June 13, 2024


World's finest Food

Our food critic’s 20 best dishes of 2021

IN A YEAR with unexpected challenges for the hospitality industry, The Seattle Times refrained from critiquing restaurants and assigning star ratings.

But that didn’t mean I stopped eating out. I continued to visit new restaurants, and I tried new dishes at my old favorites.

In a year we’d rather forget, here are the 20 dishes that I’ll remember.

Tomo, White Center
Summer squash ($68, third dish in a five-course tasting menu)
James Beard Award winner and former Canlis chef Brady Ishiwata Williams composes some of the most original vegetable dishes. We’re not talking eggplant mimicking sirloin, or other kitchen sleights-of-hand designed to trick the carnivores. Williams’ new plant-centric bistro is a sincere homage to the bounties of the field. Squash gets bathed in an eggy miso and then grilled and served with hemp pudding, toasted hemp seeds, pickled squash and an arugula-infused oil to imbue the plant with nutty, smoky and peppery flavors. Squash has never looked sexier on a plate.

Chicken skewer, Aki Kushiyaki: This dish is a revelation at the Japanese grill, one of the best new restaurants in the area. (Courtesy Aki Kushiyaki)

Aki Kushiyaki, Madison Valley
Chicken ($129, in the 13-course menu)
One of the best restaurants to debut in Seattle this year, this Japanese grill in Madison Valley serves only 13-course menus, with Wagyu and other marbled cuts sizzling over Binchotan charcoal. But it’s the humble chicken that is the revelation here, some of the most memorable poultry dishes this city has ever seen. The skewered poultry was an umami bomb on a stick, its blistered skin crackling in my mouth like Pop Rocks, followed up by the buttery dark meat that lay underneath. By the end of dinner, my lips were glossy in chicken fat, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.

Communion, Central District
Neck-bone stew ($22)
An evangelist of nose-to-tail eating — using everything but the oink — chef Kristi Brown gives the neck bone prime real estate on the entree menu. But in Kristi Brown we trust. The neck-bone stew is one of the most flavorful pork dishes in Seattle, with drippy, meaty shards that fall off the bone, and with lima beans swimming in the zesty, herbaceous stew. The dish was supposed to make only a cameo appearance, but after it won so many fans, Brown decided to keep it around through year’s end.

Tea-smoked duck, Dan Gui Sichuan Cuisine: The meat for this great dish is smoked in green tea leaves and jasmine flowers. (Courtesy Dan Gui Sichuan Cuisine)

Dan Gui Sichuan Cuisine, Bellevue
Tea-smoked duck ($18.99)
The Chinese food scene has never been better, thanks to a wave of cooks and restaurateurs from Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Vancouver, B.C., planting their flags in strip malls around the Eastside. Before the opening of this Sichuan restaurant, you couldn’t get a tea-smoked duck this good without grabbing your passport and heading to Richmond, B.C. The meat gets smoked in green tea leaves and jasmine flowers. The best meal I had on the Eastside for around 20 bucks.

Grillbird Teriyaki, West Seattle
The shrimp sandwich ($9.49)
Grillbird’s square shrimp cake is a cheeky homage to the appearance of the McDonald’s fish fillet, but that’s where the similarity ends. With some shrimp coarsely ground and others chopped, it’s a satisfyingly chunky patty, dotted with scallions, garlic, nori salt and sambal; encased in a crunchy panko crust and topped with American cheese, cabbage slaw and lugnut-size bread-and-butter pickles; then served on a grilled Marino’s potato roll. Just a wonderful medley of textures and flavors.

Rosemary-garlic oil confit potatoes, Matia Kitchen & Bar: This is one of the highlights of the farm-to-table menu at the Orcas Island spot that’s become a tough reservation. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Matia Kitchen & Bar, Orcas Island
Rosemary-garlic oil confit potatoes ($18)
The year’s most sought-after reservation lived up to the hype, with its farm-to-table menu inspired by flavors from the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Matia’s take on the Spanish patatas bravas is enlivened with a creamy version of a chermoula sauce of fennel and cumin and a supporting cast of silky squash blossom, almond, roasted poblano peppers, dill and the acidic pop of cherry tomatoes, all rounded out by flavors from South of the Border. In lesser hands, this vegetarian tapas would’ve been an overworked mess. But all the components sing in harmony, thanks to chef Avery Adams, an old hand who has done stints at Seattle’s acclaimed Stateside bistro and Hogstone’s Wood Oven on Orcas Island. Matia is a stellar debut for Adams, a 31-year-old chef to keep an eye on.

The Everything spiced flatbread, Cedar + Elm: A play on the lox bagel, this flatbread is covered with garlic, onion, celery salt, poppy and sesame seeds and topped with applewood-smoked Chinook salmon, among other delicious items. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Cedar + Elm, The Lodge at St. Edward, Kenmore
The Everything spiced flatbread ($18)
Flatbreads are usually mediocre, top-heavy appetizers. Not this one, which is dressed up like an everything bagel, covered in garlic, onion, celery salt, poppy and sesame seeds. It’s then topped with apple- and cherrywood-smoked Chinook salmon, red onions, capers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, crème fraîche and whatever herbs chef Jason Wilson has sprouting in the nearby garden. The blistered crust, with its crispy, crumbly texture, plays well with the lox-bagel toppings to create a bagel-inspired flatbread.

9th & Hennepin Donuts, West Seattle
Fresh doughnuts (four for $11)
Justin Newstrum’s sales pitch is that the best doughnut is a hot one. So he serves ’em only hot from the fryer. I can attest to their temperature. I burned the roof of my mouth the first time I rushed in to devour his cake doughnut, shunning the warning from the cashier. Newstrum’s menu changes every week at his whim. A box of four doughnuts includes a combination — a cake doughnut, raised doughnut, fritter and/or cruller (many stuffed with butternut squash or whatever fruit or veggie catches his eye at the farmers market). Beware: It’s just simple physics that a hot doughnut disappears faster than a cold one.

Goat curry, Samburna Restaurant: This curry features bone-in goat meat, and is a star on the menu of this Indian gem in Bothell. (Courtesy Samburna Restuarant)

Samburna Restaurant, Bothell
Goat curry ($15.99)
Some of the best food I had this year was from strip malls on the Eastside and in the South and North ends, including this Indian gem. Its sweet-and-spicy gravy bursts with coconut milk, tomato and allium, with a lingering finishing heat. The bone-in goat meat, meanwhile, with its buttery marrow, adds a pleasing depth. The taste is so distinctive, I swear I can pick out this South Indian dish, blindfolded, from any curry lineup.

Roast pork, Famous Kitchen: The roast pork at this Cantonese restaurant in an Issaquah strip mall is crispy on the outside, succulent inside. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Famous Kitchen, Issaquah
Roast pork ($13.99 per pound)
The skin of the roast pork is so crispy at this Cantonese cafe, I could hear the potato-crisp crunch of a satisfied diner two tables away. That bronzed, burnished skin encases an interior of succulent white meat above a floor of fat that melts on the tongue. Little five-spice seasoning or herbs adulterate this meat. There’s just a clean taste of salty pork.

Double cheeseburger, Burb’s Burgers: The smoky burgers here are sizzled on the grill until the edges form a thick, charred crust. Tasty, and cheap. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Burb’s Burgers, Montlake and Pioneer Square, and soon in Burien
Double cheeseburger ($6.50)
In the year of the smash burger, it seems that every pub or corner cafe in the city hawks this greasy diner staple. Burb’s makes one of the cheapest, and it’s as good as many of the higher-priced burgers. Its textbook-perfect patty gets smashed on the griddle and then sizzled until the edges form a thick, charred crust that contributes to its smoky taste. Ask for the Burb’s Special ($6.50), with pickles and all the works, for a taste reminiscent of a Big Mac, but without the middle bun. Better, though, is the double cheeseburger with none of the add-ons for a cleaner, beefy bite.

Pandan Chiffon Cake, Banh by Lauren: Lauren Tran’s pop-up was a huge hit, with her pandan desserts drawing lines for blocks. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Banh by Lauren pop-up
Pandan Chiffon Cake ($10 for a slice)
During the restaurant shutdown, many inspiring, laid-off pastry cooks cribbed from the playbooks of their counterparts in L.A. and New York, and announced their bake sales through Instagram, a medium that’s picture-perfect to show off three-tier wedding cakes and flower frosting skills. Lauren Tran’s pastry pop-up was the runaway hit this year. The Federal Way native, who resides in New York City, came back to the Puget Sound to take care of her ailing dad, and sold some cakes as a side hustle. Through word-of-mouth, her pandan desserts drew lines three blocks long. Tran, who did stints at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko, and then at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern in New York City, still sells her cakes when she’s home. Follow her on Instagram for dates when you can buy her four-layer pandan chiffon cake with coconut mousse and whipped cream frosting; it’s the talk around Seattle and in New York. Her chiffon cake pulls off the trick of being both rich and light, a spongy-cake texture bursting with vanilla, almond and tropical flavors.

Cambodian stuffed wings, Oliver’s Twist: Not your usual chicken wings. Oliver’s Twist does a boneless version stuffed with pork, lemon grass and other spices. (Courtesy Oliver’s Twist)

Oliver’s Twist, Phinney Ridge
Cambodian stuffed wings ($15)
The best chicken wings in the city are made at this Phinney Ridge cocktail den. They’re deboned Draper Valley poultry stuffed with pork, noodles, taro and carrots. They’re essentially egg rolls with the chicken skin doubling as wrapper. Caramelized fish sauce and the rendered fat from the skin make these wings sing.

Peking Duck, Baron’s Sino Kitchen & Bar: This organic duck is all about the skin, and the fat. Forget about your diet, and just enjoy. (Courtesy Baron’s Sino Kitchen & Bar)

Baron’s Sino Kitchen & Bar, Bellevue
Peking duck ($78, $49 on Mondays)
The deconstructed duck arrives looking more like a tortoise shell, its mahogany carapace shining in the light. That glossy sheen has a message: Forget about your diet. For the next hour, you are in for some blubbery bites. That skin cracks like a cracker, yielding to the duck fat just underneath, rendered nearly to liquid by hours of cooking. Take a pancake, and drop in a slice of meat, along with some green onion. Dip in the syrupy secret brown sauce. Come on Mondays, when the duck is discounted. It’s more rewarding than any Happy Hour.

Deep-fried peppers, Mirchi: Like spicy food? Check out the deep-fried chili peppers at this Indian Restaurant in Issaquah. It’s a five-alarm capsaicin inferno in your mouth. (Courtesy Mirchi)

Mirchi, Issaquah
Deep-fried peppers or Cut Mirchi ($6)
Forget jalapeño pepper poppers stuffed with cooling cream cheese. The deep-fried peppers at Mirchi are the poppers’ more sophisticated, wilder cousin — an unapologetic five-alarm capsaicin fire with a crunch. These serrano chili peppers are encased in chickpea flour, then fried, and will taste three times better paired with a dry riesling or an Oregon bubbly.

Pork chop, Single Shot: The brined pork chop at Single Shot has been on the menu since the Capitol Hill bistro debuted six years ago. Patrons won’t let the restaurant take it off the menu. (Tan Vinh / The Seattle Times)

Single Shot, Capitol Hill
Pork chop ($35)
This briny “Flintstones”-size slab remains the juiciest pork chop I’ve had in the Northwest. Not uniform pale beige like many other versions, it’s caramelized, with the edges charred brown, the center still a rosy blush. When I pressed my knife down, the pork drippings soaked up the accompanied grits and greens.

Pepperoni slice, Breezy Town Pizza: The crust is like a sourdough bread, and it holds heat-curled cups of pepperoni that contain their own juices. (Bethany Jean Clement / The Seattle Times)

Breezy Town Pizza, Beacon Hill
Pepperoni slice ($5)
Let all the pizza snobs weigh in about the style of this pie. Owner and chef Dave Lichterman simply calls it a hybrid between a Chicago pie and a Detroit-style pizza. Whatever you call it, call it a great slice for pepperoni lovers. The crust is more like a sourdough bread, with heft. It needs it: The top is home to charred, lacy heat-curled cups of pepperoni that hold their own juices. Below lies a second layer of ‘roni softened from being blanketed by gooey mozzarella. A pepperoni slice on steroids.

Squab au Vin, L’Oursin: This tasty bird has a little barbecue flavor after being finished over a yakitori grill. It tastes like a smoked Peruvian guinea pig. (Courtesy L’Oursin)

L’Oursin, Central District
Squab au Vin ($36)

A take on a Julia Child staple, the sous-vide breast meat and the confit squab legs are finished over a yakitori grill to give the bird a little backyard barbecue flavor. That grilled bird — tastes like a Peruvian guinea pig — gets fortified with root veggies and bacon bits in a Bordeaux wine sauce flavored with a stock of squab, chicken and duck organs and scraps, a rich, nuanced bird and sauce.

Agnolotti, Carrello: This signature pasta are little candy-sized packages stuffed with various ground meats, then lacquered with a butter sauce that’s flavored with cured ham. The best agnolotti in town is at this Capitol Hill spot. (Courtesy Carrello)

Carrello, Capitol Hill
Agnolotti ($17)
Many versions of this stuffed pasta rotate onto Carrello’s pasta menu every month, but I implore chef Nathan Lockwood: Stop messing around. You’ve nailed it already, chef, with your latest. The pasta are little candy-sized packages stuffed with rabbit, pork and duck meat, then lacquered with a butter sauce that’s flavored with cured pork, and served with meaty chanterelles and a cheese of sheep’s milk. Damn if this isn’t the best agnolotti in the city.

Old Salt, Fremont
Cold-smoked black cod ($20 for 4 ounces)
Before we retire the word “pivot,” my award for best second act goes to the seafood bistro Manolin, whose smoked fish-and-bagel pop-up (named Old Salt) born during the pandemic drew such long lines that it’s sticking around. Old Salt will continue to function out of the Manolin space as a morning grab-and-go, and next year will expand with a second location in Ballard. Old Salt highlights fish from the waters of Neah Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula. The fillets don’t need to oversmoke or heavily season, as you find elsewhere around town, to mask deficiencies in the fish. Instead, there’s just a tinge of cold-smoked applewood. Check out the black cod.