“I am so done with root vegetables,” declared De La Terre owner-chef de cuisine Blake Lord-Wittig.
It was mid-February, and while the sun was out, his Steilacoom restaurant’s produce skewed winter beige: parsnips, turnips, rutabagas.
Our conversation was about the quandary of a restaurant committed to changing its menu nearly every day, based on whatever produce is available, during the bleakest stretch of winter.
He hit a wall in January.
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“It was funny, (my produce supplier) Wild Hare said they were going to take two weeks off. So that was perfect timing to leave,” he said.
So he booked a vacation to Thailand.
Lord-Wittig closed his restaurant for a few weeks and ate his way through Southeast Asia.
Flash-forward to late March, the week Lord-Wittig added nettles and foraged herbs to his menu.
“I’m relieved,” he said of the early spring trickle. “It was a little bit draining. All the plates looked so monochromatic.”
Lord-Wittig opened his 36-seat eatery near the Steilacoom waterfront just ahead of June’s U.S. Open at nearby Chambers Bay golf course. He opened it with co-owner Rajona Champatiray, who has since left the restaurant’s daily operations.
Steilacoom was a return home for Lord-Wittig, a 2007 Steilacoom High School graduate who left the South Sound to attend New York’s French Culinary Institute. He zigzagged from East to West coasts, with stops at such acclaimed restaurants as New York City’s Jean-Georges, Kirkland’s Bin on the Lake, Artisan in Connecticut and several acclaimed Seattle restaurants.
He returned to be closer to his family — and now he’s really close. His father, who named the restaurant (it translates to “from the land”), lives two blocks from De La Terre.
His opening mantra was twofold: Offer smaller portion sizes at fair prices, with a near-daily changing menu.
The first part he ditched, the consequence of diner demand.
Service was of the attentive-but-not-overbearing variety, with servers thoughtfully bringing hot towels for sticky first course finger food.
“I wanted smaller plates with cheaper prices, but you know, it wasn’t really working out.” He increased portion sizes, with prices rising accordingly.
The second part, the near-daily changing menu, is the backbone. It’s also why the menu is intentionally small, typically 10 to 12 items, a necessity for his small kitchen. Since opening, he’s changed the dinner and brunch menus 100 times.
Sourcing those ingredients has become a part-time job for Lord-Wittig, who has partnerships with vendors such as Puyallup’s Wild Hare; Adam’s Mushrooms; Puyallup’s Pleasant View Farms; Taylor Shellfish for clams and mussels; and the Magnolia Cattle Co. in Bothell for beef. There’s also Oregon-based Anderson Ranch and Painted Hills for sheep, goat, lamb and beef.
Three anonymous winter visits found a kitchen performing consistently. I offer this restaurant with a high recommendation.
Deep into winter, I found a focus on grain accompaniments while the harvest dwindled. I plowed into crackly-skinned roasted chicken breast ($24), a fat airline cut with drumette still attached, with sauteed spinach, chile walloped pickled carrots and hearty polenta.
A flat iron steak ($26) was a full portion of sliced steak served atop what could’ve been its own meal — braised short ribs sunk into Israeli couscous and a red wine jus.
Noodles and seafood were an excellent introduction. House-made tagliatelle ($23) in the middle of winter was as good as the first time I ate it in June with duck confit. This time, it came with braised pork cheeks, crisped sage leaves and eggy noodles with ruffled edges.
House-made ramen noodles ($21) with bacon dashi and pork shoulder was subtly seasoned, with slippery noodles gliding on deeply porky broth. Seared wild ling cod ($22) tasted purely oceanic, paired with sweet pureed squash, sauteed kale and cranberries.
Starters were where Lord-Wittig proved his prowess with winter ingredients. Creamy parsnip soup ($7) was a silky drape of pureed parsnips perfumed with vanilla and maple. Chowder ($9) suspended salty Manilla clams that tasted straight from the sea. Wilted Swiss chard ($7) carried a warm bacon vinaigrette and sour pickled red onions. Baked oysters ($14) came on a bed of rock salt with a lemon-splashed aioli.
Brunch is a must-do at De La Terre. A Columbia River king salmon Benedict ($18) was as good as the lobster mushroom version in August ($13), with a velvety blanket of mustard hollandaise, perfectly in tune with fatty salmon and jiggly eggs that spilled golden yolks over the crunchy muffin. Brussels sprout hash ($13) paired split sprouts with cubed potatoes, chunky-cut mushrooms and ham. A foraged mushroom omelet ($12) came with eggs barely set, with smoked Swiss and leaks threaded throughout.
A chicken appetizer was the sole miss on the winter tour. Honey-glazed chicken wings ($9) arrived overcooked and chalky textured.
Service was of the attentive-but-not-overbearing variety, with servers thoughtfully bringing hot towels for sticky first course finger food, glasses remaining filled, menu items thoughtfully defined and kitchen pacing well handled — with one exception when a server forgot to place our meal order. That lengthy pause was irritating, although some diners would forgive the gracious and apologetic server who committed the blunder.
The atmosphere is that Northwest-industrial look that’s so popular at the moment, with wood floors, tall ceilings and broad windows letting in lots of light. Those hard surfaces also translate into a noisy din at capacity. At night, concrete pendants cast moody light. I appreciate the fresh flowers on every table and the peek-a-boo window displaying a bustling kitchen. There’s a dine-in bar for walk-ins, but the restaurant is so small, reservations are a must.
As spring moves to summer, Lord-Wittig is toying with the idea of offering lunch, something he did last summer, but because he spends so much time foraging for ingredients, that might not be possible.
And speaking of foraging, keep an eye on De La Terre’s menu for items that Lord-Wittig is foraging himself in Steilacoom, including sea beans plucked from the waterfront and cooked up in clam chowder, goose tongue sea lettuce seared and served with lamb, and pineapple weed brewed into tea.
De La Terre
Where: 1606 Lafayette, Steilacoom; 253-584-0258 or restaurantdelaterre.com.
Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. brunch service Saturdays-Sundays.
Recommendation: Highly recommended.
Wine: Ever-changing and far-flung, from Washington syrah to an Oregon chardonnay or a California pinot noir, with French varietals typically listed. Usually 12 or fewer bottles/glass, price range $7-$11 by glass, $21-$135 bottle.
Beer: Impressive, ever changing South Sound and Northwest tap list ($5 a pint); impressive bottle selections, such as Tacoma’s Wingman Brewers (flanders red sour ale, $18).
Ambiance: Small dining room with mostly two- to four-seat tables, a dine-in eating bar.
Reservations: A must on weekends.
Noise level: Acceptable at half capacity, but quite loud at capacity.
Accessibility: No barriers noted.