Seattle’s restaurant scene continues to suffer devastating departures, but one pivot brought the Columbia Valley wine industry one of the Northwest’s most talented chefs — Kevin Davis.
He developed and owned four popular downtown restaurants, led by the Steelhead Diner in the Pike Place Market and Blueacre Seafood.
Now, he is cooking, fishing and recasting himself in the serene middle of the Yakima River Canyon. He doesn’t see himself ever returning to the Seattle culinary scene.
“The new catchphrase of 2020 — everybody’s pivoting in some direction,” Davis says. “I still have a strong back. I’m 54, but I can still work 14 hours a day.”
He spent much of the pandemic restructuring The Canyon River Grill menu and recharging his batteries while plying the waters of the Yakima River.
“I always loved being in proximity to wine country, and to me, if I hadn’t been a chef, I would have been a winemaker. I would have loved it,” Davis says. “Even though I’ve been in the city pretty much my whole life, I’ve always loved being close to the earth, the soil, a garden.”
And the grapes hadn’t even begun to set on the vines when winemakers learned about Davis and his arrival.
“Lucky us!” said rafter Caleb Foster, winemaker for Bookwalter Winery and his own Gunpowder Creek brand. “Now we can have the finest Pacific Northwest cooking in our favorite backyard hideaway along the Yakima River. For me, I drive two hours from Richland for Brunch Sundays just to enjoy the deck views and his amazing meal.”
The professional intensity is still there for Davis, and a smile will come across his face rather often, but a substantial amount of pain and melancholy is just under the surface. For him, the tsunami began in early March, just ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home orders.
“Whoa, they canceled Taste Washington!” Davis remembers. “Whoa, they canceled all the conventions! Well, then one afternoon we have a full restaurant for happy hour. So I asked the customers, ‘What’s going on?’ They told me, ‘Well, this is our last day.’
“Companies with offices downtown were sending people home,” Davis continued. “Nordstrom. Facebook. Amazon. Their employees were our customers. So it was just like that. It happened very quickly.”
This fall, the New York Times published a piece on Seattle’s restaurant industry. Celebrity chef Tom Douglas closed his 13 restaurants in March. Only two remained open. Another high-profile chef, Ethan Stowell, is part of 20 restaurants. He was managing 12 of them as of early December. Maria Hines, a 2010 James Beard Award winner and a Match Maker alumna, permanently shuttered highly acclaimed Tilth on Oct. 30. It was the flagship of the three restaurants she launched — and has since abandoned.
As the father of four young children, Davis didn’t have the luxury of trying to ride things out.
“There was a brief period of guilt and remorse and crying. And that was it,” he said. “You’ve just got to pull it together.”
A native of New Orleans, Davis is renowned for seafood and his rèsumè. He trained in France with Michelin-starred chef Jacques Chibois and in Miami for James Beard winner Mark Militello. By the time he was 25, he was back home leading the kitchen at famed Arnaud’s in the French Quarter. Five years later, his interest in wine led him to the Napa Valley and Tra Vigne with chef Michael Chiarello. In time, the Northwest fascinated him, so New Orleans native Jan Birnbaum brought Davis up to Seattle to help him at Sazerac.
By 2007, he’d created Steelhead Diner. The following he’d built sustained his businesses just enough to survive winter each year until cruise ship season, Pike Place Market tourism, the Seattle Mariners and Seattle Sounders began to heat up each spring.
“I want people to know that we love Seattle, but I don’t think people really understand the depth of what’s happened yet,” Davis says. “It will be years before the restaurant scene comes back in any significant meaningful way there.”
Canyon River Ranch is the type of getaway one might expect to find in Montana’s famous haven for fly fishing — the Madison Valley — and reminiscent of the iconic Steamboat Inn along Oregon’s North Umpqua River.
As with Steamboat, the foundation for Canyon River Ranch began during The Great Depression, first as the Lattice Inn, then Red’s Riverview Campground. Anthony Robins, Richard Leider and Steve Joyce purchased the campground from Loman “Red” Blankenship and his wife Sharen Larson, then the three men began to reshape the resort in 2002.
In 2009, they opened the lodge and remain involved in the development, which includes 20 private cabins. They describe Canyon River Ranch as something between a community and a club. Robins is credited with recruiting Davis, who had viewed the resort as a getaway for more than a decade until a phone call with ownership.
“They had just lost their chef, and I was here in about a week,” Davis said. “Even though I’m not a big believer in religion, it was just too coincidental.”
When it comes to what’s at the end of his fishing line, Davis practices a catch-and-release philosophy. His challenge of choice is steelhead, the famed seagoing trout he paid tribute to with his signature restaurant.
“I can’t think of a better place to rebuild,” Davis says. “I have a lot of friends in the wine industry, and now I’m closer to them. I like to walk out here and see Caleb Foster eating a big bowl of clams. It’s just kind of weird to have them close by now.”
The Canyon River Grill features a deck that looks out upon the river, shares a roof with Red’s Fly Shop and is the focal point of the Canyon River Ranch, positioned near Mile Marker 15 on Highway 821, a picturesque 20-minute drive south of Ellensburg.
Last summer, however, on top of the pandemic and its side effects, The Canyon River Grill faced a serious threat in the Evans Canyon Fire from Aug. 31 until Sept. 10 — a span that included Labor Day weekend. It scorched hillsides on the west side of the river parallel to the highway, but the fire did not jump the river.
Beyond Davis’s arrival, there was a bit of good fortune. Had the resort been just a few miles to the south of the border between Kittitas County and Yakima County, The Canyon River Grill would have been crushed by the closures mandated by health officials in Yakima County.
Instead, Davis is pulling in winemaking fans of his.
“We are very excited to have Kevin in the Yakima Canyon, not only because he is an excellent chef, but also because he is a wonderful person,” said Kerry Shiels, winemaker for her family’s Côte Bonneville in Sunnyside.
In the dark early days of the pandemic, those who live in homes around the canyon looked after Davis.
“At least 40 people on Sunday night would pick up to-go dinners,” he said. “They supported me in Seattle, and they’ve supported me here. I feel really comfortable here.”
Canyon River Grill operates Thursday through Sunday, which allows Davis to return regularly to Seattle and spend time with his family.
“By this time next year, I hope to be open seven days a week and have a large garden,” Davis said. “I hope to make many, many new winemaker friends and winery owners and many new farmer friends and people who know that, ‘Hey, if I bring this over to The Canyon, he’s going to buy it.’ ”
For a variety of reasons, the wine list is a work in progress. In 2021, it should carry the thumbprint of Davis and take on a feel similar to that of Steelhead Diner, an assortment that earned him praise throughout the Northwest. There are bottles of Cedergreen Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Idilico Albariño, W.T. Vintners Grüner Veltliner, Alexandria Nicole Cellars Shepherds Mark, Cristom Pinot Noir, Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon and Hedges Family Estate CMS.
His relationship with Seattle restaurateur/vintner Peter Dow taught him early how on to sniff out values.
There are nearly a dozen reds available by the glass for $12 or less. Among those is the Coach House Cellars Garage and the new NW Wine Collaborative 2018 The Collaboration Red Wine.
And the influence of the Big Easy still shows on his menu with Sweet White Corn and Pepperjack Hushpuppies, Southern Fried Chicken and the occasional offering of gumbo. And there’s an abundance of fish and seafood dishes.
When in season, there’s Neah Bay Black Cod Marinated in the lees of Chardonnay. His work with black cod, also known as sablefish, would take on different iterations at his various restaurants — Steelhead and Blueacre, for example — based on the seasonality of the ingredients, including the ingredient he receives in a bucket each spring from Côte Bonneville.
And when served with the Côte Bonneville 2016 DuBrul Vineyard Estate Chardonnay, it’s a classic pairing involving a lightly oaked and lemony white wine that highlights the savory aspects of kasu miso components of the marinade and the silkiness of the sablefish.
“I would consider that fish one of the delicacies of the Pacific Northwest, but you can’t fry it, you can’t broil it, and you can’t put it in soup,” Davis says. “So when I approach that dish, I will salt the fish for about 12 hours to firm it up. The salt mitigates the oil in the fish; otherwise it’s flabby and flounders.”
His quick grilling of the fish also creates a creme brûlée-type crust that highlights the brightness of the Chardonnay.
The other half of this Match Maker assignment spotlights a Syrah-based blend that’s part of J.J. Compeau’s NW Wine Collaborative, a project that involves Hightower Cellars on Red Mountain and Wit Cellars in Prosser. Compeau runs the Côte Bonneville tasting room for the Shiels family, and Davis recently brought on the 2018 The Collaboration.
“For a glass pour, that’s an amazing wine,” Davis said.
It’s an approachable and juicy red loaded with blue fruit, and it complements the Grilled Bison Tenderloin with Roasted Kabocha Squash, Crispy Beets and Oregon Truffle Nage.
“That bison is just as beautiful as a prime rib or New York strip, and the truffles give a cool edge to the pairing,” Davis said. “I love to just pan-sauté butternut squash, put an herb in it, and have it just soak up so many flavors. One of my favorite things is butternut squash sautéed like that with foie gras. The flavors just meld together.
“Every dish on my list, you should go, ‘Wow, that was really good!’ And that it was the best whatever you just had,” Davis added. “It could be the best hamburger or the best steak. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t say that I always get it, but that’s what I’m going for.”
And watch him reel in more members of the wine industry in 2021.
Côte Bonneville 2016 DuBrul Vineyard Estate Chardonnay, Yakima Valley, $50
— 238 cases, 14.2% alc.
For more than a decade, Kevin Davis has used bottles of Chardonnay from Côte Bonneville’s prized DuBrul Vineyard to help provide an elevated experience for wine-loving guests at his restaurants.
There’s also his delicious and remarkable tradition of incorporating buckets of used — OK, dead — Chardonnay yeast — alias lees — into perhaps his signature dish at the famed Steelhead Diner at Pike Place Market. He’s brought that all with him to his new concept at Canyon River Grill, just 20 minutes off Interstate 90 south of Ellensburg.
“The Kasu Cod — that’s a pretty special presentation!” exclaimed Kerry Shiels, winemaker for Côte Bonneville in Sunnyside, Wash. Her parents, Dr. Hugh and Kathy Shiels, turned 45 acres of apple orchard into DuBrul Vineyard starting in 1991.
Interest in a dish called Black Cod Kasuzuke got a boost in Washington and Oregon thanks to Uwajimaya, the iconic Pacific Northwest chain of Asian grocery stores. The key ingredient is sake kasu, which is the lees from the fermentation of rice wine. In the Japanese community, it’s highly prized, nutritious and used in home cooking.
Putting a Washington wine twist on “Kasu Cod” and involving one of the state’s most famous vineyards prompted an unusual collaboration.
“Kevin has been a huge supporter of our Chardonnay from Day 1,” Kerry says. “This dish came out of a conversation between Kevin and my mom. They were talking about how the wine is aged on the lees for a long time, and Kevin asked what we do with the lees when we do rack. ‘Mom replied ‘Why, do you want them?’ ”
That question came during Davis’s first visit to DuBrul Vineyard just as the New Orleans native was about to launch Steelhead Diner in 2006. He’d been looking to put a different spin on a black cod dish made popular at Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle.
“Every year, we’ve saved the lees for him to cook with,” Kerry says. “We rack the Chard in February, right before bottling, then capture the lees for Kevin. Taste Washington was generally a good time to deliver them, but now that he is closer, it opens up more potential for partnerships like this one.”
Davis said, “It's a full bucket of lees, and it will last me a couple of months. Sometimes, they bring me more. We became friends over that.”
Hugh, an orthopedic surgeon, named DuBrul Vineyard for his mother, and the grapes contribute to a number of Washington’s top wines — Betz, DeLille, Owen Roe, Woodward Canyon and Côte Bonneville. Their all-female vineyard crew dotes on two blocks of Chardonnay, which is barrel fermented in French oak on the lees for 17 months. It ranks among Washington’s best examples, bringing along notes of lemon curd, toffee and Marcona almond, backed by Asian pear, Rattlesnake Hills minerality and citrus zest.
“Our focus has always been to aim for consistency in classic styles that showcase our vineyard, and as such, we haven’t made significant changes over the years,” Kerry says. “The wine has always been barrel fermented, with full malolactic and extended sur lie aging. We’ve used the same rows in the vineyard since we started making the wine in 2004. We feel that this style showcases these rows very well, with ripe fruits, fresh acidity, and lots of complexity and texture.”
The Shiels family is proud to bottle what they refer to as “living wine,” so in the case of the Chardonnay there may be just a bit of sediment. So not all of it makes it into the Kasu Cod by Davis.
“We are committed to wines that are unfined and unfiltered, so full ML and the time are necessary,” Kerry says. “Plus, Mom loves Burgundian Chardonnay, so that’s the style we make!”
The 2021 vintage will signal the 20th anniversary of Côte Bonneville. The following year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Shiels family’s ownership of a former Union Pacific railroad station. They transformed it from a doctor’s office to the tasting room for their 2,500-case winery in 2015.
▪ Côte Bonneville, 1413 E. Edison Ave., Sunnyside, WA 98944, cotebonneville.com, (509) 643-4569.
Black Cod Marinated in the Lees of Chardonnay
4 six-ounce black cod fillets
Sprinkle a fine layer of kosher salt evenly over each 6-ounce black cod filet as if to season before cooking, (approximately 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per side). Refrigerate and allow to cure for 1 hour.
When cured, coat with marinade (recipe below) and allow to marinate for 12 to 24 hours
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Preheat grill on High.
Remove fish from marinade and wipe off excess marinade.
Prepare roasted vegetables and brown butter (recipes below)
Oil fillets and season with salt and pepper.
Place fillets on the hot spot of the grill and cook briefly, turn 45 degrees, cook briefly.
Move the fillets from grill to a baking pan and place in the oven.
When cooked approximately 8-10 minutes (skewer pierces flesh with no resistance) remove from oven, remove pin bones with fish tweezers (should be visible and remove easily)
Serve over roasted vegetables, garnished with sage brown butter.
Pan Roasted Vegetables
1 cup butternut squash, medium dice
1 cup cauliflower florets
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup Brussels sprouts, cut in half
1 cup radishes, cut in half
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
4 ounces blended oil (canola/olive oil)
In a heavy-gauge roasting pan, sauté squash in oil over very high heat until golden brown and remove from the pan.
Return pan to heat and add cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and radishes.
Sauté over very high heat in oil until browned yet still crisp.
Return the squash to the pan and add garlic and season with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat and move to a warm place until plating.
Sage Brown Butter
4 ounces butter
1 bunch sage leaves
1/2 fresh lemon
Brown butter and remove from heat.
Add sage leaves and fry until crisp.
Add salt and pepper, squeeze the lemon and transfer the juice into a small sauce pot. Keep warm until plating.
2 ounces strained Chardonnay lees (strained through cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer)
2 ounces brown sugar
2 ounces soy sauce
Mix all the ingredients until smooth and refrigerate until needed.
NW Wine Collaborative 2018 The Collaboration Red, Columbia Valley, $28
— 488 cases, 14.3% alc.
J.J. Compeau began his connection to the Washington wine industry around his hometown of Yakima.
“Restaurants are where it all started for me,” he said. “At Johnny’s, they forced us to learn about the wine industry. At one point, the highest number of millionaires per capita in the state lived in Yakima.”
His knack for marketing and sales, which took off when he ran the wine department at the Selah Red Apple Market — helped him develop relationships, promote wineries before they were famous and spread the concept of winemaker dinners throughout Eastern Washington. Recently, Jean Jacques Compeau began to make a name with his own company — the NW Wine Collaborative.
“My first brand is called Narratif, which means ‘to tell the story,’ ” he said. “I’ve been in the industry so long and telling the history of Washington wine and everyone’s story, so I thought, ‘That makes sense for me to use it.’ My approach to that brand is to be vineyard-designated with 120- to 350-case lots - to tell the story of that vineyard and a sense of place in Washington.”
“And I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that I needed to come up with a second label in order to make money,” he said with a chuckle. “I just want to work with people in the industry and my friends — collaborate with them.”
The Collaboration Red from 2018 is his second vintage with that brand, but it’s the first when he worked with someone other than Flint Nelson, the winemaker at Apex Cellars and then Kestrel Vintners in Prosser before launching Wit Cellars — Wine Press Northwest’s 2017 Washington Winery to Watch.
“The 2018 Collaboration is really where I want this program to go,” Compeau said.
Compeau’s decade as vice president of sales and general manager at Kestrel Vintners fell within that of Nelson. And Nelson’s partners in Wit are two other refugees from Kestrel — Gina Adams-Royer and winemaker Cat Warwick.
Along the way, among Compeau’s many friends in the Washington wine industry are Tim and Kelly Hightower of Hightower Cellars on Red Mountain.
“I was the first one to sell the Hightower wines when they got started,” Compeau said. “I’ve known Flint for 20 years, back when we were at Apex Cellars together, and I hired Cat for Apex when she was 21. Flint’s the reason I went to Kestrel, so we’ve been family all along.”
The formula for 2018 The Collaboration would make a chemist proud at Syrah (40.95%), Cabernet Sauvignon (23.65%), Merlot (16.6%,) Cabernet Franc (14.15%) and Petit Verdot. The lots spent anywhere from 16 to 22 months in French oak. Compeau and the folks from Wit and the Hightowers gathered to develop the blend, and the wine was bottled at a Mercer facility.
It’s loaded with the ripe purple fruit you’d expect from Syrah with juicy, food-friendly acidity. The influence of oak has gone toward tannin refinement rather than barrel nuances. Suggested pairings include roasted duck, bacon burger, filet mignon with blue cheese, rack of lamb, rosemary chicken or baby back ribs with raspberry barbecue sauce.
“I’m telling people the fruit is Red Mountain to Red Willow,” Compeau said. “This was so much fun that we’ll probably do another one.”
The pandemic prompted Compeau to postpone the opening of his tasting room in Yakima for Narratif — there’s a Merlot from Red Willow Vineyard in the works — and the NW Wine Collaborative.
“All of this is making you rethink where you put a tasting room,” he said.
So the wines are available at Yakima-area restaurants such as Birchfield Manor, Crafted, WaterFire Restaurant and Bar, Yakima Steak Co., Public House of Yakima and — of course — Canyon River Grill.
“I’m already working with some other friends in the industry to come up with some other projects,” Compeau said. “I want to do a white wine collaboration.”
Sales of the 2018 Collaboration also are helping to raise funds for his grand niece — Evelyn “Evvy” Allen — who is battling stage-4 neuroblastoma.
▪ NW Wine Collaborative, NWWineCollaborative.com, (509) 949-WINE (9463).
Grilled Bison Tenderloin with Roasted Kabocha Squash, Crispy Beets and Oregon Truffle Nage
4 eight-ounce bison tenderloin filets
1 medium kabocha squash, peeled and diced
2 large red beets
1 large Oregon truffle (available from the Truffle Café in the Pike Place Market)
2 ounces black truffle purée (available from the Truffle Café in the Pike Place Market)
1 large shallot
8 ounces chicken stock
4 ounces Syrah
4 tablespoons whole butter
Blended oil (canola/olive oil)
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Prepare beets and truffle nage (recipes below).
Season bison steaks with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Preheat grill to medium.
Prepare squash (recipe below).
Grill bison steaks to desired doneness (125 degrees for medium rare). Allow to rest for 5 minutes on a resting rack with a pat of butter on each.
Divide squash onto four warm plates and top with bison filets, sauce with nage, garnish with crispy beets. Shave the remainder of the truffle over top and serve.
2 beets, spiral sliced
Oil for frying
Spiral slice two red beets then blanch in boiling water, drain and pat dry.
Crisp fry in 350-degree oil until beets begin to sink in oil.
Remove, drain and place on a pan lined with paper towel and season with salt until plating (beets should be crispy at this point).
Oregon Truffle Nage
1/2 large black truffle, shaved on a truffle slicer
1 large shallot, minced
4 ounces Syrah
8 ounces chicken stock
1 ounce black truffle purée
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Render shallots and deglaze with Syrah and reduce. Add chicken stock and reduce by half. Add truffle purée and reduce to sauce consistency. Add half of truffle slices and finish with whole butter.
Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm until plating.
Roasted Kabocha Squash
In a heavy gauge sauté pan, cook squash in oil over very high heat until browned and cooked through.
Season with salt and pepper and keep warm until plating.
ERIC DEGERMAN operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Canyon River Grill at Canyon River Ranch
14700 Highway 821, Near Mile Marker 15
Ellensburg, WA 98926