Seattle's Art of The Table: You Can Go Home Again....

What's the name of that restaurant so many of us love? You know, the one that's been around a long time, where you eat whatever they happen to be serving? Oh yeah -- Home.

Visiting Seattle, I had the luxurious 9-course tasting dinner ($75) at Art of the Table. It was like having dinner at home. A warm, loving home where the dad works extraordinarily hard yet is still a fantastic storyteller.

In 1900, my grandmother bench-pressed a handcart miles across the Oklahoma Territory when she was four. The windy, West Texas dirt pushed back but she pushed harder and defiantly bloomed into a delicate beauty of a hard-hugging woman who always stopped her stirring to lock me in her arms, soaking me with her love of food.  

 
a chef at work in his kitchen

I think Seattle's Chef Dustin Ronspies might be my grandmother reincarnated.

I didn't sniff his neck for traces of Shalimar or stare into his eyes for a familiar flicker and whisper, Is that you in there? but I did narrow my eyes to stare at him while I slurped his chilled cucumber soup with shrimp and calamari salad, chili oil, cilantro and octopus jerky.

a bowl of soup

The shrimp and calamari are chopped into bits, waiting to be swirled in the soup like a cowboy dancing a girl around a barn, picking up the accent of spicy chili oil, dotting each spoonful with a crisp two-step bite.

Not that my Texan grandmother ever made this soup, but she had the inventive practicality of a locavore chef. She was also lavish, like Chef Ronspies' food.

As a tot, if I stayed the night and had no pajamas, she foraged in the cupboard, and cut neck and arm holes into a perfectly good pillowcase for me to sleep in. You'll never feel more loved than when treated like a pillow.

During the Depression supplies were limited, so everything got used up, except spirit. At Art of the Table, the crew starts each day with an assessment of what's on hand in the kitchen and what's needed and available locally to make that night's culinary dream materialize.

Then the chef writes a menu for that night, as he's done before every dinner service for six years. He started as a supper club, and expanded as demanded into the 22-seat restaurant. The tasting menu is Friday and Saturday, other nights offer a la carte small plates. Of course some of the ingredients are repeated, but each interpretation varies.

Tonight's vision opened with an amuse bouche of a fried Shigoku oyster with punjabi cabbage, pepper jam and saffron aioli. In my first bite, ginger gently hopped up from the punjabi like a mesmerized snake, proving Chef Dustin a charmer.

fried oyster in a bowl

The oyster wasn't a harshly fried starlet; this dish was treated like a respected legend. A hunky lifeguard rubbed oil on it's plump, sumptuous body, gently bronzing her into an enviable summer tan. At the first bite, the sea's briny discreet whisper spread through my mouth like salty gossip.

I sat at a communal table for eight with two friends, a pair of the country's smartest and most passionate eaters. Although I technically was one with the other five diners, they hovered somewhere in my peripheral distance, allowing me to remain focused on the bright stars in my sight and on my plates.

The next course showed Chef Dustin's brain can shake it up a notch -- salad of beefsteak tomato, cherry tomato, pickle radish, red onion, arugula, chevre croquette, macarona almond, basil oil and citrus vinaigrette.


I put a bit of the crispy fried goat cheese on the edge of my fork and picked up some of the not-an-egg-yolk yellow tomato that smelled like it was picked ten minutes prior. All the bits came together and worked. The chef loves pickling, and the radish and onion were brilliant foreshadowing of tart tastes to come.

The six tastes believed by Deepak Chopra to promote longevity are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent and bitter -- and they were all in this salad, now coursing through my body hopefully carrying that message to the areas scarred by bacon.

Chef Dustin is the intense, molten magma of the restaurant's core. He keeps his diners -- and himself -- right on the verge of explosion. His grilled duck hearts, marinated greens, soubise, crispy apricots, curnips with a ponzu sauce teasingly reads like an epicurean dare.

Were I blindfolded, at first taste I would have slapped my hands on the table and pronounced the meat as tasty beef tenderloin.


The hearts were delicious eaten alone, but the curnips -- bastard children of turnips and carrots -- wanted to be legitimized with a comforting coat of his wonderful, creamy onion soubise. His apricots were impossibly light, surely fried only by the pure fluttering of several free spirits.

I peeked in the kitchen to catch that process, but we all know mythical can't be caught.

The restaurant is warm and close, resembling a comfortable house. Hosting bartender Mitch Palmer poured us in the door with a welcome sweep of his long arms, and kept the room's pace flowing like a hospitable aqueduct. Our table service was flawlessly handled by Lauren, whose broad, sincere smile popped off her sunny face and hit mine like a flavor.

Eat local... eat fresh... eat me... buzzed up from the bowl of Pacific King Salmon, banana fingerling potatoes, haricot vert, fava bean, ginger nage, pickled asparagus and curry oil.

broiled salmon

If I were the chef I'd hate to part with this plate. Pickled asparagus was laid across the top like a gentleman's glove, and pickled green beans served as both a back beat and backbone to the flavors in the course. Chef Dustin achieved fish skin as crispy as that of perfect pork belly, and the interior meat was so tenderly, expertly prepared that it was like something I wasn't supposed to see. The flesh sweetly blushed a hot pink as it left home and was served to ravenous strangers in it's raw, naked, vulnerable, flawless state.

I needed to cool off. Lauren discreetly slid the lemoncello sorbet, basil and cherry salad in front of me. The fresh, drunked-up Washington cherries swam around dodging my eager spoon, cockily revelling in their seasonal maturity.
 

Pastry Chef Shannon Van Horn found the sweet spot in this basil-laced sorbet. It's right next to savory, above creative and beyond thoughtful. Texture plays with temperature in each bite's bright boozy bounce.

Smoked pork jowl, chick pea polenta, marinated zucchini, tomato jam and pine nut vinaigrette was a new cut of meat for me. Yes, it's fatty, but that mixes with the meat in a logical balance. This cut is like holding a yoga pose for a long time -- you might teeter a bit, but don't over think it. Relax and focus and you'll be rewarded. His chickpea polenta is Julia Child in harem pants.


I was and wasn't surprised to learn that the meat was carefully roasted and monitored by Dustin's brother, Chef Derek Ronspies. They fulfill the mission and purpose of a real family, raising diners who enter as hungry babies and leave strong and better from the experience.

Dinah's camenbert, peppered honey, cumin-morel compote shitake crack, salt and pepper lavash is a cheese course one would find in a sophisticated Parisian restaurant, but when I bumped a bit of peppered honey against the soft cheese and offered my best excusez-moi -- it responded it's all good.  The creamy, mildly pungent cheese was made on nearby Vashon Island.

cheese plate with homemade crackers
 
Chef Dustin is a mushroom drug lord -- identifiable by the permanent forest of fungi brazenly tattooed on his forearm. His inked-in-crop didn't pop up overnight. He honed his craft as an inventive foraging locavore chef with great technique and good taste, producing his masterpiece snack -- crack shitakes. Crisp and light, and with mushroom's medicinal properties these may be the healing chips of the future. 

This course epitomizes what's surprising about the daily changing menu. Components may be interchanged with others but the resulting flavors always work in perfect harmony, supporting the whole society of the dish.

This was pure Communism at its best with the joy of Socialism.

That little tasty hint Chef Van Horn had dropped in her sorbet earlier reared its gorgeous green head again in my dessert of apricot-frangipane tart, fresh fruits, strawberry sauce, tarragon syrup and basil ice cream.

The mound of basil ice cream next to the tart reminded me of the infamous Seinfeldian assessment of Teri Hatcher's boobs -- they're real and they're spectacular.


The restaurant's policy welcomes you to eat with your fingers and lick the plate. I did both to make sure I got the bits of ground hazelnuts dusted beneath the ice cream, hoping they were hallucinogenic to explain the psychedelic tastes in my mouth.

I held the tiny pie in my hand and took a solid bite through the soft, thick crust, sinking into the sweet fruit and cream inside. If I closed my eyes I'd be sitting in my grandmother's kitchen eating pie, made with pecans she grew and gathered.

Reflection set in... Art of The Table is among the best meals I've had. I hope I haven't had my best meal yet.

If music be the food of love, play on. 

 Art of the Table. 1054 N. 39th Street, Seattle, WA 98103. (206) 282-0942

2 comments:

  1. Greg Cope White is an artist who paints the page with visual descriptions of the epicurean delights he experiences in his travels. His palette is full of glorious vignettes of memories past and present that he creatively shares with his readers as he moves you from one course to the next. He leaves you with mouthwatering desire for more! Follow Greg and his passionate appreciation for fine food and travel.

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