Chef Nick Coffey has found a home for his creative, locally-focused cuisine at his new restaurant Ursa Minor on Lopez Island.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
When he was cooking in Seattle restaurants like Sitka and Spruce and Barjot, Nick Coffey would escape the city with his wife, Nova Askue, to Lopez Island. Rather than take a break from cooking, the couple embraced the island’s farm-to-table potential, driving to various farm stands and selecting just-picked vegetables, fresh meat, eggs, cheese, and whatever else Lopez’s producers wrought.
They’d transport their haul to their campsite at Spencer Spit State Park, where a dramatic sweep of beach curls toward Frost and Blakely islands, all part of the San Juan Islands archipelago. They’d build a campfire and make dinner.
It made sense that Nick and Nova looked to Lopez Island when they were ready to open a restaurant of their own, and now their charming spot, Ursa Minor, stands as an homage to their Lopez getaways.
Since opening in April 2017, Nick and Nova have built their restaurant into a destination in its own right, similar to what Jay Blackinton has done with Aelder and Hogstone’s Wood Oven on Orcas Island, and Blaine Wetzel with The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. These hyper-local restaurants are worth making a special trip for, even if you do little else on their islands. Each bite is a true taste of the place, in the moment.
And so I make my way to Lopez to see Nick and Nova, in March, just a few days after they reopened following a winter hiatus. The building housing Ursa Minor was designed by architect Roland Terry, who also designed the gorgeous mid-century modern Canlis. It’s less of a statement piece but is no less lovely, with large windows, high ceilings, and exposed beams, and a heavy braid of wisteria hanging above the patio. Bundles of drying herbs dangle from the rafters. Though the restaurant is not on the water, the west-facing windows offer a glimpse of nearby islands and provide a front-row seat to sunset.
Ursa Minor’s menu is short and doesn’t offer high-minded descriptions of the plates, instead listing the major ingredients and little else. That belies the magic that happens in the kitchen, as Nick wields techniques like dehydration, smoking, pickling, fermentation, and curing.
My early spring meal starts first with a handful of island-harvested gooseneck barnacles, arranged on black river stones and served with a side of bright-green nettle butter for dipping. I’d never had gooseneck barnacles before, but they’re fun to look at: Their shells, from which they emerge like miniature geoducks, resemble dinosaur toenails. They were surprisingly delicate in flavor, the perfect vehicle for the decadent nettle butter.
I pair my dinner with freshly baked bread, served with a smear of smoked butter that was laced with sea salt flakes and yeast. Next comes a bowl of parsnip chips flavored with salt and vinegar, and then a crescent of grilled brassica shoots, vibrant green and speckled with chili oil and sprinkles of cured egg yolk. I also choose a plate of spiralized turnips that were dehydrated and then rehydrated using whey. They’re covered in a black dust of charred leek and smoked salmon roe.
My main dish is a hunk of pork belly, braised in island-foraged barks and licorice fern, and then seared. Its richness is offset with a smoked carrot puree and a curl of kohlrabi pasta brightened with algae powder. While Nick cooks, Nova delivers the dishes and beautifully translates what’s on each plate.
Lopez Island offers a rich palette for Nick’s creativity: salmon, halibut, algae, seaweed, and oysters from the Salish Sea; reindeer moss, mushrooms, nettles, ferns, and berries from its forests; and myriad vegetables, edible flowers, and animal protein from its farms. Anything that isn’t grown in the region isn’t present on the menu. For example, don’t expect to find lemons or limes; instead, acid might come from rhubarb or sorrel. Nick occasionally sources items from the mainland, but “Lopez is the center of the target. And anything that anyone wants to offer me that is grown on Lopez, we will find a way to use it.”
The more Nick and Nova establish themselves on the island, the more interesting and useful ingredients show up. One farmer on the island, who mainly farms for subsistence, introduced them to an herb used in Vietnamese cooking called houttuynia, or chameleon plant, which Nick describes as having a flavor akin to coriander and orange zest. The woman who forages ingredients for Ursa Minor identifies plants new to Nick, too. “She’s always bringing things to our back door and says, ‘Can you use this?’”
As much as he can, Nick preserves ingredients that overwhelm the kitchen during the height of the growing season. He’s experimenting there, too, and makes things like umeboshi from fermented plums and sauerkraut. One recent project involved brining tiny, unripe apples, which made them taste like Castelvetrano olives.
Ursa Minor represents an important milestone for Nick and Nova, the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The couple met as students at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design; Nick studied not cooking but photography.
“We wanted to move somewhere, and we chose Seattle,” Nick says. “We really didn’t have any reason other than we’d been there once.” But instead of pursuing photography, he got a job in the deli at PCC. Later, he moved on to Molly Moon’s, where he eventually started making ice cream. The creative flavor combinations ignited a new passion for food and cooking. He went on next to work at Bastille, and then fell in with renowned locavore chef Matt Dillon.
Nick worked his way up through Dillon’s kitchens, first at Sitka and Spruce and Upper Bar Ferdinand, and later as the opening chef at Ciudad, with a stint in between at Barjot on Capitol Hill. It was in Matt’s restaurants, and at his Old Chaser Farm, that Nick added fermentation and other preservation methods to his repertoire. At Barjot, he produced a startling diversity of ferments, cured meats, and homemade items from a very small kitchen.
“At every juncture, I looked at the possibility of opening my own restaurant,” Nick says. “We’d kept an eye on the commercial real estate situation on Lopez.” When their space — which had been a restaurant since the building was constructed in 1986 — became available, Nick and Nova made their move. They ran a successful $25,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund the opening.
When it came time to name their project, Nick looked over the list of names he’d jot down during daydreams. “The overall theme was connected to the natural world, and there were a lot of scientific names for things,” Nick says. Ultimately, the one that stuck was Ursa Minor, the constellation of the Little Bear that hangs in the northern sky. Within the Ursa Minor constellation is the North Star, used by navigators to find their way. It’s here, on Lopez Island, that Nick and Nova have found their guiding light and their home, and they’re sharing it so lovingly with their diners.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.