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Home Grown: A celebration of local culinary enterprise

Opper & Melang: Restaurant Builders

T-Doug and Ethan are names everyone knows, but the most successful local restaurant entrepreneurs may well be a duo named Nathan Opper and Zak Melang. Opper was a home builder in Michigan before landing in Seattle; Melang, a bass player, moved here from North Carolina to play music.

Less than a decade ago, eager to launch a restaurant venture together, they found a grand old building--an abandoned lumber mill on the fringe of Historic Ballard overlooking Shilshole Avenue--but the build-out, back then, seemed daunting. Instead they leased a little bar at the intersection of Market Street and Ballard Avenue called Matador. There are now four Matadors in Seattle, two in Portland and one more in Boise.

Having learned how to work with classic spaces (Melang does the design and fabricates all the tables himself) and how to run restaurants, they returned to their first love, the 1927 Henry Whyte lumber mill. This time they knew what to do: preserve the cedar beams by building an entire new roof, for example. A huge kitchen, a chef, Bo Maisano, from New Orleans. A GM, Kris Moser, who ran Il Terrazzo Carmine.

They named the restaurant Kickin' Boot, and the concept Whiskey Kitchen: the food, drink and flavors of America's broad southland. Barbecue, brisket, pulled pork, rib-eye steaks, gumbo, grits, catfish. Chicken with buttermilk biscuits. Sweet potato pie. A bar heavy on bourbon and rye.

"It's not that Ballard is lacking for top-level dining, what with Bastille, Walrus & Carpenter, Staple & Fancy," Melang told me. "We want to add to that." The drawback for Ballard Avenue's restaurant row has been a lack of street parking. Melang will solve that problem by offering valet parking, a first for the neighborhood.

A third concept has been added called Ballard Annex: raw bar (Taylor Shellfish, of course); oyster shooters, chowders made in small-batch steam kettles atop the bar; astonishingly juicy lobster rolls; baked mussels; oysters Rockefeller; Champagne and Prosecco by the glass; a Negroni made with Carpano Antica; and, on Sundays, bouillabaisse.

And the duo aren't done, not by a long shot. A second Whiskey Kitchen is planned for Portland.

Riley Sparks: Chicken Advocate

Back in the day, turn-of-the-century, commercial fisherman Riley Starks took over a rustic lodge on Lummi, a little island tucked under the Canadian border off the coast of Bellingham at the northeastern tip of the San Juan archipelago. That was the original Willows Inn. Then, shortly after he had hired a dazzling 24-year-old line cook named Blaine Wetzel to run the kitchen, and just as the resort was on the cusp of becoming world-famous, Starks sold the property to a group of local investors. (The new owners would quickly remodel the accommodations, reconfigure the dining rooms, and rebrand Willows Inn as a luxury resort with a world-class chef.)

Not one to dwell on opportunities lost or roads not taken, Starks retreated to his own place, Nettles Farm, a 15-minute stroll from the beach on land he'd cleared himself, and set about turning it into a European-style farmhouse bed & breakfast, a genuine agriturismo. Fussy, thread-count-obsessed tourists should stay away, they won't find turn-down service with imported chocolates on the pillows. Nettles sells its produce at a farm stand near the ferry terminal, and offers its guests the novelty (for city-slickers) of real farm experiences like classes in chicken slaughtering ($50 per person plus the cost of the bird, which you then eat for dinner).

Starks, you see, is on a mission: to restore the reputation of the noble chicken. Not, he's quick to say, the plastic "broilers" from an industrial facility that go from hatchling to supermarket styrofoam in under six weeks. Nope, these are more like the most famous of all French chickens, the poulet de Bresse.

The Bresse is rich farmland on the left bank of the Saône river that lies between Burgundy and Lyon, and it's here that the local birds reach the height of chickendom. Part of it, sure, is what they eat. But it's mostly their genetic makeup. And herein lies the story of Starks's quest. Before going further, here's an extract from the official Poulet de Bresse statute: "Bresse Poultry has a "melting" flesh, that this flesh is impregnated with fat right into its smallest fibers and that this fat contains the essential part of the savouriness. To be sure that the Bresse Poultry conserves its qualities to a maximum degree, it must be "cooked inside itself." In this way, the greater part of the intra-muscular fat and even the water it contains will remain inside and the chemical reactions caused by heat, which give the delicate taste, will impregnate the whole bird."

For "biosecurity" reasons, actual Poulet de Bresse birds aren't allowed out of France, but a poultryman named Peter Thiessen, across the BC border in Abbotsford, had been breeding chickens developed from French stock since the 1980s. Better yet, the resulting animals, known as Poulet Bleu for their blue feet, were worth $10 a pound, 20 times the value of a supermarket bird.

Before he passed away last year, Thiessen agreed to sell his flock to Starks, who expects to take possession, in a complex cross-border transaction, by mid-March. By all accounts, the Poulet Bleu is one superb-tasting bird. Just ask culinary director Roy Breiman of Copperleaf Restaurant, who baked 300 mouthwatering chicken-pot-pies for last month's Farmer-Chef Connection event using Poulet Bleu stock; for that matter, ask any of the attendees: luscious!

Says Starks, "This is a chicken we are proud to grow, restaurants can be proud to serve, and you can be proud to eat."

March 2014


Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based journalist who specializes in food, wine and travel. He has worked for KING TV, Seattle Weekly, and Chateau Ste. Michelle; his blog is www.Cornichon.org


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