paseo fremont

What is there to say about the mighty Paseo that hasn’t already been said?  No doubt if you’re reading this, you’ve already begun to nod your head and salivate… checking your watch and counting the hours until lunch, your mind drifting away to Caribbean climes.  Allow me then to simply add my voice to the chorus and sing the praises of this, our undisputed King of Cubans, Seattle’s reigning sandwich champion.

There is a tiny, corrugated tin shack way up on Fremont Ave. with red doors and no signage.  Paseo doesn’t need a sign.  Just look for the permanent line of people out the door and up the block most times of day, rain or shine.  During the summer lunch rush, you can expect up to an hour’s wait, no exaggeration.  People order piles of sandwiches and carry them out, huge grins on their faces.  There are a handful of tables in the tiny stand, but unless you get lucky, you’re not going to want to wait for one of those.

Recently, on a local message board that I frequent, a question was posed which sought recommendation on a definitive last meal before departing Seattle.  Where would you go?  What would you eat?  The universal consensus was Paseo, the legendary Grilled Pork sandwich.  Massive barbequed filets of pork covered with caramelized sweet onions and black pepper, giant sprigs of fresh cilantro, spicy jalapeños, romaine lettuce and creamy garlic aioli on a lightly toasted French baguette the size of a baby.  Once you start eating it, you won’t be able to stop.  The bread is soft and tangy, but you’ll still have to unhinge your jaw to get your mouth around the behemoth.  Onions will slide down your fingers and sauce will drip down your face, but eat without shame – you are in the presence of greatness.

paseo inside

All of the sandwiches at Paseo are ridiculously rich and messy, so don’t forget to bring a roll of paper towels.  If you’ve been fasting for several weeks, I can think of nothing more indulgent than a Cuban Roast sandwich – tender chunks of marinated pork shoulder, juicy with a hint of sweetness.  If you’re particularly lucky, you’ll run into an entirely jet black piece of caramelized onion that will knock you on your ass.  Those sautéed onions are truly astonishing, so good that there’s a whole vegetarian sandwich dedicated to them.  As if you needed anything more, each sandwich comes with a side of soft and buttery corn on the cob wrapped in tin foil.

If you want something a little less obscenely decadent, go for the Paseo Prawns.  Swimming in sautéed garlic tapenade, the Black Tiger prawns are plump and juicy and a much lighter option than some of the other sandwich offerings.  You can order the prawns on a heat scale of 1 to 5 stars, but even to the max, you’ll hardly break a sweat (Paseo is way more spicy-spice than spicy-hot).  Or, if you’re really looking to go light, get the Tofu Delight and a cup of black beans (and watch out for the bay leaf).

Back in the day, I had a friend who used to shake his head at my pescetarian ways and say “You have no idea what you’re missing.”  He was referring to the Midnight Cuban Press, and there were never truer words spoken.  That always stuck with me, so when I finally rediscovered the joys of meat, I journeyed North, waited in the epic line and was granted an audience with destiny.  Billed as “our contribution to the Fremont arts”, the Midnight Cuban Press is the pinnacle of all that has come before –  huge chunks of chewy Cuban roast pork, melty pungent Swiss cheese, tangy slices of sweet banana peppers and thin slices of smoky wonderful ham.  And always the onions.  The entire thing is thrown into a hot press covered with tin foil and then heated to create a savory, meaty, dripping mess of smiles.  If you manage to restrain yourself, you can probably get two separate meals out of the Midnight Cuban – it’s a monster.  Still, who are we kidding?

paseo ballard

Paseo is best enjoyed in the Summertime, and that means you’ve got to make haste people!  Time is running out before we are shortly plunged back into darkness.  But here’s something you might not know.  Last year, Paseo opened a second sandwich stand way down on Seaview Ave. in Ballard (towards Golden Gardens).  It’s still wildly popular with the locals, but it’s just off the beaten path enough that you won’t have to hassle with the same crush of grilled pork junkies that frequent the Fremont location.  Look for the bright pink building and the choirs of angels.  Either way you go, Paseo is CASH ONLY so plan accordingly. Now go eat like it’s your last meal in town.

Paseo (Fremont) on Urbanspoon

Paseo (Ballard) on Urbanspoon

xoxo

marination

My fellow citizens, have you been enjoying the Seattle street food revolution even half as much as me?  Are we not truly living in glorious times, where airstream trailers and colossal iron pigs can travel freely from one neighborhood to the next, bestowing their culinary riches to the masses?  Well citizens, one of the newest kids on the curb is also undoubtedly one of the best – I speak of the Hawaiian-Korean fusion stylings of Marination MobileHawaiian.  Korean.

Now Seattle isn’t particularly renowned for either it’s Hawaiian or Korean cuisine, but I’m just going to say straight out that Marination totally nails it.  The brainchild of Kamala Saxton and Roz Edison (and clearly inspired by the insanely popular Kogi Korean BBQ in Los Angeles), the navy blue, custom-built taco truck looks like a police riot van as reimagined by Xzibit.  One side flips up to reveal a built-in sound system which bumps big beats while you stand in the surprisingly fast-moving line.  There’s a self-service cooler installed on one side with those awesome Hawaiian Sun juices perfect for spiking with your Rum of choice (Guava Nectar is the best).  The tip jar is labeled “Converse Fund”.  I can support that.

I have to admit that even after multiple stays in Hawaii, I’ve somehow managed to go my entire life without ever eating SPAM.  No longer.  The Aloha sliders are served on soft Hawaiian sweet rolls, piled with a tangy slaw made from cilantro, carrots and cabbage, and stuffed with a thick slab of grilled SPAM.  The proverbial mystery meat was surprisingly tasty – soft and salty and lightly dressed with a sweet ginger barbeque sauce.  Nice and bright (although I would personally ratchet up the heat a touch with some Sriracha, thoughtfully provided counter-side).

I was also excited to try the kimchi quesadilla with kalua pork – the kimchi is unique, but used so sparingly that it’s almost completely lost in an oversauced pink mess of spicy aioli.  On the other hand, the shredded kalua pork is beautifully smoky and chewy with a slow burn courtesy of some thinly sliced jalapeños.  The soft flour tortilla is grilled to a nice crispy char, and the cheese is thick and strong.  Marination does a remarkably good job of recreating the deep flavor of traditional kalua pork without having to cook a pig underground for 24 hours.  So good, that I think it better to appreciate solo on a slider (when the SPAM is unavailable – seriously, try the SPAM).

Also better to enjoy the kimchi on its own in a rice bowl topped with a fried egg, lots of bright green shaved scallions and toasted sesame seeds.  The kimchi is crunchy and tangy and the heat builds slowly, but nothing over the top.  Perfectly executed, and packed with big slices of sweet onion and toasted, pickled cabbage.  The rice is nice and moist and tastes like soy and chilies and smoke.  Plus, I think we can all agree, everything tastes better with an egg on top.  FACT.  It’s a very satisfying dish, and probably my favorite thing on the menu.

Tacos are $2 a pop, wrapped in two corn tortillas and covered with that tangy, signature slaw and a more restrained application of the pink sauce.  Kalbi beef is chewy and sweet and tastes like classic Korean barbeque – soy sauce, sesame oil, a touch of honey, a ton of garlic.  Ginger miso chicken is creamy and smoky and positively brilliant.  There’s even marinated, grilled tofu for the vegetarians.  The tortillas are rather dry and lifeless compared to somewhere like Rancho Bravo, but a side of sliced jalapeños and a wedge of lime are thoughtfully provided to kick up the flavor.

Marination is truly an exciting addition to the burgeoning mobile kitchen scene here in town.  They’ve got a pretty regular weekly schedule now, but they’ll send out Twitter updates if anything changes.  I’m looking forward to eventually tracking down some of that elusive SPAM musubi I keep hearing about…

Marination Mobile (locations vary) on Urbanspoon

le gourmand

After nearly a decade of dining in Seattle, I finally – finally – made it to the esteemed Le Gourmand this past weekend.  Hallowed amongst food enthusiasts and Francophiles, chefs Bruce and Sara Naftaly are revered for their impeccable cuisine and lifelong dedication to local and organic food culture.  A full quarter of the printed menu is committed to acknowledging their farm sources and providers.  Still, the Naftalys are hardly newcomers to the locavore bandwagon, and in fact the evening’s experience called to mind Alice Waters and her pioneering approach to cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.  There was an ease and elegance to the food that can only come from years and years of devotion, and countless mornings spent in the garden.

Since I never knew Le Gourmand during its previous incarnation, I can only imagine the transformation it must have undergone after a (reportedly) dramatic remodel early last year.  The space is wonderful, like nowhere I’ve ever been, a singular room out of time.  Like a fairytale.  This is in no small part due to the wizened visages of the three hand-carved puppets watching over you from the far wall (the puppets were not nearly as freaky as I had heard – really, the craftsmanship, concept and execution were singular.  They were also quite a bit larger than I had anticipated).  Even though this is serious cooking, and you will be dropping serious cash, the puppets remind you not to take things too seriously.

The dining room is very small, very intimate and very relaxed.  White tablecloths, a porthole peering into the kitchen through an upholstered swinging door and soft light bursting from wonderful, exploding blossoms of glass.  Like if an allium went supernova.  The music is unobtrusive but upbeat, the pace of the service is leisurely, and my partner and I could actually whisper to each other across the table (despite the constant low level murmur drifting through the doorway from the Naftaly’s adjacent, equally beloved lounge, Sambar).  Really my description cannot even begin to capture the magic of the place.

le gourmand interior

Nor, I’m afraid, can I fully do justice to the exquisite four hour, seven-course Late Summer tasting menu that I enjoyed.  But I will try.  The tasting menu doesn’t actually feature any of the items listed on the regular menu, though they are happy to substitute if so desired.  Also unlisted: a mini-flight of various wines to accompany the courses (there was nothing mini about it – the pours were immensely generous).  Our server was very thoughtful and attentive, easy-going and cheerful.  There was a fluidity to the service that I thoroughly enjoyed, a subtle capriciousness (the wines seemed paired mostly on the fly, the sorbet course was still TBD, etc.)

I started with a remarkable glass of Sancerre rosé – full-bodied, with a nice mineral bite, a perfect way to end the season.  The first course was a tiny cup of radish soup (!!), smooth and creamy, simmered in duck stock and topped with fresh julienned radishes and Claudio Corallo cocoa-nibs.  As you well know, I adore radishes.  It was perfect pink.  My partner opted for à la carte, but joined me on this course with a beautiful bowl of heirloom tomato soup – deep red, rich and earthy.  Next up was a screamingly good pork sausage meatball stuffed with foie gras.  The dollop of paté was almost (almost) upstaged by the freshness of the herbs used in the loosely packed sausage – marjoram, savory, thyme, and Italian parsley.  It also didn’t hurt that the pork was from Wooly Pigs.  An absolutely sensational dish.

For the third course, a tantalizing bowl of early season chanterelles bathed in a decadent cream sauce that reminded me of butterscotch and apricots.  The mushrooms were meaty and warm, tiny caps mixed in amongst the larger ones.  Thankfully, the portion sizes were well-controlled throughout the evening, as this dish in particular was exceedingly rich.  A somewhat sweet Vouvray bridged this course into the next – local Albacore tuna gratin, layered with basil, sweet red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and baked in a scalloped half shell with comté and gruyère cheeses.  Perhaps out of everything I ate during the tasting menu, this dish in particular was closest to my heart.  There was something so soulful about it, so comforting, the flavors so well-balanced, that I found myself mopping up the shell with the previously untouched bread on the table.  It’s no wonder that the basil guy gets his very own special shout-out on the menu (respect due, Dennis Williams).  Simply unparalleled.

flower light

Before the main course, a small scoop of sorbet was served as a palate cleanser.  Apparently they had settled on a sweet and light blend of honey, nectarines and champagne (with a tiny garnish of that incredible savory from earlier – an herb that, until I sat down to dinner, I was entirely ignorant of).  The sorbet served it’s function, but was otherwise neither here nor there.  No matter, as soon the squab was upon me.  Bathed in an earthy lobster mushroom sauce, the medallions of tender, pink pigeon meat were wrapped in chewy grape leaves straight from Le Gourmand’s garden arbor.  I found it a great deal richer than the usual poultry, with more depth of flavor, and very moist.  The squab was served with a plate of vibrant vegetables – kale, cabbage, new and purple potatoes, butter, some salt and pepper, more butter.  My partner’s boneless rack of lamb in a plum and garlic sauce was undeniably brilliant (although it’s worth noting that it was listed on the menu as “wrapped in house-made bacon”, said bacon nowhere to be found on the plate.  Not that this was necessarily an issue, but there was never any explanation).

As all things appropriately Euro should be, the final course was Salade le Gourmand: green and leafy lettuces straight from the garden, tossed with colorful nasturtiams and other edible flowers in a Blackwood Canyon Chardonnay vinaigrette with mustard seed.  It was a little bit bitter, and a whole lot earthy.  The best possible way to end a meal, unless you’ve somehow managed to save room for one of Sara Naftaly’s desserts.  Sadly, we were informed, Sara had been called away unexpectedly to attend to her son who had gotten into a skateboarding accident (although, we were assured, he was going to be just fine).  This may explain why the chocolate soufflé we ordered was runny in the center, not cooked all the way through.  There was a rich hazelnut sauce to pour over the soufflé, and best of all, a garnish of golden raspberries and blackberries.  I can’t even remember the last time I ate golden raspberries, and that was about all the dessert I needed anyway.

As I contemplated the meal through a haze of synaptic fireworks, Bruce Naftaly came out from the kitchen to introduce himself and thank us for our patronage.  I was starstruck and awkward as ever, but he was appropriately gracious and humble.  We said our farewells and wandered down the street, savoring the fleeting summer night.  It was truly an epic dinner, and I had one of the most intense food highs I’ve had in ages.  Endorphins for days.  In many ways, Le Gourmand is completely off the map – not least of all physically, tucked away on Northwest Market in that little area of town that’s not quite Fremont, but not yet Ballard (Frelard?).  So too, it seems to reside on the edge of the epicurean consciousness.  Like a fairytale.

Le Gourmand Restaurant on Urbanspoon

dahlia lounge

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.

dahlia lounge inside

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.

dahlia fish

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.

Dahlia Lounge on Urbanspoon

You guys!  Are you having the best summer ever?  I think I’ve overdosed on Vitamin D.

So.  No new reviews this week – I’ve got a few things on deck, but nothing I feel like I can comment on definitively at the moment.  Also I’ve been insanely busy getting ready for an avalanche of guests immediately followed by some travel abroad.  And when I say abroad, I mean the untamed bear-infested woods of Northern Wisconsin.

But you guys.  It’s all good.  Here are some random thoughts I have been thinking for your pleasure:

  • Top Chef Masters is a real treat.  I’m fairly limited in my regional knowledge of restaurants and chefs, but I do pay attention to other things bubbling around the country.  I’m constantly making mental notes about places I’d like to eat if I ever pay a visit to this or that city.  So it’s really great to see some of these names in action.  Cindy Pawlcyn (hot).  Roy Yamaguchi (nerd).  Wylie Dufresne (hot nerd).
  • I’m so in forever love with Hubert Keller.  He was chilling at the bar at Fleur de Lys when I visited San Francisco a few years back and I was completely charmed.  I had a completely vegetarian five-course dinner with wine pairings that totally upstaged all the meat-eaters at the table.  Even better was chef Keller resolutely striding across the restaurant into the kitchen and roaring at his crew: “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”.  It was very quiet after that.  *swoon*
  • Speaking of Top Chef, I’m sure you’ve probably heard by now, but we’ve got TWO contestants from Seattle in the new season premiering next month.  Ashley Merriman, the badass behind Branzino, and Robin Leventhal of the lately lamented Crave (which I always thought was profoundly overrated).  But who cares!  Finally some hometown heroes to root for!  I’m stupid excited about this.  AND!  The rumor, rumor, rumormill is buzzing that Seattle might finally be THE LOCATION for next season… oh I would probably just die of joy.
  • The burgeoning dessert emporium insanity continues in our fair city.  Megan Seling cries Uncle over here.  I tend to agree, but then you know I’m pretty indifferent about sweets.  Still, I’ve occasioned Molly Moon’s a couple of times, and stopped by Bluebird this past week.  The ice cream is creamier, milkier and freakier at Molly Moon’s, but Bluebird has that DIY vibe that I dig.  That said, they don’t seem quite ready for primetime.  Best of luck to them all – I hope it’s not a slaughter out there when the dark days return.
  • Café Presse still has the best goddamned Frites in town.  Hands down.
  • What is better than a Niçoise salad in the summertime?  How about a Niçoise salad from Skillet in the summertime.  Oh hell yeah.

nicoise salad

Photo via Flickr by PAAT

art outside

After opening last Autumn to decidedly mixed reviews, I put Kerry Sear’s new flagship restaurant at the ultraluxe Four Seasons hotel on the backburner for a while.  May as well give them some time to work out the kinks, right?  Well, I’m happy to report that the wait was worth it, because ART Restaurant and Lounge is one of the most genuinely fun places to eat in town.  Located on 1st Avenue across the street from the Seattle Art Museum (and, ahem, TASTE), everything about ART is designed to pull you in and chill you out.

And the heavy hand of hotel design cannot be denied.  This is restaurant by committee, a deeply calculated space from the textbook “downtempo mixtape” soundtrack to the contemporary clean lines and blonde wood paneling to the ovoid water glasses.  It is the Four Seasons after all.  And yet, despite the pretense, and despite myself, I really enjoy the place.  It has everything to do with the food too, which is impeccably fresh and surprisingly lighthearted.  It also doesn’t hurt that every seat in the house offers a picturesque view of Elliott Bay, tiny ferries coming and going from Bainbridge Island, Seacrest Marina Park in the distance.  ART was made for summer.

art raw bar

A long raw bar wraps around the center of the restaurant, all manner of strange and wonderful foodstuffs on display in various glass decanters and bowls.  And there is definitely a heavy focus on conventional sushi preparations and other Northwest pan-Asian standards at ART.  Ahi sashimi with pickled ginger and soy sauce is about as simple as it gets, until you notice the tiny green mound of freshly grated wasabi.  A Dungeness crab spring roll might be a little greasy, but contains such huge lumps of sweet crab and a pleasantly spicy chili poke sauce that you’ll hardly notice.  Even better: blue shrimp with horseradish and Bloody Mary dressing.  This dish in particular showcases both the focus on innovative plating and the lighthearted nature of chef Sear’s kitchen.  Ice cold shrimp chopped and tossed with diced tomatoes and microgreens and then arranged circularly around the base of a tall, salted shot glass filled with spicy Bloody Mary juice.  It took me a minute, but I eventually figured out that I was supposed to pour the sauce over the shrimp.  I know, Clever!

But nothing says playful quite like the “TV Trays” on offer during lunchtime (that’s Tres-Vite, ha?)  Each of the ironic/iconic trays has a different selection of offerings, including one that rotates seasonally based on what happens to be fresh at Pike Place Market at the moment (for example, a few months ago all four courses on the tray featured asparagus, including dessert!)  On that visit, I opted for TV Tray 2 – clam chowder as a starter, beef cheeks as main entrée with braising greens and a side of fries, and the dessert of the day, in this case a lemon cheesecake.  The clam chowder was creamy and mild, with puréed Yukon potatoes and pancetta and celery root.  The beef cheeks were served shredded and had a meaty, almost gravy-like flavor that completely obliterated any lingering reticence I may have had since that fiasco at Barking Frog.  The french fries were eminently snackable, served in a paper cone with sea salt, and the lemon cheesecake was tart and topped with tiny flecks of edible gold (“Tasteless, odorless gold… To EAT!”)  The courses are served all at once, on a compartmentalized tray, and give Spring Hill a run for its money on upscale lowbrow nostalgia food.

art dining room

And yet, despite the startlingly good menu at the restaurant, if you need to find me, I’ll be in the Lounge.  In fact, it’s a safe wager that I’ll be in the lounge eating one of Kerry Sear’s legendary mini-burgers.  I’m fairly certain I only ever ate at Cascadia once during its storied history (forgive me), and I certainly would not have tried the burgers during my pescetarian days.  But mercy!  Now I understand all the weeping and gnashing of teeth when the place closed.  These are more than sliders, and less than burgers; a distillation of the hamburger experience, a hamburger vignette.  They are quaint, yet substantial.  You can order beef, salmon or veggie, with truffle butter, cheddar cheese, portobello mushroom or pancetta bacon as extra toppings.  They arrive deconstructed – beautiful sliced tomato, shredded lettuce and pickles arrayed along the top of the plate.  Three small porcelain cups hold ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.  The combinations are limitless, but I will attempt to find them all.  (Although I must confess, I greatly preferred the plump, juicy ground beef to the salmon, which seemed like an afterthought.  As always, your mileage may vary).

I haven’t even mentioned the wine list, which reads like a catalog of my own personal Greatest Hits.  Some of my very favorites from Washington, Oregon and California, and some new discoveries (Broadley Vineyards Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, big and juicy with a nice mineral bite).  It’s one of those rare lists where anything you order is going to be great.  And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, ART has recently implemented a program by which you can sample any bottle of wine in the house.  It’s a two glass minimum, and they derive the price by splitting the cost of the bottle by four glasses.  Still!  If there’s something particularly spendy that you’ve always wanted to try, this might take the sting off a bit.  I think it’s a great idea.

One of many.  Forget what you may have heard, ART is fantastic.

ART (Four Seasons) on Urbanspoon

cantinetta outside

Gather round, cats and cabbage, and allow me to offer you a rare glimpse behind the curtain at the House of Icarus.  When I initially began blogging about the Seattle food scene (after that fateful meal at the Corson Building last summer), I made the conscious decision to do so anonymously.  It was my intention to provide objective commentary in as pure and unbiased a way as possible, admitting that the subjective nature of taste and experience inevitably renders this endeavor difficult.  Still, I felt that going into it without any strings attached, without any presumptions about who I might be or what I might say would prove to be a far more honest approach – and ultimately provide more value to you, the reader.

So what on earth does this have to do with Cantinetta?  Well, a few weeks ago we were entertaining guests from out of town, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make the trek out to the residential hinterlands of Wallingford and see what all the buzz was about.  Cantinetta only accepts reservations for parties of six or more, and when we showed up on a Saturday night, the tiny Italian joint with a big reputation was already spilling onto the streets (staff scrambled to accommodate demand, setting up impromptu tables on the sidewalk outside).  We were told an hour wait, minimum, and slowly made our way through the crush of people towards the bar, also packed.

My first impression was that, for such a cramped space, Cantinetta sure manages to accommodate a surfeit of shrieking banshees.  The room is a sonic onslaught of noise, a din comparable to a Sonic Youth freakout (or Columbia City Tutta Bella on a Friday night).  The décor is rustic, with white lace curtains and antique mirrors and distinctive, almost medieval-looking wooden chandeliers.  There’s a dozen or so tables and banquettes of varying size, including one large communal table in the back.  The kitchen is separated from the main dining area, but remains visible through framed glass windows which lend the bustling chefs an almost voyeuristic appeal.  The whole scene is rather hectic, and didn’t exactly transport me back to Tuscany.

cantinetta inside

I was too busy observing the room and enjoying a glass of Sangiovese to notice that one of my party had broken away from the crew and was making small talk with a gentleman at the end of the bar.  She soon wandered back and I inquired after their conversation.  Imagine my chagrin – my horror – when I discovered that she had unwittingly “outed me” to one of Cantinetta’s co-owners.  Or maybe he was a business partner?  I can’t remember exactly – I was pretty mortified when he eventually approached me.  He then introduced me to the bartender, Randy Quarry (also part owner – eep!), who was very pleasant and amiable, while I in turn stumbled around and made an ass of myself.  We were seated five minutes later.

Coincidence?

Who knows, but the whole incident illustrates why I strive to keep a very low profile.  I don’t want preferential treatment – I want a genuine experience.  I want to be able to convey the closest approximation to an experience that you might have at any given restaurant on any given night.  Thankfully, nothing else transpired throughout the evening that struck me as partisan.  But enough of this navel-gazing!  How was the food, dammit?

We started with some antipasti, which was mostly fair to middling.  A plate of avocado and grapefruit with cured olives and chilies was smooth and salty, with a little kick, but nothing much else beyond simple presentation.  A panzanella salad with fresh raw cucumbers, tomatoes and onion was just fine (the tomatoes were ripe and juicy, but the bread was overly stale and hard to chew).  A skewer of porchetta wrapped in pancetta and served over grilled polenta with raw sage leaves was fatty, undercooked, and looked like a sad lump of gray matter on the plate.  Not good.

But all was forgiven when we arrived at the main courses.  This is clearly where executive chef Brian Cartenuto shines in the kitchen (I know very little else about Cartenuto, except that he’s from out of town).  I was ecstatic over a hot bowl of tagliatelle with rabbit ragu and succulent, earthy morels.  The broth was light and aromatic, a vegetable-base with lots of carrots and celery and black pepper.  The rabbit was mild and exquisite, and the noodles were perfect.  And yet, even this spectacular dish was upstaged by a sumptuous risotto stewed with confit of pheasant, shittakes and truffle oil.  The light gamey flavor of the pheasant provided a perfect balance to the creamy risotto and savory mushrooms.  Those two dishes alone warrant a repeat visit, and are easily some of the best food I’ve eaten all year.  The rest of the meal was rounded out with a meaty Hen of the Woods and prosciutto tortellini and a particularly fine hanger steak with Walla Walla onions and buttery porcini.

Desserts were a mixed bag, with a Rainier cherry custard that had a very strange, rubbery texture and a key lime cheesecake so utterly out of place on the menu that we simply had to try it (the Cantinetta folks must know something about Tuscany that I don’t).  It was awesomely tart, with a beautiful raspberry coulis and chocolate and graham cracker.  We finished up and rolled out into the warm night air.  I breathed a small sigh of relief.

In addition to the (mostly) stellar food, the waitstaff were pleasant and unpretentious, helpful with the wine list and generally attentive.  If only they could do something about the noise level… I feel compelled to repeat that the place is crazy loud.  Know what you’re getting into.  Maybe try hitting it up before the supper rush?  Maybe bring earplugs?  Cantinetta has great potential to be a romantic dining experience, with the oil wick candles and cozy room – but it’s all very boisterous at the moment.

Anyhow, I know this was a little more personal information than I usually inject into these posts, but I thought the experience and my reaction deserved mention.  Thanks for indulging me.  More importantly, thanks for reading.

Cantinetta on Urbanspoon

boat street cafe

Tucked away below street level at the awkward intersection where Denny meets Western in lower Queen Anne, you will find an unlikely oasis of Provençal French cooking that contends with the very best.  Down a short ramp and through a petite herb garden and into the best smelling restaurant in town – Boat Street Café, a longstanding and beloved favorite of mine, an intimate sanctuary to forget one’s self over a glass of Beaujolais and a plate of silky smooth chicken liver paté.  Upon stepping through the bright yellow sliding garage door, take a minute to catch your breath amidst the twinkling lights and colorful parasols and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.  The room is whitewashed, the tables topped with slate, the walls hung with Jeffry Mitchell’s playful ceramic elephants.  Prepare yourself for a magical evening.

My admiration for chef Renee Erickson is only exceeded by her tireless reimagining of the menu.  There is always something new to try.  There are rarely any lapses in the kitchen.  The grace and execution of her plates are unparalleled.  Simple, rustic French food that satisfies body and soul.  Steamed mussels, roasted chicken, ribeye steak.  Dijon mustard and niçoise olives and Erickson’s famous pickles (rotating seasonal selections of fruits and vegetables).  Salt and pepper abounds.  The dishes are approachable, and not nearly as intimidating as say, the menu at Le Pichet.  There is a singular elegance to the space and the cooking, a distinctly feminine perspective that is plainly obvious and deeply appreciated.

boat street cafe inside

So a few years ago, after returning from a trip to Italy which “cured” me of my pescetarianism, the very first thing I did was make reservations for dinner at Boat Street Café.  That fortuitous meal would be the first time I encountered Erickson’s house made pork sausage – coarsely ground and loosely packed with fennel and garlic, spicy and herbal and topped with a magnificent fried egg.  It immediately became the standard by which I now measure all sausages.  Also in the pig department: herb roasted pork loin chop courtesy of Carlton Farms (or if you’re really lucky, Wooly Pigs) and served over roasted potatoes with a seasonal vegetable.  As Summer roared into town last weekend, I found a side of grilled Romaine lettuce with sweet pickled golden raisins very nearly upstaged the meat!  And leave it to Renee Erickson to make me a believer in salmon again.  Alaskan King served with a bright and wonderful lemony cream and mint sauce and covered with sautéed English peas, meaty Porcini mushrooms and ridiculously tasty shallots.  It makes me wonder how places like Anthony’s even stay in business.  (Answer: tourists).

And finally, I also hold Boat Street Café solely responsible for teaching me that dessert is not an option.  The Valrhona dark chocolate pot de crème is the stuff of legends.  Served in an ice cold ceramic jar, the custard is so light and smooth on the tongue, so rich and chocolaty that you’ll need another bite to confirm the breadth and depth of this dessert’s unrivaled awesomeness.  And another.  Are you going to eat that?

boat street kitchen

I should also mention that while Boat Street Café is only open for dinner, the adjacent Boat Street Kitchen is equally amazing for lunch.  Headed up by Erickson’s partner Susan Kaplan (the owner of the original Boat Street Café – R.I.P.), the same attention to detail and classy sensibility is always on display.  I love the ruby trout with basil sauce, and the Magali tomato soup served cold with goat cheese baguette.  There’s Croque Monsieur and assorted tartes and the famous rustic cornmeal custard cake with sausage and maple syrup (“better than pancakes”).  Get out of the office, take an hour for lunch, relax.  Eat a cheese plate.  Drink a glass of rosé in the sun.  It’s summer.  It’s not going to last forever.

boat street kitchen inside

Boat Street Café / Boat Street Kitchen 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

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