By Monica FischerAsparagus - Courtesy Bellevue Farmers Market
 Fresh asparagus at the Bellevue Farmers Market.

Renowned local chef John Howie, owner of Seastar and John Howie Steak, speaks for all of us when he explains what he loves about spring in Bellevue: “All of the flowers starting to bloom, the leaves coming out on the trees, and those unseasonably warm days where everyone starts to explore the city again—without coats and bumbershoots.”

As the days start to (finally!) get longer, and our coats and boots become lighter, so does our local cuisine. The steadfast roots and tubers of winter give way to the bright green asparagus and peas of spring. “Over the course of about six weeks, we shift from a cuisine of scarcity to a cuisine of abundance,” says Harry “Coach” Mills, executive chef of Purple Café and Wine Bar.

So how will these culinary masters celebrate this season of plenty? By making local vegetables, seafood and wine the stars of their menus, of course. At the top of their shopping lists for spring are asparagus, halibut, peas, morel mushrooms, rhubarb, specialty radishes and stinging nettles.

Garlic Grilled NW Halibut with Spring Asparagus Provencal. Photo Courtesy of John Howie Restaurants.
Garlic Grilled NW Halibut with Spring Asparagus Provencal. Photo Courtesy of John Howie Restaurants.

At Seastar, halibut is fire-grilled with garlic and olive oil, and served with tender, pencil-thin asparagus spears sautéed with olive oil, garlic, sweet onion and Roma tomato. Asparagus is also used in a creamy risotto, with garlic, Parmigianino, tomato and shrimp. English peas are featured in a soup scented with mint, and rhubarb is blended with strawberries and baked into a crispy tartlet.

Across town at John Howie Steak, diners will discover a rich, creamy (but made without cream) asparagus soup finished with Beecher’s Reserve Cheddar Cheese. “I think people are surprised by the texture and richness of the soup,” says Howie. English peas and morels are sautéed in butter and served over roasted halibut, and rhubarb appears in a fruit crisp and a compote for charcuterie.

“We generally like to feature asparagus on its own as an appetizer,” says Mills of Purple. “This year we were thinking of roasting it in our pizza oven, with a preserved lemon vinaigrette, sunny-side up egg and a really sharp cheese like pecorino sardo.”

He also likes to grill asparagus, which he says pairs well with eggs, cheese, butter,
grassy olive oils, citrus, and cured pork like bacon or pancetta. “It is many people’s favorite vegetable, and we avoid serving it year-round so that we can feature it in the spring when it is sweet and snappy,” he says.

Though morel mushrooms can be hard to come by—and therefore expensive—Mills says they are highly prized by chefs and diners. “Morels love dairy, like butter and cream, which can smooth out their extremely earthy flavor,” he says. “We often feature them very unadorned, as they are such a rare treat that we don’t like to do a lot of elaborate things with them.”

Seasonal Shigoku Oysters from Willipa Bay at Monsoon East. Photo by Geoffrey Smith.

Radishes, on the other hand, he uses for a little flash. “Radishes add beautiful funkiness, sharpness and a bit of heat to a dish,” he says. “They are also gorgeous on the plate. We generally use them as garnishes to both hot and cold dishes.”

Hot or cold, we can’t wait for these bright, earthy spring ingredients to start appearing in these and other local eateries that highlight seasonal ingredients, like Cactus and Tavern Hall in Bellevue Square; Cantinetta, Mercato Stellina and Monsoon East on Main Street; Daniel’s Broiler at Bellevue Place (a steak house with a vegetarian menu!); and Wild Ginger at The Bravern.

“The cuisine gets much lighter, and more driven with vegetables,” says Purple’s chef Mills. “This shift can be hectic, because our winter menu changes almost entirely once spring arrives, but we relish the challenge. It’s really exciting to be a chef during this time.”

It’s even more exciting to be a diner!

Want to grow and cook your own fresh vegetables? Sign up for one of Bellevue Botanical Garden’s upcoming gardening classes to learn about growing your own vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Or take a short cut, and visit the Bellevue Farmers Market or Crossroads Farmers Market to buy seasonal produce from local growers.