Eatery - The Whale Wins (WA)
3506 Stone Way N Seattle, WA 98103 (Neighborhood: Wallingford)
Pricing - $$/$$$ | Dining - Dressy Casual | Cuisine - American (New), Small Plates
It feels odd to chide a place for not meeting expectations, especially when expectations started high, but when the letdown is worse than even a normal experience would turn out, it is downright disappointing. We don't like to say anything negative without some constructive comments but we also aren't chefs so take the post with a grain of salt. We were just incredibly surprised that we could have had one of the best meals we've ever had in the sister restaurant of this spot that we thought was a terrible way to cap off an evening.
The Whale Wins was recently named in Bon Appetit as one of the Top 50 New Restaurants in the U.S. so when our travel plans took us to Seattle, we were excited to give it a try. After all, the magazine has some clout behind it, and to be listed as one of 50 of who-knows-how-many in the country that excels is an honor. We absolutely loved our time at The Walrus and The Carpenter, sister to this newer joint, and were in high hopes for this one. Surprisingly, the evening turned out 0/5 for everything we ordered...
The building that houses The Whale Wins also houses Joule so don't get confused when you get to the area. The open kitchen for The Whale Wins makes the cooking process seem more personal, and the logs of wood in the back give off a feeling of homestyle, rustic food. Even along the tiled counter are baked goods on display and fresh ingredients. It looked promising coming in. We decided to get cocktails so ordered their Shiso Julep ($10 - shochu, celery soda, shiso leaf, and simple syrup) and Etesian ($10 - unaged Brandy, pineapple gum syrup, dry curucao, lemon, marachino, angostura bitters). What a surprise it was when we got each that the balance was glaringly off with alcohol being much too prominent in both drinks. Is this has Seattle customers like it? We could hardly taste the other components, and the Shiso Julep was more ice than ingredients. This started the striking out streak but we gave them the benefit of the doubt because cocktails don't necessarily reflect how the food will turn out.
Because we were still a tad full from our previous venture a few hours prior, we went with just three orders (they are sharing plate sizes) - the much talked about Matiz Sardines on Toast ($12 - with curried tomato paste and shaved fennel), Roasted Raab ($12 - fingerling potatoes, cumin, garlic, and onion), and Pork and Serrano Ham Terrine ($14 - apricot mostarda and grain mustard with crostini). Expectations started high but went down after we tasted our first dish. Everywhere I had read gave much praise to the toast but ours came slightly burnt and with the toast fairly hard to bite through. The sardine flavor cut through easily as the fish itself is typically pungent but then sourness from much too much lemon shot into every bite. The fennel was thin enough not to matter save for its texture, and the parsley too generous so there were uneven bites of its strong scent. The whole dish was out of sync and left a bad taste in our mouths.
Now, I normally enjoy raab but the ones in our dish must not have been harvested at the right time as it was unbearably bitter. Though there is an inherent bitterness to the vegetable normally, this was stronger than average and only heightened by the use of cumin. Together, they proved a deadly bitter combo. We then hoped that the terrine would be our savior because the cured meat is usually a favorite style of preparation for both of us. Strike five here because the terrine was incredibly salty and the texture too disjointed. The speckles of sliced pistachio throughout had softened too much during the process of it being made and therefore did not carry the weight I assume their inclusion was supposed to make. Overall, we had a disappointing evening there and were very taken aback by how we could have gone somewhere with such lack of balance in both dishes and cocktails; the whale did not win here that night.
Photography by Duc Duong.