Restaurants & Bars

Is There a "Pacific Northwest Cuisine"?

Tom Armitage | Feb 17, 200304:02 PM     27

When chowhounds and others ask me where they should eat in Los Angeles or Seattle (the two cities about which I know the most), my usual approach is to try to figure out what kind of food they can’t get at home. For someone visiting Los Angeles from New York, for example, my recommendations would include a Oaxacan or other regional Mexican restaurant and a Thai restaurant. Why recommend an Italian restaurant when New York is awash with great Italian restaurants? It’s easier for me to follow this approach when recommending Los Angeles restaurants, than when recommending Seattle restaurants. Although Seattle has some great places to eat—-Salumi, Harvest Vine, and Malay Satay Hut spring to mind—-it doesn’t have unique strength in any particular ethnic cuisine. So what about restaurants serving so-called “Pacific Northwest cuisine” as a unique Northwest experience? What exactly is “Northwest cuisine” and how is it different from other types of food?

One way of distinguishing any regional cuisine is by local ingredients. For the Pacific Northwest this would include Pacific salmon, Pacific oysters, Dungeness crabs, and other local seafood; hazelnuts; apples; huckleberries and other indigenous wild berries. But is use of these local ingredients enough to create a unique regional cuisine? I don’t think so, especially in our present day and age when modern transportation methods make “local ingredients” available just about everywhere. Take blue huckleberries, for instance. I’ve seen them used as an ingredient in restaurants in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and lots of other cities. Ditto with the other “Pacific Northwest” ingredients listed above.

So, if it’s not the uniqueness of the local ingredients, is there some other defining feature to “Northwest cuisine”? What about the “light” style of cooking that emphasizes the natural qualities of foods, avoids fat, salt, and heavy sauces, and doesn’t “overcook” food? This may be part of the equation, but it doesn’t distinguish Northwest cuisine from, say, California cuisine, French nouvelle cuisine, or, in general, the current “eating-light” trend.

Given this ambiguity, does it make sense to recommend a restaurant that purports to specialize in “Pacific Northwest cuisine” as a unique Seattle experience? I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t. On a recent Chowhound recommendation, for example, I included Bruce Naftaly’s Le Gourmand on my list for its “Northwest cuisine.” Another Chowhound responded to my list, generally agreeing with most of my recommendations, but disagreeing that Le Gourmand should have been included. Thinking back on my last meal at Le Gourmand, I had to agree that, although generally good, the food wasn’t brilliant or exciting. I had wanted to include on my list a restaurant serving “Pacific Northwest cuisine,” but Le Gourmand was a stretch, and I frankly knew it at the time. Which raises the question: are there any restaurants specializing in “Northwest cuisine” that deserve to be on the same list with, say, Salumi or Harvest Vine? Probably not. Tom Douglas is another apostle of Northwest cuisine, but none of his restaurants, to my mind, represent a unique Seattle experience.

One chef associated with “Pacific Northwest cuisine,” Caprial Pence, doesn’t put much stock in the label. In her words: “I did some work with a woman who’s doing her thesis on Northwest food, and she kept asking me if there was a Northwest cuisine. I said no. I think a cuisine is dictated by specific dishes that have been made for years and years, and there just aren’t dishes like that here.”

In short, it seems to me that a lot of so-called “regional cuisines” are more of a marketing ploy than a meaningful description of a truly unique, distinguishable cuisine. Lately I’ve run across references to “New Maine cooking” and “wine-country cuisine.” This may help market new cookbooks or convince restaurant patrons that they’re getting a “unique” experience. But my present thinking is that references to a regional cuisine, at least in the United States, are often more hype than help.

What do you think? Am I losing the forest for the trees? Is there a unique “Pacific Northwest cuisine”? If so, what is it, and what restaurants serve the best “Northwest cuisine,” where the food is so good and so unique that someone from New York or Chicago wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to have a meal there?

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