The number of restaurants, cafes, bars, and breweries that opened in Seattle this past year was staggering. For a restaurant critic, it was nearly impossible to keep up. Every week, deciding where to go felt like playing a culinary version of Whac-a-Mole. That said, I hit a lot of hot spots (as well as some duds). Here, though, are the five places that dazzled and delighted me the most—no small feat considering the competition.
Vestal Josh Henderson’s latest is perfection, with a chef’s counter set in front of the roaring flames where everything is charred. The subtle but chic space in South Lake Union is ideal for a special occasion or any time you want to be wowed by the likes of sake-marinated cod with thyme oil and crabapple cream, or an inspired take on the classic Italian pasta dish, cacio e pepe, here made with toasted yeast butter that, along with cracked pepper, coats the noodles in umami heaven. 513 Westlake Ave. N, 206.456.2660
Tarsan I Jane The sheer ambition of this restaurant, which features a daily rotating seven-course tasting menu with Catalonian and Valencian influence, is impressive. But the fact that it’s executed with skill, beauty, and whimsy makes it a true winner. Chef Perfecte Rocher, from Picasso in Las Vegas and Smoke.Oil.Salt in L.A. has a light, deft touch and loves playing with textures. It’s common to find one ingredient served different ways in a dish, like “mussels in three textures” which, as I wrote in my review earlier this year, finds “one steamed and resting in a creamy mussel paté, which floats in an escabeche sauce with mussels and mint oil, the acid of the escabeche lightly reminding the paté to temper its opulence. It looks like colors before an artist mixes them together, all vibrant greens and orange and fleshy pink that, with the swirl of your spoon, meld dramatically into on another.” Indeed, Rocher is an artist of the plate. 4012 Leary Way NW, 557-7059
Copine Book Bindery fans rejoiced when the former chef of the now-defunct culinary bastion, Shaun McCrain, debuted his very own restaurant, and brought most of the old staff along with him. The food here, grounded in French technique, but encompassing the very best ingredients of the Pacific Northwest, is utter perfection, and walks a difficult line between haute and accessible. McCrain’s keen skills and creativity are evidenced by items like a pithivier (a small, round, scalloped-edge pie painted with egg wash; think beef Wellington) filled with shredded duck confit seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon zest and complemented by sour cherries and candied pistachios. You get the feeling that every dish has taken months to work out, yet on the plate it never feels too fussy. 6460 24th Ave. NW, 258-2467
Ciudad This Georgetown newcomer in an old warehouse decorated with an edgy mural and bright pops of color, completely won me over with its grilled meats and vegetables served up with a bevy of sauces—burnt honey, ramp mayo, Eygptian dukkha, and whipped black garlic among them. Though meat dishes are wonderful, like “lamb cooked slowly over the coals” and cider-basted “chicken cooked under a brick,” vegetables too are treated with reverence and flair here; take, for instance, a lemon-yellow cucumber sliced in pretty discs and lightly poached in culture butter and flavored by a cool broth of kombu, dill, and flowers (a dish in which chef Nick Coffey shows he’s spent some time cooking with Matt Dillon). Outside is a kind of beach bar, with gravel standing in for sand, making it feel very much at home in gritty Georgetown. 6118 12th Ave. S, 717-2984
Wataru When the apprentice surpasses the master, it is truly something to behold. Indeed, over at Wataru in Ravenna, sushi chef Kotaro Kumita, who studied for 10 years under chef Kasiba Shiro (formerly of Shiros and now of Kashiba), is seemingly creating magic with his hands and more unusual fish flown in fresh from Japan, as well as local varieties. The experience to have is at the bar, where only six people at a time are treated to Kamita’s omakase at two seatings (5:30 and 7:30). Tell him upfront what you absolutely don’t like (but be open to having your mind changed) and then watch as he lifts glistening fillets from cedar boxes (to keep them at room temperature for better flavor) and lightly transforms them with a touch of lemon, a sprinkle of Japanese sea salt, a dab of yuzu. Much of the fish has been kelp-marinated, some of it then quickly smoked to give the raw flesh a delicate sear. Kumita works quietly, but is always ready to answer any question you have, whether about technique, the provenance of the fish, or why in Japan you’ll never be served sea eel on the same menu with freshwater eel. It’s a symphony for the palate as well as a lively education. 2400 NE 65th St., 525-2073
CORRECTION An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Jeff Bezos is an investor in Copine. While Copine counts many former guests of Book Bindery amongst its investors, the Amazon chief is not one of them. The story has been corrected.