A Guide to Your New Favorite Restaurant
1411 N 45th St, 633-0801
Fri—Sat 5:30—10:30 pm; Tue—Thurs, Sun 5:30—10 pm; Sat—Sun 10 am—2 pm
Tilth: your new favorite restaurant. Or, according to the menu, "Tilth, n. 1. The most fertile and bountiful layer of the earth's soil, tilled to begin life. 2. The food experience of Tilth, a restaurant." (This menu is otherwise sensible, terse, uncute.) The background: Chef/owner Maria Hines, she of Earth & Ocean, portentous awards, and the beautiful long black braid. Concept: all-organic menu (certified by nonprofit Oregon Tilth—one of only two such restaurants in existence) and all-obscenely-delicious food (certified by me and, soon, you and everyone we know). Uncertifiably organic ingredients (like wild fishes): underlined on the menu, few in number. Wine list: not organic, thankfully, as it couldn't be and have such a good range, so be nice.
The setting: inside a Wallingford Craftsman house, with beams and leaded glass and a paint job akin to being suspended in a lemon meringue pie. Sweet/simple/homey, yes, but to belabor the interior is to miss the point. Two things are being signaled: 1. seriousness about food rather than atmospherics, and 2. hipness approximating a secret-underground-restaurant-held-in-a-residence. Screw high ceilings/metallic scrims/pretensions to grandeur, it says (and rightfully so).
(An aside: In its no-bullshit setting and sheer value, Tilth recalls Matt Dillon's strip-mall restaurant Sitka and Spruce. The latter isn't all organic, but both emphasize local, lovely ingredients; the results at both are heroic. Tilth is like Sitka and Spruce's older sister, a little more buttoned up, slightly less cool. Both offer different-sized portions, for sharing or conventional courses. Both feel like a dinner party, if you could exchange your friends for ones who were better cooks and, probably, better people. Both make you sound like you have a lisp.)
Now, the nitpicking: A couple too many tables are crammed in. (Those poor people right by the bathrooms!) The host's constant updates (of the "Now I will depart, then I will return with water and menus, and hold forth upon the impending arrival of your server" caliber) and earnest speechifying (including elaboration on "the genius of the menu"): a bit much. Aside from this, service is mind-reading, uncanny, didactic if you like, unobtrusive if not. One night, the kitchen was slow (a pleasurable sort of excruciation).
The food! Quintessential flavors, lushness, comfort, delight. Do not mistake organic for low-fat; the current, intensely autumnal menu is suitable for hibernation readiness. It speaks to your intellect, your heart, and your tongue, making an overall, ineffable sense, too. It's simple yet rich, evocative. At worst, what you'll eat here is merely good; at best, it might make you want to cry.
E.g.: a shot of house-made huckleberry soda with a lemony-sweet rim, brought out unbidden midmeal to raise the spirits and blood-sugar level. A sip of this stabbed me in the memory (childhood, summer, Idaho, pie) in a visceral, chest-constricting way. What made my companion nearly lose it: a slab of pork belly ($11/$21). The crispy skin, prodigious fat, and falling-apart meat represented the best possible version of every piece of ham she'd had fried for her during her Southern childhood. Her eyes actually filled with tears—alarming, but entirely understandable. (Served with the pork: plumply tender cranberry beans; scallion pesto; a bacon vinaigrette creating a barbecue-in-heaven effect. If one person ate an entire large portion of this, they would probably die, either of a heart attack or sheer happiness.)
Other screamingly wonderful things consumed: an amuse-bouche of a tiny square of ethereal tuna (St. Jude's albacore, caught young, low mercury) with umi plum vinaigrette and mint chiffonade on a tiny chilled white plate; deconstructed niçoise ($12/$24) with the best deviled egg ever and more tuna, barely seared, crazy good; mini duck burgers ($12/$24), quite rare, on mini brioche buns, with fig mustard, heirloom ketchup, fingerling potato chips, all house-made.
Desserts ($8): distilled decadence, inventiveness itself, anti-cloying. Pudding made with smoked Theo chocolate (!); crème brûlée flavored with white corn (!!), sided by crumbles of candied bacon (!!!). Also: glorious cheeses, a blackboard's worth.
A tip: Dinner reservations are already scarce at your new favorite restaurant, while weekend brunch is, for the moment, undiscovered. You will pay $12 for a plate of scrambled eggs—truffled, with chives and heirloom-tomato confetti, arranged in a crown on fried potatoes of the highest order. It is so, so worth it.