Bravura in the Boonies

A winter getaway to Walla Walla's Whitehouse Crawford.

Walla Walla. The residents of this old frontier town and rising appellation (pop. 30,000, wineries 50-plus and counting ) refer to it jokingly as the Paris of the Palouse and the Bordeaux of the Boonies. With endless vines, open fields, celebrities, and sunshine, Walla Walla's the closest thing to France in Eastern Washington. The topsoil runs many feet deep, the sun shines all the time, and the temperature's perfect, even in winter, so that grapes enjoy exceptional "hang time"sunny days and soft nights spent lolling on the vine in anticipation of their seasonal crush, after which they turn to wine. But good wine demands good food, and until recently only the grapes enjoyed their hang time here. Visitors were crushed before long by a lack of good places to eat. No more. Whitehouse Crawford is gamely bringing Walla Walla cuisine up to snuff with the region's excellent wines, and it's a bravura performance. On a recent winter getaway, we tasted wines at three excellent vineyard tasting rooms (Canoe Ridge, L'Ecole 41, and Woodward Canyon), had cocktails in the bar of the Marcus Whitman Hotel, where a nice woman was running her fingers through actor David Spade's coiffed blond hair, andcelebrity appetite satedrounded out our Walla Walla evening with dinner at Whitehouse Crawford. As always, we were stunned by drama, sublime aesthetics, and unbelievably good food. The restaurant is housed in a huge 1904 planing mill, where it shares a spectacular loft space with Seven Hills Winery. On this particular night, Seven Hill's mammoth cellar was stacked to the rafters with enormous oak casks, plainly visible through the ceiling-high glass windows in the wall that dramatically partitions the winery and the restaurant. The effect was breathtaking. But we'd only just begun. White tablecloths and bright blue upholstery accented the decor. From one end of the restaurant arose a delicate mist of smoke and luscious aromas as lines of white-uniformed chefs busily prepared the food behind sleek professional stoves of polished chrome and aluminum. At the bar, a genial bespectacled man was shaking cosmos in a silver cocktail shaker. He looked happy enough to be a patron who had snuck behind the counter, but it turned out he was the bartender. By the entrance hung a framed letter from Alice Waters, doyenne of nouvelle American cuisine, thanking chef Jamie Guerin for a wonderful meal and inviting him to Chez Panisse, her fabled restaurant and cafe in Berkeley, Calif. And as Waters evidently noticed, the imprint of his enormous talent is everywhere on the restaurant's imaginative menu. Our culinary fete began with an appetizer of grilled squab breast ($10). A squab is a 25- to 30-day-old pigeon that has yet to learn to fly. (Don't worry, squabs aren't stolen from a nest but bred specifically for restaurant use.) Ours was dark and rich, plump and delicate. It cut like butter under the knife. Other chefs might have glazed the bird and ruined the delicate flavor. This kitchen served it in 12-year-old balsamic vinegar with a sliced Bartlett pear, offsetting the meat's gamier aspect just enough. We ate it to the accompaniment of a heavenly salad of locally grown apples from Lafore Farm with fennel, cabbage, and maple pecans in an Oregon blue cheese vinaigrette ($8). With such a stellar start, the main course could only be a letdown, right? Wrong. My Thundering Hooves Farm Burger ($12), made with juicy, organic beef from nearby Thundering Hooves Ranch, came with Washington State University's far-famed Cougar Gold cheese, mustard aﯬi (done the old-fashioned way with raw egg yolks), and the restaurant's signature fried onionsWalla Walla onions sliced very thin and fried almost to the consistency of a delicate tempura. It was a thundering taste sensation and I resolved to come back for more the very next day. My companion's baked lasagne of autumn squash, chanterelle mushrooms, escarole, goat cheese, and marsala ($22) was a vegetarian's wine country dream. Once again, the ingredients melted on the palate. The sublime goat cheese in the lasagna was from nearby Fromagerie Monteillet run by charming glass artist and gourmand Joan Monteillet in Dayton, Wash. We washed the food down with a bottle of Isenhower Cellars Red Paintbrush ($28), a robust, flavorful local red table wine that's becoming a Walla Walla staple. It was purchased earlier at the winery, and our server opened and served it happily for a $15 corkage fee. Of course, Whitehouse Crawford's own wine list is impressive, especially when it comes to big Walla Walla reds, and had we planned ahead we could have sampled pretty much anything from a $75 L'Ecole 41 cabernet sauvignon to great vintages from Leonetti and Woodward Canyon in the $200-$400 range. The wine choice on the dessert menu included a Chateau Ste. Michelle single-berry reisling ($300/350 milliliters) that our server said gets rave reviews from diners, even at the steep price. We settled for cr譥 brl饠($10), silky soft and comforting, and promised ourselves a return trip for the riesling once the recession is over. That may take a long time, but thanks to Jamie Guerin and Whitehouse Crawford, the Paris of the Palouse is here to stay.

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