Tilikum Place Café is an unpretentious place that flies low under the radar. Despite a mention on a recent Anthony Bourdain program, despite ranking in the top ten restaurants in the entire city on TripAdvisor, despite rave reviews from most every publication in town, TPC continues to cook its superb menu of Northwest-tinged classic dishes for only the knowing few. I, like apparently so many others, had pushed TPC to the back of my mind. Their Dutch babies--oversized, inflated pancakes rising high from the searing skillet--had made for a wonderful brunch when they'd opened, but the Seattle Center-area spot had quickly faded into the background of my mind.
A jolt of salty, complex baked Viriginica oysters to start was all it took for me to kick myself for having waited so long to return. A chef friend of mine, having recently taken a position there, encouraged me to stop by. It was on his recommendation that I started with the baked oysters, each one individually submerged in a roil of miso and aioli flavors, a thick sauce that matched the meatiness of these medium-sized oysters. Diners would do well to wash these down with one of the dozen Manhattans on offer. If a place offers that many variations on a classic cocktail, it is wise to order one immediately. The same depth that bolstered the briny oysters brought life to the Italian version, rich with the digestif-power of an Amaro.
Northwest products dot the menu, from the Viriginicas to the Painted Hills beef ribeye on the specials board. While the daily menu entrées start in the $20' and float up, both the daily featured items were over $30. Dishes here are familiar, comforting, steak and potatoes with tomatoes (for example) but turbocharged with exquisite execution. However, there is a bit of a disconnect between the neighborhood bistro, wood-topped table feel of the room, and the fine-dining prices. For the $8 I paid, the Caesar Salad was fine, but once I was paying over $25 for my entrée, I looked back and was less happy with the under-dressed, inelegant plate of romaine. It's all about perception and expectation: is it an $8 salad, or part of a $66 dollar meal (with the oysters and the steak--$78 with the cocktail)?
Expectations and decisions can make or break a meal at Tilikum Place Cafe. The name café is so vague, embraced by all class of restaurants, from "eat it and beat it" diners (see: Beth's Café) to the expense account formal (see: Purple Wine Bar & Cafe). At Tilikum Place Café, the name is evocative of the casual, neighborhood bistro style décor and service, without giving any hints towards the food. The reasonably priced appetizers, like the Café's signature hand-cut pasta with sage butter and hazelnuts, are incredible values, made for staring out at the happy people in the friendly space. Those looking to expand will find great food, but not without a price tag. Go in knowing what to expect, though, and it's easy to be thrilled with the silky-soft pasta dripping with sage butter or pleasantly surprised by the savory-spiked creaminess of the crème fraîche sorbet.