Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tilikum Place Cafe

It goes without saying--or, at the very least, it's said below--that I don't have much opportunity to eat out these days. My idea of a big night out, in these New Economic Times, is a trip down Rainier to Afrikando Afrikando--a warm, always packed little two-room restaurant serving outstanding Senegalese food in huge portions (the leftovers justify the $12-and-up prices). Other than that, it's pho or home cooking. But last night, a friend treated me to dinner at Tilikum Place Cafe (online menu not current)--a cute, tastefully decorated little place in an unfortunate corner of Belltown (underneath the monorail tracks and right by Zeek's Pizza and the Five Point bar).

It wasn't surprising, then, that the place was far from full--only about two tables were filled when we arrived around 6:30, and even when we left two hours later, the bar half of the restaurant was as lifeless as a mausoleum. The division of the restaurant, however, made this relative emptiness immaterial--the half of the room we were sitting in, separated from the bar by a sturdy wall, felt like a cozy cafe. And the waitstaff were attentive without seeming desperate--water was refilled promptly, bread appeared on cue, and the only misstep--a lack of spoons for the soup--was corrected immediately.

The food itself was (mostly) stellar. A bitter-greens and date salad was tossed with just the right amount of sweet-salty bacon dressing, accented perfectly with crisp-tender lardons of thick-sliced bacon and supremed minature tangerines. The carrot soup (a dish I usually hate--too vegetal and, often, fibrous) was just shy of decadent, with creme fraiche, cilantro and a dollop of (chile?) oil adding richness to the sweet, smooth puree. Mashed potatoes, ordered a la carte, were (what I think of as) the Platonic ideal--whipped smooth with cream and butter and topped with parsley, with no caramalized-shallots-fried-sage-roasted-garlic-crushed-peppercorn nonsense to mess with the silky perfection of the potatoes.

And then, the exception--glaring mostly because of the contrast: Housemade fettucine in cream sauce with greens (kale, I think), walnuts and cubes of celery root. Although the combination of elements could have been superb--the celery root, in particular, was both meaty and ethereal, and I kept having to remind myself what it was--the sauce was (there's no better way to put this) strangely sandy. Not chalky, mind you, but sandy--like a roux that had broken. I don't know exactly what gave it this texture, but it distracted me enough that I couldn't really enjoy the dish. It also could have used a bit more something--a dash more lemon, perhaps, to cut into the richness and blandness of the other elements.

The bummer about my experience with Tilikum's pasta is that, except for the carrot soup, it was one of the only vegetarian items on the menu; and although I'm not a vegetarian, I get the frustration herbivores have when restaurants treat non-meat items as an afterthought. I don't know that that's what was happening at Tilikum Place --for all I know, the owners like their pasta sandy (my dining partner didn't mind it), or the kitchen was just having an off night--but I hate ordering pasta and having it turn out less than extraordinary. Maybe I'm extra picky, but it seems to me that it's just not that hard.

That said, I'll be back. The prices are reasonable (between 6 and 10 bucks for appetizers, and 12 to 18 for entrees) and the short menu changes frequently. I've heard great things about their meat dishes (particularly the milk-braised pork), so I'd like to give those a shot. And any place that can make a salad exciting--bacon, bacon vinaigrette, and dates?--has my vote of confidence.

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