Recently, I used this column to lavish praise on the smoked, pickled mussels Chef Jeff Vance makes at No Anchor. I realize doing a column soon after on a dish from sister bar Navy Strength, where Vance is also chef, might seem like favoritism. But I also don't care, because Vance's food is actually my favorite. I spent this entire week thinking about things I could highlight other than his crazy good lamb heart tartare, and while this city is full of amazing food right now, I couldn't get past that damn tartare.
It's one of those dishes that sits in your brain, occupying far more space than a tiny mound of finely chopped lamb heart really should. Though I suppose, if something is good enough, all it really takes is one bite to grab your attention. And grab your attention it does.
I'm already partial to tartare, because I feel like there is no purer way to experience meat than to eat it raw, but the lamb heart is something special. I ran into Vance at an event a while back, and asked him why, of all meats, he selected lamb heart, especially because it's sure to weird a few folks out. While he admitted that most people would be put off by the choice of organ meat, he pointed out that, rather than being gamey and funky, the heart is one of the leanest, most focused flavors of the animal, as it's a muscle that's constantly working.
This is very, very true. The lamb heart shines through like a foglight, though it's well-supported by the creamy egg yolk jam that binds it, and pleasantly punctuated by the salty, fishy globes of ikura (salmon roe) scattered throughout. The taro chips it's served with are strong enough to carry an ample bite of tartare to your mouth, but not so flavorful that they get in the way. If anything, they add a pleasantly arid, slightly sweet note to the dish. There are, as with nearly everything on Vance's menu, edible flowers, and they're as welcome here as they are on other dishes. Overall, the integration and intensity of flavor is remarkable. For a dish with just a few ingredients, it offers a complex, thought-provoking flavor profile, and it lingers on your palate for what seems like an impossibly long time. It lingers in your brain for even longer.
So yeah, I have no problem heaping praise on Vance's food because it's truly praiseworthy food. But I also have no problem giving him an undue amount of attention because I think he is representative of a generation of Seattle chefs that's poised to do some really interesting, adventurous food.
I first met Vance at a Work Release dinner at the Carlile Room, an event where line cooks and sous chefs from around town are given the following prompt: "Work in a French bistro but want to make dumplings? Ultra-fine dining all week got you in the mood to fry chicken on the weekend? Or are you ready to try your hand at avant-garde vegetarian Sri Lankan cuisine? Nothing is off limits."
This particular Work Release was a collaborative affair, with dishes from Vance, Ma'Ono's Cam Hanin, the Carlile Room's own Dezi Bonow, their friend Wilson Bauer from Chicago's Schwa, and pastry wizardess Junko Mine from Cafe Juanita. Obviously, the dinner was a tour de force, but it was also a potent reminder that there are a lot of young chefs with big ideas in Seattle right now. In fact, I was turned on to the Work Release series by Carlile Room bar manager Nick Jarvis, who I'd previously met through his work on the Rough Draft pop-up series, where chefs Aaron Wilcenski and Erik Jackson do however many courses they want of whatever the hell they feel like and always make some serious magic.
Then there are other beacons of culinary light, like Eduardo Jordan, whose rapid takeover of Ravenna is truly impressive, when you consider how much of a fine-dining dead zone the north end has historically been. I recently got to chat with Chris Weber, the Herbfarm's young chef, and was blown away that someone who is not yet 30 has such a deep knowledge of food and farming, and such a passion for both. I'm fascinated by Tarik Abdullah's plans for Black & Tan Hall, where he intends to use food to promote all sorts of social good, from racial equity to low-barrier entrepreneurship. Vance, along with a culinary supergroup consisting of Perfecte Rocher, Maximillian Petty, Heong Soon Park, Alex Barkley, Suzi An, and Alia Rocher, just launched the Rain City Chef's Alliance, a rotating series of pop-up dinners that raises money for Big Table. I could go on forever, but I think I've made my point, which is that there are a lot of driven people in the industry doing a lot of really exciting things with food right now.
Also, I think there's never been a better time for them to experiment and push boundaries. I complain a lot about techies with a lot of money to throw around and not a lot of taste to back it up, but then I go to No Anchor and see a bunch of dudes in crisp button-ups, sporting ID badges on the waist of their sensible slacks, and they're mowing through some of Vance's sublime smoked trout on toast. Or knocking back a bunch of spruce oil oysters. This gives me hope that, so long as your weird food is also face-meltingly delicious food, people will flock to it. Good food ain't cheap, but there are more people than ever here who can afford it.
Indeed, that Work Release dinner I went to was sold out. I attended the very first one, and it was held in a few booths in a corner of the restaurant, while the rest of the house was used for normal service. This one filled the entire place. Every Rough Draft is similarly packed nowadays. Jordan has people eating tripe and loving it, and he's headlining fancy Vice food events. It's often said that, with all the tech growth, Seattle is finally becoming a big city. As someone who grew up here, I'm inclined to agree, but I wasn't so sure our food scene was coming along for the ride. We've always had a few groundbreaking restaurants, but even quaint little Portland has had us beat on outré food for awhile. Now, however, I think that's all about to change, and I think Vance and his contemporaries are the ones who will drive that change. Godspeed!