The walrus and the carpenter
Informed first timers might feel a momentary disconnect when they walk into The Walrus and the Carpenter: The downpour of national praise for Renee Erickson's second restaurant—an oyster bar named for a Lewis Carroll poem about gluttony and bivalves—can cloud its modesty. This isn't a mythical destination. It's a big-hearted, 40-seat anchor for the community, and locals use it as such. While I diligently ate half of the menu, the table to the left turned twice, and the one to the right moved couples through three times over. People came in, ordered a dozen or so oysters, slurped them with a cocktail or a glass of flinty white, shared at most two compelling small plates, and then moved right along with their evenings.
Not that it was a hardship for two of us to settle in for 80 minutes. Erickson helped advance the now-trending approach for oyster bars to reach beyond serving simple, immaculate seafood. And whether the meal is short or long, it ought to begin with Pacific Northwest oysters, most of which are from Washington State. A staffer clad in a sky-blue shirt and denim apron stands at the marble bar, under a chandelier that recalls a coral reef, and retrieves craggy shells from wire baskets to shuck. Our mix included mild, buttery oysters from Little Skookum Barron Point, at the southern jut of Puget Sound, and steelier, brinier Blue Pools from farther north. These beauties asserted their goodness without embellishment from oniony mignonette or freshly grated horseradish.
Other dishes (most of which fall under the ever-in-flux categories of "garden" and "fish & shellfish") combined more ingredients, but they pleased with the same pure directness. A few drops of rosewater brought elusive, effective perfume to a honeydew melon salad with shaved beet coins, feta, and pistachios. Vanilla oil likewise scented last-of-the-season beefsteak tomatoes.
One menu staple, sea urchin custard, was a piscine panna cotta—a disc of smooth, gently oceanic mousse contrasted with popping salmon roe and a leafy trail of chervil. Slivers of smoked trout stood their ground under a thick, candy-red crown of pickled onion and over a rich mound of lentils, walnuts, and onions enrobed in crème fraiche. Curls of fried salmon belly looked sculptural and tasted unusually lush, snarled among sharp purslane and juicy nectarine slices; cauliflower puree added earthiness.
Servers took orders and delivered dishes with mechanized precision. They weren't cold, and they didn't rush my friend and me, but the staff obviously understands that maintaining an allegro tempo is crucial to the restaurant's rhythm. This is an oyster bar for modern lives. The menu's mercurial nature keeps regulars engaged, and somewhere in the flurry a craving for camaraderie is deeply sated, as of course is hunger.
The Whale wins
Erickson's third restaurant—launched with partners Chad Dale and Jeremy Price in 2012, two years after Walrus opened—swapped the oyster bar for a wood-burning oven. The shift in emphasis innately slows the cadence: The Whale Wins, unlike The Walrus and the Carpenter, takes a smattering of reservations nightly, and customers tend to hunker down for a fuller, more leisurely meal. Servers here don't keep the pace quite so synchronized. And the restaurant, in Seattle's community-minded Wallingford neighborhood, has a European airiness. The tables sit close together but lofty ceilings (hung with letter-shaped light fixtures that spell out HELLO HELLO), cottage-white walls, and the open hearth create a lavish sense of spaciousness.
Small plates still dominate, though there are exceptions like a roasted half-chicken or a cote de boeuf for two for $62—two examples that also highlight how far the menu can stray from the shoreline. More to the point, Erickson and her crew take the Walrus's culinary aesthetic and push the ideas further here: Dishes are saucier, riskier, and the flavors zigzag more sharply. Whiffs of smokiness clung to a generous bowl of roasted clams on my visit. Corn, onion, and butter sweetened their white wine broth, with shiso lending its minty mystery. Dill was strewn atop like seaweed washed ashore. A shimmery eggplant puree cushioned a fetching hill of beans—chickpeas, white beans, and pole beans, with corn adding texture and a dusting of parmesan to animate the earthy flavors.
The Walrus's national reputation may overshadow the Whale's, but each has its own secure, winning personality.
The Pacific Northwest is the only place where I'm overly excited about eating salmon these days, and the Whale's taut hunk of cured and smoked fish did not disappoint. It perched atop lentils mingled with chanterelle mushrooms, gently roasted tomatoes, and, for some astute sweetness, table grapes. A few leaves of tarragon lightened the dish with their licorice nip. The kitchen employed uncommon shrewdness with herbs in general: Clumps of parsley brightened sardines on toast slathered with curried tomato mayo (wonderful alongside the restaurant's standout pickle plate), mint brought extra zing to lamb tartare with preserved lemon and capers, and a handful of mixed herbs took the high notes in a tomato salad atop of romesco-like sauce of pureed peppers and walnuts. Even when a dish stumbled—as with a funky, muddy-tasting nectarine soup that cilantro pesto couldn't uplift—the intelligence behind the cooking was obvious.
This isn't, then, so much a case of sibling rivalry. The Walrus's national reputation may overshadow the Whale's, but each has its own secure, winning personality. It sounds ideal to begin at the Walrus around twilight for oysters and then drive the 2.3 miles over to Whale to finish the night. If I could only choose one, I'd probably lean toward the Whale—but then I'm drawn to the complicated. Wiser souls might argue credibly for simplicity.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison