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Je suis revenu à notre belle Cité émeraude! It feels so good to be back. I was wrong about the bears. It was the wood ticks that were the real menace. Eep.
And what better way to celebrate our return home than dinner with friends and family at the house Tom Douglas built. Is there a more iconic, quintessential restaurant in Seattle than the Dahlia Lounge? Well, maybe Ivar’s – but Dahlia Lounge is certainly one of the most important defining sources for upscale Northwest cuisine that I can think of. It was totally the place to go for special occasions when we were young and poor and wanted to feel sophisticated. It was the place we’d take Mom & Dad when they were visiting (and paying). It was where we first discovered salmon, where I ate my first rabbit.
Dahlia Lounge is the foundation of Tom Douglas’ empire, and has been instrumental in helping to establish and mainstream our regional food identity. Douglas won the James Beard award for Best Northwest Chef in 1994, wrote some pretty celebrated cookbooks, and most importantly, inspired a number of chefs from his kitchens to go out and create amazing places of their own (see Mark Fuller at Spring Hill, for example). Also he defeated Morimoto on Iron Chef America. That’s mad skills.
I find the atmosphere at Dahlia Lounge to be unabashedly sexy. It’s all deep red paint and dark wood and lights turned down low. Colorful paper lanterns light up the ceiling and papier-mâché fish line the shelves, casting a soft glow from within. The space is fairly cavernous, but doesn’t get too noisy (at least not compared to the epic din at Palace Kitchen). It’s very sensuous and romantic and I would highly recommend it for a date night.
The service at Dahlia Lounge is generally extraordinary, which is why I was pretty shocked that our server for this particular evening was not only slightly rude, but even a touch snide. I decided to let it slide because I’ve had such genuinely notable service in the past, plus I think we’re all probably suffering from tourist fatigue. Still, for the prices they charge at Dahlia Lounge, servers should be giving out handjobs with the crab cakes, so I hope this is an isolated incident.
We decided to start by sharing a sampler from the Sea Bar, a selection of little tastes served in individual dishes over ice. In keeping with the tradition of “firsts” at the Dahlia Lounge, I am happy to report that I have now finally partaken of the famous Puget Sound geoduck, served raw and diced with spicy melon. It was, as I suspected, not particularly my cup of tea (too chewy, too mild). But everything else was fresh and fantastic – Kona kampachi with gingered carrot, ice cold lump dungeness crab over kimchee, a mild rockfish ceviche. Best of all was the Dahlia smoked salmon, which I don’t think I’ve ever tried before. Served with a hot dipping mustard, the salmon had a wonderful texture and deep, rich flavor that inclines me to get a full order on my next visit.
Next up, I was nearly beside myself with joy to see a Kalua pig appetizer on the menu. Kalua pig ranks as one of the greatest things I’ve discovered since I gave up the pescetarianism, but it is stupid hard to find a quality version hereabouts (which makes sense – to be prepared properly, the pig needs to cook in a pit underground for 24 hours; guessing it’s hard to get a permit for that in City limits). But I’ll be damned if this wasn’t the best Kalua pig I’ve eaten since Hawaii. Moist and smoky with a hint of coconut, served with a hoisin dipping sauce and chili ketchup and topped with a big old beautiful poached egg. It was immensely satisfying.
As our main courses began to arrive, I realized that the portion sizes of these dishes were positively mammoth. Dahlia Lounge may be expensive, but you’ll be eating leftovers for the rest of the week. And that is exactly what wound up happening when the server placed an entire Peking duck in front of me. You know, I was thinking it would be some duck breast, maybe a leg. Wrong. Entire duck. Rotisserie roasted “five spice” with stir fried pea vines and sweet n’ sour apricots. The thick, charred duck skin was crispy and peppery and the meat itself was so juicy and substantial that I could hardly eat more than a couple of bites. Seriously. Duck for days. It was awesome, but I was a little overwhelmed. Another first, I suppose.
I was too stuffed to partake of Tom Douglas’ famous triple coconut cream pie for dessert (sacrilege, I know), but you can read all about it over here. Additionally, you can also grab a slice to go or even a full pie from the Dahlia Bakery right next door to the Lounge. It was a glorious summer evening as we rolled out onto 4th Avenue, bathed in the neon light from the iconic chef & fish sign. I’m a sucker for neon, I’m a sucker for Seattle. Good to be home.
Ever since James Beard-nominated Basque master chef Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez and his partner Carolin Messier opened their second restaurant Txori in Belltown almost a year and a half ago (that’s pronounced chōr-ē), I have been dying to take a trip to Northern Spain. Thankfully I don’t actually have to, since I can just eat at Txori. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore The Harvest Vine, Jiménez’ flagship dining experience, but Txori is so much more relaxed, so breezy and light, that I repeatedly find myself returning for another casual meal (it’s also considerably less expensive). The space is small and narrow, with high ceilings and hardwood floors and a large open bar which fills the room with heavenly scents. There is a tiny brick patio to covet when the sun is out, and quite possibly the most wonderful artwork hanging in a restaurant space in town. I love those little birds.
Txori is a love letter to the tapas bars of San Sabastian, so technically it’s a pintxos bar (pin-chō, see how that works?), but it’s the same basic idea. One bite, two bites, a bit more if you order the larger raciones. There are simple roadmap descriptions on the menu, but be prepared for surprises. Feel free to question the waitstaff – they are super sweet and friendly and knowledgeable. Maybe start with one of the bocadillos, a small sandwich served on the softest bread rolls you can imagine (courtesy of Columbia City Bakery). Brushed with olive oil and filled with thinly-sliced Spanish jamón serrano and sweet, pickled piquillo peppers (or even better, smoky cured chorizo sausage and roasted garlic purée), these tiny sandwiches are perfect for sharing.
And that’s a good thing, because you’re going to want many of these pintxos all to yourself. From traditional vinegar cured anchovy boquerones (oily, salty, intense), to a flaky caramelized onion tart with a potent sherry reduction sauce, you’re going to crave just one more taste of that fleeting flavor. Jiménez mixes up the menu fairly frequently, and a recent visit found one of my very favorite plates no longer available – rabo de toro, braised oxtail served over creamy panaderas potatoes. In my memory, the rich, meaty shredded chunks of oxtail are still melting in my mouth. But not to worry – two new offerings are already demanding repeat visits: a duck confit served cold over romaine lettuce with tiny slices of mandarin orange, and braised lamb shank wrapped in a thin pastry and served over creamy, soft white beans. Both are simply outstanding, the execution flawless, the savory flavors and textures interwoven and inspired. Each bite is pure joy, a thing of beauty.
You will find this easy artistry in much of the cooking at Txori, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the calamares en su tinta – stuffed squid, served with ink on fried bread. What this description fails to reveal is that the squid is actually stuffed into itself – the tentacles are deftly inserted into the soft mantle of the squid, and then the entire grilled cephalopod is doused with thick, black ink. The result is an intense, pungent, salty sea flavor and a texture that is at turns chewy and creamy. The squid ink will stain your lips and fingernails, and the smell will linger in your nostrils throughout the day. It’s a remarkably ambitious dish, and worth trying at least once.
I haven’t even mentioned the epic Basque wine and spirits list. Your server should be able to help you pair with your plates, or steer you towards a special that might not be listed. But it’s Springtime, so I’m all about the rosado at the moment (Ochoa Rosado de Lágrima – fresh, crisp, pink). Txori has a great happy hour each night, and a communal four course dinner on the first Monday of every month. If you can’t tell from my breathless account, I am head over heels for this restaurant. The veracity of the cooking, the leisurely atmosphere, the genuinely gobsmacking food – it rarely gets better than this.
It occurred to me last weekend that I have been somewhat remiss in my duties! I’ve been blogging about food in Seattle for how long now, and not a single entry for a Tom Douglas joint? I quickly set about fixing this glaring oversight, gathered the crew and headed for Palace Kitchen to refresh my memory. If you’re just joining us, Tom Douglas is generally considered the premier Restaurateur in Seattle, with five distinct places to his name. He is often credited with being the first to garner national attention for our regional cuisine and for putting us on the culinary map. He’s also ridiculously humble, given the breadth of his accomplishments (including the James Beard award for Best Northwest Chef in 1994).
Located on 5th Ave. and Lenora underneath the monorail, Palace Kitchen is not quite my favorite in the Tom Douglas empire, but it is irrefutably one of the most vibrant and swanky destinations in town. The energy is always buzzing, the bar is always packed, and with reservations for only 6+ guests, you will often have to wait for a table amidst the throngs of beautiful Belltown residents. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’ve never managed to actually get a seat at the bar, it’s always that crowded. Sparkling, candlelit chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceiling and an enormous gold-framed mural depicting an epic “Palace Feast” adds to the opulence. The space is dark and airy and a little overwhelming.
The frenetic pace is often reflected in the wait service, which at best seems exhausted, and at worst, nonexistent. Settle in for a long haul, especially if it’s late late (Palace Kitchen is one of the few places in Seattle that actually stays open until 1AM). Don’t get perturbed if they forget the bread service, they’ll get around to it eventually (and you will be happy when they do – the bread comes from Douglas’ Dahlia Bakery and is some of my favorite in town; soft and flavorful, with a bowl of delightful, buttery arbequina olive oil for dipping). The appetizers are hearty and inventive, and a perennial favorite is the palace olive poppers, deep fried and served with a thick, herb sour cream. Unfortunately during this particular visit, they arrived disconcertingly cold.
No matter – we had also ordered an enormous grilled Oregon sardine, served whole with a garlicky salsa verde that quickly turned our attention away from the olives. The sardine was flayed down the center, but we still had to debone the fish before partaking. It was smoky and tender and really great. We were seated in a booth back by the enormous open kitchen and could smell the food being fired on the enormous apple wood burning grill that is the centerpiece of the Palace Kitchen. This grill is responsible for another iconic Douglas dish, the palace burger royale. Juicy and served “with nearly traditional accompaniments”, it was one of the first tastes of (Oregon country) beef that I remember after my pescetarian days came to an end. And while I think it has since been dethroned by the burger at Spring Hill (upstart Mark Fuller was formerly the head chef at Douglas’ Dahlia Lounge), who wants to drive to West Seattle for a burger?
Next to the royale, the other equally well-known dish at Palace Kitchen would be the “plin” – a very tiny, almost miniscule, Piedmontese style ravioli. Stuffed with a roast pork and chard filling and topped with a mountain of shaved parmesan cheese, the plin are delicate and rich and will literally melt in your mouth. They are also on the saltier side of things, like so many other dishes in the apparently sodium deficient Northwest. I’ve found it better to order the plin as an appetizer, and avoid it as a main course.
But back to the evening at hand. No burgers this time out, no hypertension. Instead: pan fried pork loin schnitzel, served with pickled red hot and green bell peppers and spicy grain mustard. The lean, boneless cutlet was wonderfully crispy and the slivered peppers provided bright color and a nice briny tang. Douglas is famous for his New American, high concept comfort food, and this schnitzel was a pretty good indicator of his prowess. Others ordered seasonal Alaskan halibut and wood grilled chicken wings, and we all shared plates and enjoyed the lively atmosphere.
To cap the evening, it is almost criminal to neglect the famous Dahlia triple coconut cream pie. Topped with shaved curls of white chocolate and toasted coconut, this dessert is pretty much Tom Douglas’ hallmark dish and can be had at most if not all of his restaurants (or purchased at the Dahlia Bakery). And for good reason. I know I’ve mentioned that I’m not terribly into dessert, but this pie is SO GOOD, I hardly know what to say. The crust is flaky, the cream is whipped and not-too-sweet. It’s both light and decadent. We all split a piece, were sated and eventually parted company on what felt like the first warm night in ages. It was the perfect way to herald the arrival of Spring.
When I read that Star Chefs had named both Brian McCracken and Dana Tough as 2009 Seattle Rising Stars for their inventive cooking at Spur Gastropub in Belltown, I knew I was way past due for a visit. In less than six months, the two young chefs have come screaming onto the local food scene, bringing with them Spur’s equally talented barkeep David Nelson. While both McCracken and Tough cut their teeth working with celebrated chef Maria Hines (at Earth & Ocean and Tilth), their approach to cuisine couldn’t be more different. Rather than an unabashed worship of the organic, they bring with them strange flavored foams and deconstructed gums and other bleeding edge food science techniques. And even though I’ll be the first to admit that the tenets of molecular gastronomy are just as cultish and sanctimonious as those of the hallowed locavore, the good news is that McCracken and Tough employ these methods in very subtle, almost undetectable ways. The technique takes a backseat, the focus remains on the food.
And the food is fantastic. Of course I’m generally going to be inclined towards any place that has rabbit on the menu (and New Wave on the sound system). Check one, Oregon rabbit with rutabaga and ham hock. Check two, Gary Numan-induced grin. Or maybe that was just the Empress cocktail working her magenta magic (rum, St. Germain, grapefruit, happiness). That rabbit by the way, is exceptional – moist and tender, with julienned strips of rutabaga, served on the bone in some sort of mustard reduction sauce (“some sort of reduction sauce” being about the extent of my knowledge as regards molecular gastronomy method).
On one particular Winter’s evening, we started with a plate of fried potato dumplings, which looked all the world like tater tots, but instead held an impossibly silky puréed potato filling with the flavor of chive and peppercorns. Accompanied by a small skillet of fondue for dipping, we quickly discovered that the dumplings were so light and airy that they quickly vanished beneath the cheesy undertow – best to pour the gastrique over the tots and then proceed to the devouring. Also best to be drinking something from the wonderful and compelling cocktail list. Hanky Panky. Cardinal Sin. Widow’s Kiss. For me, it was all about the Broken Spur – a vibrant green drink made with bourbon, cointreau, amaretto and lemon that answers the question of what a 21st century whisky sour should taste like (complete with egg white foam).
The absolute highlight of the evening (besides that rabbit), was a bowl of tagliatelle topped with a gorgeous duck egg cooked en sous vide. Another wildly popular contemporary technique, cooking en sous vide essentially entails vacuum-sealing your protein and then submerging the bag into low level hot water to slow cook for upwards of 24 hours. The result was an egg unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. The yolk had the consistency of a bright yellow jelly, and combined with an oyster mushroom and parmesan foam to create a sticky, rich, brilliant sauce. That bowl of noodles was the first best thing I’ve eaten in the New Year. No wonder the gang at Star Chefs were all over these two.
I had reached my breaking point for the evening, but quickly returned the following week with a single object in mind: I had to try the Ostrich Burger with red onion jam and provolone. One more exotic meat to check off the list. The ostrich was lean and surprisingly juicy – far more reminiscent of bovine than flightless fowl. The onion jam was a little too sweet for my taste, and the cornmeal crusted Jo-Jo potatoes served on the side were pretty disappointing; far too textured and rigid. On the other hand, the brioche bun the burger was served on was airy and flavorful and yet still substantial enough to support the thick meaty ostrich. This same brioche is repeated in miniature form on Spur’s already famous pork belly sliders. Even though pork belly is not really my thing, I had to give them a try since I’d heard nothing but one rave after another. Topped with diced heirloom apples cooked en sous vide and a thick, sweet bourbon gastrique, the pork belly was cooked well, but still a little too intense and concentrated for my liking. Your mileage may vary.
Spur has a hint of Western vibe, but mostly it is very dark and very modern and a little mysterious. An art show featuring local photographer Peter de Lory’s lonely black and white images is currently projected into an empty frame on the main wall. There are three enormous mirrors hanging opposite the bar to better reflect the candlelight and shadows. A white log lit from within casts an eerie glow from a shelf high in the back. Huge slabs of polished tree trunk are fitted together to create several tall tabletops. The kitchen, like much of the cooking technique at Spur, is hidden from view.
I can’t wait to see what unearthly delights McCracken and Tough concoct for their next menu. In the meantime, the Rising Stars Revue is scheduled for March 24th at McCaw Hall, and many of my favorite local chefs are being honored as well (including Mark Fuller for Spring Hill and Jason Wilson for Crush, and special awards to Ethan Stowell for Restaurateur and Joshua Henderson of Skillet for Restaurant Concept). Congratulations to everyone! Especially Seattle.
I don’t understand Black Bottle. The menu confuses me. The wine list is baffling. The “gastro-tavern” itself can’t really decide where it falls along the space/time continuum. For some reason, I always imagine this must be what a contemporary American wine bar looks like in Barcelona. Or, maybe Buenos Aires via New York? I dunno. Nothing quite gels. It’s all very disjointed. And always that strange, wrought-iron wheel-within-a-wheel spinning slowly above you, an eye powered by kitchen convection and the hot air of a thousand Belltown hipsters. Make no mistake, this is one of the premier places in town to see and be seen. Modern, dark, lofty. An omnipresent and unidentifiable World Beat pulses continuously through the speakers, night or day. The space is elusive and transient.
As keenly hinted at above, the food at Black Bottle is all over the map. Eclectic? New American? It’s a lesson in geography and semiotics to eat or drink here. And the menu doesn’t provide much of a roadmap (and the servers run the gamut as well – from ultra-sweet and helpful to dismissive and indolent). Terse listings like “Chicken Morocco” or “Casbah Falafel Plate” with no further description or explanation. As it turns out, that moroccan chicken is exceptional, sweet and moist and served over fluffy basmati rice. The falafel plate is less inspired, overly dry and generally average. It’s not that chef Brian Durbin wants for skill (and in fact his plating composition is impeccable), it’s just that I don’t see a cohesive vision represented on the menu.
And I should also emphasize that despite all of this meta-analysis, there really are some excellent dishes at Black Bottle. You’ll just probably have to experiment a bit to discover them for yourself. I’m particularly fond of the Lime Spice Ceviché with Hominy – a great big bowl of scallops and whitefish with huge kernels of white hominy. A paper cone filled with hot and salty housemade tortilla chips comes on the side, along with a series of aesthetically pleasing dipping bowls holding lime, salt and chopped jalapeño so you can season the ceviché to your liking. Those tortilla chips can also be found alongside the Carne Asada Tacos, served on soft corn tortillas with fresh avocado and juicy grilled bites of steak. And just when you think you’ve connected the dots and are starting to find a theme, you are confronted with a bowl of Beef Pho. Really, Black Bottle? And you are filled with an almost perverse desire to try it. And then as you suspected, it doesn’t hold a candle to any of the hundred or so dedicated pho joints in town. (And also the brisket is grey and overcooked and fatty and makes you long for Monsoon).
Durbin also does veggies exceptionally well. In particular, Broccoli Blasted is a fan favorite – florets lightly brushed with olive oil and salt and then roasted until crispy. Potatoes and Cauliflower Curried is another hearty and warm winner. I can’t say the same for the assorted Flatbreads though (prosciutto and bechamel, smoked chicken and sun-dried cherries, “french country”(?). The bread itself is doughy and listless, and the toppings immediately slide off into an unappetizing heap on the plate. My very favorite dish: Seven Spice Shrimp. A beautiful tower of whole fried shrimp arranged in a circle with heads up, the antenna intertwined and reaching heavenward as if paying homage to the crustacean gods. It’s a thing of crunchy beauty.
It probably goes without saying that the eclectic and global nature of the menu spills over onto the wine list as well. You can easily find something from just about every region in the world – from California to Australia, Italy to Chile, Oregon to Spain. I had an Argentinian Malbec that was quite good, but nothing else has really piqued my interest. But I’ll be back to try again. There is something alluring about Black Bottle’s inability to commit. It’s all very flirtacious and enigmatic, like a first date.
So remember how I mentioned in my last post that the James Beard Foundation is inviting everyone to nominate their favorite chefs for the award this year? Well, I’d probably put safe money on Ethan Stowell taking home the prize. A nominee last year, and named one of the Best New Chefs in 2008 by Food & Wine magazine, Stowell is rapidly building a restaurant dynasty in Seattle à la Tom Douglas. Along with his business partner Patric Gabre-Kidan, Stowell’s empire now extends from the metropolitan Downtown destination Union, north to Belltown with his superlative Italian restaurant Tavolàta, up to the top of the Queen Anne Counterbalance with the intimate How to Cook a Wolf, and now over to Capitol Hill with the recently announced Anchovies and Olives (set to open early next year). All of the menus feature constantly rotating seasonal offerings, with some greatest hits and variations depending on the venue.
Of all of Stowell’s establishments, my very favorite is Tavolàta at 2nd and Battery, and a recent visit only cemented this notion. I arrived late with a large party after an evening of drinking, which is the best time to visit this cavernous, industrial expanse in the heart of Belltown. The energy is astonishing. The bar is packed. The wait is ridiculous. But it is so worth it. Put in your name, have a breathtaking glass of Sangiovese from Moris Farms and enjoy the endless stream of beautiful people. The central space is dominated by a massive 30 foot communal dining table next to the open kitchen. A handful of small tables and one-on-one booths line the walls, and upstairs some comfy lounge chairs and sofas are arranged near the windows with a scenic view of the crackheads in the alley (Welcome to Belltown!).
Stowell’s dishes are deceptive in their simplicity. Ingredients are used sparingly and in harmony to create a perfect gestalt where the final product always equals the sum of its parts. Try some antipasti — the Prosciutto di Parma with reggiano and trampetti olive oil is not overly salty and will simply melt in your mouth. The Garden Greens salad is one of the best in the City, with fresh and leafy baby lettuce, ricotta salata and pistachios. On this occasion, I swooned over a lemony cauliflower salad with golden raisins and pine nuts. The florets were warm and crisp, and the raisins were a revelation of sweetness.
But the real star of the show is the handmade pasta. The pasta dishes run the gamut, and it’s always fun to try something new and serve family style. I nearly always order the Spaghetti since I can’t even begin to approximate the perfection of this humble noodle in my own kitchen the same way it shines here. Tender and firm and perfect, with house cured anchovy, chili and garlic – a veritable bitchslap of flavor, instant sobriety in a bowl. The Strozzapreti with braised pork cheek and mascarpone will give you further strength for the bus ride home – the juicy, rich meat and large rolled noodles are substantial and will definitely require sharing (fun fact: strozzapreti means “priest strangler”). Linguine with mussels and garlic is another fan favorite, served in a bowl retaining the starchy, briny broth the shellfish and noodles were cooked in.
On this occasion, the hands-down winner was a seasonal offering, the toasted orechiette with butternut squash, chanterelles and oregano. The tiny ears of pasta captured the squash and mushrooms perfectly, and the oregano was easily the finest, most flavorful herb I’ve tasted in ages. I have no idea where Stowell scored such outrageously good seasoning, but for me, the oregano alone stole the show that night.
Go now and prepare for a wait. Because that’s nothing compared to the time it will take to get into Tavolàta if Stowell does win James Beard this year…
BONUS REVIEW! Earlier this Spring, I was invited by Seattle’s favorite alt-weekly The Stranger to guest blog with a couple of other regular commenters over at the Slog. It was shortly after How to Cook a Wolf opened, and I was totally infatuated with Stowell’s newest space. I felt compelled to write a review at the time, and so here it is for your enjoyment. That experience obviously had a profound effect on me, and successfully planted the seed for what you are reading today, so a big thanks to America’s Hometown Newspaper!
Have you heard? The James Beard Foundation recently invited the public to submit individual nominations for the award this year! Having fallen completely head-over-heels in love with Quinn’s gastropub on Capitol Hill, chef Scott Staples has definitely been on my short list for 2008. Given that inclination and weighing my vote, I felt it was imperative to pay a visit to his original establishment, the venerable Restaurant Zoë in Belltown (at 2nd and Blanchard). Would the same ardor bloom?
Upon arriving at Zoë, you must first pass through a dark curtain which effectively demarcates outside from within. And despite the floor to ceiling windows, there is still a feeling of separation from the rest of the world, like being in a fishbowl. The lights are low and cast an orange glow, the conversations are muted, the music downtempo. The tables are thoughtfully spaced and arranged, one of those rare places where there really are no bad seats in the house.
We started with cocktails, and were served several pieces of light and fluffy rosemary focaccia with a premixed oil and vinegar dipping sauce poured from a wine bottle. The waitstaff were attentive and knowledgeable, maybe five in total who sequentially swept the table throughout the evening. I downed my glass of La Pommette, a vibrant take on a French 75, with Calvados, lemon and hard cider. It was bright and invigorating. My partner ordered the Stormy Weather, a sweet and sour vodka drink with “parfait l’amour” and one of those cocktail umbrellas turned inside out, as if caught in a windstorm. It was a nice touch, the kind of thing that makes me smile.
Restaurant Zoë serves New American bistro cuisine, which means the usual assortment of small plates, large plates and obscure meats. As we considered the menu, the kitchen extended us a complimentary amuse-bouche – a tall shooter of carrot soup with tarragon and olive oil. It was a gracious gesture, and successfully whet my appetite. We ordered the famous fresh ricotta gnudi and an endive and arugula salad with crimson pear. The pear was crisp and sweet and balanced with an outstanding mellow Stilton, a light coating of honey vinaigrette and candied walnuts. The ricotta gnudi was like eating goose down pillows from heaven, served in a balsamic emulsion and parmesan butter sauce, with fried sage and truffle salt. That dish unquestionably lived up to the hype.
For the main course, I ordered wild boar bolognese with arugula pappardelle, chili flakes and shaved chunks of parmesan. The ground boar was rich and meaty, the flat green ribbons of pasta were expertly plated in coiled layers and the bolognese was explosively hot. The dish was absolutely delicious and had the intense heat and flavor that I crave. In pointed contrast however, my partner’s butternut squash risotto was an unequivocal disaster. The risotto was undercooked, which is like a hate crime against rice. The squash was served in unattractive cubes, and the lobster mushrooms (which are positively ubiquitous on menus this season) were uninspired. The entire dish was bland, and almost inedible. It was kind of shocking. From such lofty heights the fall is that much further, the failure that much more noticeable.
But one bad dish does not a bad restaurant make. And Restaurant Zoë is definitely worth a visit (and Scott Staples is still on my short list for the James Beard award this year, although he may have just been edged out by Scott Emerick, he of the colossal cassoulet). Honestly, Zoë did not capture my heart the same way Quinn’s does, with it’s vibrant energy and daring menu. But for a romantic evening with some original food, I’d say it ranks with the best.
Compliments to the sommelier as well, who recommended a reasonably priced, stellar bottle of Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley – Cristom Mt. Jefferson Cuvée. Another one to keep in mind. We finished the bottle over an autumn ice cream sandwich – pumpkin chocolate chip ice cream bookended with gingersnaps and covered in single malt butterscotch. It tasted like the season which inspired it, and as I parted the curtains to return to the real world, the sweetness on my lips punctuated the smell of the fallen leaves in the night air.