The Big O

Ravenna restaurant becomes the first in state to win organic certification.

I remember rolling my eyes toward Tukwila as I stood in the produce department of the old Queen Anne Thriftway about six or seven years ago. "We only eat organic. It's so much better for you," said my friend as he grabbed an avocado from a giant, precarious stack. I didn't roll my eyes because I refuted the merits of chemical-free food; I rolled my eyes because, at the time, organic food seemed like a luxury—something in which only beautiful, tanned mountain bikers recently retired from Amazon could indulge. This friend was about three-fifths of those things, and I—then visiting from a city where the mere act of getting groceries was an obstacle, and obtaining organic ones a pretty unlikely feat—well, I suppose I was just plain jealous. But the times they have a-changed. Some cities are still better than others of course, and Seattle is likely among the best, but these days it's almost hard not to buy organic. Whether it's a reaction to mad cow, salmonella, and the tinkering of biotechies, or a backlash against the self-destructive Atkins Nation, consumers are increasingly interested in healthy options—and the market is more than willing to oblige. Since around the time of my envious eye rolling, organic food sales have increased by about 20 percent each year, making it the fastest growing sector in the grocery industry. As far as cooking at home goes, it's entirely possible—and incredibly worthwhile and rewarding—to assemble full, delicious meals of wholly organic ingredients. But what about eating out? This is precisely where Sterling Café owners Don and Rosie Wilson were coming from when they opened their restaurant on, of all days, Sept. 11, 2001: What about eating out? Already committed to chemical and cruelty-free eating in their private lives, the Wilsons were frustrated with the lack of organic options in local restaurants. Since Don had long been a passionate cook in his own kitchen, they took it upon themselves to solve the problem. And they didn't just make a quick fix. The Wilsons' Ravenna restaurant is probably the purest place in town. Contaminates are removed from the water that goes in soups, sauces, and drinks; more than 95 percent of all the ingredients used in the cafe's kitchen are either wild or certified organic; and the very air circulating in the small space has been clarified. You taste the Wilsons' wonderful efforts in every bite: Organic food almost always tastes better because there's no toxic residue impeding or obliterating the natural flavors. Just a few weeks ago, however, these efforts became official when Sterling Café won certification from the National Organic Program, making it the first restaurant with organic distinction in Washington state, and among the first in the nation. (Sterling's certification is technically as an organic handler because guidelines for organic restaurants don't yet exist.) With the emphasis so solidly on quality ingredients and environmental awareness—and, quite apparently, a strong commitment to excellent, knowledgeable service—the lack of atmosphere at Sterling Café is easily overlooked. The Wilsons aren't trying to wow you with lighting design or decor, and they're not necessarily concerned with inventing new dishes or impressing the foodie chic; they're much too concerned with serving delicious food and wine free from hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals. On a recent Saturday night, my friends and I enjoyed tender scallops in a delightfully unheavy, herbed cream sauce; the special of the night, sumptuously prepared pork saltimbocca with a delicious wedge of hearty polenta; and blackened troll-caught wild salmon, which was given an unusual treatment of five-spice (yes, organic spices, too, all five of them), rendering the perfectly executed fish nutty, slightly sweet, and incredibly memorable. As if to dispel, once and for all, the myth that organic products are only for vegetarians, Sterling offers dishes like liver and onions, corned beef sandwiches, and flame-broiled steak, but non–meat eaters are very well taken care of, too. The Wilsons, who also run a water-purification business as well as the beauty salon adjacent to their cafe, are absolutely vigilant about their cause. "We are slowly killing ourselves and our planet. We must make a change, and are doing that one dish at a time," says the letter inserted in Sterling's surprisingly lengthy and varied menu. This is more than a restaurant, it's a mission.

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