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February 21, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Seattle surprises in James Beard nominations

Nathan Lockwood Altura.jpg

Nathan Lockwood of Altura. It’s already Nancy’s favorite new restaurant, now it’s on the Beard list too. Photo by Mark Harrison/The Seattle Times

Never mind those Grammys and Oscars. In the food world, the biggest deal around is a James Beard Award, such a mark of distinction that even making the list of semi-finalists is becoming a coveted honor.

That “long list” of nominees was released today. The next step is to chop it down to five names in each category, with those final-finalists named March 19 (watch this space). Winners will be announced at the annual New York gala May 7.

Seattle scored some early successes. Most notably, in the national categories, Altura on Capitol Hill, which earned a Seattle Times rave review, is up for Best New Restaurant.

I don’t mean to be greedy, but the list also looks light to me in some local areas.

Despite an overload of talent and other national nods, we have no contenders for Best Pastry Chef, not even James Miller of Cafe Besalu, who has made the semifinalist list more than once.

And, in the new category of “Outstanding Bar Program,” only one Seattle spot made the first cut. It was the Zig Zag Cafe, which has drawn deep draughts of well-deserved attention over the years. Celebrated bartender Murray Stenson left the double-Zs, and we were a touch surprised that we didn’t also see a Beard nod to Stenson’s current home, Canon, owned by super bartender Jamie Boudreau and boasting other champion cocktailers. In other libational awards, Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek Vintners was nominated as Outstanding Wine and Beer Professional.

On the bright national side: Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita is a contender for Outstanding Chef, in the same category as big names like David Chang of Momofuku in New York and Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles. Tom Douglas is competing for Outstanding Restaurateur. And I do feel over-sensitive for complaining about our nominations when I see that Canlis got a triple nod — as many semifinalist awards as my entire home state of Delaware, where people are pretty happy about that number — nominated for Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Wine Program, while chef Jason Franey is up for Best Chef: Northwest.

Blaine Wetzel of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, who has garnered a blitz of national adoration since coming to Lummi from NOMA in Copenhagen, won Washington a spot in the Rising Star chef competition for talents under 30. Those “Rising Stars” often go on to become “Big-Time Stars”, e.g., Marcus Samuelsson and Michael Mina.

For Best Chef:Northwest, a category where Seattle and Portland generally trade off domination, the semifinalists are spread more evenly through the Northwest states this year, but Washington still scored eight out of the 20 names. They are: Chris Ainsworth of Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen in Walla Walla, Matt Costello of the Inn at Langley, Matt Dillon of Sitka and Spruce, Renee Erickson of the Boat Street Cafe (and The Walrus Bar), Jason Franey of Canlis, Ethan Stowell of Staple and Fancy (and the rest of his empire), Jason Stratton of Spinasse, and Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi of Joule.

Anyone else you think should have made the long list? And who are your picks for the final winners?

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