Tilikum Place Café Is All Goods, No Buzz

Perfecting even the homeliest of kitchen staples.

It's hard to think of a dish more prosaic than lentil soup. This sturdy slurry usually tastes like it looks--brown and mushy. So when the cup I ordered on my first visit to Tilikum Place Café arrived, I was startled by its beauty: glistening lentils bobbing in a broth bejeweled by drops of brilliant paprika oil and flecks of green herbs.I was about to taste it when the man across the room summoned the waitress. He glowered out the window at the Space Needle looming overhead."I would like to register a complaint."The waitress opened her eyes wide.He purred. "My problem is that I have nothing to complain about. Everything was just perfect."The waitress—a good sport if ever there was one—managed a laugh. But the guy was right, about the lentil soup and much else. I put the spoon in my mouth. The lentils were soft, but had enough structure to pop with the slightest pressure, like caviar. Just perfect.The godfather of French cuisine, Escoffier, believed that soup is the best measure of a cook's talent. It "exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention." I've had three soups now at Tilikum—lentil, parsnip puree, roast vegetable—and all were rendered with delicacy and precision.Tilikum Place Café has been open since last November, but it's been spared the feeding frenzy that can often overwhelm a new restaurant. An uninspiring review that came out just a month after the cafe opened probably didn't help, nor did last fall's crush of new restaurants with bigger PR budgets, nor the deepening economic gloom.The paper that delivered the premature judgment no longer exists, but thanks to glowing word of mouth and neighborhood devotees, Tilikum is still here.Chef Ba Culbert, a ringer for Catherine Keener, has a style that's artful, unfussy, and smart—which well suits the part of Belltown near Denny, the monorail, and Chief Sealth. Tilikum is an easy place to while away the hours, with lofty ceilings, wood beams, and cut-tin lamps.In a town where lunch, if served at all, is hit-or-miss, Tilikum's compelling midday menu is something of a minor miracle. Nostalgic classics like the egg fry-up and baked beans on toast pay homage to Culbert's English mother. This dollop of slightly sweet, pork-infused baked beans is served atop grilled bread, with a fried egg on the side (the fry-up has bacon and sausage to boot). Simple enough, but the care lavished on the ingredients elevates these homely dishes to a thing of joy.The crowning glories of the afternoon menu, though, are the Dutch babies. Seattle's least-known culinary icon, these puff pancakes are as hard to find these days as an actual Scandinavian. At Tilikum, the airy poufs (a mixed marriage of popover and crepe) are made to order in cast-iron pans. The sweet option is laden with roasted apple slices and walnuts. The savory, my favorite, is laced with tendrils of duck confit. I've never met a Dutch baby I didn't like—but I'd never met a Dutch baby I adored until Tilikum.Dusk shutters the Cafe's wide-open atmosphere, transforming it into an intimate hideaway that could easily be in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel instead of the Space Needle. Now's the time to take your cue from the chef by ordering the specials of the day. One early spring dinner featured two luscious mounds of lamb confit alongside baby carrots roasted with harissa; scallops seared just so and set atop two purees, yam wasabi and spinach, which cleverly doubled as both sauces and vegetables; and a tender haunch of rabbit with formed spinach-mushroom dumpling cakes and a rich jus that begged to be licked clean.Attuned to the seasons, the menu changes often. It's brief, but deep. Established appetizer favorites like the free-form butternut-squash tart could easily work as an entrée, especially when paired with a savory salad like the bitter greens with bacon vinaigrette. The handmade pasta is always lovely, like one evening's hand-cut tagliatelle, glossy with sage butter, hazelnut, and parmesan, and another's whimsical ravioli, plump with beet and apple.The most compelling evidence of the kitchen's talent is found in another area Escoffier was renowned for: sauces. The shimmer of deglazed pan juices that gild the pan-roasted chicken; aioli that transforms the chicken salad into a Gallic composition of pulled chicken and brined vegetables; rusty ketchup that's memorably sweet and smoky atop roasted roots. I like to request these sauces for their own sake, along with the homemade jam. Just looking at those little pots makes me ridiculously happy, because they're a reminder that someone cared enough to labor over them in a world squeezed out by prefab condiments.Dessert offerings at Tilikum Place sound straightforward, but they're executed with sly wit, like the homemade vanilla ice cream hidden in puffs of profiterole, or lavish little cookies like the kind Grandma thought she was making but never could: shortbread scented with lavender, green-tea butter cookies, chewy peanut-butter rounds, cubes of fudgy brownie. The chocolate bread pudding made me laugh out loud—such an unexpected riff on those clichéd molten chocolate cakes, but far more charming with its chewy-gooey bite. Tilikum's Brandi Basset is that rarity among pastry chefs: She makes sweets that aren't too sweet.With Tilikum Place Café, Ba Culbert joins the handful of Seattle chefs who've opened a restaurant because they love food, not because they're building an empire. Inside this Belltown kitchen, she and her fellow cooks are not just cooking but communing with their ingredients. This deep sense of connection can be tasted in everything they make.food@seattleweekly.comSumi Hahn is a food critic and blogger (sumisays.com) who was the staff restaurant reviewer for this newspaper in the late '90s. She is filling in for Jonathan Kauffman, who's on vacation.Price Check

  Cup of soup    $3.50

  Dutch baby, savory    $8

  Chicken salad    $12

  House-made pasta    $11

  Butternut squash tart    $9

  Lamb confit    $23

  Pan-seared chicken    $18

  Cookie sampler    $3

  Profiteroles    $7


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