Tamara Murphy's pork will knock your socks off. Among a certain set, she's famous for it—at Brasa in Belltown, she frequently roasted whole pigs, back when the average upscale diner wasn't accustomed to such a visceral presentation of beast. (They got used to it within a few bites.) She raised her own piglets some years ago, nurturing and—it's fair to say—loving them, then dealing with the morality and reality of their slaughter. (This was also ahead of its time, before chefs started holding $50-per-person pig kills; you can still find her Life of a Pig blog online.) When Murphy rehabilitated the Elliott Bay Cafe a couple years ago, finally making the bookstore's food as good as the bookstore, the pork chili verde played a starring role. (The Pioneer Square cafe is closed now, to become the Globe Cafe and Bar in 2012; the Capitol Hill Elliott Bay Cafe carries on.)
At Murphy's new restaurant, Terra Plata—finally open on Capitol Hill after two years of legal issues surrounding the space—the roast pig is served in a big, heavy bowl, all stewy and (there's no other way to put it) falling-apart tender. It's got the sneaks-up-on-you subtle heat of smoked paprika, echoed by the spice of the house-made chorizo. The pork comes from Cheryl the Pig Lady (who runs an all-natural farm between Puyallup and Tacoma), clams are scattered in for a Mediterranean-style surf-and-turf, and it's topped with a pork rind to soak up the sauce and pickled onions for contrast (color, texture, flavor). It costs $20 and tastes like pork heaven.
Terra Plata, after the protracted wrangling with the Melrose Market landlords that included a buzzing fuse box in the middle of what was supposed to be a dining area, looks great. It's the tip of the triangle at Melrose and Pike, and two of its sides are so windowed as to render it practically transparent (the bar and semi-open kitchen behind it complete the isosceles). The space is unpolished—mottled concrete floor, exposed-wood ceiling, and simple, heavy wooden tables and chairs—but the colors are toasty and the feeling is warm. (In the summer, the windows will roll open and a rooftop garden will provide as-local-as-possible produce.) The design feels urban without pretension, like a person with a heart made it rather than a firm with a prepackaged aesthetic.
Murphy, finally in her new place, is aglow. Terra Plata seems to be consistently packed already; her fans (and they're legion—she's a James Beard and Food & Wine award-winner) have been waiting. (Trivia: Way back around the turn of the century, Murphy also ran a little bar and restaurant just a block away on Bellevue called Ing.) If you think you'll just walk in and sit at the bar, that's iffy (though the cocktail menu looks very much worth exploring); better make a reservation. And while servers are knowledgeable and friendly, in these early days, there's sometimes a noticeable wait between courses. (Full disclosure: I interviewed Murphy for Edible Seattle in 2009 and have seen her since at her annual summertime meat-festival, Burning Beast. I don't know her well, but I really like her—it's impossible not to.)
Murphy's menu is very seriously grounded in local, artisan, organic, and sustainable foods, so changes occur daily, but so far it appears impossible to go wrong with Terra Plata's small plates. Maybe most spectacular: spot and striped prawns ($15), split and freighted with their roe in the middle, grilled and served in the shell with spicy chimichurri (fresh herbs in oil, Argentinean-style). These were cooked to just-not-underdone sweetness and smelled like a campfire on the beach, with the salt of the roe and the slick-spice of the oil—well, they come with a tiny fork to pull them out of the shells, but like a lot of the food here, you end up licking your fingers.
Only-on-the-half-shell purists could be won over by Terra Plata's version of oysters Rockefeller ($13), baked with chorizo, strands of collard greens, cream, and fontina. Bread is necessary to swipe every bit out of the shells. (Columbia City bread and butter is on the menu for $3, but seems to sometimes not show up on the bill.) Cappelletti ($15) are roughly folded-up fresh pasta packets full of a nutty, buttery Musque de Provence squash puree, dressed with nutty, buttery browned sage butter and hazelnuts (and a note of lemon for contrast). Duck pâté ($9) claims to be rustic but is neither too country-chunky nor too citified-smooth, the unctuousness cut with spicy/fruity mostarda, sweet-and-sour fig-and-cherry preserves, and vinegary pickled onions.
Blue-cheese-lovers will lose their minds over the dates ($12) stuffed with extra-strength Valdeón and wrapped in a melting-thin layer of lardo (special cured pig lard), though mere blue-cheese-likers might be overwhelmed. Anyone and everyone will lose their minds over Murphy's house-made potato chips ($7), a fine-gauge waffle cut that are very light, very crisp, and salted with not-too-pushy truffle sea salt. They're served with a ramekin of pecorino-chive cream—kind of like the old favorite onion-soup-mix-and-sour-cream dip, but approximately one million times better. (These were sent out on the house—Murphy should probably give everyone one or two of the potato chips, since they light up the pleasure center of the mouth in a way that causes compulsive behavior.)
Over in the "sea" department of the menu, the mussels a la crème ($15) were a superior version of a coastal wintertime delight—the mussels were plump bordering on obese, and the deeply creamy broth had shallot, parsley, and Pernod for a slight licorice sharpness to accent the dairy. Such beautiful mussels, so much butter and heavy cream—more bread, please! The steelhead salmon ($25), with the interesting addition of ground cherries (like gooseberries crossed with tomatillos—small, cute, a little tart), was just cooked exactly right, and of rather incredible freshness and quality.
On "land," a bubbling cassoulet ($22) was full of smoky house-made sausage and duck confit, the leg sticking up through the bread-crumb crust. Anyone finishing an entire order of it would have to be rolled home into bed for a long winter's nap. (It was even better reheated; same with some tacos made out of leftover roast pig.) Only a duck breast ($24) was a little disappointing—it had excellent flavor, but ordered on the medium side of medium rare, it was practically still quacking, with its layer of fat intact and a chewy aspect overall.
The duck was served in a typical fancy-restaurant style, with the breast sliced into medallions atop a celery root puree with sultanas, a deep and marvelous duck jus, and, to cut the richness, some vinegary cabbage choucroute. The presentation was pleasing, but the state of the meat itself made me think of a recipe for whole roasted duck—one that, because of the fattiness of the bird, recommends taking a very sharp knife and making shallow cuts all over it, followed by a slow, low-temperature roasting.
The cookbook says, "Try not to pierce the meat. This is where people goof up—they cut too deep. If you do, no big deal, but you want to try not to." It's Tamara Murphy's new cookbook, Tender, and it's like a good friend telling you how to make great food. The roast pig recipe is in there; it's braised for three to four hours, and you make a pork broth from braising liquid, and eventually you "pour all the goodness over the pork" and serve with crusty bread. If you have an unoccupied afternoon and don't want to pay restaurant prices, you can make it, or even the cappelletti, yourself; Murphy wants you to. The vegetable recipes in the book (and the vegetable dishes at Terra Plata) look especially simple and tasty, and the earnest prose—about community and giving and demystifying cooking and considering connections and making choices—rings completely, rather wonderfully true. The last line is an exhortation: "Savor each moment!" Tamara Murphy makes this easy to do.