The Harvest Vine is one of the great jewels of the Seattle restaurant scene. It serves Basque food tapas style. By now, almost everyone who knows something about food knows that a tapas bar serves small portions of a great variety of cold and hot dishes, usually accompanied by wine
The Harvest Vine’s chef, Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez, is a San Sebastien native. He looks like a sprite or a gnome–an impish one with a faint gleam of mischief in his eye. From his girth, we’d have to say that he enjoys food and his own cooking quite well. This man is a culinary genius. To paraphrase a review I once read of a Donald Barthelme book: “It is a great joy that we have him among us in this country.” Seattle is not known for the great variety or diversity of its international food offerings. So the fact that we have Chef Joseph and his restaurant among us is all the more astonishing.
When The Harvest Vine first opened in 1998, it was like a fun, small eating club. The chefs all knew you by name and remembered how many times you’d been in and even what you’d ordered (since they took your order, prepared your food and perhaps even your bill). It really was an amazing place then. And it had to change as it expanded its fame and clientele. Gone are those heady days, but just like love all wonderful things in life settle into familiar patterns and lose just a tiny bit of their initial wonder & newness. The Harvest Vine is no exception.
I’m happy to say that Seattle seems to appreciate the treasure it has and there are almost always tremendously long lines to get it. No reservations are accepted, making the 30 of so seats (you can sit up or downstairs, but the best to be is the crow’s nest–the stools around the bar–where you can see Chef Joseph and his cooks work their culinary miracle) a very hot ticket. My wife and I live in the neighborhood (how lucky we are) so when we want to eat there we run over and put our name on the waiting list and then take a walk in the neighborhood till they are ready to serve us. As it is, we still walk away disappointed that we cannot afford to wait for a seat more often than we get to eat at the restaurant. It’s just very small and very sought after–as it should be.
The other miracle about The Harvest Vine is that unlike most other restaurants, even good ones, every dish on the menu is delicious. You will always find dishes, flavors, textures and ingredients that you’ve never had before; or if you’ve had them before, not quite in the combinations that Chef Joseph manages to create.
Last night, we ate Sardinas a la Parilla, “a pair of fresh sardines from the Cantabrian Sea grilled and finished with lemon,” Chuletas de Cordero, “a pair of New Zealand free range lamb chops grilled and served with panadera potatoes,” and Vieiras, “pan-seared sea scallops over caramelized onions seasoned with wild mushroom essence.” The sardines were a strong dish, not for the faint of heart. Tearing the flesh off the skeleton made me feel the slightest bit queasy (you can tell I’m not an everyday sardine eater) and the fish had a strong taste of the sea. But the art of eating involves partaking of more than the familiar. It involves partaking of the bounty of every place and type of food and I’m very glad that I partook. As for the scallops, we’ve all had pan-seared scallops. They predominate in restaurant cooking because the dish is so easy to make and SO good. But Chef Joseph added a slight twist by introducing caramelized onions, which added a faint sweet taste to the scallops tempering them beautifully. Now to the lamb chops which I’ve deliberately left for last: ahhh! That’s all I can say. There are few times when one can rightly say that food was orgasmic. This was one of them. The chops are grilled very briefly, perhaps a minute on each side. Inside, the meat was rare–really quite raw. My wife didn’t like the idea of eating raw meat, but I figured since it was from a lamb and since it was prepared by a master chef, I would leave the cooking decisions in his hands. Each bite of the lamb was delectable–soft, smooth and luscious. It had the texture of the finest sushi (which also can produce orgasmic reactions). The thinly slice fried potatoes doused in a rich sauce which accompanied the lamb were a nice counterpoint.
Eating this dish made me think of the poor young lamb and his/her ultimate sacrifice and this in turn reminded me of a PBS nature program about African animals of prey. One wildlife expert spoke of the reverential, almost spiritual bond that prey animals have with kill–sitting by it for hours on end, licking it, etc. In a way, I felt some kind of affinity for the animal and deep gratitude to it for giving me sustenance. I know that these thoughts might cause great pain to a vegatarian or PETA devotee, but there you have it.
Let’s not forget dessert. Carolin Messier de Jimenez, the pastry chef and Chef Joseph’s life partner is as brilliant a baker as he is a chef. We almost always have her goat cheesecakes when we eat there. But over the years, we’ve tasted many of her desserts and they are overwhelmingly wonderful. Before we were served any food, I watched as the wait staff brought dessert dishes to diners and I lamented wistfully to my wife: “It’s a terrible shame that we can’t eat every dessert.”
Last night, we ordered the Tarta de Pistachos y Chocolate, “a chocolate pastry crust with a caramel-pistachio filling topped with dark ganache.” To me, nothing in life is better than a rich, dark, luscious chocolate dessert and Carolin does not disappoint. The chocolate filling is smooth, creamy and rich. The pistachios add a crunchy texture that goes well with the chocolate’s creaminess and the chocolate crust adds to the density of the chocolate experience. My wife found the chocolate perhaps a bit runny and the nuts perhaps not crunchy enough. If I were to edit this dish I might’ve split the nuts in two so that they weren’t quite as large and I might’ve roasted them a bit longer so that they’d be a bit more crunchy. But these are mere cavils. Carolin is one of the best pastry chefs in Seattle and every bit as brilliant in her field as her husband.
Go there and go now!
The Scarlet Macaw, a Seattle website dedicated to promoting travel to Spain, contains an illuminating review of The Harvest Vine.
The Harvest Vine is located at:
2701 East Madison Street
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