Harvest Vine transports tapas lovers to Basque Country
Seattle Times restaurant critic
When word got out last year regarding the proposed expansion of Harvest Vine — the tiny Madison Valley tapas bar celebrating the regional specialties of Spain and the Basque Country — sighs of relief caused a windstorm in three counties. With only a trio of small tables and a dozen seats at the tapas bar, dining here had become the culinary equivalent of gaining an audience with the pope.
Food fanatics love the place with religious fervor, but for those who aren't yet among the faithful, initiation can be a trying pilgrimage. Unless you're dining alone, expect a healthy wait for a seat, expansion be damned. And if servers give you guff for trying to snag a spot that's not yours, well, don't even try it!
At Harvest Vine, devotees pay their respects to Joseph Jiménez de Jiménez, a native of San Sebastian who wears a Basque's black beret, a dramatic mustache and a devilish grin. They come to taste his salt-cured tuna and salt-cod-stuffed peppers, to bare the bones of his grill-kissed lamb chops and pan-seared squab, to savor aged Spanish cheeses and sweet saffron flan.
Though known to leave his copper-clad tapas bar in the exceedingly capable hands of acolytes Jerry Corso and Gordon Wishard, Joseph is often found hunching over his workspace, focusing intently on a plate, caressing fine imported ingredients, his eyes ablaze with passion. This bodacious Basque offers taste sensations that arouse a state of bliss best described in sexual terms.
Perhaps that's why, despite a visually enchanting subterranean expansion that recently doubled seating capacity, I still choose to sit upstairs in plain view of the grill and stove: the better to flirt with, and make love to, my food. Here, rubbing elbows with like-minded pleasure-seekers, strangers become friends, sharing tales of meals past and tastes of meals present.
I've tasted golden beets, pulled from heaven's garden and sprinkled with sherry vinegar, herbs and fruity olive oil. I've sampled fresh sardines showered with lemon and sea salt. I've gone wild for wild mushrooms paired with sea scallops, with venison flank or with sautéed leeks and scrambled duck eggs. Deftly seared duck liver with candylike caramelized pumpkin has passed my lips, as has buttery monkfish liver with an inky wine reduction made with txacoli.
Crisp soft-shell crab has come to me heady with vinegar. Chunks of impossibly tender octopus, served Galician-style on a rustic wood plate, came dusted with smoky paprika. I've tantalized my tongue with wild-boar bacon garnished with trout roe, and with salt-cured tuna dotted with black caviar. I've cried at the taste and texture of sea-urchin roe swaddled in an omelet, and still dream of sheep's milk cheesecake and of custardy Venezuelan chocolate graced with lemon curd, served in a sugar-rimmed stem glass.
Harvest Vine owes much of its success to patrona and pastry chef Carolin Messier de Jiménez, whose lengthy job description includes waiting tables and crowd control. Her mind-altering sweets coupled with her husband's selectively sourced savories, enhanced by a deep Spanish wine list and a mood to match, has drawn serious food lovers since 1998. Boxed in by a frame shop and gallery, Carolin and Joseph originally considered relocating to alleviate their space-constraint problems. Then a savvy employee had a better idea: Dig a new room underneath the store behind the restaurant. Bingo. Today, in the rustic, cavelike "txoko" (a Basque term for a "little corner" where gastronomic societies meet) patrons surrounded by wine racks may sit at a 12-seat communal table, at one of three tables-for-four, or facing a small bar.
Here they share ethereal slices of dry-cured ham; periwinkles steamed in their sea-sauced juices; fat spring asparagus whose grill marks stain their fingertips; pork sausage cooked in the Basque tradition with garlic and cider; and tripe braised with chorizo and blood sausage. They sip the Basque Country wine called txacoli, order rioja from the best wine-producing regions along the Duero, and pretend they're in Spain. It isn't hard.
Aged ceiling beams and antique Spanish doors give the noisy txoko the romantic feel of a 200-year-old Basque home. And it was here, on a busy night when the owners were absent, that I suffered service at best slow (getting a second glass of wine was almost as difficult as getting the first), and at worst rude. When the couple at our end of the wide communal table bid farewell, my party, and another seated nearby, rearranged ourselves. Settled in at the table's head, I could actually converse with the friends who now flanked me. Having moved next to, rather than across from each other, the other couple could more easily share tapas and kisses, right? Wrong! bawled our waitress, who had other plans for those seats.
Given the intensity of her scolding, we expected to be sent to our rooms. Had this been my first visit, had the food been less than astonishing, I would have been put off for good. But I was willing to forgive. After all, this is food that makes me weep joyous tears. Honest.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org