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Je suis revenu à notre belle Cité émeraude! It feels so good to be back. I was wrong about the bears. It was the wood ticks that were the real menace. Eep.
And what better way to celebrate our return home than dinner with friends and family at the house Tom Douglas built. Is there a more iconic, quintessential restaurant in Seattle than the Dahlia Lounge? Well, maybe Ivar’s – but Dahlia Lounge is certainly one of the most important defining sources for upscale Northwest cuisine that I can think of. It was totally the place to go for special occasions when we were young and poor and wanted to feel sophisticated. It was the place we’d take Mom & Dad when they were visiting (and paying). It was where we first discovered salmon, where I ate my first rabbit.
Dahlia Lounge is the foundation of Tom Douglas’ empire, and has been instrumental in helping to establish and mainstream our regional food identity. Douglas won the James Beard award for Best Northwest Chef in 1994, wrote some pretty celebrated cookbooks, and most importantly, inspired a number of chefs from his kitchens to go out and create amazing places of their own (see Mark Fuller at Spring Hill, for example). Also he defeated Morimoto on Iron Chef America. That’s mad skills.
I find the atmosphere at Dahlia Lounge to be unabashedly sexy. It’s all deep red paint and dark wood and lights turned down low. Colorful paper lanterns light up the ceiling and papier-mâché fish line the shelves, casting a soft glow from within. The space is fairly cavernous, but doesn’t get too noisy (at least not compared to the epic din at Palace Kitchen). It’s very sensuous and romantic and I would highly recommend it for a date night.
The service at Dahlia Lounge is generally extraordinary, which is why I was pretty shocked that our server for this particular evening was not only slightly rude, but even a touch snide. I decided to let it slide because I’ve had such genuinely notable service in the past, plus I think we’re all probably suffering from tourist fatigue. Still, for the prices they charge at Dahlia Lounge, servers should be giving out handjobs with the crab cakes, so I hope this is an isolated incident.
We decided to start by sharing a sampler from the Sea Bar, a selection of little tastes served in individual dishes over ice. In keeping with the tradition of “firsts” at the Dahlia Lounge, I am happy to report that I have now finally partaken of the famous Puget Sound geoduck, served raw and diced with spicy melon. It was, as I suspected, not particularly my cup of tea (too chewy, too mild). But everything else was fresh and fantastic – Kona kampachi with gingered carrot, ice cold lump dungeness crab over kimchee, a mild rockfish ceviche. Best of all was the Dahlia smoked salmon, which I don’t think I’ve ever tried before. Served with a hot dipping mustard, the salmon had a wonderful texture and deep, rich flavor that inclines me to get a full order on my next visit.
Next up, I was nearly beside myself with joy to see a Kalua pig appetizer on the menu. Kalua pig ranks as one of the greatest things I’ve discovered since I gave up the pescetarianism, but it is stupid hard to find a quality version hereabouts (which makes sense – to be prepared properly, the pig needs to cook in a pit underground for 24 hours; guessing it’s hard to get a permit for that in City limits). But I’ll be damned if this wasn’t the best Kalua pig I’ve eaten since Hawaii. Moist and smoky with a hint of coconut, served with a hoisin dipping sauce and chili ketchup and topped with a big old beautiful poached egg. It was immensely satisfying.
As our main courses began to arrive, I realized that the portion sizes of these dishes were positively mammoth. Dahlia Lounge may be expensive, but you’ll be eating leftovers for the rest of the week. And that is exactly what wound up happening when the server placed an entire Peking duck in front of me. You know, I was thinking it would be some duck breast, maybe a leg. Wrong. Entire duck. Rotisserie roasted “five spice” with stir fried pea vines and sweet n’ sour apricots. The thick, charred duck skin was crispy and peppery and the meat itself was so juicy and substantial that I could hardly eat more than a couple of bites. Seriously. Duck for days. It was awesome, but I was a little overwhelmed. Another first, I suppose.
I was too stuffed to partake of Tom Douglas’ famous triple coconut cream pie for dessert (sacrilege, I know), but you can read all about it over here. Additionally, you can also grab a slice to go or even a full pie from the Dahlia Bakery right next door to the Lounge. It was a glorious summer evening as we rolled out onto 4th Avenue, bathed in the neon light from the iconic chef & fish sign. I’m a sucker for neon, I’m a sucker for Seattle. Good to be home.
It occurred to me last weekend that I have been somewhat remiss in my duties! I’ve been blogging about food in Seattle for how long now, and not a single entry for a Tom Douglas joint? I quickly set about fixing this glaring oversight, gathered the crew and headed for Palace Kitchen to refresh my memory. If you’re just joining us, Tom Douglas is generally considered the premier Restaurateur in Seattle, with five distinct places to his name. He is often credited with being the first to garner national attention for our regional cuisine and for putting us on the culinary map. He’s also ridiculously humble, given the breadth of his accomplishments (including the James Beard award for Best Northwest Chef in 1994).
Located on 5th Ave. and Lenora underneath the monorail, Palace Kitchen is not quite my favorite in the Tom Douglas empire, but it is irrefutably one of the most vibrant and swanky destinations in town. The energy is always buzzing, the bar is always packed, and with reservations for only 6+ guests, you will often have to wait for a table amidst the throngs of beautiful Belltown residents. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’ve never managed to actually get a seat at the bar, it’s always that crowded. Sparkling, candlelit chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceiling and an enormous gold-framed mural depicting an epic “Palace Feast” adds to the opulence. The space is dark and airy and a little overwhelming.
The frenetic pace is often reflected in the wait service, which at best seems exhausted, and at worst, nonexistent. Settle in for a long haul, especially if it’s late late (Palace Kitchen is one of the few places in Seattle that actually stays open until 1AM). Don’t get perturbed if they forget the bread service, they’ll get around to it eventually (and you will be happy when they do – the bread comes from Douglas’ Dahlia Bakery and is some of my favorite in town; soft and flavorful, with a bowl of delightful, buttery arbequina olive oil for dipping). The appetizers are hearty and inventive, and a perennial favorite is the palace olive poppers, deep fried and served with a thick, herb sour cream. Unfortunately during this particular visit, they arrived disconcertingly cold.
No matter – we had also ordered an enormous grilled Oregon sardine, served whole with a garlicky salsa verde that quickly turned our attention away from the olives. The sardine was flayed down the center, but we still had to debone the fish before partaking. It was smoky and tender and really great. We were seated in a booth back by the enormous open kitchen and could smell the food being fired on the enormous apple wood burning grill that is the centerpiece of the Palace Kitchen. This grill is responsible for another iconic Douglas dish, the palace burger royale. Juicy and served “with nearly traditional accompaniments”, it was one of the first tastes of (Oregon country) beef that I remember after my pescetarian days came to an end. And while I think it has since been dethroned by the burger at Spring Hill (upstart Mark Fuller was formerly the head chef at Douglas’ Dahlia Lounge), who wants to drive to West Seattle for a burger?
Next to the royale, the other equally well-known dish at Palace Kitchen would be the “plin” – a very tiny, almost miniscule, Piedmontese style ravioli. Stuffed with a roast pork and chard filling and topped with a mountain of shaved parmesan cheese, the plin are delicate and rich and will literally melt in your mouth. They are also on the saltier side of things, like so many other dishes in the apparently sodium deficient Northwest. I’ve found it better to order the plin as an appetizer, and avoid it as a main course.
But back to the evening at hand. No burgers this time out, no hypertension. Instead: pan fried pork loin schnitzel, served with pickled red hot and green bell peppers and spicy grain mustard. The lean, boneless cutlet was wonderfully crispy and the slivered peppers provided bright color and a nice briny tang. Douglas is famous for his New American, high concept comfort food, and this schnitzel was a pretty good indicator of his prowess. Others ordered seasonal Alaskan halibut and wood grilled chicken wings, and we all shared plates and enjoyed the lively atmosphere.
To cap the evening, it is almost criminal to neglect the famous Dahlia triple coconut cream pie. Topped with shaved curls of white chocolate and toasted coconut, this dessert is pretty much Tom Douglas’ hallmark dish and can be had at most if not all of his restaurants (or purchased at the Dahlia Bakery). And for good reason. I know I’ve mentioned that I’m not terribly into dessert, but this pie is SO GOOD, I hardly know what to say. The crust is flaky, the cream is whipped and not-too-sweet. It’s both light and decadent. We all split a piece, were sated and eventually parted company on what felt like the first warm night in ages. It was the perfect way to herald the arrival of Spring.
UPDATE: May 5
And it’s Maria Hines for the win! Well, I guess I lost that bet.
* * * *
The 2009 James Beard Foundation award finalists were announced yesterday, and Seattle is all up in the Best Chef: Northwest category!
- Maria Hines for Tilth (which I still think is way overrated);
- Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez for The Harvest Vine (I so have a picture of him on my refrigerator);
- Ethan Stowell for Union (my favorite for the competition, especially after trying Anchovies and Olives last weekend — OUTSTANDING);
- Jason Wilson for Crush (who I am totally rooting for as underdog);
- and Cathy Whims for Nostrana down in Portland (which I know absolutely nothing about).
ADDITIONALLY! The mighty Tom Douglas has again been nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur (Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen, Etta’s, Lola, Serious Pie).
And rounding things out in PDX, Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year, which doesn’t surpise me in the least.
The awards will be held on May 4th in NYC. Kudos to all!
There has been no shortage of high profile restaurant openings in Seattle over the past year – it has actually been quite a feat keeping up with them all. That explains why I only just recently managed to make it to chef Mark Fuller’s new culinary destination Spring Hill in West Seattle (well, that and the fact that if I’m actually making the trip out to West Seattle, I’ll be easting sushi at Mashiko, but I’ll save that for another time). On this particular occasion, I had guests arriving from out of town, so I thought an expedition over the bridge would be an entertaining way to pass the evening. I was eager to discover for myself what everybody else had been raving about the past few months.
I was not disappointed. Well, mostly. Spring Hill is located on California Ave SW inbetween Genesee and Oregon, and reservations were definitely required – every seat in the house was taken. The space was modern and elegant, with soft wood panels and straight lines that shotgun the length of the narrow, symmetrical room. Booths on the left, tables in the center, the bar and the open kitchen on the right (the cooks themselves forming another straight line). True to everything I’d read, Mark Fuller’s wife Marjorie was delightfully gracious and amicable as hostess.
I had eaten many times under Fuller’s tenure as head chef at Tom Douglas’ flagship restaurant Dahlia Lounge, so I figured I had a pretty good inclination of what to expect. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All of the previous restraint and fastidious presentation I had associated with Fuller’s cooking were out the window. The food at Spring Hill is big and bold and messy. The smell of sizzling meat and smoke permeates everything. The food is sensual, almost dirty.
We started with the crispy veal sweetbreads, fried up like chicken nuggets and served with three dipping sauces – housemade barbeque, ranch dressing and mustard. Fuller clearly has his tongue planted firmly in cheek, and this playfulness comes across throughout the menu. Nothing like a little pancreas served up à la Burger King to get the conversation started!
And speaking of burgers, I’m usually not a huge fan, but the 1/2 pound Strawberry Mountain beef burger with huge slabs of housemade bacon oozing teleme and white cheddar cheeses served on a sesame seed bun with a side of “special sauce” and beef fat fries was an unequivocal masterpiece. The outside of the burger is smoky and has a light char, and the inside drips with aromatic juices. The burger towers above you, and can only be mastered with a knife and fork (and three other dining companions). The only misfire was the fries – the texture was fairly off-putting, almost mealy, like they had been previously frozen.
Which would be hard to believe, given the lengths Fuller has gone to locally source all of his ingredients (the menu is painstakingly detailed, crediting every last farm, cheesemaker and forager he uses). And it was the last of these (the legendary Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found), which brought me the most thrilling surprise of the evening: the elusive Hen of the Woods mushroom, featured alongside chanterelles, delicata squash and chard in a beautiful bowl of handmade tagliatelle. This would be a first. The bowl arrived smelling of autumn, and I sank my teeth into the tender noodles. The Hen of the Woods was earthy, but not pungent, with a hint of sweetness. It was a very delicate flavor, and sadly, almost entirely lost underneath the overly generous pile of shredded parmesan that permeated the bowl.
These tiny hiccups repeated throughout the meal, each dish having a bold and thoughtful center with some minor misstep in execution. Nothing glaring, but certainly noticeable. The wood grilled prawns with creamy grits were delicious, tasting of sea and smoke and piled on top of an exquisite poached egg. But the grits themselves were watery and so finely ground as to be virtually undetectable. The beef steak hot & cold featured a duo of beef – a wood grilled rib eye cap steak and a raw steak tartare. The rib eye was toothesome and devoured in seconds, but the tartare could not compete with the rich, concentrated steak and tasted almost dull in comparison (and the potato cracklings at the center were so light, they were almost entirely devoid of flavor).
But overall, the audacity of chef Fuller’s vision more or less eclipses these slight shortcomings. The burger alone is worth another visit. At the end of the evening, a final whimsical creation completed the meal: a bowl of Ovaltine ice cream, malty and smile provoking.
There’s a lot going on at Spring Hill, and I certainly feel like I have much more to explore before I can make a definitive conclusion. Now if I can just bring myself to get back over to West Seattle…
So remember how I mentioned in my last post that the James Beard Foundation is inviting everyone to nominate their favorite chefs for the award this year? Well, I’d probably put safe money on Ethan Stowell taking home the prize. A nominee last year, and named one of the Best New Chefs in 2008 by Food & Wine magazine, Stowell is rapidly building a restaurant dynasty in Seattle à la Tom Douglas. Along with his business partner Patric Gabre-Kidan, Stowell’s empire now extends from the metropolitan Downtown destination Union, north to Belltown with his superlative Italian restaurant Tavolàta, up to the top of the Queen Anne Counterbalance with the intimate How to Cook a Wolf, and now over to Capitol Hill with the recently announced Anchovies and Olives (set to open early next year). All of the menus feature constantly rotating seasonal offerings, with some greatest hits and variations depending on the venue.
Of all of Stowell’s establishments, my very favorite is Tavolàta at 2nd and Battery, and a recent visit only cemented this notion. I arrived late with a large party after an evening of drinking, which is the best time to visit this cavernous, industrial expanse in the heart of Belltown. The energy is astonishing. The bar is packed. The wait is ridiculous. But it is so worth it. Put in your name, have a breathtaking glass of Sangiovese from Moris Farms and enjoy the endless stream of beautiful people. The central space is dominated by a massive 30 foot communal dining table next to the open kitchen. A handful of small tables and one-on-one booths line the walls, and upstairs some comfy lounge chairs and sofas are arranged near the windows with a scenic view of the crackheads in the alley (Welcome to Belltown!).
Stowell’s dishes are deceptive in their simplicity. Ingredients are used sparingly and in harmony to create a perfect gestalt where the final product always equals the sum of its parts. Try some antipasti — the Prosciutto di Parma with reggiano and trampetti olive oil is not overly salty and will simply melt in your mouth. The Garden Greens salad is one of the best in the City, with fresh and leafy baby lettuce, ricotta salata and pistachios. On this occasion, I swooned over a lemony cauliflower salad with golden raisins and pine nuts. The florets were warm and crisp, and the raisins were a revelation of sweetness.
But the real star of the show is the handmade pasta. The pasta dishes run the gamut, and it’s always fun to try something new and serve family style. I nearly always order the Spaghetti since I can’t even begin to approximate the perfection of this humble noodle in my own kitchen the same way it shines here. Tender and firm and perfect, with house cured anchovy, chili and garlic – a veritable bitchslap of flavor, instant sobriety in a bowl. The Strozzapreti with braised pork cheek and mascarpone will give you further strength for the bus ride home – the juicy, rich meat and large rolled noodles are substantial and will definitely require sharing (fun fact: strozzapreti means “priest strangler”). Linguine with mussels and garlic is another fan favorite, served in a bowl retaining the starchy, briny broth the shellfish and noodles were cooked in.
On this occasion, the hands-down winner was a seasonal offering, the toasted orechiette with butternut squash, chanterelles and oregano. The tiny ears of pasta captured the squash and mushrooms perfectly, and the oregano was easily the finest, most flavorful herb I’ve tasted in ages. I have no idea where Stowell scored such outrageously good seasoning, but for me, the oregano alone stole the show that night.
Go now and prepare for a wait. Because that’s nothing compared to the time it will take to get into Tavolàta if Stowell does win James Beard this year…
BONUS REVIEW! Earlier this Spring, I was invited by Seattle’s favorite alt-weekly The Stranger to guest blog with a couple of other regular commenters over at the Slog. It was shortly after How to Cook a Wolf opened, and I was totally infatuated with Stowell’s newest space. I felt compelled to write a review at the time, and so here it is for your enjoyment. That experience obviously had a profound effect on me, and successfully planted the seed for what you are reading today, so a big thanks to America’s Hometown Newspaper!