Two weeks ago, while we were taking a little break from posting, we took a little trip to Orcas Island. We went for two reasons. First, we just needed a night away. It’s been a long couple of months for us. Second, we wanted to check out Lisa K. Nakamura’s new restaurant, Allium.
Orcas Island might seem like a long way to go for dinner, but Chef Nakamura is one of those chefs I consider a mentor, even though until this visit, we’d never formally met. Last year, when John and I went to the Herbfarm for their 100-mile dinner, it was Chef Nakamura who spoke to the bustling dinner crowd explaining where the food had come from and how exciting it was to cook with the freshest of fresh ingredients. She talked about harvesting their own sea water for salt, how she transported the corn in the trunk of her car just that morning, and how challenging it was for the pastry chef to design desserts without sugar. The entire dinner at The Herbfarm was outstanding, but it was Chef Nakamura’s passionate presentation that stuck with me.
When I heard earlier this year that she was starting her own restaurant on Orcas Island, I knew we’d be heading there sometime this summer to check it out. We followed her progress on Twitter and on her blog. There was much hard work – painting, sanding, cleaning…and Lisa and her friends and family did pretty much all of it themselves. What has resulted is a warm, inviting space with gorgeous views, smooth service, and exquisite dishes using the freshest local ingredients Chef Nakamura can find.
I can’t quite call this post a review, because (full disclosure), we didn’t order off the menu, and despite our protestations, we weren’t allowed to pay for dinner (we did however pay for lunch the next day). So all you have is my word that had we paid for this meal, I would have written the exact same review I’m about to write. Even though we didn’t order “off the menu”, the dishes we ate were all on the menu. We just had smaller portions of many of them instead of a regular sized serving of any one or two things. For lunch, we did order straight off the menu.
House made biscuits and focaccia with caramelized onion marmalade
Shown in the first picture, this was our first introduction to Allium. Lisa twittered earlier in the evening that she had surprises up her sleeves for us. As John twittered immediately after the first bite, “if our surprise @alliumonorcas is just a two gallon bowl of the caramelized onion jam, I’m still happy”. It was that good. Sweet, savory, and gentle on the tongue, we spread it over flaky biscuits and tender focaccia. The focaccia was good, without a doubt, but the biscuits were the real star. Rich, flaky, and golden brown, they were blissful pillows that needed nothing at all (though I wasn’t about to let that caramelized onion jam go to waste, no way).
Cucumber gazpacho with white wine poached oysters, finished with Prosecco.
Next up was a cucumber gazpacho. Nestled in the sweet soup were three perfectly poached Hood Canal oysters. They were so tender that they practically fell apart when we looked at them. The soup came with a shot glass of Prosecco and we were instructed to pour it into the soup before eating. We (ok, I) couldn’t resist and tried a small bite of the soup before. It was the essence of cucumber. Sweet, crisp, and summery. Adding the prosecco gave just enough bite to cut through the sweet and balance the soup perfectly.
Cold roasted vegetables with sweet onion marmalade
Woo hoo! More caramelized onion marmalade! I joke, but this stuff was really that good. Even though this was just a simple plate of cold roasted vegetables, it was one of my favorite dishes of the night simply because everything was cooked perfectly. Onions, carrots, potatoes, turnips, peppers, and pickled beets.
Lacquered salmon with a ginger risotto cake and fresh snap peas
I think this might be the prettiest dish of the night. The vibrant orange salmon with the bright green peas, cooked just al dente and cut on the bias to showcase their plump beauty made for a dish that tasted as good or even better than it looked. I loved the ginger risotto cake, and I can’t wait to put ginger in a risotto at home. We made a concerted effort here to sample every component of the dish separately and together. It has rarely been so clear to me that every aspect of the dish is necessary. Of course each item was excellent alone, but when we sampled the risotto with the salmon, or the peas with the salmon, the flavors complimented each other for a perfect bite.
Squab, leg and breast, with braised beef tongue and gnocchi with truffle oil
When Chef Nakamura brought out this next dish, I was a little nervous. I’m picky about fowl. Even though I order my steak cooked medium, and I love fish all the way from sushi to flaky, I’ve always liked my fowl a little on the more done side. When I cut into this squab, the resistance on the knife indicated that I might not like be thrilled here. However, there are several chefs that I trust completely and Chef Nakamura is one of them. (The others are Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi of Joule and the chefs of the Herbfarm.) So I ate. I was blown away. Despite what my knife said, there was no hesitation on my tongue. Squab is very mild, and though if hard pressed I’d say it tastes like chicken, in reality, it’s nothing like chicken. Both sweeter and more savory at the same time, it isn’t gamey, but does have a wild texture. The star of this dish though was the beef tongue. Braised overnight, imagine the finest shredded carnitas you’ve ever dreamed of (from a texture perspective), held together with perfect juiciness, but with the pure essence of beef flavor. I cannot wait to cook beef tongue now.
Painted Hills strip loin with cabbage and Rogue Creamery blue cheese and porcini mushrooms
Look at that steak. Perfectly medium, with cracked caramelized crust, chunks of porcini mushrooms, and finished with a blue cheese sauce. This was the course we finished the quickest. No talking, no lingering over the wine, just bite after bite of pure goodness. With all of the other wonderful dishes on the menu, I’m not sure I’d order the steak again because other, sexier dishes would call my name, but that’s a crying shame because the steak was JUST. SO. GOOD. This is what you want your steak dinner to be and what I hope for, but never actually achieve whenever I cook steak. Honestly, steak doesn’t need a lot of dressing to be delicious, it just needs to be cooked well. This steak was cooked perfectly. The preparation was simple, but that doesn’t diminish the excellence of the dish. I would order this again in a heartbeat.
A quick side note about the wine parings… even though we favor Washington wines, being the locavores that we are, we can both highly recommend the Kunin Zinfandel. We had it with the steak and it was a big, smooth red, unlike what you’d normally expect from a Zinfandel. Order it if you ever see it on the menu. (Apologies for my apparent lack of ability to describe wine at all.)
Chocolate pudding cake and Mango cheesecake semifreddo with orange lilikoi garnish
We shared two desserts, a chocolate pudding cake and a mango cheesecake semifreddo. The pudding cake was simultaneously rich and light at the same time. Neither one of us are huge fans of chocolate desserts, but this one was light enough for us to enjoy.
The mango cheesecake semifreddo was definitely the favorite of the two desserts though. The texture was perfect, semifreddo means semi-frozen and often in restaurants they err on the side of more frozen than less, making the dessert a little hard for those with sensitive teeth. This semifreddo straddled the line between frozen and not very well. No heavy cheesecake here, this was whipped full of air.
Overall dinner impressions
We spent more than three hours on Allium’s deck, talking, enjoying the food and the view, and watching others do the same. Your dinner at Allium will be very relaxed. Order some coffee after dinner, they have their very own blend of Local Goods coffee that rivals the best beans you can find anywhere in Seattle, served French Press style. If the evening gets chilly, ask for a wrap to keep warm. Prices are reasonable for an upscale restaurant with that view, ranging from $20-$31 for entrees, $7-$12 for starters and small plates, and $6-$8 for desserts.
Allium is also open for lunch and since we hadn’t gotten to try any of the cocktails the night before, we went back the next day for a Fabutini on the deck in the sun.
We ordered off the menu for lunch, choosing the Halibut Salad and the Pulled Pork Sandwich. Both were excellent. The salad greens were lightly dressed, enough to sweeten the bitterness of the greens, but not enough to overpower the flavor. Much like the salmon the night before, the halibut was perfectly cooked, flaking easily, but not at all dry. At $18, the salad was one of the more expensive lunch dishes, but there was a solid 4 ounces of halibut on that plate, so I think it was well worth it. John’s pulled pork sandwich was delicious, in part due to the baguette.
Dessert was the real star for lunch though.
Angel Food cake with strawberries and cream
Anna, Allium’s pastry chef, is a genius. That is the single best slice of angel food cake I have ever experienced. The strawberries were from the islands, and see that scoop of Bavarian cream (the ice cream like substance)? That’s flavored with nootka rose petals from down by the Eastsound Post Office! We savored every bite of dessert. Heck, I think I’d happily drive, boat, and walk back to Allium just for that dessert.
In the Pacific Northwest, we have no scarcity of excellent restaurants. Name a neighborhood, city, or cuisine, and we can probably rattle off a handful. But for all of the excellent restaurants there are in this area, there are few with the heart of Allium. We’re drawn to restaurants where the chefs put their heart and soul into the food. Joule is like this. Rachel and Seif ARE Joule. Likewise, Lisa IS Allium. You can see the excitement in her face when she talks about a local farm or the fresh peas that just came in, or those rose petals she got down by the post office. Since she cooks with the seasons, dishes at Allium won’t get stale, as they are always changing, and evolving. She has real relationships with the farmers and ranchers who supply her ingredients, and that relationship and love is put into every dish. We’ve believed for some time that knowing where your food comes from can only enhance the experience of eating. At Allium, you can feel that connection through Lisa, so even if you’ve never been to Lopez Island to visit the farms, you know that she has, and that she’s designed your meal with those farms in mind.
If you’re in Seattle, Orcas is less than a two hour drive and a 90 minute ferry ride. Allium is a ten minute drive from the ferry and right in the heart of Eastsound. No, it’s not next door, but it is well worth the trip. We will be back soon.
We put together a little slide show of all of the photos, and we hope you’ll check it out below. For RSS subscribers, the slideshow doesn’t load well in RSS, so please click through to our Flickr page to see all of the photos. Edited to add: For John’s view of our meal, head over to his blog and read all about his impressions!
[flickrslideshow acct_name="cooklocal" id="72157624343286173"]
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