Since becoming a non-vegan again, I have been looking forward to coming back to Seattle and finally being able to try How to Cook a Wolf. How to Cook a Wolf is Ethan Stowell's latest restaurant where Chef Ryan Weed, who has worked at both of Stowell's other restaurants Union and Tavolata, is running things in the kitchen. I became interested in trying HTCW long before I was able to eat anything on the menu when I was introduced to Chef Ryan Weed. Ryan introduced me to my favorite gastropub Quinn's on Capital Hill. We had met there after I moved back to Seattle, brought together by our father's significant other's who are best friends. If his recommendation in other's restaurants was a sign of what was to come at HTCW, I was in for a treat. It also turns out that Ryan and I attended the same Catholic School, St. Joes, lo those many years ago, though several years apart. I was equally as interested to recall that Ryan had portrayed Jesus in the schools annual Passion of the Christ production which includes many solo songs for Jesus. I couldn't help but look at him and hear, "oh God, I'm dyyyyyyyyiiiiiiiinnnnng" in song, in my head, which is part of one of the more dramatic songs in the play. I found it ironic that Jesus turned Chef was throwing down in a kitchen that was quickly becoming known as one of the 10 restaurants that are changing things again (Seattle Metropolitan Magazine 11/2008).
With a list of accolades and positive press forging the way, I was looking to be impressed. I was predisposed to it. I wanted to be saved culinarily and had pinned my hopes on HTCW. In some ways, that kept me from the restaurant for a while. I had built it up in my head and through a long string of disappointing Seattle eating experiences, I didn't want to destroy the fairytale. I didn't want to know if it was good or bad, real or not, I was a believer and going on faith.
But last night that changed. With the weather daunting, cold and horrible, I figured it was the perfect in at HTCW. Notorious for its long waits, I hedged my bets on Seattlelite behaviour in weather - they don't do weather- and it paid off. I arrived nearly a 1/2 hr before my mom did, due to traffic and what not and was surprised not only that they had tables available, but that they were willing to seat me without her. The restaurant itself had a cozy hominess to it, accented for me by the slightly frigid air that would come wafting in everytime the door opened (just like the drafty house I grew up in). While Chef Ryan was on his day off, I was greeted warmly by all the staff in a "we know you" kind of fashion, even though they've never seen me before. The waiters had an air of being extremely adaptable, whether service was to a full house with a wait list of 100 or to a semi-full house of those looking just to get out of the cold. My waiter was able to linger helpfully and discuss with me several wines, even going to search for one that was no longer on the menu, as he thought it just the thing for what I wanted in a wine. Though it was not in, he helpfully brought me back two wines to try, one Cab and one Pinot Nero, which he poured a healthy taste of. I ultimately chose the Pinot Nero, which was crisp and light. While I waited, I pursued the menu of small plates. I asked my waiter what he suggested was a good number of plates to order for two people. He answered that usually people get 3 small plates and 1 pasta. I inquired what a recommended amount would be for those not desiring pasta and he smiled knowingly, recommended 4-5 and said, "I think the small plate are the true stars. Pasta, while good, is not really what is unique about this place". All that said, it is very easy to be impressed and impressive with a half empty house, perhaps if I had waited 3 hours for a table my picture of the service would be quite different. But that said, knowing the reputation for a long wait, I would never show up at 7:30pm on a Thursday when there is usually a guaranteed wait and then complain that I had to wait. That is plain silliness, sometimes you have to wait for things that are amazing, after all have you ever tried to get a table at French Laundry, (not that there is a comparison here, at all)?
My mom arrived and after discovering that, while they do have hard alcohol, they don't have any Canadian or even Irish Whiskey, my mom tucked into a dark oatmeal stout beer and we threw ourselves headlong into deep conversation. She put me in charge of ordering, as much of the menu leaves a lot to the imagination in terms of what a dish actually is. Many of the items are simply a star ingredient, followed by accompanying ones. She shies away from seared items, since she is not a fan of raw meat or fish and so I decided on four items to start us off with the option to add more if we were still hungry. The items come out as the are ready and so there is no order to it, a simple "enjoy it as it comes" air. I ordered the Buffalo Mozzarella with Argula and Pine Nuts and fig paste, Roasted Beets with Shallot, White Balsamic & Pistachio, Frisée & Pear Salad w/ Parmesan and Salami and the Roasted Venison w/ Sunchoke, Watercress, Pistachio. In a lot of ways a measure of a restaurant's greatness is not how good the food is when you are focusing your attention on it and noticing it, but instead its ability to pull you out of whatever deep conversation or interaction, for only a moment to register how delicious it is and then seamlessly drops you back into your moment nearly only having one breathe passed. The Roasted Beets were tender, perfectly dressed and played extremely well with the shallots and pistachios. The Buffalo Mozzarella was a delicious and smooth bite that carried me for a second back to the streets of Venice. The Roasted Venison took a notoriously tough cut of meat and made it moist and flavorful and was complimented with a sunchoke and pistachio puree that had me making eyes at licking the plate. We finished off the meal with the Frisee and Pear Salad, that was playful, fresh and crisp. Each component was subtle and understated, yet not unnoticed, in a word: balanced.
At many other restaurants I have been, the food would have been a loss to me during such an intense and interesting conversation as we were having. I think it speaks immense volumes that it wasn't. The food was all very subtle, yet was able to draw me to notice it, even mid-sentence. Every bite built on the flavor and there was just enough to tantalize you, draw you in and leave you with an empty plate at the precise moment that you think, well just one more bite. A bite I might add that is usually one too many. It was masterful. Four plates for the two of us was sufficient and we couldn't even imagine heaping pasta on top of the small plates we had enjoyed. Pasta, it seemed, would have been immensely anticlimactic.
In the end, I enjoyed my evening in a way that I often envision dining out should be; comfortable, enjoyable, trailing off as you part feeling as if you could linger another minute or hour. In alot of ways, while I was predisposed to having a high opinion of the place, I was even more predisposed to be disappointed since I came in with huge expectations and unrealistic high hopes. They started out behind the 8 ball, trying to live up to a idealized picture that is hopelessly impossible to live up to. When I left the restaurant, I felt like I should be panting and sighing a big "phew that was close". In a way, Jesus-turned-chef & Ethan Stowell did save. They saved restaurant go-ers from a world of restaurants failing to live up to the hype, restaurants failing to deliver on their potential and failing, which is a fundamental goal in running a restaurant I would think, to beckon its patrons back through wind, sleet, snow, ice or 3 hr long waits. How to Cook a Wolf did not fail, it triumphed.
And I found myself, in all things about the evening, still able to be surprised.