Despite having recently embraced my penchant for the carnivorous after abnegating for nearly a decade, I still turn frequently and with great fondness towards the leafier side of eats.  I’m sure you’ll scoff, but I honestly don’t slake my thirst on the blood of the innocents at every meal.  For all the hype, Michael Pollan’s overly simplistic aphorism does contain a kernel of truth: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  It’s just that well, how exciting is it to write about that big salad I had for lunch?  And tofu is tofu.

Even worse, it seems to me that the majority of dedicated vegetarian or vegan restaurants in town just try too hard.  I don’t want “fake meat”.  I can’t stand “fake meat”.  And the pretension, my god the preening, self-righteous crowds at these places can be completely insufferable.  But there is one restaurant, a farm-to-table mainstay on Phinney Ridge that aspires to nothing more than artful, well-cooked vegetarian cuisine.  It’s Carmelita, and it’s worth a visit by even the most dedicated kitten killer.

Carmelita has had quite a procession of chefs over the years, most notably Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Café fame (and Oddfellows infamy).  The latest chef, Carlos Caula, came on board last year, shortly before the restaurant was renovated to add a small bar in the front.  The décor is funky, an eclectic mix of bright oil paintings and cedar and the most bizarre molded ceiling I’ve seen.  To wit:

Leafy!  Carmelita also features one of the most attractive garden patio decks in town during the spring and summer – a highly coveted oasis of bright flowers, climbing vines and colored glass lanterns.  Be sure to request it in your reservation.

I had the pleasure of dining with friends at Carmelita a few weeks ago, and found the restaurant to be packed and lively, warm and comfortable.  Service was relaxed, and we enjoyed a round of bright red Negroni from the new “Carma-bar”.  As with most locavore establishments in town, the menu provided a lengthy list of purveyors – from Foraged and Found to Full Circle Farm.  Additionally, an enlightening side bar detailed all the fruits and vegetables that were currently in season and featured in the dishes for the evening.  Vegan dishes are also highlighted, and most everything can be requested as such if you’re totally extreme, man.

We started with a simple roasted beet carpaccio, thinly sliced with playful scalloped edges.  The sweet red and yellow beets were interspersed with juicy slices of blood orange on a bed of peppery arugula tossed with a pomegranate vinaigrette.  An order of raviolo with truffled parsnip and warm, gooey egg vanished in a flash of forks.  For the main course, I was immediately drawn to the Autumn root vegetable pot pie.  I freaking love pot pie.  The crust was flaky, the medley of sweet potato and rutabaga warm and firm.  There was a sweetness from fresh cooked pears that I found pleasantly surprising, and a pervasive, savory smokiness throughout the filling.

In fact, Chef Carlos loves him some smoke.  Nearly every dish we tried had a deep, smoky flavor base.  Most notably, a wild rice flour crepe, filled with cauliflower and red wine braised cabbage.  The crepe was quite hearty, and stuffed with tiny florets of smoked purple and white cauliflower, mixed with mascarpone and green olives.  A lemon thyme buerre blanc was almost completely overwhelmed by the intense smokiness, but the crepe was still better than Portobello Wellington.  In fact, I’m happy to report that there is neither Portobello mushroom nor eggplant anywhere to be found on the menu at Carmelita.  How I genuinely loathe these standards of generic vegetarian cuisine.

But that’s the thing.  While there may be the occasional missed dish, or some under-seasoning, at least they’re taking risks.  I much prefer my vegetarian cuisine to appeal to the inherent strengths of the vegetable.  Carmelita is not going to doctor up a shiitake mushroom and call it Mongolian Beef.  And for that reason alone, it’s the best vegetarian restaurant in town.

Carmelita on Urbanspoon

This past weekend, having finally recovered from a debilitating weeks-long seasonal cold (at long last regaining my appetite), I decided to indulge my newfound senses in one of the truly quintessential dishes to be had in all of Seattle.  A crown jewel of our city, not to be missed if you are paying a visit – oeufs en meurette at Café Campagne.  Two perfectly poached eggs balanced on top of buttery, toasted brioche, swimming in a thick red wine and foie gras reduction.  The sauce is dark and rich and slightly sweet, bits of lardon and mushroom and browned pearl onions adding layers of salt and earth.  Finally, to slice into the soft egg, to see and smell the bright yellow yolk as it slowly pools at the base of the bowl is to be reminded again why I first fell in love with the food in this town.

The inimitable French bistro that godfather of Seattle cuisine Peter Lewis initially envisioned as “intimate, sweet and informal” still retains its landmark status and culinary cred nearly two decades since opening in Post Alley.  A seemingly endless list of shining local talent has passed through the kitchen of Café Campagne (or big sister Campagne upstairs) before moving on to make their own mark on the restaurant scene – Tamara Murphy, Jim Drohman, John Sundstrom, Craig Serbousek, Shannon Galusha, Scott Emerick, ad infinitum.  The kitchen is currently in the capable hands of Chef Daisley Gordon, who we last saw battling Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America (spoilers over here).  The quality of product and attention to detail remain unwavering.

It also doesn’t hurt that the space Café Campagne inhabits seems to exist out of time.  The lights are as a low as the ceiling, the aged hardwood floors and blonde banquettes as charming as the white-sleeved, black-vested waitstaff.  The ancient bar is cozy and comfortable, wine bottles stacked neatly on every surface.  It’s all very traditional, from the Kir Royale to the Gamay Beaujolais (the wine list is suitably epic).  There are nearly 30 bottles offered by the glass, and small pours are also available if you’re just interested in a little taste.  Patio seating is coveted during the summer, perfect for watching the ebb and flow of Pike Place Market. 

The menu at Café Campagne hits all the highlights of classic French bistro fare.  Naturally I gravitate towards the croques, and while I must confess they are not my true favorites in town, the Savoyard is still quite lovely when tomatoes are in season, fresh from the market stall.  Sandwiches are served open-faced on light, sweet crumb bread, and then buried under a dripping, melty mess of hot gruyère cheese.  Add Parisian ham, add an egg, add a requisite side of long, thin pomme frites with aioli for dipping.

The lamb burger is also worth trying at least once.  Served moist and rare, with grilled onions, pickled roasted peppers and balsamic vinegar, the mildly gamey meat mellows with each bite until you’re left with a remarkably pleasant aftertaste.  Or perhaps fresh trout, sautéed in almond-lemon brown butter – it’s just as rich and decadent as it sounds.  There’s Niçoise salade and cassoulet and house-cured salmon gravlax – but I’ll be perfectly honest, it’s a rare day that I’m at Café Campagne not eating the oeufs en meurette (see paragraph one).  Someday maybe I’ll finally try a few more things on the menu.  Someday.  Maybe.

Cafe Campagne on Urbanspoon

 

You know, I probably should have named this blog Absinthe and Sandwiches, given how frequently I seem to write about them.  I guess it can’t be helped, sandwiches being nearly the perfect meal and all (sandwiches having usurped this title from the rightful perfect meal – the humble burrito, generally unfit for consumption in the Northwest).  As a recovering pescetarian, I am continually amazed at the seemingly endless configurations and creative possibilities that can happen when sliced bread meets your wildest dreams.  And so it happens, there is a tiny sandwich shop tucked away in the unlikely industrial wasteland where Interbay and Magnolia collide that I would like to tell you about.  You will thank me.

Fightin’ Cock Roaster can be found at the corner of Thorndyke and 21st Ave West.  Look for a sign with a rooster sporting boxing gloves riding a lightning bolt.  It’s a cozy space, no more that half a dozen stools along a wall-mounted counter.  The rest of the room is devoted to the kitchen, stovetops bubbling with all manner of delicious meats and sauces.  Chef-owner Jon Davis and his amicable crew don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters, they just want to feed you enormous sandwiches based on recipes brought back from his travels around the world.  This is far from a traditional barbeque joint.  In fact, the first thing you’ll probably notice is a large Southeast Asian painting depicting the eponymous gamecocks engaged in their favorite pastime.

But start in Cuba first, the Rojo Mojo being my favorite dish on the menu – roasted chicken simmered in a red chile and garlic sauce that positively screams with heat (and that’s me talking, at only 3 slaps of pepper – ME!)  This is tears in your eyes, sweat on your brow, rapture on your lips hot.  The sandwich is garnished with huge sprigs of cilantro, piled with red peppers, sautéed onions and huge leafy fronds of green cabbage.  It’s all extremely moist and tangy, the flavors quite complex (almost pickled).

The sandwiches at Fightin’ Cock are served on traditional Vietnamese bread rolls that are light, airy and malleable.  As such, the bread has a tendency to disintegrate within a few bites, so you’re probably going to have to relearn how to eat sandwiches at this point.  The sandwich is served in a brown paper wrapper, but you can count on that deteriorating rapidly as well.  These sandwiches are robust, messy, dripping with sauce.  There’s a pretty even ratio of sandwich in your mouth to sandwich in your lap.  What I’m trying to say is, don’t eat here before a job interview.

But if you must, go for the Muay Thai – it’s the least saucy of the bunch, but still a spectacularly messy sandwich to eat.  An overflowing cascade of roasted chicken simmered in coconut curry and distilled joy, topped with fresh cilantro, buttery grilled onions and purple cabbage.  There’s lots of black pepper and sweet chiles, but without the mouthburn you get from the Rojo Mojo.  The Smoker is another of the more manageable offerings – alderwood smoked, jerk chicken breast wrapped in romaine lettuce, topped with a light coleslaw and a touch of sweet, honey mustard sauce.  The atypically reserved hand on this one really lets the smoked chicken shine through.

I have to confess to disappointment with the pulled, smoked pork Texas Slugger, but only as a matter of preference.  The traditional, Texan barbeque sauce used on the sandwich is way too sweet and far too tangy for my taste.  The sandwich is swimming in sweet.  Sweet dripping down your face.  [Insert Fightin’ Cock joke here].  The pork is pulled in huge chunks, and has a deep, smoky flavor that cuts through the sweetness somewhat.  But 2009 was the year of the Pulled Pig and it can be found just about everywhere now, so I’d personally stick with the signature cock dishes.

Sandwiches can be ordered large or small, but I have found even the small version to be nearly impossible to finish in one sitting.  Most of these dishes can also be ordered as entrées which come with a side of white rice, a salad and a cup of juicy, vegetarian black beans (particularly good with melted cheese, as if you could actually eat any more).  You can also get a whole chicken dinner – something called The Dominator, which I think speaks for itself.  Fightin’ Cock Roaster is not timid, but it is certainly unique and absolutely worth a visit.  The hours are variable and based on demand, so go give them a reason to stay open.

Fightin' Cock Roaster on Urbanspoon

On a bright, crisp Winter’s day, I sought solace from the bitter cold in one of my favorite places to open this year – Citizen, tucked away on Lower Queen Anne.  Genuine warmth radiates from every corner and from every employee.  The distant sun seems just a little more radiant, magnified through towering windows.  The space is cozy and genuine, cobbled together, a narrow slice of joy.  My glasses fog up when I step through the door.

Citizen has crêpes and coffee, soup and sandwiches, an impressive selection of inexpensive wines and that’s about it.  There are a couple of hot plates, a panini press, and a mis en place station tucked under the stairs.  Those stairs lead to a tiny balcony with a couple of sofas and a couple more chairs.  It’s immensely heart-warming, from stomach to soul.  I adore that a small place like this can exist, carved out of the side of an auto body repair shop.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that co-owners Justin Taft and Suzana Olmos are just about the sweetest people I’ve had the fortune of meeting.  Taft mans the crêpe station, Olmos crafts sandwiches, everybody wins.  Now I know we’ve covered this before, but I’ve never been particularly crazy about crêpes.  The Citizen crêpes are thin and fluffy and totally bursting with fillings.  These are not simple French crêpes, these are enormous American meals.  Like breakfast burrito big.  I enjoyed a Black Forest ham crêpe well enough (with Swiss cheese and tomatoes and spinach and crème fraiche).  It was substantial, but didn’t exactly win me over.  If you like crêpes, sweet or savory, then I’m fairly certain you’ll be satisfied, but I’m pretty much a lost cause.

No matter!  Because I love sandwiches, and Citizen has some good ones.  Particularly the “Vietnamese Style” with spicy tofu or chicken or roasted pork.  The sandwich comes on a soft and flaky baguette, with sweet cucumber and slices of potent jalapeño.  Tofu is lightly sautéed and on the eggy side, but has a ton of flavor.  Likewise the pickled carrots, daikons and sprigs of fresh cilantro.  It’s a nice size too, not grotesquely overblown like so many sandwiches these days.  Not a bad little banh mi (which I heart).

As recounted earlier, I am still continuing on my Reuben quest, and the Citizen version is nearly perfect – a harmony of peppery pastrami, tangy pickled sauerkraut and cheesy Swiss.  The mustard is sweet and spicy and the crusty rye bread holds up beautifully.  It’s really quite exceptional.  The Citizen signature sandwich is made with shredded pieces of roast pork and has a sweetness accented by bright banana peppers, caramelized onions and the omnipresent cilantro.  The meat is very lightly dressed with a mildly spicy mojo sauce, allowing the pork to speak for itself.  Again, I really appreciate the remarkably restrained, delicate hand.

One caveat – just stay the hell away from the B.L.A.T.  The avocado is actually used as a spread, which gives the sourdough bread a soggy consistency even after grilling, the “lettuce” is lightly seasoned mâche, the bacon dry and salty.  And I really should know better than to eat tomatoes in winter.  This was not the reminder I was hoping for, but it has done it’s job.  Tomato season is over, folks.

But please, don’t let that dissuade you.  Citizen is a breath of fresh air, an authentic venture, a place with real heart.  Spend some time reading the detailed, hand-written notes posted next to each wine bottle or admiring the chalk-drawn menu flourishes and you’ll see the care they’ve invested in this tiny gem.  With the glut of oversized, mediocre corporate restaurants that have flooded the market this year, I almost forgot places like Citizen can still happen.

Citizen on Urbanspoon

It was that time of year again, when an overwhelming desire for retreat pushed us across the border in search of respite from reality.  This would be one of our boldest endeavors yet, a twelve-hour voyage over timberland and Salish Sea to the remote wilderness of Vancouver Island.  Through rain and snow and strange argot, we made our way towards Tofino, British Columbia.  Our final destination was the Wickaninnish Inn, a resort nestled amongst soaring old-growth Cedars and the breathtaking Winter waves of Chesterman Beach.

Beyond the sheer majesty of the scenery (and the admittedly awesome accommodations), the Wickaninnish Inn is also widely renowned as a gourmet destination.  The Inn’s flagship Pointe Restaurant is headed up by Chefs John Waller and Nicholas Nutting, and together they specialize in local, organic Pacific Northwest cuisine.  The main dining room at the Pointe is essentially a towering rotunda overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with massive rustic wooden beams and floor-to-ceiling windows.  The view is stunning during the day, and at night the space is dark and warm and filled with twinkling light.

There was a lot happening on the menu, not least of which was a pleasantly surprising Thanksgiving tasting menu on offer for the holiday.  We sampled quite a bit from the kitchen throughout the course of our stay, far more than I can possibly cover here.  So I’ll just make mention of some of the highlights, as well as a few inexplicable misfires.

Every meal began with an amuse-bouche and ended with a bite of something sweet, most notably a delightful pumpkin custard on a flaky pastry topped with roasted marshmallow.  I thought it would be overly sweet, and was shocked when it conjured up all of Thanksgiving dessert in a single bite.  A Dungeness crab beignet with avocado and pomegranate sounded like an exciting appetizer, but suffered from an uneven fry – one side was too crispy, the other too soft.  By contrast, a small plate of roasted chestnut agnolotti was exquisite, with wild mushrooms and bitter greens over a caramelized onion puree.  It had a delicate, earthy, sweet flavor that I lingered over, savoring.

In terms of entrées, I was excited to see spätzle on the menu, since I haven’t come across it for years.  The tiny, chewy dumplings were served with roasted garlic, winter squash and chipolini onions.  The plate was rich and hearty, if a little on the greasy side, but ultimately very satisfying.  Easily the best thing I ate at the Pointe was another culinary first for me – grilled venison loin.  The venison was carved into extraordinarily thin slices and served with parsnip bread pudding, roasted pears and St. Maure goat cheese.  Tender and juicy, and without a hint of gaminess, the meat all but melted in my mouth.  It was also fantastically lean, no trace of fat.  This was not my grandfather’s venison jerky.

Not nearly as good – halibut “Bourguignon” with bacon, mushrooms and spinach.  My partner specifically ordered this in hopes of some light, tender seafood after our epic journey, but the poor fish was regrettably overcooked.  The flavor was there, but the texture was far too tough.  Knife and fork were employed.  We were feeling much too relaxed to complain, and our waiter had crazy eyes, so we decided to let it go (the service in general was attentive, although a bit overzealous with the upsell).  A dessert trio of organic pumpkin brûlée, sorbet and mousse was also unexpectedly bland.  And I’m still not sure how a “confit potato” is any different from a “pan-fried potato”.

But despite the inconsistencies, we were generally happy with the meals, especially given the captive audience aspect of a resort trip.  The elegance of the agnolotti and the superb venison dish kept us returning to explore other offerings on the menu, with varying degrees of success.  We were equally intrigued by the award-winning wine list, which was quite lengthy and focused primarily on BC wineries (we particularly enjoyed an Okanagan Pinot Noir from Blue Mountain).  It’s a mighty adventure for a mainlander, but if you happen to find yourself on the West coast of Vancouver Island, a stop at the Wick is definitely worth your time.  Did I mention they have foie gras available for room service?

The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn on Urbanspoon

twede's outside

So this past weekend, one of my oldest, dearest friends paid a visit to the great Northwest to celebrate the reunion of the mighty Devo at a special show downtown.  A great deal of Diamond Knot IPA was quaffed, duck rillettes and banh mi were consumed, and a sidequest was undertaken to locate the perfect reuben in Seattle.  Our journey took us far afield, Eastward into the foothills of North Bend, home of Twede’s Cafe, better known to us as the Double R Diner.

In fact we had not originally sought Twede’s as the answer to our reuben hunt, but rather as a site of pilgrimage.  This was an homage, an expression of our unwavering devotion to Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s wonderful and strange serialized television drama from the early 1990’s.  The original Twede’s (it was gutted by a fire and later remodeled) was the setting for the fictitious RR Diner, a primary recurring destination throughout the length of the series.  Many of the surrounding environs from North Bend to Snoqualmie were also used as principal location shoots during filming, so a little road trip around the area is a lot of fun for hardcore fans (eg., giant nerds).

So anyhow, here we were at the RR Diner.  I’d actually visited shortly after moving to the Northwest many years earlier, but it had been a long time so I was surprised when I walked into the neon-lit diner.  The entire room was lined with plush, yellow Tweety birds – you know, like from the old Looney Tunes cartoons.  So yeah, that’s Twede’s like the bird, not the fabric.  There’s something willfully contentious about those stupid birds, something heretical about their presence in this hallowed space.  We plopped down into a taped-up, red vinyl booth and perused the menu.

twede's inside

The joint is pure cheese, pure Americana.  It’s about as diner as diner gets.  Black and white checkerboard floor, postcards for sale, gnarley truck stop types rubbing shoulders with the occasional Twin Peaks fan.  I found myself wondering exactly what the ratio of fans to locals was, somewhat surprised that we weren’t the only ones.  One guy came through the door and asked to buy a coffee mug, another spent a long time lingering over the lengthy wall of memorabilia, mouth agape.

I knew from past experience that the famous “damn fine cup of coffee” was actually damn terrible, and neither of us felt like cherry pie.  Still, it seemed a waste not to eat anything, and there was a baffling array of hamburgers on offer.  From something called a Bombay burger seasoned with chutney (!) to a Pizza burger (?) to an “Aussie” burger with pickled beets (?!), there are well over 50 varieties of hamburger to try at Twede’s.  Among other things.  Like a reuben!  A tasty reuben at that – lean corned beef, nicely toasted rye and melty Swiss with just the right amount of grease.  The only thing that kept it from total greatness was a tragic paucity of sauerkraut.  Still, it was a Twin Peaks miracle!

A Catfish Hoagy was also surprisingly good.  Two lightly breaded fish filets piled high with onions, lettuce and tomato and slathered with mayonnaise on a massive loaf of French bread.  It was quite a monster.  Best of all was a side of onion rings – lightly fried, crispy, very good.  Much better than the fries (which weren’t all that bad).  Again, it’s a real diner.  And the service was smoking fast and appropriately surly.

cherry pie and coffee

We headed outside into a sudden downpour, and as we ran back towards the car I was like “Dude that’s where Lynch’s nephew comes jumping out of the bushes and it’s all the Black Dog Runs at Night!!  I know, right?!”  We decided to head back down towards the Salish Lodge (aka the Great Northern hotel), but I’ll save that experience for another time.

So yeah Wow, thanks for letting me nerd out, guys.  In return, I give you this – the freakin’ RR Diner Myspace page.  It’s awesomely bad.  My mind is officially blown.

Twede's Cafe on Urbanspoon

bastille

So last weekend I finally made it over to Ballard Ave. to check out Bastille Café & Bar for dinner.  Since opening in June, I’d heard a whole gamut of reviews, so I was eager to discover for myself whether the new bistro was worthy of praise or yawns.  We certainly do not lack for some truly remarkable French cuisine in Seattle, which admittedly raised the odds against the contender in my mind.  Verdict?

Not so good, I’m afraid.  But hardly bad either.  Fair to middling?  One thing Bastille has on everybody else is certainly its SHEER SIZE.  The brasserie is positively vast, a yawning expanse of sleek.  The cavernous dining hall has raised ceilings, white tiled walls, a 45-foot zinc topped bar and mirrors strategically positioned to further stretch the room into infinity.  A clock salvaged from a Parisian metro station casts a soft glow on the room, all black and white and amber light.  There’s patio seating, a rooftop garden, and just past the narrow kitchen, yet another full bar complete with crystal chandeliers and moody paintings.  Bastille is easily the most ambitious restaurant space I’ve stepped into for a long time, and positively stunning in that regard.

Shannon Galusha and Jason Stoneburner (who both herald from Campagne, among many, many other storied restaurants) are at the helm in the kitchen.  And while I appreciate simplicity as a goal, what struck me most about the food at Bastille was that nearly every “traditional” plate I tried had some strange twist or interpretation.  A bowl of gratinéed French onion soup crowned with an exceptionally pungent cave-aged Gruyère immediately captured my attention.  Sadly, the soup itself was light on onions, heavy on thyme, and had a much-too-sweet, almost vinegary flavor.  A simple roasted beet and arugula salad faired far better, sprinkled with pistachios and a red wine vinaigrette and accompanied by a lovely, mild chevre croûte on the side.

Probably most disappointing was an order of fricassée de poulet.  The pan-roasted chicken breast had wonderfully crisp skin, but was far too salty for my taste.  Also abused by sodium: a bowl of Manila clams with house-made Merguez sausage (!) and chickpeas.  Wonderful in theory, but somewhat unbalanced in execution – the sweet clams almost entirely lost under a pile of spicy sausage bits.  Still, it’s not like these dishes were inedible, in fact they were fairly well polished off by the end of the evening.  And an order of steak frites was nearly flawless – a wonderfully roasted flat iron steak with a side of surprisingly light house Béarnaise.  What’s more, the French fries served in a traditional paper cone were just right (I’d heard some rather damning word-of-mouth regarding several early frite orders, so I’m happy that issue appears to be resolved).  The wine list is expansive, and worthy of further exploration.  I was quite pleased with a bottle of “old vine” Pascal Aufranc Chénas Beaujolais – floral, juicy, delightful. 

It’s just that, given the magnitute and quality of many other bistros in town, I think execution needs to be reliably spotless.  Or the menu needs to be a little more daring.  Something.  If Bastille survives the next year or so (and it’s a real gamble, given the sheer volume of space they are commanding), I think it has the potential to become a genuine neighborhood joint.  And by that I mean, if I lived in the neighborhood, I’d probably become a regular.  But as it is, I’ll hardly be going out of my way to get back there any time soon.  There’s just way too many dependable French places between here and there.

Bastille Café & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sweet holy Moses it has not been a good week for our hometown heroes on the televised cooking competitions.  To wit:

  • Fan favorite Ashley Merriman of Branzino was ignominiously booted from Top Chef, in spite of the fact that she is a genuinely talented and decent human being.  I’m embarrased to admit I actually screamed at the television.   Against all odds, Robin Leventhal somehow continues to dawdle around the kitchen.  +5 rage points.

ashley merriman

  • Much more predictably, Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita will not be the the Next Iron Chef.  After only two episodes, Ms. James Beard 2008 was sent home for botching a bouillabaisse.  I called it after the first episode.  She just didn’t seem to have the warrior spirit necessary to compete in Kitchen Stadium.  And the judges thought her food was too salty, which makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.

holly smith

  • Also not entirely surprising, Daisley Gordon of Café Campagne was defeated by Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America in Battle Berry.  He was remarkably composed during the show, especially given the somewhat lackluster secret ingredient.  But an Iron Chef rarely loses, even though Gordon clearly appeared to have the advantage.  And it didn’t help that this particular panel of judges was dumber than a bag of rocks.  Seriously, where do they dig these people up?

daisley gordon

Ooof.

boom noodle

So I typically don’t like to do this, but Boom Noodle sucks.  As a general rule, if I wind up eating a genuinely bad meal somewhere, I just won’t go back.  It falls off my radar completely, banished from consideration, not even worth writing about.  So I tried out Boom Noodle shortly after it opened early last year, and made a mental note never to return.  It sucked.  My $10 bowl of shiitake soba arrived lukewarm, the mushrooms limp and rubbery.  An unappetizing slab of smoked King salmon floating in a bowl of udon had the consistency of wet jerky, so tough it was literally inedible.

Unfortunately, forces beyond my control have conspired to return me to the overpriced, overrated noodle house at 12th and Pike more times than I’d care to admit.  Every time I walk through the door and see those cute Maneki Neko statues, I try and convince myself that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I remember.  Every time I’m horribly, horribly wrong.  And I’ll be honest, I really want to like Boom Noodle.  The space is cavernous and modern – rows of hardwood communal dining tables and pleasing swaths of green and black wall panels punctuated by enormous, painfully hip, photo-transfer lithographs.  Like a cafeteria from the future (or um, Wagamama).  Brought to you by the same folks who started the Blue C Sushi empire (the benchmark for mediocrity in raw fish), Boom Noodle is all style, no substance.  It tries too hard, it fails because of scale.

boom noodle interior

Many people have opined that the actual noodles and soups at Boom aren’t that great – but try the Izakaya!  In particular, the okonomiyaki has garnered some baffling praise.  I found the pork and cabbage pancake to be dreadfully bland and doughy, doused with aioli and tonkatsu sauce and buried under a ridiculous pile of dried bonito flakes.  I didn’t think I could possibly have been more disappointed, but an order of miso broiled rice cakes was staggeringly bad.  The mixed grain rice was undercooked, and a caramelized miso glaze only hardened the cakes further.  It was like chewing on gravel covered in “tofu sauce” (for the love of all that is good, I don’t even want to know).

The closest thing I’ve come to a decent dish at Boom was probably the simple Tokyo ramen.  Nicely arranged bamboo shoots, green onions and nori, half a hard boiled egg and some relatively decent pieces of braised pork swimming in a soy-seasoned chicken broth.  The ramen itself was pretty ordinary, nothing much to distinguish it from the stuff I lived on in grad school.  At least it was served hot.  But c’mon – you’re still paying $10 for a bowl of ramen.

maneki neko

And any goodwill that may have been recovered after finally locating something fit for consumption on the menu was summarily crushed last week when I ordered the katsu curry chicken.  Beloved staple of Japanese cuisine and one of the greatest meals you can get after Last Call, the katsu curry at Boom Noodle was an abomination.  In general, curry might not be the most visually appealing dish, but this glutinous mess of unpleasant brown and yellow stewed vegetables was particularly unpleasant – thick and weak and topped with appallingly salty pickles.  The breaded, deep-fried chicken cutlets had alternating layers of fat and gristle.  I actually considered sending it back, but remembered that this was really just par for the course.  I ate my rice and left.

Despite the actual food, Boom Noodle remains wildly popular.  They were written up in Bon Appétit recently, and opened a second outpost at Bellevue Square last Spring (if you’re looking to compound your trip to Hell with an extra dose of misery).  Clearly I don’t get it.

Sorry.  Boom Noodle sucks.

Boom Noodle on Urbanspoon

plaka

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a Summer backpacking across Europe with a friend of mine.  Since we were young and poor, we pretty much subsisted on ploughman’s lunches and beer for the duration of the trip.  And of course, the ubiquitous gyro, which could be found at carts and stands nearly everywhere we went.  Cheap and satisfying, there is nothing quite like eating a gyro on the beach somewhere along the Cote d’Azur in the middle of July.  Which is the primary reason I keep returning to Plaka Estiatorio in Ballard.  The gyros at Plaka send me straight back to that beach, every time.

In fact, nearly everything at Plaka is remarkably authentic.  Owned and run by several generations of the Tziotis and Mandapat families, relations abound (as evidenced by the photos which line the walls).  Not surprisingly, everybody is impossibly sweet and hospitable.  The room is spacious and comfortable, filled with baskets of fresh produce and bright flowers.  The entryway is flanked by some admittedly cheesy faux Grecian pillars, but honestly, it’s hard to care much about the décor.  Since opening last Spring, this is easily the best Greek food I’ve eaten in Seattle.

plaka interior

Start with some hummus (or more appropriately, revithosalata).  Spicy, creamy, garlicky, sprinkled with oregano and fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil.  It’s served with grilled whole wheat pita bread served hot.  Also marvelous: a bowl of warm, comforting avgolemono soup – the best I’ve had.  Moist chunks of chicken float in a thick, savory rice porridge, the flavor of lemon is strong and tangy and elevates the entire dish.  I can’t wait until it gets cold and dark and rainy – this soup will be a bright little reminder of Summertime.

I’m not crazy about the Greek fries (about the only thing I’m not crazy about at Plaka).  Hand-cut with the skins on, crispy with a coating of dried oregano and covered with huge chunks of tangy, salty feta cheese.  They’re just not as inspired as the rest of the menu.  Go for something more exotic, like the kalamarakia.  Served with a potent spread of cold garlic mashed potatoes topped with olive oil, the Monterey Bay squid are lightly fried and have a perfect chewy texture.  Not overdone, and not too greasy.  I love it, but man is that garlic spread powerful strong.

plaka pillar

Okay, so the signature Plaka gyro is traditionally Athenian and made with a pungent mixture of veal and lamb.  It’s chewy, with an incredibly deep flavor and rich taste.  The tzatziki sauce is genuinely thick and creamy and tastes like real yogurt and cucumbers and mint.  The whole wheat pita bread is thin and warm and wrapped in a green and white checkerboard sleeve.  Even better: the grilled chicken souvlaki.  Peppery and moist, and perfectly tender.  The loukaniko pork sausage is also outstanding, thinly sliced and remarkably lean.  Not too spicy with loads of black pepper, the sausage is grilled up and served with caramelized onions and roasted green bell peppers.

For the veggies in the audience – the falafel in pita is crispy and spicy, made with lots of fresh cilantro which imparts a nice bright aftertaste.  The gyro is stuffed with scallions and sweet, sweet, wonderful radishes, red onions and fresh lettuce pulled straight out of the basket up front.  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, you bite into a juicy Roma tomato.  Fresh dill is sprinkled throughout.  The quality of the ingredients is simply top notch, screamingly fresh.

And just to round things out, the wine list is awesome and the service is knowledgeable.  Everything is imported directly from Greece, and I’ve now tried some gorgeous wines that I had no idea even existed.

See you at the beach.

Plaka Estiatorio on Urbanspoon

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