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A little over a month ago, and seemingly out of nowhere, a high end, high concept sandwich shop opened in the old Sonic Boom General Store on Fremont Ave. Homegrown, a “sustainable sandwich shop,” is not shy about its politics or its mission statement – sole use of organic, local and sustainable ingredients, green serving and printed materials and 100% compostable product. To that end, a large slate chalkboard at the front of the shop meticulously denotes where each sandwich ingredient has been supplied from, with checkboxes indicating whether that particular source fits all three criteria. It’s actually a pretty great idea, if you’re a total food nerd like myself (the bread is from Essential Baking Co., the charcuterie comes from Zoe Meats, the pork from Carlton Farms, etc). They could have just as easily called it Zeitgeist Sandwiches.
Unfortunately, there was a bit of a hiccup right out of the gate, when Gabriel “The Destroyer” Claycamp illegally supplied Homegrown with some of his much-hyped Swinery pig product. In typical fashion, Claycamp had not acquired the appropriate regulatory permits required to sell his cured meat, and so the Health Department swooped in and forced Homegrown to remove it from the menu, leaving them scrambling for a new distributor (more damning, his touted artisanal cured pork actually met with some pretty disdainful initial critiques, as evidenced in the comments over here). This also explains why “Katie’s BBQ” is permanently listed as *OUT* on the menu (that being Katie Coleman, also late of Culinary Communion). But in the end, people continue to flock to Homegrown in droves, because if there is one thing that is true in the universe, it is that humans love sandwiches.
The space has a lot of character, and an attention to detail that reinforces Homegrown’s mission statement. A black and white checkerboard tile floor, green tones everywhere, bins for recycling or compost. Best of all, on each tabletop, a tiny pot of herbs for your consideration – thyme, bay leaf, rosemary. The kitchen is open in the back, and the cooks always seem to be scrambling around filling orders. Especially during a lunch rush, Homegrown is unquestionably hectic and your order may or may not get lost in the shuffle. But the staff is always so sincerely apologetic and earnest that I find it hard to hold these fumbles against them (I’m calling growing pains on this one).
Okay, so how about the sandwiches? Two categories, hot and cold, most of them hits, a couple of misses. I was fairly unimpressed with their Veggie sandwich offering – a layer of hummus, sprouts, tomato, cucumber and avocado. The hummus was mild and kind of grainy, with more lemon than tahini. The French bread was tangy and held up well. It’s a nicely constructed sandwich, but nothing particularly special. On the other hand, a basic Turkey, Bacon & Avocado sandwich can transcend simplicity when all of the ingredients come together like sandwich Voltron. The bacon was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, the turkey was genuinely moist and the avocado, tomato and microgreens really filled out the rest of the sandwich. The Beecher’s gouda was slightly sweet and wonderfully gooey. That turkey wasn’t deli-sliced either, but rather big chunks of breast meat with crispy skin. It was like the kind of turkey sandwich you’d make after Thanksgiving. The aioli dressing was nice and light and used sparingly.
Each sandwich comes with your choice of a side – three different slaws or a couple of gherkins. It’s important to keep this in mind, because Homegrown loves it some slaw. Many of the sandwiches actually have one of the slaws as a primary component, which can sometimes lead to slaw overload. For example, the apple fennel slaw is great on its own – covered with fresh dill, it’s sweet and crunchy and tastes like cider. But that slaw is also a main ingredient in the Spicy Pork Tenderloin, and when coupled with a spread of sweet mostarda, the apple-spice flavor nearly overwhelms the entire sandwich. I think it’s primarily a question of balance, since the mostarda works very well on the Reuben, the mustardy flavor perfectly complementing the sauerkraut. That’s about the only positive thing about the Reuben though, as the onion rye was pretty undercooked, almost soggy, and the pastrami was crazy fatty. Admittedly that gave it remarkable flavor, but you should plan on having your incisors sharpened before embarking on that particular journey.
Even better than any of the slaws would be a side order of Homegrown’s seasonal Veggie Fries. Depending on the day, these unique fries are rough cut pieces of parsnip or turnip or rutabaga dredged in a spicy breading and served with a side of tangy mustard dipping sauce. They’re not crispy (in fact, quite the opposite), but the texture is awesome and they have a lot of heat and a complex curry flavor. I was thoroughly impressed by these addictive bites.
Next to that amazing turkey sandwich, I think the other highlight on the menu is the Blackened Cod. Served on a beautiful grilled Panino, the flaky chunks of fish are nice and spicy and the caramelized onions are sweet and savory. The sandwich is topped with a creole honey mustard and a South Carolina slaw made of cabbage, green peppers and carrots. It’s a very good, very messy sandwich (is there an inverse correlation there? See: Paseo’s grilled pork sandwich, Baguette Box’ crispy drunken chicken). And while I honestly think the two aforementioned Sandwich Kings have little to fear from Homegrown, it’s always nice to have another choice, especially one so dedicated to the locavore cause. I’ll definitely be back.
UPDATE: MARCH 24
Kill the restaurant, indeed. As of last Thursday, Culinary Communion is officially defunct. In a nearly 2000 word screed e-mail, Gabriel Claycamp blames everything from the lousy economy to the CC house owner’s refusal to build a door in the basement for the sudden cancellation of classes. Many of those classes have already been paid for, and at this point, they are unsure how repayment is going to occur. I’m unfortunately invested in some credit at Culinary Communion, and while there is a remote chance that they may eventually transfer this certificate over to the Swinery (Claycamp’s other venture, which has had it’s own ridiculous share of problems), I’m not holding my breath. And while Gabe writes “It is not our intention to slip away quietly, leaving a pile of debt and bad feelings behind us”, from everything I’ve heard about the guy, that is precisely what I expect to happen. Too bad. They were having absinthe tasting next week…
* * * *
It was already pitch dark at 5:30 in the afternoon when I ventured out into the rain to visit the house that Gabriel Claycamp built. Destination: Culinary Communion. While Culinary Communion is ostensibly a hands-on cooking class (and a front for Claycamp’s underground moveable feast Gypsy – R.I.P.?), there is also a rotating roster of guest chefs who host multi-course dinners focusing on specific themes. This particular evening I was attending a class on Northwest Food & Wine Pairing, taught by chef-instructor Katie Coleman with food prepared by the mighty Tom Black (of Barking Frog and Farestart fame).
While I was still a little reticent about the whole Kill the Restaurant movement, my recent experience at Michael Hebb’s Pike Street Fish Fry and the mindblowing culinary adventure at Matthew Dillon’s Corson Building earlier in the summer had softened my preconceptions and left me more open to the whole experience. I’m glad because the dinner at Culinary Communion was easily one of the highlights of the year. After wandering around the top of Beacon Hill for 20 minutes trying to locate the address, we eventually stumbled across the purple house and were greeted by mosaic tiled steps informing us to “cook with love eat with passion”. We checked in and were seated at a long communal dining table with approximately 30 other guests. Our dinner companions were split pretty evenly between Claycamp fans (who was nowhere to be seen), and actual food & wine novices. It was an interesting mix. The conversation was not entirely awkward, but it tended to drift in that direction.
The dinner began promptly, and I really have to applaud Chef Katie, who did a masterful job conducting the course throughout the meal. She deftly elucidated the pairing notes between the dishes and the wines and generally steered the entire evening with enthusiasm and grace. I actually learned quite a bit about complimenting and contrasting wine with food flavors that I wasn’t previously aware of (or at least didn’t have the technical vocabulary to describe. Echoing. Bridging. Tower of Power.) But as great as the course was, the food was even better. Chef Black is extraordinary. We started with mussels and red curry paired with a 2006 Lemelson Dry Riesling. The spiciness of the curry and the sweetness of the wine worked perfectly together. The mussels were huge and tasted like an ocean of coconut milk. Next up was a creamy wild mushroom risotto with chanterelles and shitakes and melted parmesan paired with a Viognier. The cheesy risotto was rich and pungent and excellent with the full-bodied creaminess of the Viognier.
The third course was a roasted pork loin with cinnamon and a dried cherry sauce served with Pinot Noir. That’s pretty much all of my favorite things right there. But it got even better. Among other things, Gabe Claycamp is (in)famous for his seasonal live pig kills. It’s another Culinary Communion event, billed as an educational slaughter. Butchery 101. It just so happened that mere days before our dinner, the gang had conducted a pig kill on one “Elektra” and we were lucky enough to enjoy the bounty. Apparently these pigs are raised specifically for Claycamp with a prescribed diet that actually flavors the pork. And oh my god what flavor. Deep, earthy, unlike any pig I’ve ever tasted. I savored every bite. The cherry sauce was used sparingly, the Pinot Noir was exceptional – truly, a memorable dish.
And still more to come! The final dish was a plate of braised short ribs served over truffled polenta and paired with a 2007 Substance “Sy” Syrah. It was beyond decadent – the short ribs melted in my mouth and the polenta was sweet and earthy. The savory flavors were balanced perfectly with the robust black currant notes of the Syrah. And although it wasn’t on the menu, we managed to talk Chef Katie into letting us try the short ribs with the Substance “Cs” Cabernet Sauvignon. As predicted, it wasn’t a perfect match, but it was a nice way to wind down the evening.
All in all, it was an outstanding meal and culinary experience. I actually wound up taking home a bottle of that Riesling, I was so impressed. I have now completely abandoned my prejudices and can safely say I’m a convert to this whole underground food movement. So where do I sign up?
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).
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.