Tamara Murphy's Melrose Plate

Terra Plata's amazing potato chips are worth the wait.

It took Tamara Murphy two years to open Terra Plata, a restaurant she thought she'd have chugging in six months. "The build-out shouldn't take more than 60–90 days," the James Beard Award–winning chef assured The Seattle Times back in 2009, before she had any inkling that a dispute over a fuse box would lead to a legal showdown with Melrose Market developers.

Murphy won the case, a rare triumph for a restaurant that seemed bedeviled by bad luck from the start. Protracted lease negotiations and construction hiccups stood between the judge's ruling and Terra Plata's October 2011 opening.

With such a rotten journey from brainstorming to doing business, Murphy would be forgiven if she'd emerged in a sour mood, sowing her menu with lutefisk and prunes. But far from throwing a culinary temper tantrum, Murphy, who last helmed Brasa, has instead channeled her relief into a restaurant that thrums with high spirits and goodwill. The grateful giddiness that envelops a crowd after it's learned the hostage-taker's gun is fake, the escaped lion's been captured, or the pilot's found a safe place to land is the operative emotion at the superb Terra Plata, which isn't any less enthralling for sometimes feeling like the city's most sophisticated slumber party.

Situated at the triangular corner where Melrose and Minor Avenues meet, the thoroughly windowed Terra Plata looks from within like an ark bobbing toward Capitol Hill. Burly wooden chairs surround wooden tables with stout wooden legs, and there's more wood paneling on the ceiling. If this was a home instead of a commercial endeavor, there would probably be basil growing in the windowsill. (Here the herb garden's on the roof.)

A bar shaped like an inverted Star Trek insignia occupies the space between the dining room and the kitchen, and while cocktails such as a Honeymoon—a puckish Sidecar steered in a Northwesterly direction by a splash of calvados—are reason enough to pay Terra Plata a visit, most patrons who score a seat at the bar don't relinquish it before ordering at least a dish of magenta-hued beets aglow with a citrus marinade, or a cone of jagged, near-perfect French fries paired with a garlic-bold aioli.

It's hard to go awry here, but the bartenders and servers are earnest in helping diners make the agonizingly difficult decision between a fennel-crusted tuna steak and a bowl of plump mussels larded with fennel. The staffers respect both Terra Plata's food, which they seem to genuinely enjoy, and its customers. I overheard a server discuss with Murphy a litany of menu tweaks requested by a guest with various food allergies and aversions: The conversation concluded without a sigh, groan, snort, head shake, or eyebrow lift from either woman.

Had there been a problem with the order—and had the customer been able to abide potatoes and salt—Murphy would likely have sent over a serving of potato chips by way of apology. At Terra Plata, depending on the situation, potato chips say "Thanks for coming," "Good to see you again," or "Really sorry about the reservation mix-up." In reply, the potato-chip eaters are apt to say only one thing: "Man, those are good."

Knitted tightly as a porch-door screen, Terra Plata's waffle-cut chips have more tater flavor than the surface area would suggest, and a brisk saltiness that's a magnet for the accompanying dip. The dip's given name is "pecorino-chive cream," but anyone familiar with the Frito-Lay oeuvre knows the stuff better as French onion dip, the tinned sour-cream concoction served at all the best sleepovers and stocked by parents trying to win a babysitter's loyalty. Murphy's local, sustainable reclamation of the snack amounts to a sort of manifesto, proclaiming that multinational corporations don't own title to all id-pleasing flavor combinations.

 

Since it's not inconceivable that someone at a table set with Murphy's potato chips could make a case for constructing a dinner from endless orders of them, it's wise to summon another starter as quickly as possible.

Blistered shisito peppers aren't unique to Terra Plata, but they're rarely quite so comely, with curling stems and wrinkled, glossy skins pocked with sweetness and heat. For diners who want to sharpen the peppers' brightness, there's a lemon wedge to the left; for diners who'd rather tame their spunk, there's aioli to the right. I wish restaurant owners griping about the rising cost of bread-and-butter service would consider ditching the carbs and instead tossing a few salted Japanese peppers in a pan: The shisitos are a welcome wake-up call for taste buds gone dormant over the course of a day.

But it's not all salt at the outset. Mischief creeps in aboard a few of the liver plates, which sound serious and savory, but are transformed into offal sweets by Terra Plata's jolly-to-be-here kitchen. Diners may pretend they're not jumping ahead to indulgence by beginning a meal with two rounds of satiny foie gras, but the restaurant's having no part in the charade: The torchons are served with a mound of sweet cherry-vanilla jam and buttery bread interjected with chocolate, all of which pile together into what's essentially a warm ice-cream sandwich. Terra Plata repeats the trick with a square of rabbit-liver terrine, pink and plucky, joined on the plate by peach mostarda and that same chocolate brioche. The sugar blots out the terrine's peppery shades, but underscores its sumptuousness.

The most extravagant snack may come in the form of a beef marrow bone, jiggly with lubricated fat. The slender bones are served with crostini smeared with marinated grapefruit, another loan from the dessert tray.

So what, other than an appealing playfulness, unifies Terra Plata's cuisine? Murphy's thrown around the words "Spanish" and "Italian" when discussing what her menu is not, and—despite cameo appearances by chorizo and figs— she's right. After my first visit, I described the restaurant as "Pacific Northwestern" before realizing the menu's short on seafood and bereft of anything Asian. I think what I meant was that Terra Plata has a distinctly Seattle streak, likely a testament to the two decades Murphy has spent shaping the city's dining scene. Few dishes are as locally anthemic as Terra Plata's glorious crimped cappelletti, tenderly filled with a froth of butternut squash and sage.

And there's so much more: hardy roasted Brussels sprouts, shimmering with a maple glaze and flecked with rosemary; pudgy, pliant sunchokes, glanced with smoke by serrano ham; scarlet slices of venison bulging with juice; and a crusted cassoulet droopy with fat white beans and duck meat. Murphy's signature dish revolves around a hunk of roast pig, but the swine is nearly overshadowed by the extraordinary sauce it helps create, a paprika-stung broth that seeps into the steamed clams which share the terra-cotta bowl. What unites these dishes is an optimism unbent by two difficult years, confidence, and culinary mastery.

Price Guide

Potato chips $7

Rabbit liver $10

Marrow bone $12

Cappelletti $15

Sunchokes $13

Roast pig $20

Venison $25

hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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