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Northwest foods, Southern flavors at Olympia’s Cicada

Post by Craig Sailor / The News Tribune on Aug. 21, 2009 at 6:10 am | No Comments »
August 21, 2009 6:10 am

Chef Billy Roberson prepares to place a prawn on the Cicada Surf-n-Turf entree at Cicada Restaurant in Olympia. The dish combines New York strip steak, asparagus-potato hash, prawns, and corn-tomato butter sauce. (Janet Jensen/The News Tribune)

By Craig Sailor

The News Tribune

The scene: Occupying a corner spot on Olympia’s main drag and kitty-corner from the new City Hall under construction, Cicada is an intimate dining destination. Big windows look out to the street while local art fills its interior walls. The restaurant is named after the big, vociferous bugs native to the southern United States.

People in the kitchen:
Billy Roberson is the chef and co-owner of the almost three-year-old restaurant – and a native of New Orleans (thus the name choice). Roberson spent five years with the Ramblin Jacks restaurant group in Olympia before striking out on his own. While Roberson concentrates on food and wine, general manager and co-owner Lisa Smith is the genius behind the restaurant’s inventive cocktail list. "She has a furious martini following," Roberson says.

The food: Roberson says the two most important aspects of his cuisine are making everything he can from scratch and using as much local food as he can. All proteins on the menu are from the Northwest except for the occasional tuna, he says. Roberson has cooked on every coast from Maine to Alaska and "seafood is what I care the most about," he says. He struggles to describe his cooking style but ends up calling it "a South by Northwest approach." He leans more Italian than French, but "the basis of my cuisine is definitely rooted in the South," where food was taken very seriously when he was growing up, he says.

Lisa Smith, center, waits on Bonnie Moonchild, left, and Anne Kerr at Cicada Restaurant in Olympia on a recent evening. (Janet Jensen/The News Tribune)

An extensive and varied breakfast menu has everything from crepes to butternut squash pancakes to green eggs and ham. The restaurant also has a lunch menu. We stopped in for dinner.

Appetizers: Rustic bread and house-made herbed butter arrived soon after we sat down. We started with Dungeness crab wontons ($11). The mildly flavored wontons came with a pool of equally serene aioli sauce. The crunchy wonton skins held sweet and juicy meat. An accompanying savory shredded cucumber salad had a salty punch.

A goat cheese tart ($11) was our favorite appetizer. A shredded apple salad was the perfect counterbalance to the rich cheese. My suggestion: Eat them together. An accompanying ribbon of green olive tapenade was an incongruous addition.

Nodding to his New Orleans roots, Roberson offers gumbo ($5/$8). The bowl was filled with a velvety deep brown soup based on a duck broth and full of slightly spicy chopped Andouille sausage. A garnish of green onions added a welcomed crunchy bite. While hearty and satisfying, even the small portion was so salty it had me reaching for the water glass by the end.

Beet gazpacho, salads, seafood dishes and duck rellenos ($8-$13) make up the remainder of the starters and small plates list.

A sweet potato gratin ($17) started with a satisfyingly chewy baked top from panko crumbs and grana cheese. A slice yields a visual treat: thin alternating layers of ricotta and sliced sweet potato. The lasagna-like square rested in a pool of lightly curried mushroom cream. The different orange hues were the color of autumn, but this is one dish I could eat year round. "I can’t get over how light it is," one of my dining companions said of the mildly sweet and cheesy entrée in its pool of flavor-packed sauce.

A rack of Ellensburg lamb ($28) came medium rare as ordered. Though it could have used less exterior salt, the brilliant lamb flavor rang loud and true. As if the succulent meat wasn’t enough, the chops were arranged around a mound of spinachy potatoes Florentine. This is where potatoes go to heaven when they die. I don’t want to know how much cream was in that dish – one doesn’t question good fortune. And on top of it was a hay stack of apple-mint salad – the right counterbalance to an otherwise heavy meal.

Gnocchi ($18) was prepared simply with smoked salmon and basil. This is a dish for lovers of smoke as it predominates the creamy sauce.

Seafood, pork chops, duck and steak ($21-$27) round out the entrée list. In addition, special appetizers and entrees are prepared daily.

Dessert: Cicada’s flourless chocolate almond cake ($7) convinced me that flour is something to be avoided in desserts: it dilutes the chocolate. This "cake" is almost a heavy mousse that transfers elemental chocolate directly to your taste buds. Almond pieces add a contrasting crunchy bite.

Three tasty old friends are gathered for the black-and-tan cupcakes ($7): chocolate, peanut butter and coffee. I doused warm espresso cream sauce from a little pitcher over the peanut butter-filled chocolate cupcakes. The cupcakes themselves were unremarkable, but the espresso cream tested my good manners. Only childhood memories of parental scolding kept me from drinking the coffee nectar straight from the pitcher. Cicada gets its coffee from the neighboring Olympia Coffee Roasting Company.

A cranberry tart ($7) was a colorful and varied dessert. The tart berries were arranged over a cream cheese layer and chocolate crust. The three layers have wildly different flavors and textures, making it a complex and interesting dessert.

Drinks: The restaurant just received a Wine Spectator award for its 160-bottle wine list. Typically, 10-12 wines are offered by the glass. The list leans mostly toward Washington and Oregon with a few well-chosen selections from California, France and Italy.

Ever had a cocktail with fish as a garnish? Yes, you read that correctly. Smith’s Ballard Lox gets its unique flavor from anise-flavored Oregon aquavit that’s muddled with lime and fresh cucumbers with a pinch of salt thrown in. It arrived with a cocktail onion and lox garnish. The yellowish cocktail is like getting a new app for your iPhone: You admire the idea behind it, can’t understand how it works and love every moment of it.

Not nearly as intriguing was the lavender cosmo. The purple drink arrived in a martini glass with a generous dousing of lavender sugar. We found it sweet without a predominating flavor – not even the lavender – with the last sip a slurry of sugar washed out of the glass. If you are interested in a nondescript, sweet cocktail, this one’s for you. Otherwise, try Smith’s more creative inventions.

Service: Attentive and prompt. Smith labeled our to-go boxes with the names of the dishes and the date – a thoughtful touch.

Cicada restaurant and lounge

Where: 700 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Hours: Breakfast/Lunch: 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; Dinner: 5-9 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

info: 360-753-5700,

Major cards accepted but not checks

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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