The country farm salad with beet root, asparagus, radish, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

The country farm salad with beet root, asparagus, radish, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Get a modern taste of Index history at North Fork Kitchen

Located in the restored Bush House Inn, this homey spot serves coq au rhum and sidewinder fries to locals and out-of-towners alike.

INDEX — Stepping through the Bush House Inn’s century-plus-old doors is a bit like stepping back in time.

Well, if you ignore the high-speed Wi-Fi and the gleaming chrome espresso machine behind the in-house café’s bar, that is.

But much of the historic Index mainstay, built in 1899, is nearly the same as it would have been back in the town’s heyday as a logging center, when many a weary traveler found a soft place to rest their heads in the three-story house on Fifth Street.

The Bush House’s newest addition, though, brings a distinctly modern touch to the charming old inn, mingling the time-honored traditions and natural beauty of its surroundings with fresh takes on rustic Pacific Northwest fare.

North Fork Kitchen, named for the branch of the Skykomish River that flows nearby, took up residence in the inn on June 15. Helmed by chef Fabian Arana, who previously shared his culinary talents with pro baseballers and foodies the world over, the restaurant serves homey-but-elevated takes on New American cuisine. It’s the rare world-class dining experience where you can chat up locals over glasses of fine wine after just having scaled a sheer rock face a short hike away.

A salmon cake with lemon aioli at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A salmon cake with lemon aioli at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Owners Blair and Kathy Corson reinvented the old hotel back in 2021 after a nine-year closure, painstakingly restoring it to its former glory — at one point, the structure was suspended 7 feet in the air so they could address its aging foundation. Rock climbers and river rafters now find much-needed rest in one of the inn’s 10 rooms, just like the old days.

The restoration included adding a top-of-the-line industrial kitchen in the hopes that the right restaurateur would find their way to Index, preferably bringing something the area hadn’t seen before while still honoring the Bush House’s historic roots. Arana was living in Renton and working as a chef at T-Mobile Park when he heard about the opportunity awaiting him in the dark woods off U.S. 2.

“It didn’t make any financial sense, admittedly, but I knew I just had to do it,” Arana said. “And now that I’m here, I can see it made sense perfectly.”

On a Monday afternoon a week after its opening, the 15-table dining room just off the hotel’s lobby carries the fragrance of fresh pine tempered by the rich umami of grilling steak. A small group of locals linger over appetizers, then dinner, as they discuss plans for a construction project. The kitchen is slow right now, so Arana has the time to deliver their meals himself, chatting briefly with the guests — they’re already regulars, he knows them by name — before disappearing back into the kitchen.

A dining area inside the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A dining area inside the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Through a set of swinging saloon-style doors, the hotel’s tiny bar hosts a handful of guests sipping cocktails and cold beers. You’d hardly know the bar was here, hidden as it is around a corner in the far back of the dining room, lending it an air of the speakeasy.

And the bar counter itself — 120 years old, like the inn, but not an original — bears a mirror webbed with cracks. The glass has been broken for at least nine decades, Arana said, though no one seems to know how. Here, you can enjoy a glass of wine sourced by Arana from Woodinville wineries at one of the few intimate two-tops and imagine you’re sipping an Old West sarsaparilla instead.

North Fork’s lunch and dinner menus were designed with both locals and visitors in mind, Arana said. He wanted to balance dishes like those you could get at a high-end Seattle farm-to-table place with quick, casual comfort food designed to fill you up on your way out the door to the day’s next adventure.

We started with the salmon cakes ($15), three perfectly flaky spheres of wild Alaska sockeye served with a lemon aioli dipping sauce. Arana’s past life in fine dining shines through in the attention to detail in his plating, the cakes perched atop a mound of thinly shaved celery that adds a pleasant freshness and crunch to the fried fish.

A bar area where patrons can order drinks plus food off the main menu at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A bar area where patrons can order drinks plus food off the main menu at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Next was the country farm salad ($15), a technicolor arrangement of dinosaur kale, watermelon radishes and braised beets dressed with a citrus vinaigrette and sprinkled with goat cheese. While I don’t think it’s quite hearty enough to serve as a full meal, the salad was exactly what I needed after mowing through the crunchy fried salmon cakes, its variety of textures and flavors from the fresh summer vegetables serving as the perfect pick-me-up between courses.

Most major restaurant suppliers don’t deliver as far as Index, Arana said, so the menu is at the mercy of what he finds on his regular shopping trips to a market in Bothell. But he’s got an excellent instinct for adapting the freshest picks to the restaurant’s needs.

On his most recent trip, Arana found golden beets, the red root’s mellower, less earthy cousin. He normally roasts beets for the salad, but when he unpacked his vegetable haul, he just knew this batch was crying out to be braised, their softer texture yielding nicely to a long, slow cooking process. Mixed with their red counterparts, plus the neon-streaked radishes and the deep green kale, the golden beets made a dazzling display on the plate.

“The menu sometimes changes every day, because I don’t know what I’m going to cook until I get in there and put my hands on the ingredients,” Arana said. “We keep it seasonal, so things are bound to change as seasons do, but it’s a little exciting to have something a little different day to day.”

A chicken pesto mozzarella sandwich at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A chicken pesto mozzarella sandwich at the Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

The first stop on our main course took a quick detour from seasonal produce to pure comfort food in the best possible way. I ordered the chicken pesto mozzarella sandwich with fries ($18), a deliciously cheesy melt on focaccia bread. It’s one of North Fork’s more casual offerings, along with a handful of takes on the classic cheeseburger and a simple grilled cheese sandwich.

The sandwich was spectacular, but what I really want to talk about is the fries. It might be a little gauche to swoon over fried potatoes when so many finer dishes are at your disposal, but these fries, cut in a half-spiral twist shape I’d never seen before, were absolutely perfect — tender inside, perfectly crisp and golden brown outside.

Arana tells me they’re known as sidewinder fries. He originally wanted to make fries from scratch each day but realized he wouldn’t have enough time, so he purchased and tested six cases of different fry varieties to find the best one. He absolutely chose correctly.

After swooning over the sidewinders, our meal quickly returned to classier fare with servings of ribeye steak ($26 for 8 ounces) and coq au rhum ($25) in a finger-licking-good pineapple-rum sauce. The steak was flavorful and tender, cooked to a just-right medium, and the red wine demi-glace drizzled on top deepened the meat’s natural richness while providing a nicely tangy counterpoint.

Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Bush House Inn in Index, Washington on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Arana said the chicken is cooked confit — boiled in its own fat, then slapped onto a screaming-hot cast iron pan to render all the delicious lard off, creating a caramelized, stunningly golden exterior that plays well with the light, sweet sauce. The rice served alongside is steamed with lavender, harvested from the planters on the inn’s front porch before pan-frying into a crispy-bottomed cake. It’s easy to tip too far into soapy territory when cooking with lavender, but here it acts as an aromatic, lending just enough of its complex floral essence to the rice without overpowering the rest of the dish.

North Fork’s menu features plenty more dishes it’d be worth the drive out to Index to try, like skirt steak with fresh chimichurri sauce ($25) and flatbreads topped with mushrooms and goat cheese ($12). The dessert menu called to me despite my fullness, offering two minimalist pairings: vanilla cake topped with bright, tropical passion fruit ($15) or decadent milk chocolate mousse ($13). Next time.

North Fork Kitchen inside Bush House Inn, 308 Fifth St. in Index. Open for lunch and dinner, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday to Wednesday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. Email reservations@northfork-kitchen.com or call 509-780-6272 to reserve a table or for catering inquiries. Instagram: @northfork_kitchen.

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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