When I first went to Allium Restaurant, I went to check it out and to taste the food of Chef Lisa Nakamura. Chef Nakamura has an impressive culinary pedigree having worked in places like Thomas Keller’s French Laundry to Chef de Cuisine at The Herbfarm. She recently took over the space that used to house Orcas Island’s Christina’s. It had been a couple months since she had opened her doors to Allium Restaurant so seemed like a good time to hit the San Jauns and see what’s cooking. What I did expect was good food, what I did not expect was to have my heart so touched by such gorgeous food and gracious hospitality that it would fundamentally change the way I want to write about Chefs, their food and their restaurants forever.
Be forewarned: This is a long post, it is picture heavy and it covers two separate days, a month apart eating some of the most delicious food grown, produced, prepared and served by some honest, very humbly talented people.
I don’t want to write reviews or be a nasty food critic. That’s what places like Yelp! are for and let’s face it the world could do with a little more positivity. What I want to do is to showcase the people and places whose food tastes great. Those folks who work hard to support their communities and put their hearts into what they do. This is not about writing fluff pieces, because I won’t do that. This is about sharing with you my personal experience, honestly and openly. After my first meal at Allium, my resolve to write this way has been cemented for good.
My first trip to Allium was in early August. My second trip almost a month to the day later in September. Now I am making plans to go back to Orcas Island for a 4 day stay in late October. What keeps drawing me back? The grand natural beauty of the island, the wonderful people and the food being lovingly prepared by Chef Lisa Nakamura at Allium. And yes, her food really is that good.
On my first trip up I went with my friend Cristie. We stopped off to meet the good folks behind Once in a Blue Moon Farm, Shana and Zach. They treated us to a farm tour, something that is worth sharing with you a little later because they are doing wonderful things up at the farm. All the walking around their historic farm worked up quite an appetite. So we wrapped up our visit, purchased some of their amazing eggs, apricots and elephant garlic and headed up to Eastsound for our lunch.
The drive up to Eastsound is particularly lovely, with forests and pastures spread before you golden and green. When we arrived at Allium Restaurant, we were warmly greeted and taken out to the sunny deck. It is a perfect setting nestled at the northern end of the sheltered Eastsound, for which the town was named.
We sat taking in the gorgeous view when Chef Nakamura came out with two gorgeous Champagne Cocktails. At this point I somehow knew we were going to be well taken care of and I left the decision for the rest of the meal in her skillful hands. And let me tell you, I did not regret this decision at all.
Our first dish she brought out a little treat of foie gras delicately placed atop brioche, made in house by Pastry Goddess Anna Harlow, which was on top of apricots grown on Orcas Island sauteed with a hint of cardamom and star anise. It was filled with rich, buttery tastes and textures. Hints of spice, caramel and soft whispers of apricot lingered on the palate – it was all I could do to control myself from picking the plate off the table and licking it clean.
Next we shared plates of Littleneck Clams and Roasted vegetables with Alliums signature Onion Jam. The clams were caught in Mud Bay off the coast of Lopez Island, one of the neighboring islands in the San Juans. They were briny sweet, succulent and juicy, the clam liquor also helped to poach local corn cobs and potatoes from Black Dog Farms on Orcas Island.
The Roasted Vegetables were so full of flavor and perfectly roasted, oh but that Onion Jam for dipping the vegetables! It feels like I am doing the beautiful vegetables an injustice by swooning over the Onion Jam – but it was so delicious. Sweet, oniony, a hint of herbs and a little tang of vinegar made it pure heaven.
Next up for us were seared Royal Trumpet Mushrooms with Chef Nakamura’s infamous gnocchi bathed in a glorious fava bean sauce and finished off with a touch of white truffle oil. It was magical. Gnocchi that was lighter than air in a sauce that looked heavy, but was so surprisingly uplifted by the use of fava bean paste that you felt like you were being spoon fed by angels on a cloud.
We finished off the meal with several tastings of the dessert offerings made my the hands of Anna Harlow. We had a Mango Cheesecake served with an Orange Lilikoi Sauce. Think of mango and cream cheese dancing together while a symphony of passion fruit and fresh orange play a lively little Summer tune. A perfect bite. We also enjoyed an Ice Cream Sundae, with a homemade cookie shell, boozy little cherries and a homemade caramel, it was like being a kid all over again, but I don’t remember the Ice Cream Man’s offerings to ever be this satisfying and delicious. Being absolutely stuffed, I took the Chocolate Pudding Cake on the road home so I could share with my guy who was missing out.
It was time to wrap up our visit with warm farewells, needing to get down to the ferry terminal in time to ride home and wanting to stay longer. But I vowed to return to bring my guy back with me so he could experience the wonderful food that was laid out for us today. On the ferry ride back I lapsed into a food induced coma, lulled by the soft listing of the ferry and a happy tummy I dreamt of returning to Orcas Island to visit and, especially to eat.
Upon arriving home I forced Rasmus to sit and listen to me rattle on and on about how great the food was and how amazing and gracious a host Chef Lisa was. He was already sold and wanted to know when we were going to return. So I started making plans to go back up in September. We had a whole month to look forward to our San Juan Island adventure. Only this time we had another guest come along with us, Chef Robin Leventhal, former owner of the delicious restaurant Crave, awesome road trip pal and season 6 contestant on Top Chef. And no… she did not make Chef Lisa pack her knives and go home.
The rain poured down. The morning was cold and blustery in Seattle, and for the entire drive to Anacortes. It looked like we would be dining in the dining room, that Summer was really gone and Fall had fallen on us like so many raindrops of that morning. We managed, by some miracle, to catch the ferry that we thought we were going to miss out of Anacortes. The three of us settled in for the nearly hour long ride and broke out some breakfast snacks. About half way into the ferry ride, just as we were approaching the San Juans the clouds began to peel back and the sun shone brightly. The day began to feel like Summer again and we cheered at our good fortune. This was shaping up to be an amazing day.
Off the ferry we went and headed up the beautiful road to Eastsound to the familiar little cove that houses Allium Restaurant. When we arrived, it was quiet and Lisa showed us out to the deck where she had put together a “Playing Hookie” tasting menu for our little group. We started out with house made Foccacia and a gorgeous salad of meticulously peeled Maple Rock Farms heirloom cherry tomatoes. As Chef Lisa set them down at our table she remarked that it was the farewell to Summer, and indeed it was. Not just a farewell, but a sensual goodbye kiss of summer. The texture of the tomatoes so sweet and velvety putting one in your mouth was like receiving a long, slow french kiss. It was enough to bring a blush to the cheeks, or perhaps that was due the lovely Domaine de Montfaucon Les Gardettes Rosé she served with this glorious salad.
Chef Lisa set up the next dish by saying, “A little something I used to make back at French Laundry”. We all ooo’ed and ahh’ed as the plates were set down to reveal a truffled risotto topped with even more truffle and two delicate little butter basted “Salmon Chops”. The chops were made from the collar of the salmon and they were a delectable bite with the rich, perfectly cooked risotto which was paired with a lovely fruity citrus tinged Shooting Star Chardonnay.
At this point the three of us toasting and looking one to another remarking about how lucky we were to have such a gorgeous day graced by impeccable service and delightful food. When, like magic, the next course appeared before us. Thin perfectly cooked slices of Painted Hills New York Strip sat atop gnocchi, foie gras in a cabernet glace… and Fra Mani Chorizo! Chorizo and Foie together!? We all exclaimed “How bold!” Oh but how it worked… it worked so well! The steak tender with a small amount of chew, the foie like a velvet butter, the chorizo lent it’s texture and flavor and the gnocchi, well you already know how much I appreciate her gnocchi. Heavenly, decadent and rich. It was beautifully paired with a Thurston Wolfe Petite Sirah that nicely cut the richness of the dish without killing it.
Next we had a beautiful “palette cleanser” of a small cantaloupe melon beautifully carved out and filled with strawberries, blueberries and raspberries macerated in Amaretto. It was such a light and delicate bite. The taste and the appearance embodied Summer, along with a little glass of Vin Santo.
Our very last dish was what somehow got labeled as “The Disco Cake”. A gorgeous chocolate ganache smothered pyramid, gilded in gold. Inside, like you would expect for a pyramid, was treasure. Fluffy light chocolate mousse with layers of dark chocolate hazelnut and a crunchy chocolate cookie. Just when you thought that was enough, there were 3 pools of homemade Scotch Caramel to dip your bite into. Again, Pasty Chef Anna Harlow’s talent is pure bliss.
Orcas Island is a great day trip or a quick get away from everyday life. It’s a beautiful place to escape and when you have a lure like Chef Lisa Nakamura and places like Allium Restaurant to whet your appetite while you play, there’s no reason to stay away.
This is Chef Nakamura in her kitchen making her infamous gnocchi, she’ll be coming down to the mainland to teach a stress-free entertaining class at DishItUp on November 2, 2010, you can be sure I am signing up for that class. Of the things I really respect about Chef Nakamura it is her choice to use locally grown ingredients in her dishes, her kindness and care to make sure that her guests are well taken care of. I am looking forward to many more trips to the San Juans throughout the years pulled by the warmth and deliciously gorgeous meals at Allium Restaurant.
Full disclosure: I have received no compensation from any business or organization mentioned in this article, however I did notice that an item was missing from our tab from the first trip (sneaky Chef)
Images by Kelly Cline ©2010 All Rights Reserved
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