Can you package the Pacific Northwest in a Big Apple restaurant?
Copper-glazed salmon figurines hang from the ceiling in perpetual spawn at Wild Salmon in New York City. By Frank Franklin II, AP
By Caryn Brooks, Associated Press WriterNEW YORK — Anyone walking into the cavernous restaurant on a Midtown Manhattan corner can't miss the flotilla of copper-glazed salmon figurines that hang from the ceiling in perpetual spawn. The flying salmon are complemented by an assortment of oysters, shrimp, mussels, all laid out on ice like vacationers lounging in the sand.
All this, plus the name of the restaurant — Wild Salmon — makes it clear what this place is about. It's a seafood joint. But Wild Salmon is something else, too. It's a Pacific Northwest concept restaurant.
What? You've never been to a Pacific Northwest theme restaurant before? You and most of the world.
While the cuisine of America's other quadrants has been fetishized on a national stage, this is one of the first major New York close-ups for the unflashy food of America's upper left states.
It's not that this region has been flying under the radar. Pacific Northwest restaurants and ingredients are regularly celebrated in national food magazines. Last century's vanguard cookbook author, James Beard, was born in Portland and constantly referenced the foods of his boyhood, though he was a New Yorker for most of his adult life.
Still, there aren't many zippy Pacific Northwest signature dishes to heft a restaurant. There's no bagel. No special barbecue sauce. No unique chili.
So what is there, then? There's ingredients rather than recipes. Damp, dense forests that incubate amazing mushrooms. Rivers that spawn salmon. Oceans that host oysters. Valleys that are outrageously hospitable to Pinot Noir grapes. Bushes that burst with gushy blackberries. Farmer's markets rival supermarkets. And so on.
Hardly a hit-you-over-the-head theme. But maybe it doesn't need to be, now that Wild Salmon's Jeffrey Chodorow is stumping for it.
Chodorow is the brash restaurateur whose splashy China Grill blazed trails through the '90s as a globe-trotting fusion success story. Other restaurants in his portfolio include the Asia de Cuba chain and the Social restaurants in L.A. and Miami. And you may recognize Chodorow from television: He was Rocco DiSpirito's partner on the reality show The Restaurant.
Chodorow isn't exactly mild. He's been fighting a war of words with New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni, who he felt short-changed his Kobe Club restaurant. Chodorow's revenge? A full page response ad in The New York Times dining section. (For the record, Bruni recently gave Wild Salmon a mostly positive review.)
Chodorow is a guy who goes big. And not one you might associate with the relatively subdued pleasures of Walla Walla onions and Humboldt Bay Kumomoto oysters. He simply found himself smitten with the treats of the region while traveling there 10 years ago. So he recruited top Seattle chef Charles Ramseyer to head his project and charged forward.
In a recent telephone interview, Chodorow gets to the point: "One of the questions that I know you want to ask me is: do the people get it? I'm not sure they do yet. But they do when they eat there," he says.
At Wild Salmon, diners can have their fish grilled, cedar planked or poached. They can choose from three different salmon species: king, coho and sockeye. And they can top it with eight different sauces, including wild Oregon morel pinot noir and spiced Yakima peach rason chutney. The cheapest salmon entree is $26. And of course there's the stunningly delicious selection of smoked salmon on the appetizer list.
"The biggest struggle has been the freight bill," Chodorow says. He says all major ingredients are shipped from the Pacific Northwest.
There's another, less tangible cost: educating diners about the nuances of the cuisine, one table at a time. "There's a lot of technical things that would be virtually impossible to communicate," Chodorow says.
That's what's so funny about this whole Pacific Northwest thing: it's actually very simple... If you live there. And sort of elusive if you don't.
When you discuss Pacific Northwest food with Tom Douglas, beloved Seattle chef and restaurateur, one word keeps popping up — pristine. If it's fish, where was it caught exactly? By what method? How do the fishermen handle it when it comes aboard? And how does the purveyor handle it once it hits dry land?
Then, Douglas says, you take that pristine ingredient and get out of the way. He points out that when he was on Iron Chef, he beat Masaharu Morimoto using a simple recipe of salmon poached in butter.
The concept of exporting Pacific Northwest cuisine is intriguing to Douglas — as long as the ingredients are true and pushed to the fore.
Cory Schreiber, whose Wildwood restaurant in Portland, Ore., was one of the first to focus on Pacific Northwest cuisine, is less smitten with the concept. "You can't transpose it," he says. And he doesn't understand why anyone would try.
"Part of it is that the product doesn't transport well. Most of it is very perishable. The mushrooms, the fish — the obvious ones — aren't really meant to transport," says Schreiber, whose family has been in the Pacific Northwest oyster business since the mid-1800s and ran a cherished roll-up-your-sleeves restaurant in Portland called Dan & Louis Oyster Bar.
"And it's a non-transferrable experience," he adds.
Schreiber, who wrote a cookbook on the region's cuisine and won a James Beard award for his cooking at Wildwood, considers the urban Pacific Northwest's environmentalism and progressive politics integral to the ethos of the cuisine. Shipping local goods across the country is "just a tremendous waste," he says. "If someone had asked me to run that restaurant... I think I would have felt false. I'd be faking it."
Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation in New York City, has never been to Wild Salmon but guesses that Beard — a man who loved introducing people to new foods — would have been pleased to have a Pacific Northwest restuarant in his adopted city.
Davis suggests that the very idea of a Pacific Northwest theme restaurant might be more American than any actual cuisine: "We've created an approach to food and restaurants that is uniquely American, that is in someways like a machine that eats up realities and turns them into concepts and spits them out as restaurants and environments and dining experiences rather than any kind of authentic, let's-go-to-the-place-on-the-corner-and-have-dinner reality."
Maybe Davis is right. Maybe Wild Salmon is more about American packaging than Pacific Northwest food. But if other parts of the country get the grand American treatment, why not this one?