written by Kevin Max
THE BUSIEST STOPS along the Amtrak Cascades line are Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC—all foodie havens in their own right. Here are our three top chefs among an embarrassment of riches and restaurants in the Pacific Northwest culinary scene.
Tojo’s Restaurant | Vancouver, BC
Tojo’s Restaurant strikes a handsome, modern balance between glass, steel and concrete in Vancouver’s South Granville neighborhood, surrounded by Asian restaurants and art galleries. Inside, chef Hidekazu Tojo is an artist whose medium is Japanese cuisine and whose palette is every plate he serves.
“A great chef is also an artist,” Tojo said. “You first experience your meal through the eyes, so each dish needs to be beautiful and interesting. In my creations, I focus on showcasing the raw beauty of the ingredients, using elements such as garnishes and plating to highlight the season and nature.”
Tojo handpicks his fish and produce at nearby markets that grow and fish locally. Sashimi and sushi rolls begin as raw ingredients but find a higher purpose as artful and addictively edible creations. This October marks the thirty-second year of operation and innovation at Tojo’s Restaurant.
Celebrities such as Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, Jean Reno and Morgan Freeman appear in photos at Tojo’s, shown with their arms slung around the chef as if they are longtime chums. Perhaps in Tojo they saw a fellow artist, still relatively undiscovered.
Born in Japan in 1950, Tojo moved to Vancouver in 1971. The rule follower became BC’s top rule breaker. Here he began to experiment and go beyond the staunchly traditional cuisine he grew up with, literally turning it inside out. The master sushi chef is credited with creating the Inside Out Tojo roll, now known as the California roll and served everywhere. For decades, Tojo has sourced many of the same ingredients. For decades, he has been creating new flavors and excitement with a sushi mat and sharp knife.
“I am inspired by nature, the seasons and the beautiful ingredients that my suppliers bring me, and my customers,” Tojo said. “Some of my customers visit me regularly, and I am challenged to create at least one new dish for them at each visit.”
Chef Hidekazu Tojo created the California roll.
(photo: Leila Kwok)
ON THE MENU
1133 West Broadway
In a city known for world-class Asian cuisine, Tojo’s stands out for the chef’s story, passion for fresh and local fish and produce, and his creativity.
“Tojo’s tuna (Albacore tuna marinated in our secret sauce)—it melts in your mouth and goes so well with white rice. The BC roll and sablefish.”
The Walrus and the Carpenter + others | Seattle
Renee Erickson is a foodie force in Seattle. The 2016 James Beard Award-winning chef knows how to best represent seafood from local waters. Her restaurant development company, Sea Creatures, has a flair for design and creating hip scenes in the right places. Together, these talents present cuisine from the Pacific Northwest as their best selves.
“So many things inspire me—seasonal changes in the Pacific Northwest, our very farmers who dedicate their lives to quality and taste, and my staff pushing themselves and, in turn, teaching and pushing me,” Erickson said.
Erickson studied art at the University of Washington, but truly fell in love with food while traveling in Rome. In 2010, she opened her first restaurant—The Walrus and The Carpenter, a fishing pub named for an oyster-laden Lewis Carroll poem—in Ballard, overlooking Ballard Marina on Salmon Bay. Bistro mirrors, small tables, a curved tin-topped bar and a branching metallic chandelier that seems like it could be coral on first glance add to the bright ambience. Come for the local oysters but experience much more of the local bounty—grilled Matiz sardines with walnut, parsley and shallot, the housemade rosemary ham and the scallop crudo with pomegranate vinaigrette.
“We have amazing relationships with our shellfish farmers, and we are able to source the freshest oysters,” Erickson said. “We could not be successful without this very close relationship.”
Erickson started at the Walrus, but her culinary touch and legacy lives through more venues throughout the city, including The Whale Wins in Fremont, Bateau and Bar Melusine in Capitol Hill, Barnacle in Ballard and Wilmott’s Ghost in Belltown.
ON THE MENU
The Walrus and the Carpenter
4743 Ballard Ave. NW, Seattle
Seafood is best when from the shores of Washington and the PNW. When Renee Erickson and her crew serve food, it will be from local waters and with great flavor, transporting you to the deep blue ocean.
The perfect ¼-pound burger at Bar Melusine; Smoked clam tartine and the salt-roasted chicken at The Whale Wins; Steak Tartare at Bistro Shirlee.
Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton + Greg Denton focus on hospitality and excellent food at Ox and Bistro Agnes.
Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton + Greg Denton
Ox and Bistro Agnes | Portland
If there were a place where a wood-fired grill could bring out the best in meat and vegetable and bring together carnivores and vegetarians in a savory embrace, it would be Ox. Chefs Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton showcase the best of Argentinian grilled meats, fish and garden produce in their small and cozy NE Portland restaurant.
“I’m deeply inspired by history and culinary tradition,” Quiñónez Denton said. “I love taking a dish that has roots in another place and time and adapting it to showcase an ingredient that’s coming into season here.”
Quiñónez Denton came from Los Angeles, but spent summers in Ecuador at her grandmother’s home in the Andes learning about food and flavor. Her husband grew up in Vermont, was interested in cooking from a young age and eventually put that passion to the test at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Across the country, Quiñónez Denton graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
In 2012, they found in Portland a culinary scene on the verge of next-level dining and opened Ox in a storefront on developing MLK Boulevard, with dishes such as grilled short ribs with house chorizo and pan-roasted sea scallops with halibut brandade risotto. An open kitchen with beautiful cuts of meat and veggies neatly arranged were visible and engaging to customers. The redolence from the grilled fare was compelling. The meats were to die for, the veggies farm-fresh and the ambience that of a cozy bistro. Word spread and Ox became a destination restaurant for Portland foodies.
“I think what sets Ox apart from others is our dedication to hospitality,” Greg Denton said. “It is very important to us that you have a good time while we are taking care of you. I also think that people love looking at and cooking over fire. It calls out to your primal, basic instincts.”
In 2017, the husband-wife duo won a James Beard Award for best chefs in the Pacific Northwest.
Ox’s smoked beef tongue a la vinagreta with horseradish,
ensalada rusa and sweetbread croutons.
(photo: John Valls)
ON THE MENU
2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Portland
Truly top-notch grilled meats from two James Beard Award-winning chefs. The Dentons’ newest, Bistro Agnes in downtown Portland, is a French coup de grâce.
Greg: “Our fresh clam chowder, with smoked bone marrow, green onion and jalapeño. It’s a rollercoaster of flavor!”
Gabi: “I love our skirt steak. The savory marinade really sets it apart from other grilled meat on the menu, and it pairs perfectly with a dab of our zesty chimichurri sauce.”