The Top 10 Dishes of 2009

Our critic savors the highlights of a million-calorie year.

Light a candle for Saint Lawrence, patron saint of cooks, because Seattle's food scene seems to have weathered the apocalypse. Openings continue to equal or outnumber closures, and restaurants have scraped by on promotions and happy hours. This year saw more farmers markets, supermarkets (both Western and Asian), and bars selling $10 cocktails. And, just as every Seattle food writer has sworn for a quarter-century, I swear the food keeps getting better.The majority of dishes—cocktails included!—that made my annual Top 10 list were appetizers, sides, and small bites. I couldn't tell you whether that reflects the spirit of the age or simply my 2009 tastes, but when I look over my gut, these are the dishes its steep swell evokes most strongly, in no particular order:Kao soi, Noodle Boat Thai Cuisine, 700 N.W. Gilman Blvd., Suite E 104(b), Issaquah, 425-391-8096, the dozens of Thai restaurants in Seattle, it took a drive to Issaquah to find noodles as good as these. Buried under bales of shredded carrots and fried strips of dough, submerged in a dense yellow curry undiminished by sugar and concessions to Seattle tastes, the egg noodles emerged from their sauce fragrant, tart, and glowingly spicy. Every time I'd settle into the charms of the kao soi, a thread of pickled cabbage would get tangled in the noodles I was slurping and shock me back to attention.Brooklyn Pizza, Delancey, 1415 N.W. 70th St., 838-1960, is Molly Wizenberg (aka Orangette) and Brandon Pettit's neighborhood pizza joint attracting two-hour waits? It's the crust, which greets the teeth with a loud crack, a rush of hot air, and the smell of wood smoke and wheat. While Pettit likes to play with seasonal Northwest ingredients, his basic Brooklyn pizza—a translucent layer of tomato sauce, a smattering of mozzarella and grana padano—is the pie that best shows off his classic East Coast crust.Gun Club, Tavern Law, 1406 12th Ave., 322-9734,'ve drunk too many of these (damn that six-block walk!) to omit the Gun Club at Tavern Law, Dana Tough and Brian McCracken's new cocktail bar. Of course, you can make a reservation upstairs and get a customized cocktail designed to your tastes, but I've preferred to pick through the arcana listed on master bartender David Nelson's menu downstairs. Made with gin, Lillet, Maraschino, and a few drops of Scotch for smoke, the Gun Club tastes like a downed electric wire, crackling and throwing sparks. It's a dangerous and compelling drink, as several mornings-after have proven.Ssambap, Garden Korean Cuisine, 1636 S. 312th St., Federal Way, 253-941-2483.This Korean restaurant, located just off Highway 99 in Federal Way, was the find of the year—not just for its stews, steamed dumplings, and regional Jeju Island dishes, but for the vegetables and herbs the owners grow in their own organic garden. They're in full display in the table-spanning ssambap (rice wraps), an assemble-your-own-dinner involving nearly a dozen kinds of just-picked greens (dandelion leaves, lettuce, squash vines), a chunky fermented-soybean stew for dipping, and a glorious roster of side dishes: radish and cabbage kimchi, bean sprouts, soy-pickled cucumbers, dried anchovies, and delicately dressed herbs rarely tasted in the United States. Due to its seasonal nature, ssambap's currently off the menu, but look for it again come May or June.Aloha slider, Marination Mobile, locations vary,, twitter: @curb_cuisine.Street food blew up this year; all around the country, fooderati have been chasing down taco trucks and food carts with the fervor of matsutake hunters. In Seattle, only a few trucks have made it through the permit hazing process—the city and the county health department haven't exactly fostered a street-food-friendly environment—but luckily the initiates include the Marination Mobile. I like Kamala Saxton's Korean-Hawaiian-Mexican spicy pork tacos, but crave her aloha sliders: tangerine-sized soft rolls filled with an inch-high pile of slow-roasted, soy-marinated, tender-as-a-People-profile kalua pork set off by Marination's lime-bright cabbage slaw.Nutter butter squares, Poppy, 622 Broadway E., 324-1108, goddamn mini–peanut butter bars—just two of them per order—keep me ordering the dessert thali (two desserts plus four pairs of little sweets) from pastry chef Dana Cree instead of just one dessert per visit. She compacts a shoebox of flavor into each one-inch cube: a salty, crumbly layer of roasted peanuts and chocolate, an opulent quarter-inch of white-chocolate caramel poured overtop, the cube shot through with papery-crisp filaments of feuilletine.Roast parsnips, Sitka & Spruce (currently closed, pending a move to 1531 Melrose Ave.), 30 marked S&S's last day in its old Eastlake location. But a good-bye meal there a couple weeks back reminded me just how good Matt Dillon's first restaurant could be: Roasted parsnips, whose sugars had caramelized and blackened in the oven, were topped with a perfect poached egg. It looked as ephemeral as a dollop of whipped cream until we pressed into it; thick gold lava erupted out, tempering the sweetness of the vegetables and the bite of a mustard-sage vinaigrette. Humble ingredients, elegant technique.Squid satay, Long Provincial Vietnamese Restaurant, 1901 Second Ave., 443-6266, all the many (many) dishes on the menu at Tam Nguyen's Belltown restaurant, the one that most captivated me was a dollar-bill-sized plate of skewered, grilled baby squid. Their marinade browned just before the satin-bodied squid seized up, and the combination of flavors—roasted peanuts, fried scallions, squid, and nuoc cham dipping sauce—gave me that feeling of staring at the sun through a Chihuly sculpture, watching the light dodge and mutate as it passes through shifting layers of color.Grilled mackerel with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, Anchovies & Olives, 1550 15th Ave., 838-8080, can't get enough mackerel right now, whether it's saba nigiri or salted, grilled Korean godeungeo gui. Appearing only for a few nights in March, chef Ethan Stowell served grilled fillets—the skin crisp and sharp-edged, the meat sweet and basted in its own fat—with roasted mushrooms and meaty, bitter grilled radicchio. All he had to do to pull the three ingredients together was drizzle a good aged balsamic—a bright stroke from Seattle's master minimalist.Early summer crawfish with Big Easy sauce, Crawfish King, 725 S. Lane St., 623-3622, wore a plastic bib for my crawfish-by-the-pound meals at Crawfish King, but next time I'm wearing a rain jacket too. That's because eating Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish is the culinary equivalent of off-roading, leaving a man glistening, garlic-drenched, buzz-lipped, and painfully bloated. Crawfish King serves crawfish year-round, but Gulf Coast residents know that the fattest, juiciest crawfish crawl out of the mud May through July, and at the height of the season the Seattle restaurant's owners fly bushels of the crustaceans north every day. I loved the butter-spice glaze on the crimson shells, the tender meat inside, and the fiery chile-lime dip that I dredged each bite through, the opening salvo in a barrage of incandescent flavors.Runners-Up: Chawanmushi, FLO; kampachi sashimi with shrimp salt and rau ram, Monsoon East; seared scallops with English peas and fennel, Matt's in the Market; "lizard egg" doughnuts, Queen's Deli; lamb in dry pot, Spiced; a double scoop of malt and burnt-sugar gelati, Poco Carretto Gelato; and hamachi belly, Miyabi

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