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Sunchoke plin with hazelnuts, cranberries, and rainbow chard.
The Pacific Northwest is so devoted to its rich culinary heritage, inventive cheffing, and evolving food culture

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Tasting Tilth: The First Few Bites on Beet Street

plin.JPG
Sunchoke plin with hazelnuts, cranberries, and rainbow chard.
The Pacific Northwest is so devoted to its rich culinary heritage, inventive cheffing, and evolving food culture that talking about being vegetarian in a city like Seattle feels taboo. Sure, omnivores and veggies can share a passion for food, but when the discussion turns to meat--and it invariably always does--bringing up vegetarianism is the ultimate party foul, a harsh exposure of what's often--wrongly--perceived as a limiting, flavorless diet.

From the oxtail and foie gras at Quinn's to the bacon preserves at Skillet, meat is in, and the committed foodies, restaurateurs, critics, and industry folk who keep this meat-centric scene humming have muscled out much of the conversation for many a gourmet food loving herbivore. But when it comes to taste and flavor, there's no reason why vegetarian cuisine can't step in the ring here. Vegetable-based cooking, when prepared with inspired ingredients and finesse, is elementally wholesome and delicious, and this is the neutral crossroads where omnivores and herbivores can agree--or at least share a meal in peace.

To that end, the inaugural missive of Voracious' vegetarian column--whose beet, so to speak, aims to illuminate dining options for discriminating, ethical, health-conscious eaters--begins with Tilth, Wallingford's renowned organic eatery with multitudinous options for the vegetarian palate, including a five and eight course tasting menu.

For frequent vegetarian diners, tasting menus are the holy grail of the dining experience and a release for long-denied gusto often experienced at countless restaurants. Multiple courses? Excluding fish? With wine pairings? The concept is irresistible.

On a recent, bustling Saturday night, my boyfriend and I settled in for the five course menu. Oregon truffles, root vegetables, hearty greens, and strong regional flavors highlighted the seasonal menu. A sunchoke plin with chard, cranberries, and hazelnuts, and a potato pave with leek puree and black garlic vinaigrette played well to the Northwest's winter bounty. But one dish reigned above all others: the smoked heirloom bean cassoulet, a near mystically revered stew I had shamelessly returned to revisit.

Unanimously beloved on foodie comment forums and a "perennial staff favorite," according to our waiter, this vegetarian adaptation marries firm, cold-smoked heirloom beans and oven roasted tomatoes with chanterelles, truffle butter, and brioche breadcrumbs. My boyfriend declared it a "TKO," and the experience was just as I remembered--smoky beans gently mingled with rich truffle butter and savory mushrooms for a satisfying, almost bacony feeling.

In a world where bacon is the ultimate expression of flavor, such richness is hard to come by as an herbivore, but in the case of the cassoulet, the hearty, concentrated taste also reflects the many costs to bring the meal from pot to plate. At $27 a la carte, the dish is just $2 less than the most expensive items--the spot prawns and hanger steak--a sobering appraisal of the true price of organic food prepared with labor intensive technique and thoughtful care.

And plunking down over $200 for any meal is no small potatoes, but by dinner's end, further sauced by a round of house made Limoncello, we grunted into our coats and let ourselves out. Vegetarian or otherwise, from the amuse bouche to the digestif, who can deny the supreme satisfaction from an exceptionally prepared multi-coursed dinner?

While retaining quality options for meat eaters, Tilth is highly attuned to the vegetarian palate. Its vegetable based, expertly crafted menu of locally sourced produce and textured tastes sets the table for an elevated dining experience in an atmosphere where all dining preferences are equally understood. It may pain some vegetarians to share a table with a carnivore, but in the simple refinement of Tilth's renovated Craftsman, it's just as hard not to delight in whatever is set before you.

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