Corks+Forks: John Howie’s “Passion & Palate”

Bona fide northwestern chef’s take on seafood with the help of his wine right arm.

John Howie is a man of large stature. His lofty presence in the boxy, bleached chef coat exudes power, both to the food Lament and the culinary enlightened. With three restaurants pulling in stats as major players, he has two future ventures on deck and is ready to compete with the best of them. As an authority figure in Northwest restauranteering, John Howie is the real deal and could probably beat you up if you disagree. 

Then, at a private dinner in January at Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar in Seattle, I first heard John Howie speak. He was constantly grinning and beaming over the presentation of the plates as they arrived in front of his guests. Gracious to his waitstaff and complimentary of his gifted team of professionals, he was genuine, modest and all-around a truly amiable guy, despite his foodie street cred and impressive success.

With humble Bellevue beginnings, Howie started work at 15 as a busboy at the defunct Refectory and quickly climbed the ranks as pantry cook, fry cook and prep and sauté cook, all at different restaurants and all before he was 18 years old. Howie was moving faster than his employers could keep up with him so he set his sights on the other side of the water. Starting with the now closed Boondock’s and five other Seattle eateries, the head honchos at Restaurants Unlimited saw their chance and poached him as their head chef of Palisade, where he sat for the better part of a decade.

Feeling the itch for growth, Howie burst back out onto the scene with his first solo enterprise – Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar. That was 10 years ago and Howie is hardly pushing 50.

Howie’s restaurants are staffed with handpicked waitstaff, sommeliers, prep cooks and executive chefs to run his shows. Mirroring his youthful passion and the trusted hands he leaves it in, Howie’s food is fresh and innovative yet familiar and conceptually simple, focusing on compatible flavors and his devotion to detail.

Howie’s cookbook, “Passion & Palate: Recipes for a Generous Table,” was released last month and reflects the same sentiment as his restaurants, drawing creativity from the gifts of the Northwest as well as borrowed and tweaked recipes from ethic chefs Howie has had the pleasure of working with over the years.

The book is made whole by Howie’s restaurant partner, company wine director and advanced sommelier, Erik Liedholm, whose wine pairing are ideally coordinated for every single recipe listed. This book might be meant for this column.

The Dish: Seastar Seattle’s Mahi Mahi with Cucumber Relish ($16 lunch/$26 dinner) — A gently altered recipe Howie once borrowed, the style of this dish is a flashback to his Polynesian styles of Palisade. The succulent fish is cooked to perfection and frosted with a Thai sweet and sour sauce, decorated with snow peas, topped with beurre blanc (white wine and butter sauce) and stuck with sticky rice. Naturally rich and enhanced with its sauces, the cucumber relish offers a soothing coolant for the fish. 

The Variety: Chardonnay — Originating from the Burgundy region in eastern France, Chardonnay might be most familiar to American consumers in the heavily-oaked version from northern California. It is the second most planted grape variety planted throughout the world, even beating Cabernet Sauvignon. Stripped from its barrel aging, Chardonnay typically doesn’t show off too much aromatically but shines in its flavors of apple, pear, tropical fruit, citrus and melon, bearing a crisp finish and vibrantly piquant overall.

Why It Works: In this particular case, white Burgundy is the key selection for Chardonnay. The classic production tends to be robust and rich, packing a punch of complex fruit flavors and earth and mineral tones. The mineral notes are what make this a perfect pair with white fish, which also show similar traits. Dry and crisp, white Burgundy can break up the opulence of the fish but compliment the beurre blanc and freshness of the cucumber.

The Recommended Match: Joseph Drouhin Macon Villages 2010 Chardonnay ($14) — Maison Joseph Drouhin has been producing in Beaune, Burgundy since the 1880’s and are one of the world’s largest and most respected negotiants (wine producer who buys fruit from vineyards instead of growing it themselves).

Classic and affordable, this Chardonnay is a choice offering for advanced sommelier Liedholm for its straightforwardness and true varietal characteristics. The Macon Villages is floral and fruity with a freshness in the finish that dances on the palate to the beat of the fish’s drum.

Kudos to Team Howie for a flawless marriage in food and wine, both in the restaurant by the pros and at-home with the cookbook as the guide.

Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar | 2121 Terry Ave, Suite 108, Seattle | (206) 462-4364