STANWOOD — The chef-owner describes his establishment as “rustic fine dining,” so I was wondering what to wear on my visit to Crow Island Farms in the western half of town.
Dennis Newman told me I could wear a swimsuit or a tuxedo and I’d fit right in.
The cooking may be stylish, but Newman isn’t himself a fancy man — and he doesn’t think you should have to be, either, to enjoy the best of the Northwest.
Crow Island Farms opened two years ago in one of the oldest buildings on 102nd Avenue NW. The restaurant gets its name from what Camano Island was called at the turn of the century, when loggers were harvesting its stands of virgin Douglas fir.
Newman’s menu features Northwest seafood and wild game — plus all the produce he can get from Camano Island and Skagit Valley farms — and traditional French cooking methods.
“I fell in love with the style of food,” said Newman, who graduated from Stanwood High School in 2005. “My cooking is inspired by French chef (Auguste) Escoffier. He is the godfather of French cuisine.”
I invited my mom to join me for a Mother’s Day dinner. We decided to try Newman’s prix fixe, a French term for a three-course menu in which you choose from three or four options per course for $55. To taste as many menu offerings as possible, we shared each other’s food.
When Crow Island opened, Newman offered a new menu every day. But it was too much work for the lone man in the kitchen. “It was wearing me into the ground,” he said.
Now Newman changes the menu every week or two — and a chef’s special changes every two days — to keep him from going stir-crazy. He posts new menus at www.facebook.com/crowislandfarms. A lot of his dishes are his takes on recipes found in French farmer and boat captain’s cookbooks from the 1800s and 1900s.
Our first course? I ordered the soup du jour, a salmon chowder. My mom had the “Dreaming of Vacation” salad, mixed greens topped with a summery assortment of banana chips, coconut shavings, dried kiwi, raspberries, apples, macadamia nuts and sunflower seeds, and dressed with a strawberry vinaigrette.
We then ordered a bonus course — from the shared plate menu — so we could try either braised leeks ($14), scallops and prawns in a brandy sauce ($18) or a wild game pate ($17). Neither of us eats a lot of leeks, so leeks it was. They were beautifully plated, but we mangled them with our forks and knives.
Our main dish was served next. I tried a quintessentially French dish, the cassoulet of smoked duck breast, white beans, prosciutto, pork shoulder, chicken legs, smoked pork shank and mirepoix braised in cabernet and beef stock, all baked in a cocotte (a Dutch oven for all you non-Francophiles). It reminded me of my mom’s ham and bean soup (that’s meant to be a compliment; she’s a good cook!), but was much more hearty and rich. I really enjoyed it.
My mom ordered the Basque-style cod fillet baked over a saute of broccolini, red peppers, onions, baby red potatoes, shrimp with chicken stock, brandy, wine and butter. It came with chimichurri sauce and bacon aioli on the side for dipping. The cod was cooked through, and yet was so moist that it fell apart in our mouths.
For dessert, I ordered the vanilla creme brulee paired with berries Romanoff. My mom had the chocolate mousse, layered with orange whip and berry coulis, and garnished with fresh berries and mint. Both were decadent.
The four-course meal was leisurely paced; our dinner lasted nearly 2½ hours. We drank tea and coffee, but wine and beer are available.
The restaurant itself is made to feel like a “cabin in the woods.” Newman painted the dining room forest green, left plenty of exposed wood, added an electric fireplace and adorned the walls with mounted game trophies. A bobcat stared at me while I ate.
The 31-year-old works in the most open kitchen my mom or I had ever seen. The restaurant’s cozy bar (made from 400-year-old Douglas fir from the southern tip of Camano Island) lets diners watch him cook. “It keeps me on top of my game,” Newman said.
The restaurant seats 24 for now, but there are plans to add two bistro tables next to the windows to bring that total up to 32. Sitting at the bistro tables and bar allows you to order a la carte if you don’t want a three-course meal.
Newman didn’t just cook our meal; the chef-owner himself seated us and was our table’s server. “I wear a lot of hats,” he said. The hat Newman literally wears? A hunting cap featuring the Camano Island Farms signature.
After graduating with a culinary degree from the Art Institute of Seattle, Newman found himself two restaurant jobs in Kirkland — at the high-end Cafe Harlequin and the low-end J-Bay Bar and Grill — both of which are now closed.
Newman was working for a P.F. Chang’s in LA when his father — also named Dennis Newman — hired him to work for the family’s restaurant consulting firm. He bought Newman Enterprises from his father, then dissolved it four years later, with his father’s blessing, to open Crow Island Farms.
He said he hopes to move his restaurant to a Camano Island farm so that he can have a kitchen garden.
“I love the outdoors, I love hunting and fishing,” Newman said. “My favorite place to cook is over a fire in the woods. That’s why I like to do wild game and one-pot meals. Cast iron over the fire — that’s where the best food comes from.”
If you go
Crow Island Farms, 27008 102nd Ave. NW, Stanwood, is open 5:15 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.