Tilth: Soil becomes food

This weekend, Man of La Muncha and I made two trips to Tilth, which is the second restaurant in the country to receive Oregon Tilth organic certification. We had heard about the restaurant from various friends, who felt that it was right up our alley. We've had an uncharacteristically busy schedule over the past month or so, but decided that this weekend we would check out Tilth. And we were happy we did so.

On Saturday, we stopped in for a late lunch after paying a trip to the University District farmers' market (we heard a rumor that someone was selling butter; the rumor, alas, was false). Tilth is located in an updated Craftsman house on NE 45th in the Wallingford neighborhood, previous home of the late, lamented Mandalay Cafe, whose owners apparently moved to Canada to open a restaurant there. The main dining area has been redone in light green and buttercream yellow; the tables are made of bamboo, and the placemats look reassuringly recycled and sustainable.

Man of La Muncha and I settled in and perused the menu. Though everything looked quite appealing, I ended up settling on the Peasant Lunch Box, which was described as containing charcuterie, cheese, bread, and salad. Though I don't make a habit of having alcohol in the early afternoon, I was too intrigued to resist the Bloody Mary, billed as containing heirloom tomatoes. Man of La Muncha, in a breakfast frame of mind, opted for the truffled scrambled eggs with chive, heirloom tomatoes, and hash browns.

My Bloody Mary arrived, without the traditional stalk of celery, but containing a skewered green olive stuffed with pimiento. Though this is not a drink I order often, I was pleased with the tangy tomato and pepper flavor, which was enhanced by the chunky nature of the drink--it was something to be eaten as much as drunk.

The Bloody Mary was quickly followed by our breakfasts. Man of La Muncha's eggs were good, though, as is often the case, the truffles seemed to be an afterthought. My Peasant Lunch Box came on a plate, not in a box, and contained a silky smooth duck prosciutto, a pork rillette, some mixed greens and olives, a chunk of blue cheese, and triangles of crustless bread.

The rillette was a revelation, spread on bread with a little dijon mustard to offset the richness of the meat and with the addition of an olive. I mixed the blue cheese with my greens, and quickly finished the entire plate. We were so impressed we asked if we could get reservations for Sunday dinner and were confirmed for dinner at 6:00 the following evening.

On Sunday, we returned and eagerly settled in to read the menu. The dinner menu at Tilth provides two prices after every dish--one for a small plate, and the other for a traditional entrée. The exception is the cheese plate, which has prices for one-, three-, and five-cheese options.

We decided to order small plates, so as to try as much of the menu as possible. After brief discussion, we ordered the five-cheese plate, the soup (a pureed mushroom cream), the baby lettuce salad, the porcini mushroom brûlée, the wild sockeye salmon (for Man of La Muncha - I don't eat fish), a chanterelle papparadelle, and mini duck burgers. To match this repast, we order the 2004 Brooks Janus pinot noir from Oregon.

Jimi Brooks, the original winemaker, died unexpectedly in September of 2004; however, many other winemakers stepped up to finish making wine from the harvest as a way to honor him.

The Janus was presented first. This was a lovely, bright wine with candied cherries in the nose and a lively fruitiness in the mouth. When paired with the mushroom soup, baby lettuce salad, and cheese plate the wine truly shone, enhancing the food while still remaining assertive. With the baby lettuce salad, which was dressed with a mixture of oil and lemon, the wine counteracted the sourness of the lemon, while the tartness of the dressing enhanced the fruitiness of the wine.

The cheeses were not local, but were delicious. The most interesting was Capriole Farm's semi-soft goat cheese from, which had been wrapped in chestnut leaves and soaked in bourbon. The most delightful was Cowgirl Creamery's fromage blanc, a fresh cheese, which was accompanied by Cowgirl's red hawk. We negotiated over the last pieces of our favorite, the Mutton Button, from New York's Old Chatham Sheepherding Company. Cowgirl Creamery distributes Mutton Button in the Bay Area. The cheeses were accompanied by a fig puree, hazelnuts, and crisp crackers. We made short work of the cheeses.
The porcini mushroom brûlée was a revelation. Topped with a vanilla bean froth and a lightly crisped sugar crust, the brûlée was rich and dense, the foresty taste of the mushrooms melding beautifully with the sweetness of the vanilla and the sugar crust. This was truly one of the best things I've tasted, and is on par with some of the dishes Man of La Muncha and I had at Joel Palmer House when we went down to the Oregon wine country last year.

Next up were the wild sockeye salmon and the mini duck burgers. Man of La Muncha enjoyed the salmon; the kale added a nice note of bitterness, while the delicata squash didn't add to the overall dish. The mini duck burgers were served with heirloom ketchup, fig mustard, and tiny sprigs of arugula on small brioche rolls. The burgers were rich and juicy; the gaminess of the duck was tempered by the sweetness of the fig relish and the heirloom ketchup.

Accompanying the burgers were fingerling potatoes that had been cooked in duck fat, making addictive potato chips.

Feeling nearly full, we decided we had room for dessert. I ordered the sugar pumpkin panna cotta, featuring pumpkin from Oxbow Farm, while Man of La Muncha opted for the Theo smoked chocolate pudding. I asked for the Kiona ice wine as an accompaniment, and Man of La Muncha requested a recommendation. The server brought out a bottle of Graham's Six Grapes Port, something not on the menu. After sampling the port, Man of La Muncha agreed to a glass, which went very well with his pudding.

The panna cotta was velvety smooth with a distinct pumpkin taste, rich without being overwhelming. It was not overly sweet, which made the Kiona a lovely accompaniment. Man of La Muncha's pudding was smoky, dense and complex. The straightforward fruitiness of the port enhanced his dessert while highlighting the many layers of flavor - a great suggestion on the part of the server, and one which we appreciated.

If the idea still persists that organic foods, while better for you, are flavorless in comparison to their industrially created brethren, a visit to Tilth should put an end to the discussion. The food that they create is excellent across the menu, with some highly innovative dishes that should bring them a great deal of attention. The ability to opt for a smaller plate rather than an entrée is a trend that I hope gains momentum.

Take your friends. Take your family. Take yourself. But go now, while the restaurant is still something of a secret.

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