Pacific Northwest | March 14, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMarch 14, home
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A down-home American classic goes classy
To dress up his twice-baked potatoes, chef Greg Atkinson cut them in half the "wrong" way and stuffed them with Fontina Val d'Aosta cheese.
IT'S NEVER easy for a chef to take time off. If we're gone for a short time, things tend to fall apart and everyone hates us. And if we take off for too very long, the rest of the crew figures out how to get along without us, and we become superfluous. So when my friend Geraldine Ferraro, who runs the kitchen at Four Swallows restaurant on Bainbridge Island, needed six weeks off for a medical leave, she asked if I could step in as a guest chef.

The timing was perfect; I had just completed an 18-month tour of duty at IslandWood, the environmental learning center on the island, and I was champing at the bit to get back into a restaurant for a while to make sure I could still do it.

Four Swallows, which serves a mix of Northwest and Italian fare, is something of an island institution. Fun for grown-ups but casual enough for kids, the restaurant is situated in what was once an old farmhouse now surrounded by downtown Winslow. The place is unpretentious but elegant in its own haphazard way. High-backed booths and Oriental rugs punctuate a series of uncluttered rooms filled with antiques.

 Four Swallows' Fontina-Filled Potatoes
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Ferraro makes pizza and focaccia from a wonderfully nutty-tasting starter that yields perfect crisp-tender crust. A series of straightforward pasta dishes includes spaghettini with wild Gulf prawns and clam linguini with pancetta and gremolata. The menu also offers meat and seafood entrees that Ferraro changes regularly. Wild salmon, halibut and Niman Ranch pork chops share the menu with what is pretty much universally recognized as the best steak on Bainbridge Island, pan-seared beef tenderloin served with mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and frizzled leeks.

While Ferraro and her business partner, Michael Sharp, offered me carte blanche to tinker with any part of the menu I wanted, some regular customers made it clear that I was not to mess with certain dishes.

"Don't touch the pasta pomodoro," warned one woman.

"Please don't take the pizza margherita off the menu," begged another.

So I focused my creative efforts on the ever-changing entrees, especially the side dishes that accompanied them. I cooked French lentils with bacon and aromatic vegetables to serve with the breast of Muscovy duckling, finishing the dish with a sauce of dried tart cherries and cracked black peppercorns. I served fennel risotto and garlicky aïoli with the pan-seared salmon. And for the steak, I made Fontina-filled potatoes, a variation on that old steakhouse standby, the twice-baked potato.

Twice-baked potatoes really are an American classic; Fannie Merritt Farmer was making them at least as long ago as 1896, when she published her recipe for Potatoes Baked in the Half Shell in "The Boston Cooking School Cookbook." One of my all-time favorites is the Canlis twice-baked potato from 1950, a huge thing filled with bacon, Parmesan and Romano cheeses, sour cream, green onions and a fair amount of butter. It's practically a meal in itself.

New versions just keep on popping up. Marian Burros' 2003 "Cooking for Comfort" offers a recipe for twice-baked potatoes that includes a full half pound of cheddar cheese. "You know you have reached twice-baked-potato nirvana," she says, "when you scoop out a forkful of potato and you can see the melted cheese glistening."

But I wanted a side dish that would not overwhelm the steak at Four Swallows, a modest but memorable side dish with some kind of twist that would make it Italian. I started with a substantial chunk of Fontina Val d'Aosta. Usually reserved for serving with fresh fruit for dessert, rich Fontina is a good melting cheese that accentuates the buttery goodness of potatoes.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer, food consultant and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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