The Whale Really Wins

Has Renee Erickson opened Seattle's best restaurant?

Dishes appear in haphazard fashion at Fremont's The Whale Wins, where a meal's rhythms are determined by the kitchen's pace rather than a preset program. A pile of lettuce might show up after a platter of roasted carrots has come and gone, and bread and butter may suddenly arrive just after a pair of "on toast" delicacies has been delivered by a server clad in a striped denim bib apron. The herky-jerky schedule means the latest restaurant from Renee Erickson, who endeared herself to the culinary sphere's savoir fairest with Ballard's The Walrus and the Carpenter, is in many ways more sport than theater: Highlights are apt to occur at any moment, with little warning to preface the crescendos.

When presented in this manner, a roasted half chicken—which would be merely breathtaking accompanied by entrée-course pomp—can quite nearly provoke a respiratory incident. At the mercy of the kitchen's timetable, it's impossible to prepare adequately for the chicken's overwhelming greatness, although diners who've spied the licking flames within The Whale's marble-encased, wood-fired oven likely suspect they ought to steel for it.

If there's a better end to the chicken, it's improbably the breast, since the fattier hindquarter could stand a touch more rendering. But we may as well quibble over the relative merits of Michelangelo's David's left and right foot, as the whole bird's a master class in texture, tenderness, and moisture. Blessed with a fine upbringing at Mad Hatcher Farms in Ephrata, the chicken responds extraordinarily well to a thrust of sea salt and a gust of wood smoke. The regimen produces a glossy, crisp skin that's alluringly blackish and brittle in spots, and meat so juicy it wouldn't be much of a stretch to classify it as refreshing. The half chicken is seated in an oval of oiled parsnip-and-rutabaga purée and ornamented with a few dark-green caper shoots and bright-yellow curls of preserved lemon. It's such a wonderful dish that you may catch yourself glancing toward the open kitchen, eyeing the next chicken being readied and envying the table about to encounter its magnificence.

Chickens have a way of inspiring questions, and not just about roads and eggs. To eat The Whale Wins' roasted chicken is to ask: Is this the best restaurant in Seattle? While it's perhaps slightly premature to arrange a coronation for the 3-month-old restaurant, it wouldn't be entirely outrageous if staffers started making room in a supply closet for a scepter and crown. The Whale Wins is already serving astonishingly wonderful food in a setting which feels very reflective of the city around it.

The Whale Wins shares the Fremont Collective with the relocated Joule, but the two restaurants have about as much in common as most neighbors. While Joule has cultivated a mildly frenetic, modern vibe across the hall, Erickson has repeatedly referenced cottages when describing the ambience she sought to create. She's succeeded admirably, assembling a space which feels like the summery backdrop for a fabric-softener ad, even in the darkest depths of winter. The L-shaped room is done up in white; outward-facing cubbyholes, stocked with aesthetically correct preserve jars and wine bottles, are tucked beneath the hostess table and kitchen bar, where well-scrubbed cooks arrange their prep stations to photo-shoot perfection.

There are 15 coveted bar seats at the no- reservations restaurant, but the majority of diners are assigned to Shaker-blue Windsor chairs at butcher-papered tables pressed together so tightly that I didn't realize they detached until I saw them pictured online. Both times I dined at The Whale Wins, my guest and I were granted seats at a boardinghouse table toward the rear of the front room.

It's become tiresome to gripe about communal seating, but the arrangement felt especially unfortunate in a restaurant that gets most everything right. Since a packed house is a certainty, staffers don't try to space out parties of strangers early in the evening, instead stacking them Tetris-style, one against another. During my first visit, the attentiveness of a quiet couple inches away precluded personal conversation, while my second visit was repeatedly disrupted by a young boy refusing to eat anything but bread and whining about his homework.

Such are the moments which lead a diner to pine for a cocktail list. The menu of house specialties is short, but the drinks are doozies: A controlled mix of Scotch, applejack, lemon, and cinnamon syrup, sold as a Freightliner, is as calming as the room's soft lighting, and a Normandy Old Fashioned tweaked with Calvados tastes like an alcoholic apple-bobbing session.

The cocktail's name and featured brandy reference the restaurant's rustic French leanings, which Erickson has explored to terrific effect at Lower Queen Anne's Boat Street Cafe. It's reductive to describe The Whale Wins as a hybrid of Boat Street and Walrus, but it draws on the best elements of both, fusing Boat Street's Provençal look, signature pickles, and gracious service with Walrus' conviviality, trendiness, and reverence for shellfish.

Yet the food at The Whale Wins tends to be sturdier and sassier than the food served at its predecessors. If France is represented on the plate, it's the France of Jerry Lewis—more giddy than refined. Servers are constantly being called upon to replace tasting plates so the strong flavors of saucy dishes don't inadvertently commingle. But appropriately for a restaurant that's so highly localized, the menu also reflects the influence of a colder corner of the old country: Seattleites will be happy to find beets, horseradish, and herring.

The herring is served as a buttery salad, spread across toast and topped with ticklish pickled ribbons of fennel. But the roly-poly sardines, napping on toasts slathered with a whipped flurry of curry powder and tomato paste, are somehow a shade more irresistible. Yet the standout of the seafood section—which also features a fine whole roasted trout nestled in a forthright lemon-walnut paste—are the richly sweet spot prawns in a sheer gravy of anchovy butter and garlic. The fat, shell-on shrimp are served with their roe, a pixelated scarlet sash of salt. Abstemious eaters will nibble around it, but shellfish obsessives will slurp down every microscopic egg.

The menu abounds with loveliness. The Whale Wins wrings novelty from supple roasted beets and crunchy hazelnuts, paired with a tablet of feta and a bravely bitter parsley relish, and from a clump of braised greens dressed up with Moroccan spices. Three charred, columnar marrow bones are packed with marvelous fat that's just shy of greasy; a thick, pink wedge of filet mignon blitzed with grated horseradish rivals the beef served in any local steakhouse.

For dessert, there's a dense molasses spice cake poised in a puddle of tart lemon curd, or a crusted slice of moist zucchini cake shimmering with salt. The knowledgeable servers can be trusted to recommend the right dessert wine to match. The question of The Whale Wins' position in Seattle's restaurant pantheon may not have been conclusively settled by the time the final course reaches the table, but it's sure to linger long after it's been cleared away.

hraskin@seattleweekly.com

PRICE GUIDE

Beets $10

Greens $8

Sardines $8

Spot prawns $16

Chicken $18

Marrow bones $12

 
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