— There’s an abundance of internationally recognized talent behind RN74 in downtown Seattle, and yet there are strong local ties that may just bind them to this French-themed restaurant for a while.
It starts with celebrity restaurateur Michael Mina and celebrity sommelier Rajat Parr, who recruited Woodinville sommelier/winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen to head up their wine program. Last summer, they brought on executive chef Ben Godwin, a Brit whose résumé includes Fat Duck — a three-star Michelin restaurant near London and one of the world’s famous culinary destinations.
“Ben brings a remarkable amount of creativity to the RN74 team,” Mina said. “His impressive restaurant experience, combined with his love for the Pacific Northwest and local resources, is a great match for our team and we are thrilled to have him at the helm of the restaurant.”
Credit ultimately goes to Godwin’s wife, a Seattle native, for bringing him to the Northwest.
“I met her in London at a gig. She was by herself, and I was there with a friend. She asked me for the time, and that was it!” Godwin said with a smile. “My first visit to Seattle was in September 2005, and I’ve been coming here and living here off and on for 11 years.”
Mina’s took off 25 years ago in San Francisco when he was handed the opportunity to create AQUA, which became a site for power lunches in the Financial District. Twenty years later, Mina took over that Union Square space, part of a growing circle that spans five restaurants in San Francisco. Mina Group — co-founded with tennis star Andre Agassi — now owns 20 restaurants across the U.S. and Dubai.
But there’s no chance the Seattle version of San Francisco’s RN74 will go overlooked by Mina. His family emigrated from Egypt and put down roots in Ellensburg, Wash. His culinary career started at a truck stop in that rodeo town prior to moving to Seattle, where he’d cook atop the Space Needle (morning) and at Anthony’s in Kirkland (night). These days, the multi-media star is headquartered in the Bay Area, where he even operates a pub at Levi’s Stadium, but Mina’s family and the restaurant he opened in 2011 near Westlake Center keep the Culinary Institute of America grad connected to Washington.
“It's fantastic when Michael comes through,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “He's just a whirlwind in the kitchen, and the amount of energy and talent that just oozes out of him — and the creativity that he inspires — is really incredible.”
Route National 74 is the road through the heart of Burgundy. It could also symbolize the type of food, wine and travel that’s been at the core of Godwin’s career, which began at age 18 after washing dishes at a pub in Clare, England. His boyhood dream was to play center midfield for Manchester United, then he thought about coaching soccer, but he found his calling in the kitchen.
“There's no way I'd been able to work in the places I have been and see the places I've seen in another profession,” Godwin said.
The experience every foodie asks him about dates to 2010 when Godwin was promoted from stagiaire to chef de partie at Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s 38-seat restaurant with a ratio of kitchen staff to guest that’s essentially 1-to-1.
“I can't really compare the Fat Duck to anything anywhere,” Godwin said. “There’s the whimsical side of it, and Heston keeps coming out with stuff that's amazing. One thing that I’ve taken from there is to always question why you are doing things a certain way. That’s Heston’s big thing.”
Godwin, 33, has worked at other Michelin-star restaurants, including Alinea (three) in Chicago and Noma (two) in Copenhagen. And yet, he is no stranger to the Puget Sound culinary scene, having worked for Jason Wilson at Crush, Wolfgang Puck Catering, Meat & Bread and as chef de cuisine at the Salish Lodge.
“This is it for us,” Godwin said. “We just had a baby, and after seven different addresses in six years, that's enough. It's time to settle down.
“At this point, I watch football (soccer) when I can, and I usually play pick-up (soccer) on Monday nights at a local field on Beacon Hill,” he added. “Other than that, my wife and my daughter and my dog — she’s a pure mutt — take up all my time.”
When there is time for culinary research, Godwin ingests inspiration from the Mexican and Vietnamese fare he finds in Seattle.
“But if we are going out for a date, we’re going out for sushi at Shiro’s,” he said.
While Godwin works with Puget Sound seafood and Columbia Valley ingredients such as house-aged Double R Ranch steaks and King’s Garden organic vegetables, Lindsay-Thorsen and fellow somm Paul Swanson oversee more than 40 wines by the glass, a deep assortment of half bottles and a global list that’s heavy on Washington. Inventory stretches to $500,000.
“You can count on one hand the number of restaurants that invest that kind of infrastructure into serious wine programs in the Pacific Northwest,” Lindsay-Thorsen said.
A handful of W.T. Vintners wines — made by Lindsay-Thorsen — are available on the floor at RN74. Not long ago, it would have been illegal for RN74 to offer those wines with the winemaker employed there. However, Christian Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars — while he was GM of Waterfront Seafood Grill — blazed the trail in Washington state for the likes of Lindsay-Thorsen.
“Through a small step in the legislation he was able to alter the law and allow people to work through multiple tiers,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “As I understood it, you couldn’t even be in two tiers, let alone sell your product to your employer and then double-dip it — as the state would see it. Now we’re in the free and clear, and more sommeliers are able to venture into making a bit of wine.”
At this point, Lindsay-Thorsen, whose background includes Café Juanita and Cascadia, doesn’t seem quite ready to give up his night job, even though his W.T. Vintners production has reached 2,000 cases and he’s just launched a second label called Raconteur Wine Co.
“I would genuinely miss being on the floor,” he said. “The guest interaction and the experiences and the wines you get to taste? There’s no other way to do it.”
Some of Lindsay-Thorsen’s neighbors in Woodinville can be found on the RN74 wine list, and their placements are merited. And he’ll create winemaker dinners that involve multiple wineries such as Kevin White, Two Vintners and Savage Grace.
“How do you do differently or better than to give the guest a greater experience by bringing in a lot of personalities,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “Sometimes, it could be 70 to 100 people that will take up the full restaurant. It will be a little more convivial than stuffy, and we encourage communal dining here because it helps elevate the mood of the restaurant.”
It’s not uncommon for fans to bring friends down to RN74, order a bottle of W.T. Vintners, ask for Lindsay-Thorsen and have him recommend a wine from Europe for them to evaluate side-by-side.
“Probably more people know him throughout the Northwest as a winemaker than a somm,” Godwin said. “His wines do well, and they have an audience.”
And there’s an emerging trend on Seattle wine lists that’s prompted Godwin to adjust his approach on occasion.
“Sommeliers love acidity in their wines, which is difficult because I love acidity in my dishes,” Godwin said. “I find myself dialing back the acidity in my dishes in order to have the wine bring the acid. It's definitely very new for me.”
It’s not just Godwin, the winemaking somm said.
“A lot of chefs don't approach wine with cooking in mind,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “They're looking for this very, very complete dish. Let’s start with an oyster. You bring a Champagne or a high-acid, semi-neutral white wine, and that acts as that squeeze of lemon cleansing the palate. But if you give that oyster to a chef, he immediately puts a mignonette on it or squeezes a lemon to finish the circle.”
For the Match Maker project, Lindsay-Thorsen and Godwin — whose fish and chips are stellar — were assigned two wines from their inventory, starting with the Big Table Farm 2013 Chardonnay from the Willamette Valley. It’s one of Oregon’s most famous white wines, which was paired with Godwin’s Dungeness Crab Salad.
“There’s the acid in the Chardonnay, and I think of the word Jeff used to describe it was luxurious, so it called for a rich but light dish,” Godwin said. “You’ve got the crème fraîche, which adds a bit of richness, and sweetness of the crab. And in this part of the world, who doesn't love Dungeness crab?”
Meanwhile, Lindsay-Thorsen’s own W.T. Vintners 2013 Damavian Syrah called for Roasted Duck Breast, a dish that includes quince, savoy cabbage and black truffle.
“Whenever I think of Syrah, I think of berries every time, especially in the fall,” Godwin said. “And with berries, I think of duck — and then mushrooms.”
Make that a fat duck.
W.T. Vintners 2013 Les Collines Vineyard Damavian Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $45
82 cases, 14% alcohol
There’s a crass joke within the wine industry about how difficult it is to get rid of a case of Syrah, but Seattle sommelier/Woodinville winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen is doing his part in a food-friendly way to promote the grape in Washington state.
He’s produced three vineyard-designate Syrahs under his W.T. Vintners brand, and each can be found on the wine list at RN74, around the corner from Pike Place Market. His passion for winemaking came rather organically during a stint working the 2005 crush in Oregon.
“I really just wanted to be better at my craft as a sommelier,” Lindsay-Thorsen said.
Within five years, he was making Syrah from Les Collines Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley, and the presence of his 2013 Damavian at Michael Mina’s Seattle showpiece restaurant represents Lindsay-Thorsen’s job, winery and family. Damavian is a blended tribute to his three children — Dashiel, Malin and Vivian — making it a unique proprietary name.
A relationship with Justin Wylie of Va Piano Vineyards in Walla Walla helped Lindsay-Thorsen get into Les Collines in 2010. The Salmon Safe site is a Walla Walla Valley breadbasket, and the vines at 1,100 feet elevation are tucked up against the foothills of the Blue Mountains just north of the Washington/Oregon stateline. Its roots dig deep into wind-blown loess from the Ice Age floods.
“There are as few variables as possible in my wines,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “They are a true exercise in terroir, and while the amount of stem inclusion varies from vineyard to vineyard, the barrel regimen is with all old barrels and the fermentation that takes place is all native — aside from the ambient yeast that's coming in from the vineyard. When you taste each wine side-by-side, it's an expression of the vintage, the vineyard and the site versus winemaking technique.”
Lindsay-Thorsen pulled all of this Phelps clone fruit from Block 30. His fermentation program featured “a (expletive) load of stems” — 90 percent whole cluster. And the nose is fruit-forward with Marionberry, black cherry and black pepper notes. On the palate, an early burst of boysenberry gets chased by more Marionberry and a pinch of earthiness. A juniper berry gets dropped in on the way out, and tension behind the tannin and acidity creates a long finish for rich meats.
“Washington fruit should be the loudest voice, rather than winemaking techniques or oak,” Lindsay-Thorsen said. “And I’m right on the edge of being a low-alcohol fanatic without being obsessive about it.”
While Lindsay-Thorsen’s friendly personality helped him gain initial placements at restaurants, his wines continue to charm wine buyers and sommeliers. W.T. Vintners wines are available on wine lists at spots such as Canlis, Metropolitan Grill, Wild Ginger and Tom Douglas restaurants as well as longtime Seattle merchants Esquin and McCarthy & Schiering.
At his Woodinville tasting room, Lindsay-Thorsen suggests serving this with grilled lamb chops, pepper-crusted rib eye or roasted squab. At RN74, go with the duck.
W.T. Vintners 19501 144th Ave NE, Suite F1200, Woodinville, WA 98072, wtvintners.com, (425) 610-9463.
Roasted Duck Breast
2 duck breasts
2 teaspoons white soy sauce
1 savoy cabbage
8 black trumpet mushrooms
Salt to taste
1. Cook duck breast to desired temperature, starting skin side down over very low heat to render fat, turning and basting with rendered fat.
2. Peel and cut quince away from core.
3. Poach or steam quince until tender.
4. Blend quince in a high-speed blender with soy sauce to create a pureé. (You may need to add a little water to achieve a smooth consistency.)
5. Quarter and thinly slice the savoy cabbage.
6. Sauté black trumpet mushrooms in a pad of butter. When almost cooked, add sliced savoy cabbage and a splash of water.
7. Cook until cabbage is tender, then season to taste with salt.
8. Slice duck and plate with spoonful of quince pureé and cabbage/mushroom.
9. Add a little sliced truffle for elevated luxury.
Big Table Farm 2013 Chardonnay, Willamette Valley $45
476 cases, 12.5% alcohol
Last year, Big Table Farm nearly cracked the top 10 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2015 when its 2012 Pinot Noir landed at No. 11 in the world among the 18,000 wines rated during the previous 12 months.
It makes sense that Brian Marcy would also excel with America’s favorite white Burgundy grape, too, so it’s no surprise that Wine & Spirits magazine named the Big Table Farm 2013 Chardonnay as its Year’s Best Chardonnay in 2015. Spectator named that same wine Oregon’s second-best Chardonnay.
And yet, Marcy and his wife, Clare Carver, fled Napa Valley a decade ago for a 110-year-old farm in the Willamette Valley to make wine not as a cocktail but to be best enjoyed at the dining table. Marcy makes that happen by showing restraint, which allows the fruit to shine and the wines to achieve balance.
His education began with fermentation science at University of California-Davis, and his talents led him to employment at Napa cult wineries such as Blanket, Neyers, Turley and Helen Turley’s estate project Marcassin.
It’s no coincidence Marcy and Carver named their own brand in Oregon rather simply — inspired by a big table they used for wine dinners in Napa. Now, much of what they serve at their own table comes from their farm. And Carver handles the day-to-day chores across their 70 acres, yet it is her fetching artwork on the labels. Her clean and detailed pencil drawings are inspired by scenes and inhabitants around the farm. The back label is where the brand name appears, a now-funny legacy from the disagreement husband and wife had over what to call their winery.
Carver’s name lives on, but a decade later, the tradition continues. And the combination of her artwork and the paper stock forces Big Table Farm to hand-label all 4,000 cases each year. That’s 48,000 bottles.
Their winsome Chardonnay, which represents about 10 percent of their total production, carries some pedigree. Marcy’s achieves balance with his blend of four vineyards — Durant (Dundee Hills), Yates Conwill (Yamhill-Carlton), Seven Springs neighbor Bieze (Eola-Amity Hills) and Big Farm Table workhorse Wirtz Vineyard, a 40-year-old planting near Forest Grove now managed by Carver and Marcy. A balanced program of French oak yields a fascinating yellow/green wardrobe with a rich nose of lemon curd, white pepper, ginger and lime zest. Inside, there’s a luxurious entry with a theme of satiny lemon custard, apple butter that’s backed by fresh citrusy acidity and Bosc pear. Its finesse balances beautifully with the fresh herbs and crab.
It’s no surprise that Big Table Farm supports ¡Salud!, the nonprofit that has raised more than $13 million in 25 years to help provide health care to seasonal vineyard workers in the Willamette Valley and their families. Tastings are by appointment only, and if you spot a Burgundy-shaped bottle with a beautifully drawn honey bee on the label, that’s the 2013 Chardonnay. The 2014 Chardonnay features a community of bee boxes.
Big Table Farm, 26851 N.W. Williams Canyon Road, Gaston, OR, 97119, bigtablefarm.com, (503) 662-3129.
Dungeness Crab Salad
6 ounces Dungeness crab meat
6 ounces haricot verts, blanched (may substitute green beans)
8 ounces crème fraîche
1 teaspoon pickled mustard seeds
Lemon juice to taste
Salt to taste
Frisee to garnish
1. Combine crab and haricot verts with creme fraiche and mustard seeds.
2. Season to preference with salt and lemon juice.
3. Top with a little frisee to finish.