September 30, 2007

Vancouver is awesome: a 12-hour trip

One of the best things about living in Seattle is the abundance of amazing day trips you can take with relative ease. Last Saturday morning, Lav had an appetite for dim sum, so we decided to head up to Vancouver, B.C. Vancouver is easy to love: great food, beautiful scenery, friendly people, and a diverse, cosmopolitan vibe. Here's a suggested itinerary:

First Stop: Eat dim sum!

The U.S.-Canadian border is only about 90-100 minutes from downtown Seattle. Once you get through the checkpoint, the city of Richmond is only another 20 minutes away. Once you get there, you're entering a mecca of dim sum gloriousness. Seattle is notoriously devoid of good dim sum (I really can't figure out why), so we'd been craving some of our favorite dim sum back in the Bay Area. But after my first Richmond dim sum experience, I honestly don't even see the point of eating dim sum in the U.S. Period. Yeah, it's really that much better.

A couple of good options are Sun Sui Wah and Kirin Seafood. Lav has been to both, and prefers Sun Sui Wah overall. On this trip, we tried Kirin, whose only weakness was with a couple of the fried dim sum items. Everything else, however, was spectacular. The lo mai gai had an unctuously velvety texture that I've never experience before, the har gow wrapper was perfect in its pristine elasticity, and the pork dumpling in shark fin soup was phenomenal in the purity of the broth. There are a lot of dim sum options up here, and we're determined to try as many as possible.

Next Stop: Hit Granville Island

A 20 minute drive takes you from Richmond into Vancouver. Once you get there, head to Granville Island, another one of those examples of successful adaptive reuse of a former industrial manufacturing zone. Walk off the dim sum gluttony as you explore the public market, check out the different artisan shops, and maybe even catch one of the community theater performances.

Last Stop: Have dinner in Vancouver

Vancouver has a vibrant culinary scene, and the local chefs have a reputation of being fiercely (but cordially) competitive. That can only mean great things for the dining public. On this outing, we made it out to Gastropod, a stylishly modern restaurant serving sophisticated, flavorfully rich food. Lav's butternut squash risotto, served with roasted beets, wild mushrooms and baby shiso might be my favorite plating design of the year.

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September 28, 2007

in the ATL, part 2: Food Studo

Our next dinner in Atlanta was at the Food Studio, located in the King Plow Arts Center. King Plow is a successful, adaptive reused of an abandoned plow factory, and now houses live work spaces, art galleries, and diverse studios. We also lucked out because it happened to be the last day of restaurant week in Atlanta.

Food Studio is in a stunninly designed 2-level loft space, richly textured with brick, steel, and glass, and original weathered timber beams supporting the ceiling. The kitchen produces food with an even-handed finesse that evidences a firm focus on quality and simplicity. While not groundbreaking, our meal was wholly satisfying, evoking thoughts of dining in the Bay Area.

ROASTED RED AND GOLD BEETS (fennel, orange and crème fraiche vinaigrette): Perfectly roasted beets, heightening their intrinsic, rustic sweetness, balanced by the citric richness of the vinaigrette. Brilliant on this warm, late summer evening.

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES (prosciutto, peaches, red onion and micro basil): Salad of the year; totally redeemed the disappointing heirloom tomatoes at Element. Who would have thought that the sweetess of perfectly ripened peaches would match well with the disparate sweetness of tomatoes. But it all worked beautifully because of the prosciutto. Pork brings the world together.

PAPPARDELLE (rock shrimp, artichokes and capers): Fresh, light, perfectly al dente texture. Very well executed.

ATLANTIC SALMON (sweet peppers, baby corn and scallion coulis): You have to feel at least a little guilty eating east coast salmon when you live on the west coast. But this was an impeccable piece of fish, and the scallion coulis was a nice bright addition to the rich flavor of the salmon. I have no idea what the baby corn is doing in this dish.

GRILLED HANGER STEAK (braised cabbage, shallots and dijon mustard): Rich, earthy roasted flavor. Spot-on medium rare, with nice textural constrast between the crusty exterior and the delicate rare interior.

Food Studio in Atlanta

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September 26, 2007

hanging in the ATL: Element

A few weeks ago, Lav and I were in Atlanta for a family wedding. I hadn't been to Atlanta since my cross-country 48-state road trip back in 2000... when I stopped by the Silver Skillet (I sat on the middle stool) and had red-eye gravy for the first time w/ my ham and grits while chatting with a genuinely friendly waitress. With a chance to visit Atlanta with Lav for the first time, we set our sights on some of the newer restaurants making waves in the local scene. First stop: Element, Atlanta's own gastro-lab.

In a sense, we're still recovering from the sensory onslaught of our dinner at Alinea three months ago (sincerest hopeful wishes to Chef Achatz as he battles cancer). Chef Richard Blais' Element is like the renegade younger brother of Alinea... born of the same spirit of inventiveness, a little rougher around the edges in execution, more wildly experimental in clashing flavor concepts, and totally laid back in a pub-like setting.

Chef Blais is known locally for his work at the well-regarded One Avenue, back in Atlanta after a brief stint in Miami to run this experimental project out of a converted residence. Outside of Atlanta, he is better known for his win on Iron Chef over Morimoto, unabashedly utilizing science lab techniques to create new methods and media for his dishes.

I don't want to venture too much into "reviewing" restaurants... that's not what this blog is about. Instead, I just want to highlight some of the interesting flavor and texture aspects of the dishes we enjoyed. Lav started with a frozen margarita cocktail and I had the "Coke Squishy," both of which were made utilizing copious amounts of liquid nitrogen. The super-cooling effect of the liquid nitrogen has the effect of creating an incredibly dense and creamy texture.

Dishes are all small plates, optimal for sharing and experiencing as many different flavor combinations as possible. We started with the Oysters and Pearls: six oysters served with frozen "pearls" of cantalope juice (think dipping dots) and a thin ribbon of prosciutto. While the cantalope and prosciutto is a classic flavor combination that worked well together here, the combination with the oysters was off putting. The cured saltiness of the prosciutto made the natural brininess of the oysters taste old and stale, rather than effervescent. And the sweetness of the cantalope was overpowering and bluntly saccharine for the oyster. A citrus-flavored pearl with some acidity would have paired much better with the oyster (sans the prosciutto).

Next, we had Chips and Salsa: homemade potato chips served with tiny gelatinized cubes of salsa. The flavor of the "salsa" was remarkably precise, making the delivery mechanism interesting and successful.

The dish of the night was grilled octopus, served with a cucumber lightly pickled in rice vinegar and potato salad. Intense and deep flavor complemented very well by the subtle touch of acid from the pickle and unified by the lightly dressed creaminess of the potato salad.

Almost as successful was the homemade fettuccini served with smoky Daves bacon and an egg, slow poached sous vide. The consistency of the yolk was decadent and luxurious... much thicker than a regular poached egg... teetering on becoming solid.

The other dishes we tried:

beef brisket + hot & cold grits: not a very successful dish, mostly because the meat was surprisingly dry.

fried fish + curry remoulade + smoked spices: the curry remoulade with smoked spices was absolute genius, turning a simple plate of battered fish into a gloriously complex and richly flavored expression.

baby back lamb ribs + goya malta: texturally precise, but one dimensional in flavor (only sweet).

mozzarela ravioli + heirloom tomatoes + tiny basil: beautifully plated, and would have been outstanding had the tomatoes been ripe.

panna cotta with coke crystals and crackerjacks: really fun, like a vanilla coke and crackerjacks, but in another textural dimension. The coke crystals melted instantly upon contact with your tongue and actually still had some residual carbonation captured that created an interesting, light tingle.

Who knew Atlanta had this kind of experimental creativity going on?

Element Restaurant & Lounge in Atlanta

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September 23, 2007

Vegetarian options: Asparagus and chanterelles

Back when I was in high school, I was an ethical vegetarian for about three months. I made the decision at the time because I was convinced that the decision to opt out of taking the life of another animal for food was a morally superior choice that humans are uniquely equipped to make. I was also concerned with the amount of resources it took to raise animals for human consumption when compared to a vegetarian diet. Ultimately, I reverted back to my omnivorous ways after my dad asked me to start eating meat again.

Since then, I haven't put any restrictions on what I eat. We try to buy our meat from reputable purveyors when possible, and we broadly try to eat more limited portions of meat (although that doesn't always happen). But is that really enough?

Deep down inside, though, I think that vegetarianism is the much more enlightened route, and I respect those who are able to stick with a strictly vegetarian diet. There are plenty of practical, selfish reasons to consider becoming a vegetarian (overall health, atrocious meat production practices, and my current favorite: "Because in every package of chicken, there's a little poop"), but in the end, I still find the ethical and environmental reasons the most compelling.

So we decided to make a simple vegetarian dinner this evening. We nabbed some huge, meaty chanterelles and fresh tagliatelle from the Ballard Farmers' Market after church. The chanterelles were sauteed in browned butter to extract as much depth of flavor as possible, and we tossed in the fresh pasta, flash-seared asparagus tips, caramelized onions, sweet garlic marmalade and some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Simple, rich, and satisfying. Who needs meat? (Although I'll never know how vegans stick to it...)

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September 22, 2007

Fruit from three perspectives

Have you heard? Hundreds of millions of honey bees are dying around the country of a yet-undetermined cause. The widespread collapse of bee colonies is putting at jeopardy the pollination of $14 billion of fruits, vegetables and nuts annually. Theories range from pesticide overuse to global warming... alarming (though not that surprising, unfortunately) that human activities could be having this significant of an impact to such an essential component of the food chain.

La Verne and I took a quick day trip to check out the Snoqualmie Falls and spotted some honeybees hard at work. Blackberries abound in the wild up here in the Pacific Northwest, and while they are self-pollinating, these bees still do contribute significantly to production.

Later that afternoon, we checked out Thanh Son Tofu off of 12th Avenue adjacent to the I-District. We stopped by because a friend of ours told us that they had homemade tofu served with a sweet ginger syrup. We also tried the xôi gấc (sweet glutinous rice flavored with different varieties of fruit... the yellow portion was durian, which was particularly good) and the savory bánh bá trạng. Flavorful, insanely inexpensive, and ridiculously filling.

Our last stop of the day took us to crazyberry up in Capitol Hill. This shop just opened up a month ago and is a nice stop for frozen yogurt that actually tastes like real yogurt. We like getting the strawberry & green tea yogurt -- which go surprisingly well together -- topped with mango, strawberries and blueberries. It's all about the toppings...

September 20, 2007

Some food for thought

I came across a few interesting things today that I wanted to share.

First, a great blog post on Sitka and Spruce -- one of the more amazing restaurants in Seattle -- from a few weeks ago on tastingmenu. I think this post captures the excitement and anticipation of eating at Sitka particularly well, and the brief video interview clip gives some nice insight.

Also, on a day when newspapers were mostly reporting on Dan Rather's $70 million lawsuit against CBS (yawn), the continuing free fall in the subprime mortgage industry (yawn), Floyd Landis' unsuccessful challenge of his doping charge (yawn), and the unbelievable treatment of the Jena 6 (disturbing and disappointing), Kim Severson had an insightful, balanced article on a lunch with Alice Waters (which contained my favorite word of the moment: eco-gastronomy).

Lastly, kudos on new raves for the gang at Medlock Ames, who continue to produce magnificent, heart-felt wines.

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September 15, 2007

Tutta Bella: Soul-satisfying pizza

This has been a very good food week for us. Our most recent satisfying experience came courtesy of Tutta Bella in Wallingford, a place we've been meaning to try for some time. While the rock stars at Pizzeria Picco still make our all-time favorite pizzas (without question), Tutta Bella does a pretty amazing job and is now our go-to place up here in Seattle.

It's been almost exactly one year since we started our comparative pizza quest between Pizzaiolo, A16 and Picco. And as was the outcome in that search, the third time is the charm with the different pizza places we've tried up here. Via Tribunali--much hyped--was a bit of a disappointment because of its crust (too thick, a bit cardboardy) and dull sauce. Veraci is pretty good, but definitely relies on the coolness of its portable oven to elevate the status of its pizza excellence. Tutta Bella, wearing its VPN certification proudly, stands on its own, a clear cut above its peers in producing pizza bliss.

Start with the most important criteria... the two 800-degree wood-burning ovens. A waft of true-fire smokiness hit me right before opening the door to the restaurant... my stomach was already grumbling.

As with all of our comparative pizza tastings, we use the standard margherita--here, called the Regina Margherita: a simple sauce of San Marzano tomatoes (brightly acidic from the volcanic soils of the terroir in which they're grown), fresh mozzarella, basil and a touch of olive oil.

We take our first bite... it's everything you hope for. The dough is blistered and lightly crisped on the outside while still maintaining that classic elasticity for a complex, satisfying texture... thin without being flimsy, and a nice smoky undertone from the oven. The sauce is perfectly simple and unadorned, showcasing the brilliance of unadulterated San Marzano tomatoes. This pizza is incredibly similar to A16. Perhaps its only weakness is the mozzarella which, while delicious, doesn't have quite the same level of unctuous richness of house-pulled buffalo mozzarella.

We also ordered a prosciutto e rucola, which was terrific... a guilt-laden richness from the prosciutto with a nice contrasting peppery bite from the arugula.

Tutta Bella's Wallingford location is massive... at least four times the size of the postage-stamp dimensions of Picco. Yet the quality remains very high. The salads are only ok, and the traditionally pulled espresso, while a nice touch, was a bit on the bitter side. They also have a nice selection of gelato--next time we'll try to convince them to serve the vanilla with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of crunchy sea salt crystals!

Next month, Tutta Bella is opening another location three blocks away from our apartment! Now, the only question I'm left with is: What's the carbon footprint of my tasty wood-burning brick oven neapolitan pizza?

Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria (Wallingford) in Seattle

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September 14, 2007

Skillet Street Food: Gourmet gone mobile

I've been living in South Lake Union for about 6 months now, and we love our neighborhood. Apart from the fact that much of the area is a big construction ditch thanks to the non-stop, take-no-prisoners trappings of Paul Allen's Vulcan development company, it's a great place to live. Just a tad off-set from Belltown, downtown, and Capitol Hill, we have a cool little neighborhood full of history, quirks, and unique little treasures... like Skillet Street Food.

Essentially a gourmet food operation run by a couple of guys--Josh and Danny--out of a converted Airstream (that cracks me up... only in Seattle dude), Skillet parks itself three blocks away from our apartment on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Unfortunately, they're only open for breakfast and lunch, so I haven't been able to partake. But L took a stroll over to check out the operation this week and had lots of positive things to say.

The kobe beef slider with fries. L said it looked super juicy.

For herself, L ordered the walnut-crusted chicken sandwich (with an apple fennel slaw and a roasted shallot aioli) and a healthy portion of poutine--crisp golden fries covered in white cheddar and gravy. NICE. "Oh, Canada" anyone?

L's verdict on the poutine? Super good when hot, but not so hot when not.

The guys were really cool about L taking photos, and before she left, they passed her a little dessert gnosh, gratis: grilled bread with nutella and grapes.

I wonder if I can convince them to come over to the Microsoft parking lot at lunch...

Skillet in Seattle

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September 11, 2007

Restaurant Zoë: delicious, chic, a new favorite

I think I just found my new favorite restaurant in Seattle.

What makes this restaurant special? How about a talented chef-owner executing sophisticated dishes driven by top-quality, seasonal ingredients out of a gem of a space whose sleek interior design is due in large part to the chef's wife, an architect? A devotion to food as well as the art and craft of creating a superlative dining environment... I've only just dined here for the first time, but I get the feeling that's what this place is all about.

Without any formal culinary school background, Chef Scott Staples first began to hone his craft working for his father's restaurants in Colorado and continued with stints at a number of well-regarded restaurants in Colorado, and later, Boston. Perhaps his most significant traning took place during an apprenticeship in Milan with Chef Gualtiero Marchesi at his eponymous three-star restaurant. In 2000, he opened Zoë, named after his daughter, and has received consistently positive reviews ever since.

Oddly, the restaurant was only about half full on this Monday night... odd because the food we had that night was among the best we've eaten in Seattle.

fresh ricotta gnudi ~ tomato marmalade, corn citrus cream, tarragon
Traditional gnudi -- loosely translated as "nude ravioli" -- is a spinach and ricotta dumpling sans the pasta sheet (hence the name). Chef April Bloomfield reinterpreted the gnudi without the spinach and set off a limited gnudi craze in New York back in 2006. Here, the gnudi was prepared sans spinach, with the thinnest, delicately cooked exterior to the pillowy-soft ricotta. The tomato marmalade was surprisingly sweet, marrying beautifully with the anise-like waft of accompanying tarragon.

grilled spicy octopus ~ pickled watermelon radish, blood-orange vinaigrette
L noted that ever since our trip to Greece, we've been addicted to grilled octopus. The smoky char of the exterior has an incredible density of flavor with the sweet flesh of the octopus, which stays fantastically tender when cooked correctly. Zoe's verion is delicious, with the vinaigrette perfectly balanced in its sweet and tangy components, and the watermelon radish offering a crisp, refreshing counterpoint to the bold flavors.

crispy kurobuta pork belly confit ~ roasted peaches, parsley puree, endive
My mom used to make a rustic taiwanese dish with pork belly when I was a kid, which I loved. Now the rest of the world has caught up with this fantastic cut of pork. Zoe's version is wonderfully crispy and well seasoned, creating a perfect textural contrast to the ribbons of melting fat. Endive is a perfect pairing for the richness of this dish.

wild boar bolognese ~ arugula papparadelle
Ridiculously good and wildly addictive. An eye-opening revelation... right before your eyes subsequently glaze over in euphoric satisfaction. I could eat a lot of this...

haricot verts ~ pistachios, pickled cippolini onion, red wine vinaigrette
A simple accompaniment that was notable in the way the ingredients really did manifest a culinary synergy, the brightness of the pickled onions playing nicely off of the haricot verts, with the earthy rich flavor of the pistachios tying everything together. Simple, but skillfully conceived.

1989 Viader Proprietary Red (brought our own bottle)
A special bottle. This is the inaugural vintage of Viader, made exclusively of grapes from the estate's enviably situated property on Howell Mountain. Predominant flavors of bright cherry complemented by lush aromas of cedar and cigar box, with just a faint edge of mint on the finish. Surprisingly youthful for an 18-year-old vintage. A particularly killer match with the pork belly and wild boar. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc. 12.7% alcohol.

Restaurant Zoe in Seattle