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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

anchovies & olives

The fourth and most recent entry into celebrated restaurateur Ethan Stowell’s growing empire is also the one I have been most eagerly anticipating.  I am a huge fan of Tavolàta and How to Cook a Wolf, and now Mr. Food and Wine Best New Chef 2008 was poised to open a seafood joint in my very own hood?  Was this at long last going to be the answer to my prayers for an innovative fish dish?  Would there be any reason to ever again leave Capitol Hill??

Hyperbole aside, the truth is that Anchovies & Olives is pretty great, but it’s not the end-all-be-all dining experience I was hoping for.  The industrial, mid-sized space still has that new restaurant smell, with lots of concrete and spare walls and deliberately exposed filaments.  Soft globes of light line the ceiling from one end of the room to the other.  It’s a little sterile, but if you happen to catch a breathtaking Summer sunset over the downtown skyline through giant plate glass windows while sipping a glass of prosecco, you’re not going to notice the lack of fixtures.  If you’re particularly lucky, Stowell himself will be at the helm of the most audacious open kitchen in town – seriously, you can see everything everyone is cooking or prepping or plating at all times (the polar opposite of Wolf).  Otherwise, chef de cuisine Charles Walpole will be at the helm, executing Stowell’s vision with steady hand and shaved head.

The most immediately remarkable thing about A&O is that it boldly rejects the locavore trend currently dominating the Northwest scene.  None of the fish is locally sourced.  There are no lengthy paeans to this organic ingredient or that sustainable farm.  It’s almost an affront to open a seafood restaurant in Seattle without a single instance of salmon to be found anywhere on the menu.  Stowell is throwing the gauntlet, and there’s a brazen defiance to his approach which flies in the face of the sanctimonious tilth crowd (indeed, our server even boasted “Fish from the East Coast just tastes better”). 

But does it really?

If we’re talking about the crudos, then the answer is a resounding Yes (although it’s admittedly futile to try and separate the food from the chef).  Stowell’s raw dishes at A&O handily steal the show.  A plate of Hamachi in a basil reduction sauce with rhubarb and pea vines is painted with eye-popping pinks and greens and has a gentle, grassy flavor.  Soft and pale Fluke, a usually very mild fish, is elevated by gems of cubed grapefruit and brilliant mint.  Some ideas work better than others.  For example, on a recent visit, a piece of Yellowfin Tuna was regrettably drowned in an overly sweet strawberry sauce with crushed black pepper (a misstep to be sure, but I sort of appreciate the risk).

anchovies & olives inside

The actual main entrées also succeed to varying degrees.  I found a hot filet of grilled Spanish Mackerel served over blanched fingerling potatoes with capers and a “salsa verde” to be smoky and flaky and a little bit dull.  It was completely upstaged by a piece of Striped Bass with fennel leafs, beets and tiny, salty sea beans.  The Bass was meatier, tastier and juicier than the Mackerel, and the vibrant green sea beans gave a wonderfully briny flavor to the dish.  I was initially excited to try some Soft Shell Crab, but the overly chewy texture and intense saltiness was fairly off-putting (and it didn’t help that the accompanying Swiss chard was bitter and tough).

On the other hand, it’s no surprise that Anchovies & Olives fairs much better in the pasta department.  I was thrilled to see that my beloved anchovy, garlic and chilies dish was on the menu (most recently served over thick Bigoli noodles).  There’s Octopus Gnocchi and Salt Cod Puttanesca and Squid Pappardelle.  But even better than all of the above (and an early contender for my favorite dish of 2009), is the Tagliarini with Uni, pangrattato and chives.  It’s a completely original dish, unlike anything I’ve eaten, and wonderful in every conceivable way.  The sea urchin is blended with butter to create a rich orange sauce which clings neatly to the tender, flat ribbons of pasta.  The pile of shaved breadcrumbs gives additional texture to the sweet, bright, oceanic flavor.  Each bite is an epiphany.

In keeping with the custom of Stowell’s other places, there are no reservations available at Anchovies and Olives.  You’ve just got to show up and hope for the best.  There is however, a more casual, almost loose vibe here which clearly sets this restaurant apart from the others.  I mean, they were playing Bob freakin’ Marley in there the other night.  No kidding.  -10 hipster points.  Although, to be fair, A&O is hardly playing to the usual Capitol Hill crowd (especially with prices ranging from $14-18 a plate).  Regardless of musical proclivities and some inconsistencies in the food, I’m happy to finally have Stowell in the hood, and will no doubt make this a destination when the inevitable request is made by visitors for “Northwest seafood!™”

Won’t they be surprised.

Anchovies & Olives on Urbanspoon

spinasse front

UPDATE:  December 4

Wow, I’m really, really late in mentioning this, but it’s still worth an update .  I first heard the rumors back in freakin’ May, but as far as I know there was never any official announcement.  Nonetheless, Justin Neidermeyer has indeed quietly packed up and shuffled back to Piedmont, from whence he came.  The kitchen is now in the (presumably) capable hands of Jason Stratton.  Formerly of Poppy and Cafe Juanita, you can read all about the new chef over here.

* * *

So by now I’m guessing most of you have probably heard the stories about Justin Neidermeyer and his uncanny gift for spinning pasta into gold at Cascina Spinasse, a culinary love letter to Piedmont on Capitol Hill.  Spinasse has garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim since opening last summer, and after a few tweaks to the dining experience (the multi-course prix fixe dinner menu is no longer mandatory, although communal seating endures), the buzz has continued to spread unabated.  So naturally I was pretty excited and had fairly high expectations when we finally decided to go check it out a few weeks ago.  The results were unexpectedly mixed.

For starters, the restaurant itself is dark and rustic, with twinkling candles and white lace curtains and an immaculate attention to detail.  From the framed photos and maps on the wall, to tiny vases with lovely greens on quaint wooden shelves, everything seems expertly positioned to present a perfect unity of vision.  Upon entering, the room seemed strangely quiet given the number of people crowded into the surprisingly small space.  If for no other reason than to maximize bodies, the large communal dining tables actually make sense in this setting.  Every so often, I would catch a glimpse of the maestro at work in the respectable kitchen behind the bar in the back.

Since I was with a large party, we decided to order à la carte (although there are multiple family style menus to choose from if desired, including the menu degustazione, where one can literally try every single thing on the menu that evening – $75 per person).  As it was, we virtually accomplished that undertaking given the entire lot of us.  Before we could even contemplate the menu though, our server brought us a complimentary platter of crostini – one variety with duck liver paté, and another with a nettle ricotta spread.  It was a nice touch, and one that I sincerely appreciate (as I’ve mentioned before).

We started with some pretty unique antipasti, including an absolutely exquisite steak tartare on special that evening.  The raw, finely minced beef was fresh and cool and seasoned simply with salt and pepper and a wonderful olive oil (in general, the olive oil used at Spinasse is some of the most flavorful I’ve had in recent memory – it really stood out and added depth to several of the dishes).  I was also extremely impressed with a plate of thinly sliced, cold poached veal served with a creamy tuna, caper and lemon aioli.  It had a light, smoky flavor and was somewhat reminiscent of deviled eggs.  Less successful overall was a plate of anchovies in piemontese green sauce.  The combination of pungent, dry fish with the intense garlic in the gremolata was simply too overwhelming for my palate.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention that we had some fairly serious issues with the wine list.  Piedmont is a huge wine-producing region in Italy, and the list at Spinasse exhaustively reflects this.  However, actually pairing a bottle with each course wound up being surprisingly difficult.  And with no apparent sommelier that I could discern, we were left in the hands of the server, who made a heroic effort but clearly couldn’t grasp what we were looking for.  Zero for three on recommendations, and one particular bottle was so far off the mark that we discussed sending it back (leathery, with huge notes of barnyard).  It was unfortunate, and while I’m hardly going to extrapolate any kind of definitive appraisal based on a single visit, I thought it was a glaring enough deficiency to comment on.

Thankfully, I was not disappointed with the actual pasta for which Neidermeyer has been universally celebrated.  In particular, his famous handmade tajarin was outstanding.  Suffused with a meaty tomato ragu, the impossibly thin-cut, bright yellow egg noodles were light and delicate and absolutely delicious.  We also ordered the tajarin with butter and sage, which was a little more subtle, but still awesome.  Moreover, that sage butter was used as the primary sauce for a rich Jerusalem artichoke-stuffed ravioli plate – the mild nuttiness of the sunchoke accented with toasted pine nuts, the whole dish lush and buttery.

We finished our pasta course and were still enjoying ourselves, so we decided to split one of the secondi plates.  At this point, we were still waiting for a side of roasted cauliflower that we had ordered much earlier in the evening, which still hadn’t arrived, and for which our server was profusely apologetic.  It made no difference to me, especially after we ordered the sausage with lentils and kale, but in the end our server ultimately comped us a couple of desserts for the extra wait.  It was a gracious gesture, especially considering the whole wine debacle.  Sadly, the bottom of the cauliflower was seared to a crisp, and while I enjoyed the flavor of the near caramelized balsamic vinegar, others did not.  I’m also fairly certain that the cauliflower itself was actually a cross-pollinated broccoflower, which was an unusual substitution.  (Edit:  As food lover points out in the comments below, in fact it was the Fibonacci fractaled florets of the Romanesco Cauliflower, not a broccoflower, that was actually consumed that evening).

So here’s the thing.  That last dish we ordered was a total trainwreck.  The finely ground sausage was rolled into four ping pong-sized balls, wrapped individually in caul fat and (presumably) pan-fried.  They were decidedly undercooked, difficult to chew, and regrettably oversalted.  I know, I know, but this wasn’t even an issue of taste so much as a genuine kitchen error.  Someone clearly knocked the salt grinder into the meat while the sausage was being cased.  There can be no other explanation.  We could hardly bring ourselves to touch the kale and lentils.

We quietly ate our free chocolate custard terrine and departed.

I want to reiterate that in good faith I cannot possibly render a definitive opinion on Spinasse based on a single visit.  I can only speak to this particular experience.  It’s still a relatively new restaurant and there obviously remain some kinks to be ironed out.  That said, the meal was crazy expensive, and I justifiably have higher expectations when I’m throwing down that kind of cash.  So while I fully intend to go back at some point, it’s probably not going to be anytime soon.  Sorry, Spinasse.  I’m just as surprised as you.

Cascina Spinasse on Urbanspoon

oddfellows front

UPDATE:  April 13

Well that was short-lived.  It seems Ericka Burke has quietly parted ways with Oddfellows, choosing instead to return to her post at Volunteer Park Café.  It appears to be amicable, and it’s not terribly surprising given the relatively outspoken criticism of the food (including by Derschang herself).  Brendan Kiley breaks it down over here.

Best news yet?  Apparently culinary rock star Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce and Corson Building fame will be on board during the interim, although I can’t tell if he’s actually cooking or just consulting on a menu redesign.  Only one way to find out!

* * *

Last month, in the midst of the snowstorms and giftwrap, local coolhunting impresario Linda Derschang quietly opened her latest venture on Capitol Hill – Oddfellows Café and Bar.  Established in the century-old Oddfellows building on 10th and Pine and promoted as a collaboration with chef Ericka Burke (of Volunteer Park Café and Carmelita fame), I was immediately intrigued by the concept.  Would the place succeed as both hipster mecca and soccer mom sanctuary?  I strapped on my snowshoes and set forth to find out, that friggin’ R.E.M. song stuck on permanent repeat in my head (you know the one).

Speaking of music, Derschang has always focused on the significance of music at her establishments, and Oddfellows is no different.  There is no jukebox here, but the music is loud and notable and the playlist is meticulously crafted.  There is nary a dead animal in sight.  I guess Linda has finally gotten over the taxidermy chic so prominent at Smith and King’s Hardware.  Instead, the décor is all vintage sepia photographs and antique kitchen wares.  There is an enormous, faded American flag hanging on the wall by the front door.  The space is cavernous and rustic, all brick and worn hardwood.  The sheer size of the airy room is shocking in comparison to Derschang’s other places around town.  It reminds me of an old-school dining hall, with long tables and benches and a constant low level roar.

oddfellows inside

The menu is equally thoughtful, and highlights Ericka Burke’s straightforward approach to food preparation.  Lots of grilled sandwiches and baked goods and other comfort foods.  A postage stamp on the printed menu says “We love… we love… SHEPHERDS PIE”.  As it turns out, so do I.  Creamy florets of buttery mashed potatoes are delicately piped over savory ground beef, diced celery, carrots and onions.  Simple and warm and good.  Perfect with a pint of Rogue Dead Guy Ale, one of my very favorite winter beers.  The café menu during the day is not substantially different from the bar menu at night, with the most obvious distinction being that the deep fryer is not functional while the sun is out.  So in the evening, when the baby strollers have been replaced by laughably tight jeans, you can order french fries served in a great big silver coffee tin and a side of special sauce to go along with your Oddfellow sandwich (apparently ketchup and curry powder equals special).  During the day you must place your order at the bar and take a number to your table, but traditional wait service is offered at night.

That signature Oddfellow panini is really quite exceptional – a trio of meats (salami, coppa and ham) grilled up with tangy, pickled red onions and melted gruyere on toasty slabs of dark wheat bread.  A perfect harmony of bold flavors.  Those fries however, were not so good.  Mealy, underdone, bland.  On the other hand, the pork rillettes served on crostini with cornichons, dijon mustard and more of those outstanding pickled onions ranks with some of the best I’ve ever had.  Rich and lush and served in a cute glass jar, slather the shredded pork over the crispy hunks of bread and try not to drool on yourself.  Enjoy with the signature Oddfellow cocktail – bourbon and cointreau and blood orange bitters.  In general, the drinks are strong and served in quaint, old-fashioned cocktail glasses (check out the Elder Fashion No. 2 – gin and campari and grapefruit).

I think my only real complaint with Oddfellows has to be the ridiculous amount of energy spent on branding.  I know Derschang is an incredibly successful businesswoman, but from the sandwiches to the cocktails to the cookies (chocolate chips, walnuts, molasses), nearly everything seems to be appended with the OddfellowTM name.  There’s even Oddfellow swag for sale – tote bags, t-shirts, postcards, etc.  I know name recognition is important, but this seems like overkill to me.  Of course, maybe I’m just annoyed because I still can’t get that frickin’ song out of my head.  Why do the heathens rage behind the firehouse…?

Oddfellows Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon

kingfish cafe

So the holidays are officially upon us, and now that the snowpocalypse has passed we are once again free to partake of our lovely City’s fine cuisine.  Late nights and later mornings set the stage perfectly for brunch, and there is none finer in town than the familial Southern cooking at the Kingfish Café.  Located at 19th Ave and Mercer on the east side of Capitol Hill (just across the street from Monsoon), the Kingfish Café serves up huge portions of rich, satisfying soul food.  They also make a mean Bloody Mary – spicy, with lots of black pepper to give your rosy cheeks a little extra color on a cold winter morning.

And speaking of cold, rule number one at the Kingfish Café: close the door after yourself!  Chances are likely that you’ll forget, but don’t fret – one of the Coaston sisters will swoop in to rescue you (the owners, Laurie and Leslie are just about the sweetest ladies on the Hill).  It’s hard not to get distracted upon entering, as you’ll be greeted by an inevitable mass of patrons waiting for a table.  Like so many of our other beloved local culinary institutions, the Kingfish Café gets positively mobbed on the weekends.  I know the concept of brunch is lazy by definition, but if you can get there a little earlier the difference in wait time is dramatic.  There is a second dining room.  It may or may not be open.

And once you finally are seated, don’t expect things to speed up any.  The Kingfish Café can get pretty hectic and service can be a little slow, but you’re in no hurry.  C’mon, where do you really need to be on a Saturday morning?  Just enjoy the old timey jazz on the stereo and savor the delightful aromas coming from chef Kenyatta Carter’s open kitchen.  Admire the huge, blown-up sepia toned photographs which line the walls – portraits from generations of the Coaston’s family (including Langston Hughes, third cousin).

Believe me, it’s so worth the wait.  In a City known for its crabcakes, I am of the belief that the crabcake dewey with herbed hollandaise served at the Kingfish Café is easily the best.  A superb mixture of catfish, lump crab and sweet red peppers, the cakes are fried up crispy with butter and will melt in your mouth.  The poached eggs served on top with a peppery pink hollandaise sauce just add to the rich decadence of this brilliant dish.  Top with green scallions and parsley, and served with a side of outstanding, fiery homefries (more peppers, onions and a hash of potatoes), you’ve got my ideal brunch.

Bring friends, because you’re going to want to try everything on the menu.  From impossibly creamy, perfectly cooked grits to a fluffy biscuit the size of your head slathered with chicken gravy and sweet onions, everything is rich and warm and soulful.  And spicy – the andouille sausage served in a French creole eggtorte is smoking hot, contrasting beautifully with the cool, roasted tomato coulis spread over a rumble of eggs and peppers.  If you really want to get your South on, the requisite fried chicken and waffles are also available (with syrup or gravy – your choice).

The Kingfish Café is also open for lunch and dinner, but for me, brunch is where it’s at.  It’s just such a wonderful, down home place to bring visitors from out of town, friends or family on a Sunday morning.  Just remember to take your time, bring your patience, and close the door after yourself.

Kingfish Cafe on Urbanspoon

quinn's door

So Seattle Magazine recently published their Reader’s Choice ballot for the annual Best Restaurants issue in April.  You can place your votes right over here, if you’re into that kind of thing.  Perusing the ballot got me thinking – in a year absolutely dominated with big name openings, who will actually be crowned Best New Restaurant?  Poppy?  The Corson Building?  Spring Hill?  I guess technically it’s been a little over a year, but I would still be quick to nominate chef Scott Staples’ inimitable gastropub Quinn’s on Capitol Hill.  In fact it’s hard to believe that this spacious, unspeakably hip destination for Belgian ale and a side of bone marrow hasn’t always existed there on the corner of 10th and Pike.  It already seems like an institution.

Quinn’s was immediately mobbed upon opening, and gained some notoriety for its no reservations policy.  Shoulder-to-shoulder waiting room only, an impossible crush of people held back by a single pair of indigo, velvet curtains (a clever mirror image of the curtains in the vestibule at Staples’ other joint in Belltown, Restaurant Zoë).  Things have eased up a bit now, and Quinn’s has recently added a lunch menu so you can get your wild boar sloppy joe fix earlier in the day if need be.  And that sloppy joe is most definitely worth the wait – rich, ground chunks of mellow pork in a creamy tomato sauce with crispy shoestring onions on a beautiful, buttery hamburger bun… oh my god.  If you’re lucky, maybe it will be garnished with a great big fried jalapeño.  Regardless, you’re going to need a knife and fork to get through it.  And a glass of Grimbergen served in the appropriate stemmed goblet, which you should duly appreciate.

Malty, tangy and a little sweet, Belgian ales are considered the best beers in the world, and the drink menu at Quinn’s has them in full effect.  Abbey?  Trappist?  Lambic!  This is one of the few places I know where you can actually order a Geuze at the bar – but be forewarned, you’re going to pay for the privilege (we’re talking $14 for 375mL of Oud Beersel).  Local microbrews are also given their respect due, and on the weekend the bartender will actually pull you a pint from a featured cask (recently, on the coldest day of the year, Deschutes Black Butte Porter was on offer to warm my stomach and my soul).

I can’t emphasize enough how well these exceptional beers pair with the meaty delights on the menu – from frog legs to oxtail to rabbit ragout, if it once scampered on four legs, it’s now on a plate for your pleasure.  I’m crazy about Staples’ house made pork sausage, served over lentils or German potato salad or whatever else might be seasonal.  Juicy, satisfying, spectacular.  Being a proper gastropub, French fries are ubiquitous across the assorted plates, but Quinn’s version of poutine is particularly unique – double-fried frites covered with demi-glace and fontina.  You won’t get these in Montrèal.  There’s also beer battered fish & chips on the menu.  You might be tempted, but skip it.  It’s out of place, it’s kind of bland, and Pike Place Fish Fry is right across the street so you really have no excuse.  On the other hand, do not overlook the easily overlooked soup.  On the aforementioned coldest day of the year, I had a bowl of puréed potato and leek soup with bacon and chives that was out of this world.  Silky and hot, with the most perfect balance of salt I’ve had in a single dish this year.  Take notice.

quinn's

The scene at Quinn’s is somewhat requisite to the experience, which you would probably expect from the location.  But be it all or none, from the pure energy of a weekend evening to the quiet reflection of a subdued afternoon, it doesn’t matter – the music will always be perfect.  I mean, they have Louder than Bombs on rotation.  Nothing makes me happier than staring out massive floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows at the denizens of my City while enjoying a pulled pork sandwich and a glass of Maudite with the motherfucking Smiths playing in the background.

Like Café Presse or How to Cook a Wolf, I credit Quinn’s with revamping the restaurant landscape of Seattle and simultaneously capturing my heart.  I can’t wait to see what the New Year brings… (Anchovies and Olives, anyone?)

Quinn's on Urbanspoon

cafe presse

If you ever need to find me, I suggest you try looking just around the corner of 12th and Madison on Capitol Hill.  Over the course of the past year, Jim Drohman’s neighborhood bar Café Presse has quickly cemented itself as my very favorite restaurant in Seattle.  It’s probably the first place I have ever wanted to eat my way through the entire menu.  And dozens of visits later, I still haven’t managed to accomplish this, for a number of reasons.

For starters, Café Presse has the greatest Croque Madame on earth. The creamy béchamel and gruyère are melted over the soft baked ham sandwich, and the egg served sunny side up on top is fried perfectly every single time.  I love cutting into the vibrant yellow yolk and watching it slowly drip down the sides of the sandwich.  It’s a work of art.  Additionally, any of the other sandwiches en baguette are going to satisfy.  From pork rillettes to jambon cru, with a side of the best frites in town, you can’t go wrong.  Don’t miss the grilled sardines with bibb lettuce – salty and smoky and straight from the sea.

Speaking of bibb lettuce, the salade verte is a masterpiece.  Crispy and vibrant green leaves stacked one on top of the other, lightly coated with a mustardy vinaigrette and scattered hazelnuts.  It’s simple and splendid (and it’s only $4).  And that’s another wonderful thing about Café Presse – for the caliber of the cuisine, the prices are astronomically fair.  Particularly the wine, which is served in variously sized pitchers à la chef Drohman’s other beloved restaurant Le Pichet.  And though many of the items on the menu are similar to his downtown bistro (and likewise many of the dishes rotate seasonally), Café Presse is ultimately a much more casual and relaxed space.  I like to sit at the bar and sip on a demi pichet of La Chaussynette and just absorb the scene.

The crowd is more diverse and dynamic than downtown, no doubt due to the location (next to Seattle University) and the hours (open daily from 7AM to 2AM!).  The space is bright and airy, with wood ceilings and brick walls crisscrossed by giant black industrial girders.  The back of the restaurant is separated from the front by the kitchen, and is generally more subdued.  The front holds the bar and several green-topped tables bathed in natural light during the day via the epic skylight above.  There is a newstand and framed soccer jerseys and a great big beautiful clock hanging from the ceiling.  There is always something good playing on the stereo.  Café Presse truly succeeds at being the “sort of place that Parisians use as a kind of alternative living room”.

On a recent visit, a group of us shared a simple bowl of almonds sautéed in olive oil and coarse sea salt along with gâteau au foie de volaille, a terrine of smooth chicken liver and dried cherry compote.  The almonds were crunchy and the pâté was cool and rich.  I was delighted to see that Drohman’s famous caramelized onion soup was back on the menu for the Autumn, and ordered up a big bowl.  Served piping hot, with two huge baguette croutons and melted comté cheese… tell me one thing more than this.  How about the roasted chicken?  Same drill as at Le Pichet, order for two, allow an hour to prepare, allow days to recover.

If you happened to be in Seattle for one night only, this would be the place I would take you for a truly authentic, local and unique meal and experience.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Café Presse on Urbanspoon

baguette box

Friends, allow me to once again sing the praises of Eric Banh, chef to the Gods.  Not only is he the genius behind the best Vietnamese restaurant on the West Coast, but he has also gifted us with one of the finest sandwich shops in town – Baguette Box.  Located just over the I-5 at Pine and Minor, Baguette Box is worth a trip for lunch no matter where you work in the City.  Take your coworkers, take your friends.  You’re going to need help making your way through an incredibly decadent side order of truffle oil and sea salt french fries.

And while those hand-cut truffle fries might just be worth a trip in themselves, the real stars are the imaginative sandwiches served up on huge chewy demi-baguettes from Le Panier at Pike Place Market.  The bread is firm, the crust is crispy and the sandwiches hold together extremely well (unlike say, the grilled pork cuban at Paseo, which requires a roll of paper towels to eat and you’ll still be wearing half of it on your shirt when you’re finished, but more on that some other time).  And while the Paseo grilled pork may be the undisputed No. 1 King of the Seattle Sandwich Scene, the runner-up is easily the much esteemed Crispy Drunken Chicken at Baguette Box.  Bite-sized chunks of battered chicken are deep-fried on the spot, coated with a sticky, gooey glaze of sweet-and-sour sauce, paired up with caramelized onions and a sprig of fresh cilantro and then masterfully arranged in the baguette.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still need plenty of napkins, but you won’t need to hose yourself down after eating this brilliant sandwich.

I’m particularly partial to the coconut braised tofu baguette.  Reminiscent of a traditional Vietnamese banh mi, but so much better.  The marinated tofu is pan-fried and brushed with aioli, then served with red onion, pickled daikon carrots and that signature sprig of cilantro.  It’s probably my favorite vegetarian sandwich in town.  I also enjoy the grilled ‘basque’ chorizo baguette, which is hot and spicy and served with harissa and onions.  I’m less fond of the braised pork shoulder and red wine baguette – it sounds absolutely delicious with coriander clove and sweet red peppers, but I found the ground filling to be way too greasy.  Your mileage may vary.  There’s also a rotating sandwich on the menu featuring assorted charcuterie from Armandino Batali’s famed Salumi Artisan Cured Meats (which make some damn fine sandwiches themselves).

Compared to the truffle fries, the other side dishes available for order are much simpler, but equally tasty.  Beets with olive oil.  Red potato salad and stone-ground mustard.  Seasonal greens.  But everything is fresh and delicious and worth exploring.

The space itself is sparse and minimal, with a bare concrete floor and a large central communal dining table and a couple of tiny 2-seaters along the walls.  Marvel at the strange dog paintings.  Have a glass of wine (the pedigree from Monsoon continues at Baguette Box, but on a radically smaller scale).  Eat a sandwich on Capitol Hill.  If you’re absolutely desperate, there is a second Baguette Box in Fremont (lovingly referred to as the “douche-Baguette Box”, no thanks to the impossibly obnoxious on-site management)EDIT:  I’ve been meaning to update this for a while now, but G.M. Douche-baguette has long since left the building.  Eric Banh don’t suffer no fools!  The kids currently working at the Fremont location are all friendly and talented and will whip you up a sandwich in record time.  It’s right next door to PCC on the ground floor of the single ugliest building in Seattle (you know the one).

baguette box fremont

P.S. and slightly off-topic: For the Eric Banh fans… Last Monday, Monsoon began serving “Alive @ 5″, a happy hour featuring a $5 food and wine menu and highlighting new creations from the culinary team in advance of Monsoon East’s opening.  Weekdays from 5:00 to 6:30 pm.  I’ll see you there.

Baguette Box on Urbanspoon

Baguette Box on Urbanspoon

pike street fish fry signage

After the meteoric rise and staggering collapse of chef Michael Hebberoy’s culinary empire in Portland, I was highly dubious when he fled North and set up shop in town.  Apparently I am that rare gastronaut who remains completely indifferent to the “underground” restaurant scene typified by Hebberoy’s One Pot or Gabriel Claycamp’s Gypsy/Vagabond.  The Kill the Restaurant movement has always struck me as more than a little bit smug (or at least more so than the rest of the scene).

So imagine my surprise when Hebberoy quietly opened a tiny take-away fish fry joint on 10th Ave, “smooshed in-between Moe Bar and Neumos”, in the spot that the dearly beloved Frites used to inhabit.  This was not the act of conceit that word-of-mouth had led me to believe were the hallmarks of the chef.  Well, it is with no small amount of boot in mouth that I retract my misinformed quick value judgment and sing the praises of the miraculous Pike Street Fish Fry.

Last Friday night, after several pints and a few rounds of pool, the crew decided sustenance was in order before we parted ways for the evening.  Finding ourselves at the corner of 10th and Epiphany, I realized that I was just inebriated enough to forego my prejudices and descend into Hebberoy’s world.  I hesitated, and then took the plunge.  It was like walking into a David Lynch movie.  A low wood-paneled ceiling, soft red lights, pickling jars with mysterious contents along the wall.  A porthole into the “kitchen”.  It felt a little bit magical, like a secret.  We were the sole patrons at that rare moment just before the shows end and the bars close, and so managed to appropriate the only actual table in the space (there are also a couple of bars you can lean against, and some wooden tables outside on the sidewalk).

pike street fish fry

I kinda fell in love with the place even before I tried the food.  Maybe it was because they had Anchor Steam on tap, my very favorite beer to drink with fish and chips, and virtually impossible to come by in the Northwest.  Maybe it was the cashier and the cook, who were exceptionally genial.  Probably it was my bias slipping away.  We placed our epic order and within moments, were transported to food nirvana.  Each order of fish comes with your choice of sauce, so we paired catfish with lemon aioli and ling cod with the housemade tartar.  Approximately 95% of the time, I will forego tartar sauce for malt vinegar, but this tartar made me a believer.  Creamy and lemony, untainted by that sickening sweet pickle relish.  The fish itself is served not as a filet, but as little flaky chunks of blistering hot maritime delight.  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, you find a deep fried lemon and proclaim genius.

The accompanying chips were crispy, salty and hot.  I had heard the seasoned spanish fries were great too, but figured I’d start with the basics.  Additionally, we ventured away from the batter and also ordered some grilled steak with curry “ketchup”.  These were served as bite-sized chunks of skewered cow and were tender and delicious.  Everything was perfect and I couldn’t have been happier.

Just as we finished up, there was a massive influx of people as the neighboring bars closed up shop.  As I stood enjoying the spectacle and the night, I was once again reminded that this intersection is truly the heart of Seattle.  Not a bad place to be, Mr. Hebberoy.  I wish you the best of luck.

Pike Street Fish Fry on Urbanspoon

poppy

So!  Poppy!  Here are my first impressions, but I feel like I need to make a confession first:  I’ve never been to the Herbfarm.  I don’t know Jerry Traunfeld.  I don’t know the new guy.  And I don’t know about a $300 nine-course meal.

But I do know that I can’t wait to go back to Poppy.  What a fantastic experience.  I cannot believe the space they’ve carved out of that old brick building on the north end of Broadway and Roy.  It’s cavernous, with epic floor-to-ceiling windows and bright colors and a goddamned Alexander Calder mobile floating over the kitchen.  This is exactly the whimsy I crave, in a place where I least expected to find it.  This is not a precious restaurant, you won’t be speaking in dulcet tones, and you could probably afford to eat here every night.

The concept is simple and wonderful – an Indian style thali serving composed of ~9 distinct small plates.  But first, drinks.  The bar is fantastic and I eagerly anticipate a future where I imbibe everything on the menu.  For my maiden voyage, I ordered the papi delicious, a hornitos plata tequila concoction with crushed red bell pepper, jalapeno, lime and mint that completely knocked me on my ass.  The martini glass was rimmed with smoked paprika and hellfire.  While I sipped on my own mortality, we snacked on fried mussels (cooked and then plated in their original shells!) and curry leaf vadas, a spicy battered potato doughnut.

And then, the thali.  Accompanied by the man himself – yep, true to form, chef Traunfeld came to our table to personally describe each dish.  He was unassuming, humble and gracious.  It was a nice touch, considering the number of Herbfarm alum in attendance.  The platter was fastidiously arrayed with small cups and bowls, and upon arrival there was a wonderful moment of anticipation – where to begin?  My first bite (second bite, third bite, GONE) was a silky smooth cauliflower soup with clove.  And then I was off, leaping between romano beans with hazelnut, qualicum scallop with carrot and burdock, and a perfect piece of duck leg served with huckleberry on a parsnip purée (which lent a deceptive confit mouth feel to the dish).  Those huckleberries were probably the highlight of the meal, and were repeated on the lemon verbena panna cotta we shared for dessert.

The rest of the thali was rounded out with (comparatively) simple fingerling potatoes, a bulgur, melon and cucumber salad and a cup of surprisingly dull beets.  Seriously, it seemed like beets for the sake of beets.  The centerpiece of the platter was a bowl of matsutake mushroom rice and a large piece of sesame naan (used judiciously to mop up every last drop of huckleberry to be found).  Worth noting:  the duck and scallops could be swapped out for a total vegetarian experience, replaced by absolutely stellar chanterelle croquettes and a plate of tandoor-roasted lobster mushrooms.  Thankfully, there were enough people in our party for me to taste everything, but in the future it’s going to be difficult choosing between meat and fungus.

Overall, the experience utterly surpassed my expectations.  Our server (who was outstanding), mentioned that they’ll be revising the menu every couple of weeks.  I can’t wait to go back.

Poppy on Urbanspoon

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