best meal I had during the pandemic was at Cafe Juanita. Weekend reservations for this Northern Italian-inspired tasting menu are booked weeks in advance, with a long waiting list. But you can easily bookmark a table if you’re dining on a Tuesday or Wednesday at 5 p.m. or after 8 p.m. Café Juanita recently raised the price of its meat and seafood tasting menus from $165 to $195. But you can also score stellar tasting menus for half the price in town.
Below are my four favorite tasting menus in the Puget Sound area.
9702 NE 120th Place, Kirkland; 425-823-1505; cafejuanita.com
Tasting menus (11 plates): Carnivore or pescatarian ($195), vegetarian ($145) and vegan ($140).
At Café Juanita, you feel like your experience is quietly but firmly in good hands – and, like the best restaurants, it will lead you to a good night’s sleep without ever feeling pushed or cajoled. There is a calming feeling that the front and back of the house have everything under control. It’s a feeling that begins when you hand over your car keys upon arrival outside the restaurant’s front door. The service is as understated as the black attire the staff wears, but there’s a confidence and competence that doesn’t need to be talked about too much. The food they bring makes the most important conversation.
Nobody offers a more exquisite tasting menu than award-winning chef James Beard Black-smith, which orchestrates a well-paced dining experience with 11 bites and small plates over two to three hours.
Even if you’ve never been to northern Italy, you’ll feel that Smith transports you to a specific Old World region – 30-month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano pops up everywhere. The pasta can be stuffed with oxtail or rabbit. Barolo and Barbaresco wines are prevalent.
Menus vary weekly with a range of soups, pastas, meats and vegetarian dishes. The cuisine starts your palate off with something fresh or raw – perhaps a mix of spot prawns, Hokkaido sea scallops and octopus perched in a pool of squid ink with oyster puree.
The best bread basket resides at Café Juanita: from a nod to the Cheez-It cracker to a focaccia that – thanks to the witchcraft of a great extra virgin olive oil – tastes like it’s been wrapped in some lardo.
Cafe Juanita ranks among the best with Mike Easton’s Il Nido and chef Nathan Lockwood’s Altura when it comes to pasta royales around the Sound.
For the meat menu, caramelle, a hard candy-shaped pastry stuffed with minced lamb, drips with the creamy juices in which the meat has been braised. For the seafood tasting menu, an equally memorable eggy tajarin, brined with white sturgeon caviar and equally creamy with a citrus crème fraîche, then accompanied by a flute of champagne.
Even something as bland as a cabbage roll is something to behold here. The leaf skin has a meaty taste from simmering in rabbit, chicken and squab bone broth with hints of allium and black truffle.
On paper, some of these wine pairings—with vermouth or strong cider, for example—shouldn’t work, but they really do, thanks to the imaginative mind of sommelier Alexandra Stang, a rising star in industry.
Twenty-two years into its run, Chef Smith’s Cafe Juanita is still going strong.
806 E. Roy St., Seattle; 206-324-0599; cookweaver.com
Seven-course tasting menus: meat or vegetarian option ($85); or five lessons ($60).
One of the best prices for tasting menus, this dish is about $30 less than the going rate for such an eclectic lineup. Cook Weaver’s pivot to a tasting menu turned out to be a great second act for Zac Reynolds, one of the city’s underrated chefs who deftly blends Asian, European, South American and African flavors with low, sophisticated touches – from a Cheetos-crusted casserole to a Champagne mousse.
Its line of plant-based products includes stinging nettle dumplings and smoked beet “kofta”. One of his best vegan dishes, Reynolds Fermented Carrots are roasted in cumin and chili oil and finished in a smokehouse with applewood for a savory accent. Served in a spongy injera taco, they evoke transnational carnitas. For procrastinators or those who can’t plan a date night, this Capitol Hill bistro is still low-key enough that you can often score a last-minute reservation.
9811 16th Avenue SW; White center; tomoseattle.com
Tasting menus: five-course meat or vegetarian ($78)
This plant-centric bistro doesn’t update its menu online as the kitchen team experiments with fresh bounties up to two hours before service. Former Canlis chef Brady Ishiwata Williams lets the season dictate what’s at dinner. He served the best vegetarian dish I had last year, squash bathed in egg miso, then grilled and served with hemp pudding, toasted hemp seeds, pickled squash and an oil arugula infused. The combo infused the plant with nutty, smoky, and peppery flavors.
Tomo is all about exploring the limits of vegetables, from picked maple blossoms to steamed celeriac in dashi broth. Like at Cook Weaver, if you opt for the carnivorous tasting menu, meat and seafood will always play a supporting role. Eat your vegetables is the mantra here. With the high cost of meat and the plant-based food movement and all the environmental considerations, Tom clues as to what our future in gastronomy might look like.
2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-283-3313; canlis.com
Tasting menu: meat, seafood and vegetarian options ($165)
Canlis remains one of Seattle’s hottest reservations, as apparently every New and Old Money Seattleite, and those celebrating a special occasion, want a seat for Executive Chef Aisha Ibrahim’s debut.
Seattle’s most renowned fine dining institution prides itself on being state of the art, so of course Canlis can’t just offer the usual tasting menu format. The post-pandemic Canlis (at least for now) offers a limited three-course menu with a choice of vegetarian, seafood or meat entrees and entrees.
The Canlis magic begins after you place your order, as one by one, artfully plated bites appear that weren’t on your menu.
Among the dishes not listed is the famous Canlis salad. Other surprises are the fingerprints of Ibrahim, who worked at three-star restaurants Manresa and Azurmendi and whose dishes lean towards Japanese umami influences. Depending on the chef’s mood, you can enjoy cocooned cod in a tempura batter or old kampachi wrapped in a shiso leaf. You can read more about Canlis in our first review after a break from my colleague Bethany Jean Clement.