At The London Plane’s brightly-lit counter, a server placed a bowl in front of me. It held some yogurt and a smattering of glossy strawberries.
If the story ended there, there would be no story. Yogurt and berries? Come on.
But The London Plane is a Matt Dillon venture, and this Seattle chef pushes all kinds of bounds, even with a food as simple as yogurt.
Back in the bowl, poached rhubarb, elderflower syrup, and freshly-plucked petals joined the berries, an explosion of brilliant color echoing the flowers for sale by the door. (The London Plane doubles as a flower shop.) This was June, and the whole season, the month itself, was represented in this thoughtfully imagined bowl of food.
For Dillon and his team, yogurt is no afterthought. It’s a worthy muse, a blank-slate canvas up for just about anything.
RISKS AND REWARDS
Next stop: Bar Sajor, another Matt Dillon playground just steps away, right across Pioneer Square.
Here, yogurt skews savory, in eclectic preparations both glorious and peculiar.
In one bowl, the yogurt was smoked, paired with cucumbers, lemon, parsley oil, rye crisps, and a pistachio tahini so good I still ache for it now, four months later.
The second bowl joined yogurt with blistered whole favas, raspberries, banyuls vinegar, and pine nuts, finished off with flake salt and olive oil. This one perplexed me, both in concept and execution. (The beans in their cushiony pods threw me off, as did the fruit with the salt.)
With risks come hits and misses.
Without risks, food is flat.
Chef Matt Dillon takes risks, and we’re all the better for it.
HOW IDEAS FORM
Later, when I speak to Dillon, he explains the fava dish. “You grill the favas until they’re tender. They steam inside their jackets from the heat. That’s really it. Favas and yogurt just sounds good to me. If you go roundabout with everything as we do here, you might say, ‘Wow, fava beans are really delicious, and they might make them into ful in Egypt and eat it with a big dollop of yogurt and drizzle it with olive oil to smooth it out.’”
Makes sense. Still, it’s that first dish I’ll return to if given the chance: that smoked yogurt, the pistachio tahini, the cucumbers. It’s the one I can’t shake.
Dillon credits Cortney Burns and Nick Balla of San Francisco’s Bar Tartine with its inspiration. He calls the two his heroes. “They’re good friends of mine, and I admire them immensely,” he says. The pair have always made creative tahinis. Once, Dillon tasted a tahini of theirs built on sunflower seeds. They served it with yogurt. At home, he tweaked the concept, keeping the yogurt but using pistachios instead.
On a trip to Lebanon, Dillon saw a yogurt producer use the smoke from the green wheat freekeh to dry out his yogurt spheres. On a trip to Spain, he ate a dish with smoked milk. Both made an impression.
Travels like this, and their concomitant taste experiences, make indelible marks that later show up menus. It’s no surprise, then, that Dillon and his chefs riff on these techniques back in Seattle.
To smoke yogurt, Dillon says he lights a very small fire in one pan. In a perforated pan alongside, he packs the yogurt (really, labneh, he explains) in cheesecloth. A third pan -- this one a holding pan -- goes underneath, and the whole contraption gets tented in foil.
NO CHEF IS A LONE WOLF
In addition to Bar Sajor and The London Plane, Dillon also owns Sitka & Spruce and The Corson Building (described on its website as “a home, a restaurant, and a community”). There’s also Bar Ferd’nand and, out on Vashon Island, The Old Chaser Farm.
“I’ve always eaten a lot of yogurt,” says the chef, who was raised in Seattle. “We cook based on how hungry we are and what we feel like eating. We also have a very holistic approach to food, so even though we’re not ‘hippies,’ we also use a lot of sprouted grains and work with a lot of natural cultures.”
“There’s a certain amount of energy that needs to be present in food, as far as I’m concerned. Yogurt and cultured dairy lends itself to that.”
“We try to keep as much life in the food as possible.”
N.B. Please note that although the dishes described in this write-up appeared on summer menus, their availability has likely changed in the intervening months. For current offerings, please visit Bar Sajor and The London Plane online.