Tamara Murphy's long-awaited Terra Plata

Our food critic is smitten with a divine new eatery on Capitol Hill.
Allison Austin Scheff  |   March 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Rough-hewn beams and honey lighting at Terra Plata

It’s a shame what you'd miss if you never left your own neighborhood, never took a turn down an unexplored street or planted yourself in one of Seattle’s sensational neighborhood restaurants. The romantic, candlelit tables in Madrona, the increasingly urbane (and decreasingly scruff-friendly) bistros in Ballard, and the thrum of diners, drinkers and rockers perched on stools in every last pocket of Capitol Hill.

It’s the latter which, after almost two years of landlord battles and construction delays, the long-awaited Terra Plata (from former Brasa chef Tamara Murphy) finally calls home. The new restaurant sits at the precipice, at the coveted tip of the brilliant urban mixed-retail Melrose Market, alive and well amid the whirling river of life pulsing through the Pike/Pine corridor of Seattle’s most dynamic neighborhood. It is quite a good place to be.

Terra Plata feels like a city restaurant in the very best way—even with the rustic rough-hewn wood, big strong beams and honey lighting—and the tables here are in endless demand. You’d have to be next to dead to not feel the thrill of vitality, of electricity coming through the span of 14-foot windows in the arrow-shaped space. That sad, hollow feeling you get sitting in a near-empty restaurant on a Friday at prime time? Here, you’ll feel exactly the opposite: lit from within.

The food is excellent, too. Murphy’s back story—she led the kitchen at four-star Campagne (recently renamed Marché) in the ’90s, then opened Brasa in Belltown to much acclaim before taking over the Elliott Bay Café several years ago—hints at her talents, but so much of what she accomplished is ancient history to diners with short memories. The food at Campagne back then? It was divine. Brasa, even though it died a slow death, was once outstanding.

At Terra Plata, Murphy is doing her thing, but in a more personal way than ever before: The longtime advocate of farming and farmers markets is cooking real, actual farm-to-table food. That expression, “farm to table,” and the eye rolling it induces since it’s been co-opted by grocery chains and such? Well, it isn’t just a marketing term here. The name Terra Plata reflects the concept of “earth to plate,” and the ideal of real food grown by real people right here in Washington—many of whom Murphy has known for more than a decade—is the essence of the place. Farm to table may be a precious conceit at many places; at Terra Plata, it’s actually happening.

But so much else is great to eat here: fork-tender lamb sirloin ($24) cooked deliciously near rare and served on top of chewy purple grains that soak up the meat’s juices. Dates ($12) stuffed with Valdeon, the velvet blue cheese, then wrapped in wispy sheets of lardo: marvelous. Vegetables are given a starring role—the longest section of the menu, even—and arrive as mahogany brown carrots with lemon and smoky cumin, or ruby beets ($11) perky with citrus zest and fennel fronds.Start with the kale ($9, above right), not wilted, yet not raw, dressed in melting goat cheese with bacon and shallots. Bone marrow ($12, above left), sizzling from a sweltering oven and dotted with sea salt, for you to spoon atop toasted bread. It is the butter of the gods, and a meal made of just these two dishes eaten alone at the bar, a glass of Spanish Grenache in hand ($10), breathing in the energy, is something I recommend doing at least once.

My quibbles: On the tempting and lengthy list of bar snacks (including those memorable stuffed dates) sit such bummers as room-temp house-made potato chips with refrigerator-cold chive cream dip. Even at my own home, I take more care with chips and dip; served fryer-hot with warm, melty dip, Terra Plata’s could be revelatory, rather than a rip-off at $7. A fillet of gorgeous local albacore ($19) is cooked gently to a tender middle on one visit, but seared and left rare in the middle (remember the ’90s?) with a mouth-ruining garlic punch on a busier night.

Service, especially at the bar, is just right. On weekend nights, however, things tend to get sparse. And the team could use a little more seasoning on the menu and wine list; on one bustling evening, when a diner in my party asked someone other than our waiter for a specific wine suggestion, he was directed to the most expensive ($14) and least appropriate pairing on the list.

But that’s small potatoes, really. It turns out I’m smitten with Terra Plata. Not because of the do-gooder ethics and the local farmers the place supports (though that’s a worthy reason to patronize the place). For me, it comes down to great food, good wine and a space pulsing with good mojo. In the gray and soggy days of early spring, it’s just the thing.

Terra Plata, Capitol Hill, 1501 Melrose Ave.; 206.325.1501; terraplata.com; Dinner Tue.-Sun. $$


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