Restaurant review: Steps Wine Bar & Cafe, Friday Harbor, WA

On this weekend’s trip to San Juan Island to look at houses, I had the good fortune of stumbling into Steps Wine Bar & Cafe, in downtown Friday Harbor next to Pelindaba (the lavender store and internet cafe). Steps is the project of Madden Surbaugh, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute. His mission is to present local ingredients and change the menu daily, pairing the food with an excellent wine list. Although the list naturally has a full spectrum of Washington and domestic wines, Madden stocks white burgundy and Chablis, Bordeaux, red Burgundy, Rhone wines, and even the Rare Wine Company “New York” Madeira bottling.

I discovered Steps while looking through real estate listings online at Pelindaba, next door, and when I poked my head in during the afternoon to make a reservation (they only take reso for large tables, btw), Madden and company were busily prepping for the evening meal. I got a look at the wine list, and spied a large pan of Swiss chard being prepped for greens. I was hooked, and went back that evening. Madden and his staff took care of me, serving the last bottle of the Dauvissat Vaillons 2000 Chablis (turned out to be Jean Dauvissat, not Rene & Vincent, but it was still terrific with the food), and several tasty dishes. I started with the mixed greens dressed lightly with a thin gorgonzola, walnuts, and cranberries, and Madden followed this up with two perfectly tempura-battered Westscott Bay oysters presented on a drizzle of shoyu cream sauce. This was followed by the “main course”: two small plates of asparagus risotto (perfectly done, with local asparagus and the right balance of cheese and vegetables) and sauteed Swiss chard with sesame and shoyu (which was amazing — and I’m not a greens fanatic normally). I finished with a wonderfully flavorful scoop of orange marmalade ice cream, and staggered back to the Friday Harbor Inn.

Saturday night, after looking at property all day, dinner was a half-portion of the salad, grilled asparagus with a lemon-tarragon mayonnaise, and a “turnover” of Albacore tuna, orange oil, and olives inside puff pastry. I also snagged a little taste of the prawns with cardoons and artichokes, which I liked better than the turnover, and is something I hope to have next time I’m in town if Madden has it on the menu. The lime soup and a glass of the New York Madeira made an excellent finisher, after accompanying the meal with the Jasmin Cote Rotie (vintage 1999, if I recall correctly, and terrific after half an hour of decanter time — very meaty and roasty on top of the sweet black fruit core).

Friday Harbor has come a long way in culinary terms — from Herb’s and the Downrigger (both of which still exist) or the Pizza place (which no longer exists in the same form) near Jim’s Meats (“You can’t beat Jim meats”) — to places like Madden’s Steps. No longer is the Duck Soup Inn the sole culinary destination on the island, and that’s a great thing, especially if you like good food and find yourself in the islands. I’ll be back, and I’ll be encouraging all my friends to go when they’re in the islands.

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