When I turned in my first draft of this week's review of Anchovies & Olives , my editor said, "It sounds like you're being overly

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Washington at the Market, California in the Kitchen

When I turned in my first draft of this week's review of Anchovies & Olives, my editor said, "It sounds like you're being overly polite about the place and weren't that enthusiastic about it." Not true! I replied. Smart food, smart formula, smart service -- he's got a winner of a restaurant. But then I had to do some thinking about why my praise would come out sounding so faint.

I can't think of Ethan Stowell without thinking of Matt Dillon (Sitka & Spruce, Corson Building). The two Seattle culinary stars cook very similarly. They've got different palates, mind you, but their dishes are composed according to much the same logic, with the same successes and flaws. On her blog, GastroGnome, Naomi Bishop called the food at Anchovies & Olives "exposed," and I can't think of a better word to describe both chefs' style.

I send a lot of people to both chefs' restaurants -- with the exception of visiting Northern Californians. What I eventually told my boss is that Dillon and Stowell's food often impresses me but it rarely intrigues me -- because I've been eating it for almost 15 years. Their minimalist, ingredient-driven, exposed style became the preeminent mode of California cuisine in the mid 1990s. (Just as background, before coming to Seattle I reviewed restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland for seven years.)

And the main complaint that many people make of cuisine in the Bay Area is that it has become static. Thanks to a combination of factors, not least the extremely powerful influence of Alice Waters and SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, San Francisco now has a true regional style, with all the conservatism implied in that phrase (Daniel Patterson, chef of San Francisco's Coi restaurant, complained about it most eloquently in the NY Times a few years back). One of the things I enjoy most about reviewing restaurants in Seattle is that we have regional ingredients and regional dishes, but our cooks still have a lot of room to play and experiment that Bay Area cooks aren't permitted.

It's not that I don't think visiting Bay Aryans would enjoy Union or Sitka & Spruce, but to them the food would be much too familiar to awe. Instead, I send the more trend-conscious ones to places like Spring Hill, Spur, Crush, and Poppy -- restaurants where the forward-thinking cooking intrigues me as much as the Northwest ingredients.

What does resonate to me about Stowell and Dillon's food is that it's exactly how I cook. The best of their dishes always change what I look for the next time I'm at the farmers market. Their simple but carefully thought-through flavor combinations are most likely to end up on my own table. The last time I cooked for visiting French family members, they very politely commented on how "pure" it tasted. "Everything tastes exactly like the ingredients," one said. Thinking on my review of Corson Building the month before, I had to laugh.

So that's what I told my editor. Then I went and polished up my review to give Anchovies & Olives the merit it deserved.

 
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