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Originally published Friday, October 19, 2012 at 12:01 PM

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Walla Walla: Come for the wine; stay and dine

Waitsburg is base camp for a growing number of Seattle expats wedded to the food-and-drink industry.

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A small note - Walla Walla is not technically in the Palouse country which is further... MORE
cc: thanks for modfying your response...but saying that WW is in the Palouse is like... MORE
Here's a nice map that shows - and describes - Palouse Country. http://www.myscenicdriv... MORE

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FOR THIS Washington wine lover, the Walla Walla Wine Country was something formerly captured only in a glass.

I'd (gulp) never been.

That sorry situation was remedied last summer when I traveled east, intent on getting a taste of W2 and neighboring Waitsburg now that they're bona fide dining destinations.

Driving hours through mountain passes, past rushing rivers, into verdant valleys, through amber waves of grain, I was a wide-eyed wanderer repeating a single word: wow. And that was before I lifted a glass — or a fork. What happened once I arrived was magical, too.

I finally got to Jimgermanbar!

I was greeted by bespectacled barkeep Jim German, handler of haute hooch at this Waitsburg watering hole. Here, I admired the perfume of his Negroni cocktail (defined by the bitter balance of Campari and Cynar), took a bite of caponata crostini (among the "Etruscan snacks" listed on a brown-paper scroll), looked around his spare, high-ceilinged boîte and realized — Get outta town! — I knew half the people in the place.

In the unlikely event you haven't heard, Waitsburg is base camp for a growing number of Seattle expats wedded to the food-and-drink industry. It's also a magnet for those whose pipe-dreams have them heading to this prize in the Palouse — if only for a weekend.

At Jimgermanbar, whose namesake worked for years crafting cocktails at Campagne, I spied the owner of Capitol Hill's Oola Distillery, who's soon opening a boutique hotel in this one-camel town. (For the record: the camel's name is Izzy.) I hoisted one with the proprietress of the burg's new sweet spot, Bubbles & Chocolate (whose glorious giftables include fine champagnes, and whose spitfire of a shopkeep is the wife of this magazine's wine guy, Paul Gregutt). And wait! Isn't that a waiter I know from Boat Street Cafe sharing German schnitzel with his sweetheart? Why yes, it is.

I, too, romanced a plate of that perfect pork cutlet, pounded, pankofied and pan-fried by the lady of the house, Jim's wife, Claire Johnston. (Jessica Lange would play her in the movie.) The house they've renovated is a former Oddfellows hall that extends to a whitewashed private-dining venue, a candlelit patio, their fine art gallery and a second-story artists' studio and living space. Color me jealous.

What's more, the couple have no need to go far when they want to whoop it up. For that, they can walk across Main Street to Whoopemup Hollow Café.

The Whoop is a place for big appetites. Come for an early dinner and you'll do the eat-and-greet with local farming families who crowd the adjacent patio in warm months. Later, you'll find a host of outta-towners hip to this destination diner whose menu hawks "Southern Comfort Food" and desserts so pretty, you'd think they were made by some hotshot pastry chef.

Indeed they are. Her name is Valerie Mudry. I've sampled her wares at a fleet of Seattle restaurants. May I suggest you fleet-foot it here for her jimgermanchocolatecake with Southern Comfort ice cream? Mudry shares kitchen duties with her husband, Bryant Bader, whose daytime sandwich menu buys you both 'po boys and Waitsburgers. GM Ross Stevenson does double duty waiting tables, and it was he who swung by my booth with a bucket of warm house-made cornbread, a cold pint from the local Laht Neppur brewery and a rack of baby back ribs whose finger-lickin' glaze gets its glory from a reduction of Laht Neppur root beer, also on tap.

My appetite might have easily been assuaged with the smokin' trout salad, doled out in threshermen's quantity and dolled up with preserved lemon, pickled-pepper relish and an avocado-laced Green Goddess dressing.

Those threshermen were hard at work in the wheat fields the next evening as I drove 20 miles into downtown Walla Walla, where, on a quiet Monday night, the streets were dead. And in a moment I found out why: Everyone was at Whitehouse-Crawford.

"He doesn't open magnums for just anybody," said my savvy server, nodding across the broad expanse of the dining room where wild-haired wineman Charles Smith (considered a rock star here, and elsewhere) held court in the bar, celebrating the expansion of his winemaking team.

Perched on a cushy blue banquette in this historic building — a former planing mill adjacent to the barrel room at Seven Hills Winery — I oversaw a glass of Seven Hills Planing Mill Red and a basket of crispy fried Walla Walla sweets. My fingers uncontrollably reached for more as I surveyed the room's vintage beams and red-fir floors: gorgeous.

Those signature onions were precursor to a dinner that spoke to my inner locavore, leaving me longing for more of the pickled cherries punctuating my beet salad and another forkful of house-made garganelli pasta, smoothed with goat cheese from nearby Monteillet Fromagerie.

Next time I intend to join the crowd at the chef's counter, where I might introduce myself to chef Jamie Guerin, who has been earning nationwide praise since Whitehouse-Crawford made its restaurant debut a dozen years ago.

Counter seating is also an option in the cozier confines of nearby Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. I chose, instead, a window table in which to contemplate chef-owner Chris Ainsworth's "raciones" and flatbreads. Those dishes take up half the dinner menu primed with house-made pastas, paella and seasonal entrees, and made for a memorable late lunch.

Ainsworth, whose creative talent was on stage at Seattle's Brasa and at Todd English's Fish Club, has clearly upped the ante since moving to Walla Walla.

His apricot fattoush is a modernist's take on the classic Arabic salad, with rustic croutons instead of pita. "This is street food," a server instructed, arriving with lahmachun — paper-thin Turkish flatbread laved with tomato-pepper purée, spiced ground lamb, lemon oil and flat-leaf parsley — before slicing it, tableside, into potent pinwheels. Spectacular.

In Seattle, there's a pho joint on every corner. In Walla Walla, there's Pho Sho, Saffron's sister shop and next-door neighbor. Overseen by Chris' wife, Island Ainsworth, this tiny takeout or eat-in spot is hung with photos of her Vietnamese family and painted a shade of green that matched a superior scoop of cilantro-lime ice cream. It's the only place in town for pho, and mine arrived afloat with brisket, top round and house-made meatballs. I'm not "sho" this pho (whose mild stock improved with the "Hot, Hot, Hot" sauce provided) could best Seattle's best, but the road home was long, and after a meal here, I hit it happy.

Nancy Leson is the Pacific NW food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com.

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