Best of 2012: Dining + Drinking

brave horse tavern burgers in seattle
Find hamburger heaven at Brave Horse Tavern in South Lake Union

Best Northwest Cuisine
Poppy
It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since Jerry Traunfeld opened his post-Herbfarm project, leveraging his reputation as Seattle’s crown prince of herbs and spices into a completely bold concept unlike any we’d ever seen here. Beyond the novelty of an Indian-style thali plate given the Northwest treatment, it has been Traunfeld’s unwavering flavor worship that has kept people coming back to his cheerily casual Capitol Hill spot. And as of late, Poppy has truly hit its stride as the thalis have gotten a bit smaller and thus more manageable, and the Indian influences have become more subtle while the Northwest elements take center stage; a lavender-rubbed Muscovy duck leg commingling with golden beets with spice bread and mint. Throw in a totally herbaceous cocktail menu and a happy hour that have become huge draws on their own, and you’ve got an experience as quintessentially Northwest as the man himself.

Best Destination Northwest Restaurant
Nell Thorn
Let’s pretend for a moment that La Conner isn’t in one of the lushest landscapes within two hours of Seattle, that its historic main drag isn’t so charming it could almost make you cry, and that we all don’t secretly dream of retiring there someday. Even if the popular day-trip destination (see page 50) was a barren wasteland, its must-try eatery, Nell Thorn, would still be worth the journey. But the fact of the matter is, you just can’t separate this 12-year-old restaurant and pub from the land around it. A chalkboard in the entryway of the converted Craftsman home greets you with a list of the local Skagit Valley farms whose organic produce, humanely raised meats and artisan cheeses are currently on the menu.

Husband-and-wife owners Susan and Casey Schanen (shown above) have been focused on organic, local and sustainable since before all that was trendy. And much of what comes out of their kitchen—such as the wild salmon with buttermilk mashed russet and Yukon potatoes, beurre blanc and local hazelnuts—is made from scratch, as Susan says, “one plate of handmade food at a time.” La Conner, 205 Washington St.; 360.466.4261; nellthorn.com

Best Barbecue
Bitterroot
Last year’s pie explosion became 2012’s barbecue bomb, and it is with open arms that we greet Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen, The Boar’s Nest and a couple of mobile outfits, to boot. But it’s the calm-and-collected-looking Bitterroot that handily leads this smoker-toting pack. You might mistake it for an organic or even (gasp!) vegetarian sandwich shop, if it weren’t for the hypnotically sweet, smoky aroma wafting out the front door. Not only do these meat masters (bless their hearts!) follow the “low and slow” cooking credo, resulting in meat with a deeply penetrating smokiness and tender texture, the sides hold their own with house-made goodness. As the quantity of barbecue increases in this town, it’s the rare flash of quality we’re most thankful for. 

Best Mexican
Poquitos
Since day one, when the corner of 10th and Pike was lit up by the neon figure of that guitar-strumming Mexican fellow, Poquitos has been consistently packed to the gills. It’s hot and stylish; sports great cocktails and a heated year-round patio; and knows how to please a crowd. It’s always packed because it’s always good. The kitchen has business down pat, churning out soft, fresh tortillas with perfectly rustic handmade texture, succulent and richly flavored meats from local farms, vibrant and balanced ceviche, and made-to-order guacamole so good people don’t mind paying $9 for it. Salud, Poquitos. The people have spoken.

Best Italian
Spinasse
Italian food has taken many worthy forms in Seattle, from mama’s classic cooking to bright Northern Italian seafood to fine dining splurges. And you’re begging for a gloves-off foodie fight if you go asking which ZIP code has the best neighborhood Italian go-to spot for a romantic date night. However, no one, but no one, had given us the noodle by which all others were measured until Justin Neidermeyer moved his handmade pastas from a farmers market stand to his more-rustic-than-thou candlelit homage to Piedmont. Now in the award-winning hands of Jason Stratton, the open kitchen of Spinasse, with its museum-like display of pastaiolo’s tools, continually turns out dishes—such as the tajarin, hand-cut noodles so full of egg yolk, they’re the color of saffron—with elegant simplicity that boggles the senses. Farm-direct artisan products round out the devotedly Italian menu with local comforts that always manage to feel right at home.

Best Dim Sum
Joy Palace Seafood Restaurant

The first rule of good dim sum: Good dim sum must not be too greasy. The second rule of good dim sum: Good dim sum must not be too salty. The third rule of good dim sum: Good dim sum becomes bad dim sum when it sits too long on the cart. Joy Palace, tucked into a strip mall on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, gets it right on all three counts, with a great variety of choices that are fresh, hot and alive with flavor. If you go around 11 a.m. (not too early, not too late), you’ll hit the magic hour of high cart traffic, which ensures plenty of fresh choices. The sprawling dining room seems to stretch on for miles underneath glittering chandeliers, transporting anyone who has had the authentic dim sum experience in Hong Kong right back to their travels. Chinese families stream in during the day and come back at night for lavish wedding and birthday celebrations, which reminds us finally of the fourth rule of dim sum: Good dim sum is supposed to be fun. Chinatown/International District, 6030 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S; 206.723.4066; joypalaceseattle.com

Best Pizza
Bar del Corso
Tradition and creativity have never been so happy together as they are at Jerry Corso and Gina Tolentino Corso’s year-and-a-half-old Beacon Hill pizzeria. Jerry, who cooked and studied for years in Italy and then wowed Seattle during his stint at Betty, poured his soul into opening his own restaurant in his own neighborhood, and you can taste that “livin’ the dream” inspiration and excitement in every bite. The thin, Neapolitan-style crusts are simply perfection: charred on the outside, chewy within, slightly salty, and they don’t wimp out when a layer of sauce and toppings are depending on them for support. What you find on top may be things you’ve never eaten on a pizza before (fava beans! nettle pesto!), but it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s there because it was at its delicious peak and begging for a trip into Corso’s custom-built wood-fired oven. Equally inspired small plates and salads, well-selected Italian wines and a little something sweet to finish the meal are all completely worth going for the whole, wonderfully affordable package.

Best Vietnamese
Green Leaf

When your one major complaint about a restaurant is that there simply aren’t enough tables to seat the salivating hordes, you know the rest has got to be pretty good. This cozy International District hole-in-the-wall remains the epicenter of Seattle’s love affair with Vietnamese food—the fragrant broths, the savory marinated meats and the fresh vegetables that bring a dose of nourishing color to our gray days. Something about the clean, nuanced flavors and admirable restraint shown in the grease department ensures that you always walk out the door feeling healthier than when you walked in. And with most dishes averaging between $6 and $12, your wallet feels no regrets either. Last spring, Green Leaf’s Belltown outpost opened, complete with a happy hour and food service until 2 a.m.

Best Sushi
Sushi Kappo Tamura

Taichi Kitamura is not just a sushi chef. He is Seattle’s first unofficial sushi genius. The man responsible for Fremont’s Chiso and its precious upstairs sister, the now-defunct Chiso Kappo, finally found the perfect stage for performing his sushi magic in his not-too-casual, not-too-hoity Tamura kitchen on Eastlake. For its nearly breathing freshness, its focus on local and sustainable fish, and its ability to deliver divine quality on a consistent basis, we named it our Best New Restaurant in Seattle in 2011, and Bon Appetit followed up by giving Tamura a spot on its list of 10 Best New Sushi Restaurants in the U.S. earlier this year. Give yourself over to Kitamura and eat what he serves you off his omakase (chef’s choice) menu. You might taste local geoduck in a glory you never thought possible, or a local albacore sashimi served atop mustard greens from the restaurant’s rooftop garden. Kitamura pulled the tatami mat out from underneath the city’s reigning sushi kings, and once you’re sitting on his, you’ll never want to leave.

Best Burger
Brave Horse Tavern

It’s a true testament to the talents of Tom Douglas, who has won no less than James Beard’s top honor (2012 Outstanding Restaurateur), that he should bring us the best of the most basic of foods. It’s one of the things T.D. does best: sets the bar on quality and makes refined food incredibly accessible. How much more accessible does it get, after all, than the humble hamburger? The burger at his South Lake Union tavern is this: Double R Ranch chuck house beef, iceberg lettuce, pickles, mayo and ketchup on a brioche bun. It’s not so large that you need to take a nap afterward, and not so small that you need to order two. It’s unpretentious and just right. The meat is tender, juicy and cooked to a perfect medium. It’ll cost you $6, $7 if you add cheese. No burger should cost more than $10, and he gets that. When we want a burger, it’s his that we want. 

Best Ice Cream
Bluebird Ice Cream

Ice cream just may be the most pleasing substance on earth, but the war for Seattle ice cream domination is cutthroat and fierce. It’s no longer about who serves foodie-fanatic flavors such as strawberry balsamic; it’s about who does it better. New kid on the block Bluebird, it turns out, is a frosty force to be reckoned with. You just can’t mess with the intense creaminess of its texture. And when your arsenal includes seasonal flavor combinations such as maple and hickory, salted caramel and Mexican hot chocolate, balance is of the utmost importance. These kids nail it. And as any good fighter knows, you’ve always got to keep ’em guessing. Their creative flavors just keep firing. Consider the ice cream battle won. Multiple locations: Capitol Hill, Phinney/Greenwood, Fremont; bluebirdseattle.com

Best Family Restaurant
Tutta Bella

Why take your family to Tutta Bella? Let’s say your brother doesn’t like fancy food, but you do. Your stepdad is sensitive to gluten (their crusts are made with “00” low-gluten flour). Your father-in-law is a vegetarian, but your mother-in-law doesn’t consider it food unless it has pork in it. Your sister has a rambunctious 3-year-old who can always find other kids to play with when he gets bored. Your husband will eat anything, as long as it’s a good value, and your mom goes for an excellent latte. Few restaurants with such a “please everyone” appeal maintain the high standards and seasonal quality that Tutta Bella does with its Neapolitan-certified pies. Plus, its strong community activism and championing of employee welfare score big points with us—the concept of a global family here is inherent in everything it does. Multiple locations: Columbia City, Wallingford, Issaquah and Westlake.


Best Custom Birthday Cakes
Tallant House

You don’t just “order” a cake from Monroe-based Judy Tallant. You commission one. A master baker and artist extraordinaire, this wedding-industry darling does some of her most creative work on custom birthday cakes, and foodies flock to her when the celebration calls for a showstopper. Love honey lavender ice cream? She might just re-create it in a honey lavender crème and pear mousse cake, add some sliced organic poached pears and put them between layers of pear-liquor-soaked vanilla bean génoise. No, really. Tallant thrives on not only flavor challenges, but visual challenges, aiming to engage all your senses, from the confection’s perfect sponge cake inside to its last gold leaf garnish outside. You might not know whether to eat it or frame it—but trust us—the taste will make you glad you were born. By appointment only. 425.737.1533; tallanthouse.com


Best Bakery
Honoré Artisan Bakery
Some mornings you just really want to roll out of bed, open your front door and see Paris. That’s why we have Honoré. With neatly arranged rows of deep golden croissants, sunshine yellow Ballard Honey–glazed cheesecakes and a rainbow’s spectrum of intriguing macaroon flavors, Honoré certainly has the most photogenic bakery case in town. The of-the-moment kouign amann pastries are at their sensational best here, with a caramelized exterior crackling with hints of salt that gives way to a rich and buttery center. It doesn’t hurt that most of these little treasures are that perfectly reasonable party-for-one size, which means you don’t need to think up any earth-shattering reason to reward yourself: You got yourself out of bed—good job! You’re still not in Paris, but you’ve found yourself a very effective consolation prize.

Best Local Spirit
100 Percent Rye Whiskey from Woodinville Whiskey Company

With rye a booming spirits category, Woodinville Whiskey had to aim high when releasing the first rye whiskey produced in Washington since Prohibition. It delivered in delicious style—its rye has a friendly, rich spiciness that’s good solo or in cocktails. Woodinville, 16110 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE; 425.486.1199; woodinvillewhiskeyco.com

Best New Local Brew
American Rye Ale by Reuben’s Brews
At its core, this American rye ale—from Ballard’s newest brewery, which opened in August—is a Hefeweizen (wheat beer). But in addition to wheat, it is brewed using rye malt and flaked rye, imparting a spicy, fruity character that sets this beer apart. Look for it on tap at better beer bars around Seattle and at the brewery’s taproom (available in bottles in 2013; stores to be determined). Ballard, 1406 NW 53rd St.; reubensbrews.com


Best Reason to Get Milk
Boozy Milkshakes at Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery

Autumn Martin has had us since 2008, when she started offering her molten chocolate cakes in tiny Mason jars. But when she opened her shop in Ballard in May, she had us all over again at “boozy.” This is not your ordinary soda-fountain offering: tequila and jalapeño; extra dark caramel, espresso and rye; smoked chocolate and Scotch; mescal, lime and caramel. Life is fair when there’s something for everyone for dessert.

Best Cocktail
Gunpowder Punch at Rob Roy

As an intriguing classical-minded drink in punch form, the Rob Roy’s Gunpowder Punch embodies much of the 2012 cocktail arena. Which wouldn’t mean squat if it tasted bad. Luckily, it’s a tropical, tangy, spicy dream—containing citrus-oil-soaked sugar, rhum agricole, London dry gin and an aged rum, along with real gunpowder (don’t worry, it’s edible!). The story goes that sailors used to add gunpowder to rum, then light it on fire. If the drink exploded, they knew they were getting the good, high-proof stuff; a fizzle let them know they were being had.

Most Playful Pastry Chef
Nikol Nakamura

One of our favorite events is the Auction of Washington Wines fundraiser on the lawn at Chateau Ste. Michelle. And for at least the past three years, the dessert tent has been helmed by pastry chef Nikol Nakamura, from Tulalip Resort and Casino’s fine dining restaurant. In 2011, she created a Willy Wonka wonderland, replete with “lickable wallpaper,” and this year, her “Cirque du Soleil meets the Evergreen State Fair” featured bacon candy on a stick and strawberry snow cones with Devonshire cream and lemon curd. Tulalip, 10200 Quil Ceda Blvd.; 888.272.1111; tulalipresort.com

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