Few restaurants in the Pacific Northwest can boast of such longstanding name recognition as Ray’s Boathouse — often known simply as “Ray’s.”
And despite the uncertainty of the restaurant industry in the 21st century, longtime regional wine expert Douglas Zellers believes so much in the concept and people supporting Seattle’s Shilshole Bay icon that he moved from general manager to co-owner in 2015.
Among Zellers’s business partners is Jack Sikma. The recent inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has been part-owner in the waterfront restaurant since 1986 when he starred for the Seattle SuperSonics.
“I’ve lived up the hill about 10 blocks away for 15 years, and when I was working at the Washington Athletic Club, I would come to Ray’s all the time,” Zellers said. “When the opportunity came up here in 2013, I looked at the P&L statement and the environment and the crew and told myself, ‘This is going to be so easy.’ With this backdrop, all you need to do is put good food in front of people and stay the hell away. This is gorgeous, and I’ve got a great crew who understands the long-term vision.”
It’s already been quite a voyage for Ray’s, which began to evolve in 1945 when Ray Lichtenberger added a coffee shop to his bait shop near the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks.
These days, Ray’s remains a classic. There’s a simple timelessness and understated elegance to the dining room. Windows - not artwork - allow you to focus on your plate, your dinner company or the dramatic backdrop of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. It’s still a regional go-to place with the versatility for a date, a spouse, a power lunch, catching up with pals or reconnecting with parents.
“On a nice day in February, the deck here will be packed,” said executive chef Paul Duncan.
While the historic fishing community of nearby Ballard transitions, the concept of Ray’s continues to resonate. Viewers of the NBC affiliate in Seattle, KING-TV, recently voted Ray’s as the 2019 Best of Date Night restaurant in Western Washington.
It ranks among Seattle’s iconic restaurants for a variety of reasons, particularly the 1983 embrace of Copper River salmon flown in from Alaska. The culinary team began pairing it with Oregon Pinot Noir, back when red wine with fish wasn’t mainstream.
Ray’s ownership, led by Russ Wohlers, also touched off the revival of the native Olympia oyster industry, thanks in large part to pairing domestic sparkling wine with the once-scarce oysters, a promotion that attracted national attention.
And around this time, the late Chris Cornell could be found as a teen working and singing in the kitchen at Ray’s prior to leading Seattle’s grunge era as the frontman for Soundgarden.
On May 26, 1987, a fire destroyed the restaurant, but not the landmark “R-A-Y-S” neon sign over the dock or the resolve of ownership. Instead, Wohlers, Sikma and others gathered at a nearby restaurant and agreed to push their chips back in while firefighters were still on the scene. Ray’s reopened 11 months later. Wohlers and another co-owner, Earl Lasher, also would go on to enjoy a 20-year run with Yarrow Bay Grill in Kirkland.
Their work promoting salmon frozen at sea caught the interest of Julia Child, who dined at Ray’s in 1990. A James Beard Award soon followed, and the plaque hangs in the kitchen that feeds the 140 seats for dinner and more than 200 upstairs and on the deck at Ray’s Café.
Zellers landed at Ray’s with a history that began by growing up in the kitchen of his family’s restaurant. That led to managing a kitchen while working his way through Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, then a 100-room hotel before he looked to make a radical move.
“I came out here to go skiing in 1996 and said, ‘What the hell am I doing in Pennsylvania?’ ” Zellers said. “Downtown Seattle was awesome. The Mariners were killing it. The music scene was jamming. The mountains were packed with snow.”
His background in the Seattle food and wine scene includes opening the Seattle World Trade Center at Bell Harbor, six years at family-owned Wild Ginger, seven years as food and beverage director at the WAC and a relationship with the Auction of Washington Wines. The Washington State Wine Commission honored his efforts by presenting him with its highest honor — the Walter Clore Award.
“I’ve been fortunate to go from one great place to another,” Zellers said, “but I’ve been most fortunate that I’ve had great people along with me. It’s a hard job with a lot of humanity involved in it.”
Zellers took over the wine program when he arrived at Ray’s, but he’s since enjoyed handing those duties to Chip Croteau.
“It’s his program,” said Zellers, who continues to judge some of the Northwest’s top wine competitions.
The emphasis on regional wines has long fit with Ray’s light and straightforward approach to fish and seafood since 1973 when Wohlers and his co-owners took over. There were plenty of spots for people in Ballard and beyond to find fish battered and deep-fried, so Ray’s shifted to pan-seared or grilled catch-of-the-day fare. It helped change the way folks around the Puget Sound ate. One of Wohlers’s early partners was Duke Moscrip, who went on to launch Duke’s Seafood. Others who were influenced and inspired after working at Ray’s include Peter Dow of Café Juanita fame.
“Doug has added an element to the restaurant that has moved us back to the ‘80s when we were linking all these brains together and inventing new things,” Wohlers says in a fascinating documentary video about Ray’s.
The wake created by the Great Recession spurred ownership to explore other revenue sources. There’s now Ray’s Catering. On the second floor, Ray’s Café offers lunch and dinner, allowing Ray’s Boathouse to remain focused on dinner with Croteau — a certified sommelier since 2011 — as its manager.
Zellers and Croteau met as volunteers at the Auction of Washington Wines, and Croteau came with an impressive résumé and list of references that include John Howie, Doug Kawasaki and acclaimed sommelier Erik Liedholm.
“Erik makes education available to his people and allows them to grow in the wine world,” Croteau said. “He taught me that wine really needs to be fun and accessible and exciting. The last thing you want to do is make wine an awkward or snobby experience for your guests. I want my list to have wines that are $30 and $40 bottles and are delicious as well as the $500 to $600 bottles that are unicorns, so to speak.”
Duncan grew up in Portland and worked in kitchens throughout the Rose City. He was inspired by the rise of the farm-to-table movement, chefs such as Greg Higgins, a James Beard Award winner, and the advent of Willamette Valley winemaker dinners.
“You get to meet the people who are providing us with product, and I looked up to the chefs who were breaking new ground in Portland,” Duncan said. “It made me want to be a part of it. The growing regions are so close to the city.”
In 2008, Duncan began a five-year exploration of tropical seafood at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Maui before a hunger to return to the Northwest led him to Ray’s. The avid hiker and golfer took over as executive chef in 2015.
“I wanted to give Seattle a try,” he said. “I’ve always loved it up here — the proximity to the water, the mountains and a lot of the same culinary draws as Portland. And at Ray’s, we’re literally over the water.”
He spotted some personal favorites when he first looked over Ray’s collection of Oregon Pinot Noir.
“Just ask Chip. That’s what I drink,” Duncan said with a smile. “Pinot Noir lends itself to food so well that I can’t help but drink it.”
The 500-label cellar at Ray’s reads about 60% Pacific Northwest, with L’Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley producing their house wines. Croteau’s vertical of historic Beaux Frères Winery in Oregon runs deep, topped recently by the acclaimed 2017 Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir that Duncan paired with his Smoked Sablefish with Miso Glaze from Near Bay.
“I’m going with earthiness of the fall vegetables — porcini mushrooms, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts — and the light smoke and slight sweetness and oiliness of the fish is a great complement,” Duncan said. “We’ve said that Ray’s raised the bar of serving Pinot Noir with salmon, and I think it lends itself just as well to sablefish.”
Some may know the fish better as black cod, and Ray’s got on board early as a supporter.
“It used to be a by-catch fish on the same hooks when fishing for something else, like rockfish and lingcod can be, which we always take in because we like to support that part of the industry,” Zellers said. “Now, they will fish exclusively for sablefish. It’s gone from being a discarded fish to having a premier menu spot.”
Duncan added, “It’s certainly neck-and-neck with Chinook salmon as far as popularity on our menus is concerned. We have two preparations for it, and the one that put us on the map as a regional classic has been with the sake kasu, which includes marinating the fish from five to seven days.”
The pairing of Kiona Vineyards 2018 Estate Chenin Blanc Ice Wine with Duncan’s Duck Liver Paté is borderline euphoric and a thoughtful shift from no-brainers such as cheesecake or Creme Brûlée. And the honeyed nectar has earned a standing spot on Croteau’s wine list because of Kiona’s tradition of award-winning ice wine — a rarity in Washington state.
“We wanted to do something with teeth — meaning fatty, rich and deep,” Duncan said. “I threw in a little bit of sweetness in there, and a pickle and some nice blue cheese. The wine is sweet but crisp, so the dish is on-point.”
Zeller noted, “I didn’t want a dessert where (it’s) just match sweet with sweet, so Paul came up with something savory. That’s also one of his go-to recipes, which comes and goes on the menu. A cheese plate would go great with that ice wine, too.”
It’s also the rare dish that pairs with both Match Maker wines, which makes sense considering the history of Burgundian reds and duck in its various forms.
Seafood restaurants in the Northwest face a variety of threats on the horizon, including a federal lawsuit that threatens the future of the state’s shellfish industry — which is the largest in the U.S. and helped reseed the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
However, Zellers is optimistic yet guarded about Ray’s in light of Seattle’s minimum wage hikes that management and customers must deal with while restaurant workers face skyrocketing housing costs.
“I think there’s going to be some restaurant real estate opening up, and with minimum wage going up another $1.50 in 2021, there’s going to be even more, so I’m looking to get us into position for us to pick up one or two more properties and give Chef Paul a couple of executive chefs underneath him and get Chip a multi-unit wine program. But there will never be another Ray’s.”
Kiona Vineyards and Winery 2018 Estate Chenin Blanc Ice Wine, Red Mountain, $50
— 2,290 cases, 9% alc.
The Williams family includes some of the most important figures in the history of the Washington state wine industry.
Kiona’s founder, John Williams, and his wife, Ann, are inductees into the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame. This year, their son, Scott, an award-winning winemaker and respected viticulturist, was selected as the Honorary Grower of the 2019 Auction of Washington Wines.
The family’s decades of work, starting with the establishment of Kiona Vineyards in 1975, has helped Red Mountain earn acclaim across the world for collectible Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the Williams family’s skill and versatility both in the vineyard and their winery also are reflected in their Chenin Blanc ice wine program.
Yes, one of the Pacific Northwest’s best examples of an ice wine comes from Red Mountain — viewed by many as the warmest grape-growing region in Washington state. These Chenin Blanc vines are among the oldest commercial plantings in the Columbia Valley, and Kiona Vineyard has the oldest on Red Mountain.
In 1976, the Williams family added Chenin Blanc to their trial. Seven years later, another block of the white variety native to the Loire Valley in France went in. Those 4 acres are planted in a pocket within Kiona Estate Vineyard that collects the cold, making it the garden spot of their dessert wine program.
In 2015, Kiona began to manage a portion of those same vines for their Fortunate Sun Late Harvest Chenin Blanc, a complement to their Chenin Blanc ice wine program. Those raisined grapes get harvested in mid-October. The next year began a string of ice wine production at Kiona. In 2016, the pick hit on Dec. 7.
In Canada, wineries must not only register with the government those blocks they have set aside for ice wine production, but wait until temperatures must reach minus 9 Celsius — or 17 degrees Fahrenheit — before harvesting. One degree warmer and the wine is classified as late harvest or something other than ice wine. (In Canada, the word is a mashup.)
Year after year, the Williams family banks on the temperature dipping into ice wine range, but they wait until the bitter cold grips those grapes for at least eight hours.
In 2018, they picked their Chenin Blanc on Nov. 9. Those frozen berries were sweet marbles at 31 Brix, which means the sugar level at harvest was 31%. They use their most indestructible press to push the ice out of the juice.
By the time the slow but steady fermentation ran out at 9% alcohol, the resulting wine stands at 17% residual sugar. Despite that sweetness, the wine strikes a balance because of the natural acidity. For wine nerds, those all-important figures are a pH of 3.26 and total acidity of 8.63.
Much of the world’s Chenin Blanc is found in South Africa, and to find it produced as an ice wine anywhere else a rare. Kiona’s 2018 nectar is loaded with aromas of lavender-infused honey, cloves and ripe nectarine. Its honeyed flavors of baked orchard fruit are capped by a brilliant mouthwatering finish. It earned the award for Best Sweet Wine at the 2019 Cascadia International Wine Competition.
And the key approach to pairing these styles of wines is that the dish can’t be as sweet as the wine.
Kiona Vineyards and Winery, 44612 N. Sunset Road, Benton City, WA, 99320, KionaWine.com, (509) 588-6716.
Ray’s Boathouse Duck Liver Pâté
1 pound of duck livers
2 cups milk, 2% fat
1 white onion, finely diced
3 sprigs fresh thyme, picked and chopped
1/2 pound unsalted butter, room temp and cut into cubes
1 ounce brandy
1 ounce olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
Soak duck livers in 2% milk overnight.
Rinse, pat dry and season with salt.
Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan and sear the liver until a nice fond has formed.
Remove the liver from the pan and add the diced onion. Sauté over medium heat until translucent.
Deglaze with brandy and add chopped thyme. Once brandy has fully reduced into the onions, remove from heat.
Add liver and onion mixture to a food processor with metal blade attached. Process until smooth.
With the motor running, add the butter - one pat at a time allowing each to incorporate before another pat is added. Do this until all the butter is added.
Next, pass through a fine tamis or sieve to ensure premium texture. Chill and serve.
Chef Paul’s tip: It’s perfect for spreading on a baguette with pickles and cheese!
Beaux Frères Winery 2017 The Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge, $95
— 3,600 cases, 14.2% alc.
The expectations for Beaux Frères Winery were remarkably lofty before the first vines were in the ground, even though neither owner had a background in winemaking.
They named that vineyard and their brand using the French translation of brothers-in-law, serving as a clever tribute to the relationship between the winemaker, Michael Etzel, and business partner/attorney Robert Parker, well on his way to becoming the most influential wine critic in history.
It was 1986; Etzel was in the wine trade, living in Colorado, when a vacation in Oregon’s Willamette Valley inspired him and Parker to buy nearly 100 acres of farmland on Ribbon Ridge. Etzel spent the next four years clearing land and tending those first vines of own-rooted Pommard & Wädenswil clone Pinot Noir when he wasn’t working and learning to make wine at pioneering Ponzi Vineyards. His first commercial grapes were purchased by Ken Wright and Dick Ponzi.
A year later, the lone barrel of estate wine Etzel produced from that inaugural 1990 vintage was cellared in an old pig barn he’d transformed into Beaux Frères Winery. Along the way, Parker, who rose to fame as a champion of Bordeaux rather than Burgundy, never reviewed the Beaux Frères releases for his Wine Advocate publication that held such sway over the U.S. palate.
Etzel and Parker went on to produce wines not only from their estate but also from some of the Willamette Valley’s top vineyards, including Wright-controlled Guadalupe near Carlton, historically cooler Hyland in McMinnville (now owned by Laurent Montalieu), Zena Crown in the Eola-Amity Hills and Yamhill-Carlton’s Gran Moraine — the latter two now owned by California giant Jackson Family Wines.
In 2005, Etzel’s now-famous work helped pave the way for the establishment of the Ribbon Ridge American Viticultural Area by the federal government. It’s nested within the Chehalem Mountains AVA.
As the Beaux Frères Vineyard reached 26 acres, Etzel’s middle son, Mike Jr., became inspired and joined him in the cellar. Along the way, they’ve embraced biodynamic farming practices and adjusted their winemaking. Early on, the wines were criticized by some for their stylistic influence of oak and level of extraction — Parkerized, perhaps — but that’s changed.
As the vines began reaching for the sun in 2017, Etzel and his business partners sold control of Beaux Frères to Maisons & Domaines Henriot, an eight-generation company headquartered in Paris. It’s allowed Etzel, who was 62 at the time of the sale, more time to reflect upon his career. Part of the agreement would be that he stays on as a minority partner and be allowed to produce his own brand — Sequitur — at the former pig farm.
Already one of Oregon’s most recognized and respected Pinot Noir producers, the brand received another layer of acclaim when the 2014 The Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir finished as the No. 3 wine in the world on Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 list for 2016. The wine received 95 points on the 100-point scale Parker made famous.
As charming as the 2014 obviously was in its youth, these wines are built for the cellar and can be expected to continue to climb during the next decade.
This 2017 example — the 27th vintage for Beaux Frères — is no exception. And while Wine Spectator’s tasting panel awarded this 95 points in July — the same score as that famed 2014 vintage — production of this latest example of The Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir is about 50 percent more than its older brother. Still, there’s elegance and restraint that belies the Etzels’s barrel program of 50% new French oak. The wine is redolent of Marionberry, black currant and lavender, backed by a sense of earthiness, light toast and pliable tannins.
Beaux Frères Winery, 15155 NE North Valley Road, Newberg, OR 97132, BeauxFreres.com, (503) 537-1137.
Ray’s Boathouse Smoked Sablefish with Miso Glaze Recipe
4 seven-ounce portions of sablefish
6 porcini mushrooms
1 pound Brussels sprouts
2 pound butternut squash, diced
1 cup brown sugar
3 ounces olive oil
1.5 ounces miso glaze (see directions)
Kosher salt to taste
Apply salt and rub sablefish with brown sugar. Let sit overnight.
Rinse and cold smoke with applewood chips for one hour—optional. If skipping, rinse the sablefish and pat dry.
In a 400-degree oven, place the sable skin down on an oiled sheet pan for 15 minutes until fully cooked.
Pan roast squash and Brussels sprouts on high heat with kosher salt and olive oil. Slice porcinis in half lengthwise and season with oil and salt. Place on grill until nice and tender.
Plate vegetables and fish together on a large dinner plate. Finish with miso glaze.
Chef Paul’s note: Sablefish will contain numerous rib bones. They are easily removed when fish is properly cooked. Remove bones before serving.
2 cups Mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
2 cups white miso
2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Combine ingredients in a stainless-steel saucepan. Heat slowly and whisk to ensure the texture is very smooth.
Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and cool.
This story was originally published December 23, 2019 5:53 PM.