Open to Interpretation

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Brimmer & Heeltap chef Mike Whisenhunt uses familiar flavors as a springboard into the unknown.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY SHANNON DOUGLAS

As I wiggle through the back door to the kitchen, I spot chef Mike Whisenhunt handing a grilled cheese sandwich, gooey and hot off the griddle, to his six-year-old daughter sitting at the bar.

This is the Brimmer & Heeltap chef in essence — unconcerned with status and refreshingly laid-back. That attitude extends beyond the kitchen and into the dining room he co-owns with Jen Doak in the Ballard space that once housed the vaunted Le Gourmand restaurant. Mike’s focus lies not with competing for status, but with keeping Brimmer & Heeltap a welcoming neighborhood restaurant with ever-evolving food.

A Ballard native, Mike first got his hands wet in high school, washing dishes in an old local’s spot down at the locks known for its waterfront views. Drawn to the unique mix of individuals in a kitchen, he became hooked. “You could be anybody and be part of a team and eating well,” he says.

Looking to expand his skill set, he hopped down to Portland to attend Western Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts). Back in Seattle, Mike found himself working an externship at the Four Seasons. Next, he put in time at Salty’s and The Barking Frog.

But the chef’s truly formative years came when he found himself in the kitchen of chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirichi (Revel, Joule, Trove), to whom he credits some of his biggest revelations. “It was just the three of us,” he says. “Watching their techniques, how they worked in their kitchen — it was a recharge for me.”

Mike says Rachel taught him to use flavors familiar to a diner as a springboard for experimentation. One of the key things he learned is that most people can relate to most dishes, if they’ve already eaten some version of it.

“The other day, I had a fresh peanut salad with celery,” he says. “It had a kung pao flavor to it, but also a celery and peanut butter flavor. It’s a familiar thing in their brains, so when they go to eat it, it’s not this fully-formed flavor profile. There’s this really amazing shock value of, ‘Wow that’s different!’ Their palate can get it.”

Mike met Jen through mutual friends in the kitchen at the Barking Frog. Already itching to move into his own space, when Jen pitched the name “Brimmer & Heeltap,” he took the leap. A brimmer (a glass full to the brim) and a heeltap (the last drag in the bottom of a glass) make for a clever name, but it’s what’s in the middle that is the essence of the place. “It refers to the time spent between,” Mike says, “the ampersand is the most important part.”

A true neighborhood gathering place, dining here feels like eating at a friends house – albeit with ever-changing food and cocktails. There’s creativity, sure, but without pretention. Diners are often greeted by Jen herself, and one wall is papered with her personal menu collection. She and Mike had big shoes to fill after the closure of Le Gourmand, one of Seattle’s most respected restaurants during its 27-year tenure. But they’ve done so beautifully.

“I’m always excited when people are excited,” says Mike. “I want them to be thinking, ‘What’s next?’ I don’t want to stay the same. I want to be growing, evolving, getting better. I don’t ever want to put the same dish back on the menu.”

Mike’s unique mix of fun, bold flavors riding on familiar ones is perfectly demonstrated in his Chilled Shrimp Salad, concocted from memories of nights spent wandering the International District, looking for salt-and-pepper squid.

Strips of cilantro and Thai basil fall from his hands into a piping pot as he reminisces about discovering new flavors in the I.D. Shrimp rolls from the palm of his hand into the hot liquid, cooking just long enough to retain their tenderness.

Last, Mike spoons a fragrant, bright-green pesto across a fresh plate, stacking it high with shrimp, chilis, and fresh herbs. Slipping my fork into the first prawn, I’m struck by the bursts of flavor pockets, the firecracker combinations that feel familiar yet exciting.

Chilled Shrimp Salad

Serves: 4 | 1 hour active cooking time

For the Pickled Thai Chilies

2 tablespoons thinly sliced Thai chilies
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar

Place sliced chilies in a heat-proof bowl. Combine vinegar, salt, and sugar in a pan and cook over medium heat until sugar and salt dissolve, then pour over the chilies. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

For the Herb Oil

2 cups water
1/8 cup Thai basil leaves, packed
1/8 cup cilantro leaves, packed
2 teaspoons ginger, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce

Bring water to a boil.

Fill a small bowl with ice, and cover the ice with water. Set aside.

Place basil and cilantro leaves into the boiling water, and cook for 10 seconds. Remove the leaves with a slotted spoon and place into the ice bath.

Once the leaves are cool, remove with a slotted spoon. Squeeze leaves to release excess water, then place on a paper towel, fold over, and firmly press to further dry the leaves.

In a food processor, combine the dried leaves, ginger, oil, and fish sauce, and blend until smooth. Refrigerate.

For the Shrimp

4 cups water
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup ginger, peeled and sliced
6 thyme sprigs
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 fresh bay leaf
2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan
zest of one lime
salt and pepper to taste

In a pot, combine water, vinegar, salt, sugar, ginger, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil.

Place shrimp in a large heat-proof bowl or pot. Place a large strainer over the shrimp.

Once the herb mixture comes to a boil, pour into strainer over the shrimp.

Stir the shrimp and let rest for 3 minutes.

After 3 minutes, add enough ice to cool the shrimp. When the water has cooled, about 5 minutes, remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and spread evenly across a plate. Refrigerate about 15 minutes. Once the shrimp has chilled, toss it with the herb oil, Szechuan, and lime zest. Set aside.

For the Herb Salad Mixture

1/2 cup fresh mint, torn into pieces
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, torn into pieces
1 green onion, finely sliced in circles, from white to green
2 tablespoons diced chives
4 tablespoons chopped, roasted pistachios

Toss together mint, cilantro, green onion, and chives

To Assemble

Divide the shrimp among four plates. Divide herb salad mixture on top of shrimp. Sprinkle each plate with one tablespoon of pistachios. Place a few pickled Thai chilies on top of each salad and serve.

gluten free


Shannon Douglas is a Pacific-Northwest food, travel and lifestyle photographer who enjoys mountaineering, foraging and backcountry skiing. She runs a quarterly food and lifestyle publication called Honest Magazine.

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