Chef Renee Erickson is obsessed with Pacific Northwest flavors—Penn Cove mussels, grass-fed Whidbey Island beef, Washington state Viognier. F&W goes deep with the woman whose passions shape how Seattle eats.
Seattle is famous for many things: Microsoft, grunge, rain, the Seahawks. But when it comes to food and drink, there are just two enduring images: a fish, flying from hand to hand, at Pike Place Market and a cup of coffee (Seattle, some studies say, consumes the most in the country—on average, there's a coffee shop per city block).
Renee Erickson, the chef and restaurateur, has a broader vision. Driven by her love for the ingredients she grew up with in the Pacific Northwest as well as discoveries from her European travels—Rome, Paris, Normandy, London—she has opened a half-dozen remarkably diverse spots around the city. They include The Whale Wins, a restaurant with outstanding wood-oven-cooked vegetables and seafood; Bateau, a modern steakhouse featuring beef that Erickson raises on nearby Whidbey Island; and the adorable, amaro-focused Barnacle bar. Here, Erickson shouts out eight of her passions and explains how they have influenced her cooking at her restaurants and at home. Take oysters, the inspiration for The Walrus and the Carpenter. She grew up devouring the shucked bivalves but didn't realize how special they could be until she tried them on the half shell in France. When she came home, she thought, Here I am in a place with arguably the world's best oysters, and we aren't celebrating them—let's change that. Another highlight of The Walrus and the Carpenter is the French-focused wine list. "At my restaurants," Erickson says firmly, "the wine has to play well with the food."
One of my first restaurant jobs was at Boat Street Cafe in Seattle. I was hired as a server, but I felt like a fake because I knew nothing about wine. So I asked if I could cook. I started with baking and made my way to the line. A few years later, when I was 25, I bought Boat Street Cafe. I became good friends with a wine salesman, David Ostler. On Tuesdays, I'd sit with him out on the restaurant's Adirondack chairs, and he'd teach me about Rioja, rosé, Riesling: He blew my head open. Most wine lists are created with customers in mind; I write my lists with food in mind. I've always loved French wine; Washington wine, not so much. But palates change. Plus, our Pacific Northwest wines have improved dramatically, and there's a lot more variety. Now I particularly like Anna Schafer's wines at áMaurice. I love her Sparrow Viognier. And the wines from Syncline—their rosé is awesome!
About five years ago, I went to London; of course I made a pilgrimage to St. John. It's not a place that's known for its doughnuts, but I was stunned by their simplicity: brioche dough with custard. They became an obsession. I wouldn't say that I love doughnuts; usually they're too sugary. But when we were planning Bateau and Bar Melusine, we ended up with an awkward space next door, and by then we'd perfected our doughnut recipe (I think it's even better than St. John's now). So we opened General Porpoise. We offer around five varieties; one is always stuffed with seasonal jam, like nectarine with bay leaf. The most popular is the vanilla custard. For the winter, I turned my passion for California date shakes into a doughnut. Its filling is vanilla custard mixed with dates.
Sometimes I'm more into clams; right now, I'm all about mussels. On the West Coast, I grew up eating them just steamed. Then I traveled to Normandy, where mussels are decadent creatures in a crème fraîche bath. The French use the shell to pick the meat out. There's something so sweet and simple about that; it's the only way my dad eats mussels now. Penn Cove, which produces some of the world's most sought-after mussels, is right in our backyard. I like serving those mussels in cider cream with tarragon, as we do in the fall at The Walrus and the Carpenter. I opened it six years ago; I'd been wanting to launch a restaurant specializing in shellfish, and I heard about a tiny space in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood. We built an L-shape bar and designed the place to feel like the seaside--it's essentially the color of oyster shells.
As a poor art student in Rome, I ate plenty of pretty amazing canned fish: sardines, anchovies, tuna. In Italy and Normandy, two places I especially love, there are stores that sell nothing but fish in tins and jars. On top of that, as a chef, when you're constantly looking for interesting things to cook, preserved fish gives you something new to play with. Plus, it's plentiful and relatively cheap. In fact, I recommend picking canned fish over fresh fish, unless you're near the water. It's the specialty at Barnacle, though I have tinned fish on almost all my menus. The key to getting people to eat them is usually a sauce like brash, minty sauce verte. Right now, on our website, eatseacreatures.com, we're selling smoked herring, which is kind of hysterical. It's even harder to get people to eat herring than sardines, but once they try it, they're hooked.
I'm a native Washingtonian; I grew up in Woodinville and spent summers on the Puget Sound, 45 minutes outside of Seattle. Puget Sound is famous for shucked oysters, but it was only when I started traveling to France in my early twenties that I began eating oysters on the half shell. You could literally walk down the street and find someone shucking oysters, and then they'd hand you a glass of Chablis--such a great combo. That piqued my interest in opening an oyster bar here in Seattle. At The Walrus and the Carpenter and Bar Melusine, we celebrate the lore and fabulousness of oysters. They're more distinct than most foods: intense, texturally as well as flavor-wise, and environmentally great. When I was 25, I was a purist: Those oysters should be naked! But now I'm OK serving them with something alongside, like a refreshing cucumber mignonette. That and some lemon--that's all you need.
In western Washington there's a farm called Local Roots. Its bitter greens remind me of when I was a student in Rome: Women at market stalls would cut up beautiful curly chicory and serve it with a superpotent dressing made with anchovies. I like those bold flavors--strong but really simple. My tahini vinaigrette is a version of that: garlicky, earthy, delicious.
Bitter flavors are a love-or-hate thing; I've always been in the love camp. In Rome I was that person who didn't want to look like a tourist, so my friends and I would drink those little bottles of Campari with a splash of soda. It's like with espresso: No one in Italy has a 16-ounce coffee--it's just a small cup and a quick moment. We had that in mind when we opened Barnacle. We have about 70 different amaros--some are from the Seattle area and California, but most are from Italy. A few are over-the-top in their medicinal quality, but when you cut them with soda or turn them into a cocktail--like the rhubarb-spiked Civic Treasure--those amaros become richly flavored and textured in a way that doesn't happen with other spirits.
I discovered the perfect steak in my thirties at a teeny place in Paris called Le Severo. It wasn't the chargrilled meat I knew. Instead, it was cooked in a steel pan with butter, so it had an incredible caramelized crust. The chef, William Bernet, used to be a butcher. He just focuses on meat--all kinds of cuts, all cooked in a pan, all served blue, saignant, extra-rare with perfect fries, a perfect salad, that's about it. I've heard all his meat comes from Limousin cattle, which are one of the breeds we're raising at La Ferme des Ânes [a.k.a. the Donkey Farm] here on Whidbey Island. We also have Maine-Anjou and Charolais cattle—they're the big, beautiful white ones. We have around 40 head of cattle right now, all fed on grass. My interest in animal welfare has increased since we started the farm. At Bateau, my version of a French steakhouse, we only serve dry-aged, grass-fed meat. We list the different cuts on a chalkboard menu, and there are always a couple of butters, too. I don't want steak every day; it's once-a-week or even once-a-month food. It's decadent. A big rib eye steak, with togarashi-and-lime butter, would be my last meal.
For more, see Renee Erickson's tips on where to eat in Seattle.