"Corn four ways" could be the subtitle of Opal's striped bass, a dish that sums up the kitchen's determination to play. Way one: a bed of grits, sweetened up with fresh peas and corn kernels. Two: a blue-cornmeal crust coating the fish, browned and crackly around the edges. Three: a scattering of paprika-dusted popcorn kernels. Four: pale green corn shoots planted around the fish, a garden watered with lobster sauce.
Price Check Spring greens $8 Cured salmon $9 Pork belly (small) $13 Mushroom-potato shortstack $23 Striped bass $28 Lamb loin $34 Chocolate satin $7 Opal 2 Boston St., 282-0142, www.opalseattle.com. UPPER QUEEN ANNE. Open for dinner Mon.–Sat.
In its third month, Opal has already taken a place among Seattle's most innovative restaurants—think Veil, Lampreia, and Mistral. But because of the scale of its room and its unforced service, Opal's air is easier to breathe. Opal's the brainchild of Orrapin Chancharu, owner of the 10-year-old Orrapin Thai Cuisine next door, who is aiming to give the top of Queen Anne Hill its own destination restaurant. (There's clearly enough money in the neighborhood to support one.) Chefs Andy Leonard and Tyler Hefford-Anderson conduct plenty of experimentation in the kitchen, and during my two meals at Opal, there were moments when I wished they wouldn't try so hard, and just as many when I was glad they did.
Opal's the culinary equivalent of that friend who storms through record stores, looting anything she's seen mentioned on Pitchfork. I can't think of a trendy ingredient that doesn't appear on the menu: yuzu, pork belly, varieties of obscure microgreens, popcorn. The chefs are even attempting to launch a few trends of their own—black chickpeas, licorice root, the aforementioned corn sprouts.
Keeping up with the hip kids is no fault in my book, especially when the flavors work. And two dishes rocked my world.
For the vegetarian mushroom and potato "shortstack," the chefs lovingly braised long rectangles of potato to the tenderness of a thick pasta, then stacked them three inches high, layered with melted-down leeks and mushrooms. If that sounds wintry and bland, it wasn't, because the chefs capped the faux-lasagna with a roasted-tomato jam just assertive enough to bring the dish together, then flanked it with pools of celery-root puree for aromatic interludes. For garnish, they'd dried paper-thin mushroom slices into a crisp sheet of "shiitake bacon."
I teased long strands of lean meat away from the fatty core of the "peach-braised pork belly." A dab of peach-infused whipped cream, which didn't seem like much at first taste, clung to the meat, carrying with it the scent of fresh peaches. The fruit was echoed in the fresh crunch of a tufted salad of grilled peach slices, shaved fennel, chives, and mâche, the perfect counterbalance to the pork.
I spent hours afterward thinking about the delicate balance in those dishes, imagining all the ways that an extra spoonful of this or splash of that could have wrecked the effect. Dishes that thoughtful are rare enough encounters that the rest of the food, which varied from mediocre to good, basked in their reflection.
Some of the flights of fancy, for example, thudded to the ground. A gorgeous herb-rubbed lamb loin surrounded with paprika oil came with a "succotash" of crunchy, undercooked chickpeas and crunchy, undercooked green soybeans that was uncomfortable to eat. A mixed-green salad with pea shoots and flowers was dressed with sweetened yuzu juice, with nothing to moderate the bite of the peppery citrus fruit or give it resonance with the oh-so-stylish, but superfluous, marcona almonds the chefs had tossed in.
More often, what made a dish good rather than great was a minor error of proportion. An appetizer of ruby-colored "beet-cured" Copper River salmon—sliced on little shredded-potato crisps spread with mascarpone and surrounded with loops of basil oil—was covered in celery microgreens (week-old sprouts, or the milk-fed veal of the herb world). The sprouts had a fragile cilantro-like flavor that nevertheless overwhelmed the dish; once I shoved most them to the side of the plate, the dish came into balance. A fillet of troll-caught king salmon came with cherry tomatoes and salmon caviar, bursts of sweet acidity or sea salt to set off the moist meat. The promised "freshly grated wasabi crust," though, turned out to be panko crumbs pressed onto the salmon before it baked; then, at the table, the waiter grated but a few snowflakes from the horseradish-like root over the breadcrumbs. Occasionally I'd taste their bite, but the effect was like going to see a movie for your favorite star only to find that he's killed off in the first 20 minutes.
The desserts, each with six to 10 components, looked like Kandinsky's entries in the International Confectionary Art Competition. They were also a mess. A rhubarb crumble contained a half-dozen different desserts piled on top of one another: some almost-raw rhubarb with crumble topping pressed on, and then some Rice Krispies bitlets, and then some cubes of a cake, and then some blackberry puree up the sides of the bowl, and then some green tea ice cream, and then some licorice root foam, which tasted like a Chinese cure for eczema. The "PB&J" paired a gooey peanut butter mousse with undersweetened berry granita, undersweetened berry jam, and unripe fresh strawberry. The dessert that popped, though, really popped: A dome of "chocolate satin" ganache, with a skin of even darker chocolate, was served with whipped, blueberry-tinged crème fraîche whose light, fresh fruitiness cut through the dense chocolate with a sort of elfin magic.
No matter what was happening on the plate, the room itself was a pleasure to sit in. A mezzanine circling a full bar at the center gives the compact, high-ceilinged space both drama and intimacy; on either level, the tables feel like they have their own bubble of privacy. The ocher walls are accented with swaths of shimmery orange-green tile that look like they were peeled off a giant goldfish, and the sidewalk tables need nothing other than a warm night to work their charm.
The servers set the perfect tone for the swankest restaurant in the neighborhood: casual but competent. They keep the courses coming smoothly, and also translate some of the more eye-rolling menu descriptions—for example, the "clam olive composure" on the Louisiana prawns is apparently a relish of chopped clams and olives, and the "goat cheese emulsion" on the romaine salad is what the rest of us call a creamy dressing. The room was half-empty on both my visits to Opal, and I wonder if the pretentious menu, posted on the door, doesn't keep customers away. Too bad. No matter how foofy its name or rarefied its ingredients, a dish succeeds or fails on the basest of grounds: how it tastes. In that regard, Opal's food often comes through.
As this review was going to press0, Hefford-Anderson announced he's leaving Opal to teach at Culinary Communion's new cooking school (see Food Files, p. 52, for more details). I don't know whether the staff shift will have much effect on the food, but I do know that, together, Leonard and Hefford-Anderson have pushed their cuisine beyond the norm.