Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Monday, October 24, 2011

Farm-to-Table Finds a Home in Spokane and Northern Idaho

Heading inland from Seattle, a city he knows well, our foodie adventurer, David Latt, explores Spokane and Eastern Idaho in search of restaurants that fly the flag of the farm-to-table movement. 


Like fashion, food delights the soul but is often subject to hype. "Organic," "Natural" and "Low Fat" have been co-opted by marketing campaigns, obscuring the true intent of the words.
When we think of "farm-to-table," we imagine a farmer driving a beat up 1980's Ford pick-up to the back door of a neighborhood restaurant and unloading wooden crates filled to overflowing with leafy bunches of arugula, round and firm beets, thick stalks of celery, fat leeks, freshly laid eggs, plump chickens, freshly cured bacon, ripe apples, dark red cherries and juicy peaches.

The high quality product inspires the chef who quickly writes the menu for that day's meals. 


In the ideal, a farm-to-table meal reconnects diners with the seasons and the land. Such a meal delights all our senses and becomes a grounding experience, locating us in time and space.


We would eat tomatoes only when they are in season and their acid and sweetness are in perfect balance. Spring lamb would be exactly that, "spring" lamb, tender and moist. We would enjoy trout only when it was freshly caught, the clean taste of snow melt clinging to its skin. Eggs laid that morning by chickens treated humanely and raised on sustainable, organic and natural feed would have bright yellow yolks. And peaches picked at the peak of maturity would have melt-in-the-mouth sweetness. One bite and we would remember summers as a kid when a simple thing like a ripe peach could make us happy.


That's good farm-to-table. 


Bad farm-to-table is a marketing campaign that pays lip-service to the fantasy. The produce may be procured locally but the quality isn't good. Or the produce is local and good quality, but the chef doesn't have the talent to prepare delicious meals.
On a recent food tour of Spokane and Northern Idaho, enjoying the beautiful scenery with clear running rivers and crystal blue lakes, I discovered a handful of restaurants that are living up to the promise of farm-to-table. 

Spokane, Washington


In Spokane, our group of fifteen sat down at a long table at Italia Trattoria. Chef and co-owner Anna Vogel talked about the abundance of small farms within a hundred mile radius that supply the restaurant with the majority of its produce, cheeses, poultry, eggs and meat. 
She and partner, Bethe Bowman, were attracted to Spokane's small town, cosmopolitan feeling. A small enough version of Seattle where their restaurant can, as she said with a smile, "change the way Spokane eats." 

If I lived in Spokane, she would certainly change the way I eat because I would come as often as I could.
We had several salads, the best, a charred octopus salad. The bits and pieces of pepper crusted octopus contrasted perfectly with a light mix of local produce--Italian parsley, thinly sliced new potatoes, celery and red onions, tossed in olive oil flavored with roasted tomato essence and lemon.

A second course showed off chef Vogel's skill with potato gnocchi. The soft, pliant dumplings were coated with a sweet-tart tomato sauce and topped with shreds of bright green basil.
A risotto, similarly dressed with a roasted tomato sauce, the perfect compliment to the fresh dungeness crab from Washington State's coastal waters. Decorating the risotto were thin parasols of heirloom tomatoes from Beanie Blues Farm located on South Hill in Spokane.

Trained in Europe and in some of Seattle's best restaurants, chef Vogel knows to source great ingredients and then get of the way. 


The duck breast spoke for itself. Blood red and tender, the thick slices were accented with a crust of dusky cocoa nibs, accompanied by a corn potato hash and crisp whole green beans for contrasts in texture and flavor.
Thickly cut flap steak cut easily and tasted earthly and beefy-rich. Like many talented chefs, Vogel knows that sides are not an after thought.

As quickly as we devoured the beef, we attacked a deliciously full of flavor, roasted, skinless whole tomato. A potato croquette seasoned with parmesan cheese was fried to crusty perfection. They challenged the beef to compete with their veggie-wonderfulness. 

We sampled local Washington State wines as we ate, enjoying a preview of the wineries we would visit on the trip. 


We were offered the dessert of the evening, a lemon cornmeal cake with cherry compote, but we apologized we are too full. We simply could not eat another bite, fearing like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, we would explode with delirious happiness.

The next morning, barely recovered, we descended on Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie in downtown Spokane.  


Santé's rustic vibe is accentuated by wooden plank tables and refrigerated display cases filled with executive chef Jeremy Hansen and sous chef Jeff Vance's housemade sausages, sides of bacon, assorted charcuterie and jars of homemade pickles.

We pressed against the display cases to get a better look at the pickles and charcuterie as if we were kids outside a toy store.
"Think Globally Eat Locally" is printed on the menu. Not just a marketing slogan, chef Hansen pursues the best ingredients he can find from local farms and throughout Washington state. Using French and Italian techniques, he creates dishes with a rustic American point of view. 
From the charcuterie and cheese menu we sampled cheeses, house cured smoked trout gravlax, pork and duck prosciutto, sopprasetta, salami, toast rounds, flavored mustards and a selection of those pickles we had been eyeing appeared. We happily shared and compared notes on each as they were passed around. 
Because this was breakfast, we had wheat berry French toast, sausages, duck and chicken eggs fried sunny side up--the better to enjoy the brilliance of their deep yellow yolks.

To sample chef Hansen's lunch/dinner menu, we ordered the charcuterie quiche and, my favorite, his gnocchi with crisp slices of guanciale on top. The gnocchi were coated with a deeply nuanced sherry glazed cream sauce. Luckily there are still slices of the toasted baguettes so we could enjoy every last drop of the sauce.
In a nondescript mini-mall, chef David Blaine at Latah Bistro serves an Italian inspired menu. His risottos, pastas and crostini are topped with produce from farmers in the area. On Monday they call Blaine and tell him what they are harvesting that week. Doing quick culinary math, he plans his weekly menu and puts in his orders.

The resulting dishes change weekly and even daily, grounding his customers in the seasons.

Just outside of Spokane, we visited Masselow's Restaurant in the Northern Quest Resort & Casino where chef Bob Rogers showed us that even a large organization recognizes the benefits of using local ingredients, sourced from small farms practicing sustainable agriculture.
Using one of his high tech kitchen toys, Rogers served a delicious piece of Washington beef cooked at low temperatures in a sous vide machine and finished on the grill. Tender, moist and delicious, the beef was paired with spaghetti squash, Swiss chard and a barley risotto.
For me, chef Rogers' best dish was a simple salad of lentils with lettuce, a bit of goat cheese with a vinaigrette flavored with the juice of an oven smoked tomato. Simple, elegant, delicious and all the more fun, because we had bought the Palouse lentils ourselves from the Moscow (Idaho) Food Co-op.
While we were in Moscow, we ate at Nectar, a wine bar distinguished by chef Nikki Woodland's cooking. Located in rich farmland, Woodland buys her produce from local farmers, explaining that the key to her cooking is a sentiment heard frequently on the trip, "I like to source great ingredients, treat them simply and let people enjoy them without too much fuss.
U-Pick


Farm-to-table gets personal when you pick the food yourself.

When I was growing up outside Los Angeles, my mother loved to take the family to Cherry Valley where--you guessed it--we would pick cherries. For a couple of dollars a farmer would let families descend on his orchard and pick the hard to reach fruit. Armed with ladders and pails, we would look for a tree still loaded with fruit. By the time we had finished, half the cherries we picked would be in our pail, the other half in our stomachs.
At the Green Bluff Growers cooperative, just outside Spokane, you can spend an afternoon visiting dozens of farms.

Many are u-pick where the farmer will teach you the proper way to harvest a crop, like Mark Morrell of Walter's Fruit Ranch who showed us to "grab the apple by the bottom and raise it up to keep the stem attached so it won't go bad." Good advice. We happily practiced his lesson by picking Honey Crisp apples and eating them standing in the orchard. I guess that was farm-to-mouth.
If you want a more immersive experience than just an afternoon picking apples, drive two hours north of Spokane to the city of Rice, where you can live up to five days on a farm while you learn how to make Quillisascut goat cheese and practice culinary skills in cooking classes taught by Lora Lee and Rick Misterlys.

Wineries

Farm-to-table means wine as well as food.
To go on a winery road trip, we didn't have far to go in Spokane. In the heart of downtown, in an alleyway next to the elevated train tracks, we stopped at Barrister Winery. The Wine Enthusiast Magazine credits Barrister's Cabernet Franc, Merlot and  Sauvignon Blanc with 90+ points, helping expand the winery's fan base beyond the local clientele.

With freight trains passing nearby, the tasting room vibrated as we sampled Barrister's wine.

Mark Rogers of Arbor Crest Wine Cellars just outside of Spokane explained the intimate relationship between winery and vineyard, "We're all about Washington growers. I shake the farmer's hand I buy from."

Because of a difficult climate and poor soil, most wineries in the area buy grapes from vineyards in other parts of Washington State. Trezzi Farm is an exception.

Half an hour north-east of Spokane, Davide and Stephanie Trezzi have a small tasting room in the middle of their vineyard. Trusting to nature, they dry farm and so, in drought years, risk losing their entire harvest, which they did in 2010 and 2011.

With young vines and a short growing season, their wines need several more years to reach their potential.
Relying on Davide's excellent cooking, Trezzi Farm survives by selling frozen ready-eat-to-meals and catering as well as winemaking. As part of their tastings, Davide sometimes serves food to go with his wine.

By the time we reached the winery we were hungry again so he served helpings of his polenta with a butter, cheese, garlic and tomato sauce. His delicious food definitely paired well with his Barbera.
After two states, four days on the road, five wineries and seven restaurants, we had discovered that farm-to-table works when the food is fresh-tasting and well-prepared by a skillful chef. We experienced the obvious, that farm-to-table isn't a marketing label, it is a way of thinking. 

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