This Destination Dining Tasting Menu is Truly Exceptional and a Bargain

Let’s head to the San Juan Islands in Washington State for a memorable meal at Setsunai Noodles. Pull up a bench at a picnic table and prepare to be amazed. The tab? Fifty dollars for five courses!

Welcome Lopez

This archipelago in the Pacific Northwest is a popular destination, especially during the summer months when ferry reservations are essential. Visitors love the spectacular natural beauty, thriving arts community, and laid-back vibe. Boating and bird watching, hiking and canoeing are high on the must-do list for many. There are festivals, farmers markets and exhibitions that cater to a wide range of interests.

Lopez is known as the friendly island, where locals greet you while driving on rural roads and where farms are set up on the honor system. Yes, you can pay with Venmo at most.

In the pedestrian village, there are a handful of restaurants, a faucet room, food trucks, a juice bar, and espresso cafes that offer local baked goods. Oh, those ginger spice cookies from Holly B’s are amazing.

Setsunai Noodles is open a few days a week, serving lunch on Tuesdays and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays out of season. But when summer arrives, the long-awaited Sunday tasting menu makes an appearance. And that’s cause for celebration.

Meet Chef Josh Ratza

The sympathetic presence behind Setsunai Noodles might ruffle the official head of the title. He held many jobs over the years, including as a grocery store cashier, house painter, potter, and landscaper. It was the connection with things that grow that drove him into the kitchen.

“I’ve always been a plant enthusiast and that led me to play with fermentation,” he said. “I started making kimchi and selling it.”

This tasty project turned into a pop-up business, which led to a steady stream of suggestions for him to open his own place. So, five years ago this month, he took the leap.

“It may sound silly, but when I put a plate of food in front of someone and see their reaction, it brings me a lot of joy,” he said.

The restaurant also allows him to connect diners with the thriving community of farmers and fishermen who call this special place home. Farm-to-table has become a mantra in the culinary world, but this humble place hits the mark without the hype. Especially when it comes to the ever-changing Sunday night lineup.

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Simple, yet elegant

Ratza’s mission is a celebration of Japanese cuisine, a tradition rooted in showcasing ingredients that deliver so much flavor. “At first, I tried a lot of different things, but I kept coming back to Japanese cuisine. It’s a perfect way to explore and celebrate culture.

This goal is achieved in the first course of the Kaiseki-style tasting menu, a steaming bowl of leek-miso soup. Floating in the intensely flavored broth is a meaty slice of lion’s mane grown by North Beach Mushrooms on the neighboring island of Orcas. Marinated fennel is shaved on this gorgeous presentation.

Go ahead and take the bowl to sip the last sip of the intoxicating elixir. The star ingredient supporting character comes from South River Miso Company based at South River Farm in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Conway, Mass. This cool company has been preaching the health benefits of miso since 1979. Ratza said he discovered the product at the island’s excellent health food grocery store, Flower market.

spicy greens

At a time when bagged lettuce has become the norm, it’s a real eye-opener when your taste buds wake up to crisp, fresh veggies. The taste, the texture, yes, that’s what lettuce can and should be.

Ratza orders some of his supplies through the Puget Sound Food Hub, a farmers’ cooperative operating in the verdant Skagit Valley. Cabrera Farm is his go-to for spicy greens and radishes this time of year.

Caramelized squash strips from Horse Drawn Farm bring just that sweet note to the salad, dressed in a toasted sesame vinaigrette. Crispy pieces of green garlic are added to the mixture.

More vegetable flavors

By the third course, it is clear that this tasty collection of creative dishes is mainly centered on vegetables. It’s a trend Ratza has been on board with before it trended.

That doesn’t mean rabbit food. Even tofu skeptics might be enlightened by tasting Ratza’s Tamari Tofu with Miso Butter. Bite-sized morsels are deftly gripped until they walk to the edge of overkill. They are not. They’re right.

This caramelized searing makes the tofu taste a bit like a prime cut of beef, especially when boosted with the miso butter.

The Gomae Raab course that follows provides a stark contrast with the richness of the tofu, the pleasingly bitter kale starting to come from midnight farm. This operation is driven by a passion for composting and accepts green waste from its neighbours. Talk about a community gesture of well-being.

On the main

The entry arrives with all sorts of cross-cultural references. Perfectly mouth-watering soba noodles are made with buckwheat from the now legendary Anson MillsSouth Carolina-based organic heirloom grain supplier.

The tempura-coated smelt comes from Captain Brendan Flynn’s Fulmar Fisheries. This white fish is a welcome harbinger of spring is a delicate white fish not often seen on restaurant menus, which makes it even more special.

This collection could be considered legit surf-and-turf as a vacuum-packed round steak wrapped around quick pickles joins the party.

The great finish

It’s such a treat to end a meal with something slightly sweet but not overly indulgent and a rhubarb tempura concoction was a brilliant expression of those tart stems.

Ratza described this simple preparation dreamed up by his sous chef as tasting like a hand pie. It’s simply uncooked rhubarb dipped in tempura batter and fried then sprinkled with fortified chai sugar while still warm. Mmm, wow.

The whipped coconut cream was dreamy without drawing attention to the star of creation like a scoop of ice cream might have.

It’s just about the most incredible five-course $50 tasting menu you’re likely to find on the planet. Reservations are essential and a bit confusing to make online via Toast. Register for a seat and call the restaurant to confirm: (360) 298-9052.

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Freeda S. Scott