Restaurant chefs have been house-curing meats and embracing nose-to-tail cooking for decades now, but here in Alaska, both the concept and execution are rare. So the first thing I order at Torchon Bistro is the Taster, a panoply of house-made charcuterie in South Anchorage.
The Taster's offerings, all made in-house from Alaska-raised heritage hogs, change often. It's ambitious and mostly successful -- highlights include cracklin's with truffled Alaska sea salt and spruce tip-dry rubbed and smoked rib.
With its muted grays and bistro menu emphasizing farm-to-table, the former Hot Stixx space is decidedly less frenetic in both color and flavor than its predecessor. The cool and stark backdrop seems to be the choice playground for chef Shana Whitlock and her first solo restaurant endeavor; a clean palette for what she's trying to accomplish -- a new start, something fresh and different in the Alaska dining scene.
Whitlock, who has always wanted to own a restaurant, says the journey has been both thoughtful and hard-won. Raised on a farm in Minnesota, she first came to Alaska in 1994. In and out of kitchens for 17 years, she's done stints everywhere from the Denali Wilderness Lounge to Anchorage's Top of the World restaurant at the Hilton and Sacks Café. She later studied at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where she worked part-time in the school's bookstore and devoured all the cookbooks she could get her hands on. She used her earnings for train rides into New York City for work, including an apprenticeship on opening night at Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant at Columbus Circle (Keller is known for, among many accolades, his award-winning dining mecca, The French Laundry in Yountville, California). It's the equivalent of a young actor landing her first gig in a Steven Spielberg film.
Whitlock returned to Alaska in 2004 when she met her future husband, also a chef. After some family time out, including raising three children, she wondered if she had lost "it," the nameless itch and talent that propels a creative person forward.
"I was really sad," she says. "Taking time out, I thought my career was over and so I started mourning the loss of kitchens. And I had this fear of going back, thinking I might have lost my talent."
She mustered the courage to get back into the game, first helping to open The Red Chair Café in downtown Anchorage in November 2013. After six months, the former Hot Stixx space became available and she jumped at it.
"I just really wanted a place to do whatever I wanted to do ... which is the dream of many chefs. I don't fully have a concept per se but I truly want to do French classic and tie in modern techniques and texture profiles and just explore ... Torchon is a place of exploration. I live and die Torchon for the moment," Whitlock said.
With a high failure rate, opening a restaurant takes dedication and good staffing, not to mention chops in the kitchen. Whitlock seems to have the dedication and the chops in spades. However, the lack of a solid brigade to back her up has left her overwhelmed.
"With a full brigade, I could focus on our house menu, but finding long-lasting culinary talent here isn't easy," she said.
Until then, she carries on with her ideas and hopes to one day be able to offer true sustainable farm-to-table dining in Alaska.
"For now, it's when and where possible," she says. "I would love to support more local farms and to start a co-op farm with local chefs and restaurateurs so we could provide more local fare to diners. But at the moment, we do what we can, sourcing from the Pacific Northwest when truly local isn't possible."
As with all new restaurants, there are a few kinks that need to be worked out, but despite these, Ms. Whitlock is full of enthusiasm and ideas, and she's off to a solid start with a knowledgeable and friendly front-of-house staff. A thoughtful beer and wine menu matches her food, which includes staples like a highly seasoned and delicious fried chicken with kale slaw served up in a playful waffle cone, a nod to the South Carolina chicken and waffles classic, and a Double "R" Ranch grass-fed rib-eye that is always well cooked and flavorful. The sweetbreads and oysters are impeccably fried and served in a small paper bag with a Torchon stamp.
For now, diners can look forward to a new menu every night but with some favorite standbys, like the elk, rib-eye and fried chicken. And this winter, the menu will also include "braised shanks," the chef said. "And roast chicken, and soups like an old-school French bistro."
As to her culinary idols, she mentions Keller for "the time and energy and approach" as well as Grant Achatz, the chef behind Chicago's Alinea, which is known for its innovative approach to modernist cuisine. These influences are subtle but definitely present in the food at Torchon Bistro, especially with the monthly tasting menus based on some of Whitlock's favorite cookbooks.
Recently, these have included a foie gras crème brûlée with a chilled foie gras "ganache" and horseradish "paper" as well as one of the most interesting bites on the menu: a suspiciously trendy-sounding mustard bacon ice cream with mustard brittle. The result is surprisingly creamy and porky with neither ingredient overpowering the other. I won't say I ate all of it or took more than a few bites, but the flavors were surprisingly well matched and reflective of Whitlock's ambitions -- to offer something fun and creative and new here in Alaska. It made me want to explore further what Ms. Whitlock might dream up and cheer her on for her endless enthusiasm, attention to detail and aspirations for a local a co-op and greenhouse.
Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Where: 1921 W. Dimond Blvd., Suite 106
Contact: 563-8888, torchonbistro.com