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Originally published Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 7:01 PM

Taste

Orcas chef Lisa Nakamura makes restaurant her own

At Allium, Nakamura has inherited the Eastsound space that used to be Christina's, where pioneering farm-to-table chef Christina Orchid made a national name turning pristine ingredients into sublime Northwest menus.

quotes Good luck to her -- business on Orcas is really challenging and the food business is... Read more
quotes Had dinner there last week and it was dee-lish! Read more
quotes Interesting about the NYTimes rating. I've seen Allium's rating mentioned in numerous... Read more

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ISLAND TIME. It's supposed to mean laid-back, easy, we'll do it when we do it.

But then there's the daily schedule of Lisa Nakamura, a driven chef who took the helm of her own restaurant for the first time last year. She's been living through the ups and downs any island business owner must overcome, plus reinventing a long-beloved institution on Orcas. It's no wonder she named the restaurant Allium, for a plant family that can draw tears — or bestow incomparable flavors.

The onion is an interesting plant, Nakamura says. "It has a lot of layers, a lot of different forms. If you take an onion and apply heat and pressure to it, it really becomes something sweet. And I like to think that's pretty much what's happening to me."

At Allium, Nakamura has inherited the Eastsound space that used to be Christina's, where pioneering farm-to-table chef Christina Orchid made a national name turning pristine ingredients into sublime Northwest menus.

Nakamura remembers reading about Orchid in food magazines, back during her first career as a flight attendant. She then went to culinary school and earned her chef's stripes at some of the country's most prestigious restaurants, working as a sous chef under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California. She led a restaurant group in Korea and cooked in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina, which taught her just how strong she could be. Here, she created three-figure feasts at the Herbfarm.

But it was time for something more. "My husband kept saying to me, you're never going to be happy (professionally), knowing your personality, unless it's your own ship." A Seattle restaurant would be unfathomably expensive. But an island restaurant required a certain type of person, and there was no way to know if she would be a fit.

Nakamura calls herself demanding but nurturing. To onlookers she's like a favorite teacher; gracious, knowledgeable and strict, but with glimmers of humor constantly slipping through. And she cooks like there's no tomorrow, thriving in a business where "you're only as good as your last plate."

She's stubborn, which helps. But on the island, she also needs to transmute that to patience, and endurance.

By 7 a.m., the chef-owner is usually at work in the second-floor restaurant with its dreamy water view. She's bookkeeping, bill-paying, cleaning, jobs that go to other people in bigger establishments. Allium is mainly a two-person kitchen; Nakamura and pastry chef Anna Harlow, who came with her from the Herbfarm, serving also as sous chef, sounding board and all-around "MacGyver."

On weekends there's brunch; on weekdays the doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the cooking comes full-on.

On the tiny cooking line, Nakamura caramelizes scallops to perfection and dresses them in a foie gras-Madeira sauce so royally rich that one guest said they should only be served to kings. On the more casual side, she wraps sushi into hand rolls for bento boxes and fries up patties for Hawaiian loco moco brunch. Harlow creates desserts like peach Linzer tart with a Douglas fir crust, and tiny Nutella-filled muffins for a brunchtime bread basket.

In summer's tourist height, Nakamura doesn't leave until 11 p.m.

"The restaurant itself is very close to what I'd always envisioned," Nakamura says. Over the months it's found an identity of its own, more casual than Christina's, but exquisite enough to live up to the water view.

"I wanted a place where people felt comfortable, where if people call and ask if there's a dress code, I say, 'Yes, we ask that you please show up dressed.' " She will make peerless gnocchi and drizzle it in truffle oil, but don't expect to see her in formal chef's whites. "I've been ironing chef's jackets for 15-plus years and I don't want to do it any more."

Her creation drew early acclaim, but the economy hasn't been kind to either tourist-heavy islands or restaurants.

"I knew it was seasonal; I didn't realize how seasonal it was. This winter was a really brutal one."

There were days when Nakamura wondered if anyone would show up. Staffing and supplies come with different schedules and expectations when it takes a ferry or a plane to get them there. The idiosyncrasies of the beloved space are different when it's an owner's business rather than a customer's romance. Nakamura rushes ingredients and supplies countless times each day up and down the narrow 22 stairs; a "devil dishwasher" flooded one night, greeting her in the morning with a cascade of water coming through the ceiling and down the familiar stairs.

"I just looked at it and said, 'Oh my God, is this the end?' "

Then there are the upsides: Not just critical nods, as when The New York Times called Allium one of the 10 U.S. restaurants worth catching a plane to eat at. There are also more island things, like walking to the market and being greeted by name.

"It's great to be able to see farmers showing up at the back door, (saying) 'Hi. I have these great chrysanthemum greens, would you like to buy them?' That happens a lot, and it's not something that happens often in the big city."

She's even opened an adjunct downstairs from Allium, named for a sweeter member of the same family, "Lily." There, she serves island standards like ice cream and clam chowder, dressed up to her own high standards.

There's some irony to Nakamura finding her home on Orcas.

She grew up in Hawaii, and "all my life I wanted to get off the island," she said. She can't quite believe there was a right time for her to return to that life.

"It's soothing, and desirable . . . I, in all honesty, really love it."

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest staff photographer.

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