Archive for February, 2007

Coupage, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

I don’t believe it’s possible to write our opinion about something in an “objective” fashion. This is an odd myth that has arisen among those in the journalism profession. The people who review restaurants for a living in the mainstream media have of course taken to this code like vinegar to rice. Being that they are on the very periphery of journalism it’s no surprise that they are some of the most fervent believers in this myth.

While I don’t believe it’s possible to be objective, I do believe it’s possible (and important) to be fair. Fair means disclosing your bias, being transparent about your perspective, being consistent, and honest. So when I write about restaurants I try to be as clear as possible about my personal priorities. I know they don’t match all other folks but at least they’re out there. Service, decor, and even price to a certain extent are all pretty much secondary (if not tertiary) for me. Food, namely flavor and texture, are really the primary concern. If there was one other factor that I weighed in any significant fashion, I would have to say it’s location. While I long for Star Trek transporters to take us to Tokyo for dinner, they’re still not quite ready for prime time. So until then the reality for most people is that you have to factor in how hard it is to get to a place to its overall rating.

For example, the best ramen noodle shop in Seattle may be great… for Seattle. But it may not compare to a decent stand in Tokyo. But for a place you can actually get to, it could be considered quite enjoyable. And while proximity has some impact, there also has to be a baseline and a standard. So as it turns out, in reality that Ramen shop in Seattle is not very good even factoring in that you can actually get to it. So in this case even proximity could not overcome the quality of the soup.

This brings us to a space in my neighborhood that has gone through about 6 restaurants in the past year (or something like that). Each restaurant was progressively worse than the next. Each bringing their own non-descript and cliche melange of crap to their table. Each searching for an indentity and not realizing the only place an authentic perspective can come from is from inside the proprietors and food professionals. And then, finally, a restaurant called Coupage arrived. With the cooks having experience in Manhattan, and the owner already a successful restarauteur from Portland, the stage was set. The food? Korean French mix.

You may be surprised, but I hope that I will absolutely adore every restaurant I try. I’d much rather have a great experience than a bad one. I don’t enjoy being disappointed. Additionally, I would absolutely love having a restaurant that I really enjoyed around the corner from me. And finally, my favorite perspective on food is that of someone taking a very refined, minimalist, and modern technical approach to a very traditional cuisine. This doesn’t mean reinventing the food. Just using every evolved technique to make the single best examples of a culinary tradition that’s evolved over decades or even centuries. Cuisines like Italian, French, Japanese, etc. I love perfect examples of these cuisines, and often I find that people with a deep background in and respect for the tradition as well as an incredible facility with modern techniques and procuring the best ingredients do the best job of preparing that cuisine. Refined authenticity is probably the best way to describe it.

So you might be able to imagine my excitement when I heard that a Korean restaurant featuring chefs from a French restaurant in Manhattan (my second favorite food city in the world) were coming to cook around the corner from my house I could barely contain my excitement. But after three visits, Coupage is still not living up to the hopes I had for it. I’ve wrestled with this post for some time thinking on and off about it for literally months. Normally, if a restaurant isn’t one I recommend, I don’t write about it at all. Why waste all our time talking about a place I wouldn’t want you to go. What I’ve never done is write about a restaurant that I think could stand improvement and get very specific about what I think they should do to improve. There are many reasons for this.

The main reason I don’t give advice is because, what the hell do I know? These people are running a business. I don’t believe that I’m typical of most people who go out to eat, and I’ve never had to run a restaurant (not to mention that I’m not a particularly good cook). The combination of my inexperience, and their risk means it’s really none of my business. I don’t have to eat there, but do they really need me blabbing on about what they should do to improve so that I like them? But for Coupage I’m breaking that rule. They’re right next door to me. So I really have no choice but to offer my unwanted advice. I’ve decided that I will blather on about what they should do because I so desparately want them to be the restaurant I imagined. The most frustrating part is that I think they can be.

Let’s start off with our most recent meal there. It was pretty representative of the others we’d experienced. For a space that was tainted with the stench of failed restaurants the owners did a nice job dressing and recasting the interior of coupage. The place feels good. Feels like a restaurant you could enjoy going back to again and again. Refined, but comfortable. Our meal started off with Asian Clam Chowder – A Clear Broth with a Rich Smoky Flavor Enhanced by Rustic Korean Bean Paste and Smoky Bacon Foam. The soup was a bit thin at first but warmed to it after several spoonfuls. That said, it wasn’t super integrated. There was simply not enough flavor to go around. I had to go hunting for it like a needle in a haystack. And when I did I liked it. But the journey was arduous.

Next up was Wild Mushroom Bi Bim Bop – A Modern Take on a Favorite Korean Rice Dish with Crispy Napa Cabbage Salad, Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, a Soft Boiled Quail Egg, and Sweet Chili Sauce. This dish had a shot. A real shot at being the iconic dish that represented what I had hoped the cuisine would accomplish – a deep understanding of traditional flavors and techniques, refined to the point where the expression of the tradition is pure and unmistakable. The addition of the Mushrooms I thought was in concert with the roots of the dish and felt traditional even though I’d never seen it done this way. The stiff whole grain rice and the Korean Spicy Sauce were what anchored this dish. The thinly sliced musrooms were also a great element. There was a rustic Asian heartiness to this dish. The quail egg was cute, a nod to the traditional raw chicken egg put on top of Bi Bim Bap. And while clearly on path to the dishes I was hoping to eat, it still fell a touch short with the flavors again not being completely integrated (tasted more like disparate elements on the plate). It just felt somewhat jumbled even though most of the right pieces seemed present.

We then got the “Coupage” Beef Platter – Korean style Hanger steak, Braised Shortribs Served with Various European and Asian Dipping Sauces; Bearnaise, Blue Cheese Fondue, Soy Yuzu with Jalapeno, and Crudites. I don’t know fi I’m a fan of the multiple sauces. On the one hand I love the choices. But I also feel better if the chef just picks a direction and goes with it. As it happens, the bearnaise was bland and the blue cheese was uneventful. The soy yuzu however was bright, sharp, and tasty. The dish had big hunks of steak. Nice and red. A touch chewy. The compressed cubes of beef were a textural counterpoint. I tasted one of the onion bits and it was packed/bursting with flavor.

In the home stretch we got the “Coupage” Burger – Fresh House Ground Short Rib Lightly Seasoned and Grilled, with Seared Foie Gras, Red Onion Kimchi, Tomato Confit, and Truffle Perfumed Potato Crisp. Honestly, the burger was insanely good. Super oily in a good way and juicy too. Very very juicy. The savory flavors were rustic ad earthy with all the different meat going into it. The chips were truffley good. They came with chili ketchup, truffle mayo, and dijon mustard. Finally we ate the Shitake Cannelloni with Sunchoke cream, Sweet Chinese Sausage, and Creamed Swiss Chard. This dish had incredible contrasting textures, but honestly the flavors were too subtle in my opinion except for the bits of sausage dotting the landscape.

So we could have left well enough alone and not written about Coupage. Or we could have just written about how Coupage has potential but is inconsistent. Instead I will put forward the following theory: Coupage needs to pick. What is it going to be? Right now it’s a modern American restaurant with French techniques and asian ingredients providing bits of “interest” as they are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the dishes. The exceptions being the Bi Bim Bap and the the Beef platter a little bit. The other option of course (and my personal preference) would be for them to focus on making an amazing modern korean restaurant serving a wide range of traditional Korean dishes refined to their core essence. Korean food is rich, delicious, savory, and bursting with flavor. We didn’t eat it this time but the Coupage Mac and Cheese, while refined and delicate, it’s flavor can best be described as subtle. Less charitably it would be called bland. Korean food isn’t bland. Korean cuisine can also have a rustic quality to it. Bringing the refinement and restraint of the mac and cheese dish to Korean cuisine could be incredible. But it must be grounded or better yet firmly and eternally rooted deep within the traditional cuisine, or else the result is just shallow.

I know the last thing the folks at Coupage want is my advice. And frankly, I’m not sure they’d be wrong to ignore it. The place looks full relatively often. I’ll close with the following: never mind that Coupage can be inconsistent in terms of presence of flavor, that to me is a function of their lack of focus, or rather the fact that they haven’t made up their mind about what they truly are. What’s important is that they have a vision in their head and deep conviction about their food, not just an idea or a “concept”. On the current path, their concept will have a short shelf life when the Seattle diners who often care more about the trappings of good food than actually eating good food move on to the next cool spot that opens nearby and Coupage is left looking dated. Authenticity is never tired, it’s timeless. And I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m hoping Coupage will turn the corner towards timeless cause it would be so great to have a truly fantastic restaurant that I could walk to.

Gypsy, Seattle, Washington

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Thanks to growing numbers of food minded people around the country, underground dining has been gaining momentum. What was once spoken of with hushed tones in foodie circles, underground restaurants have of late been receiving local and national press. In cities with large restaurant scenes, a desire for an alternative to the restrictions of a restaurant have taken both chefs and diners off the radar.

In California a group called Outstanding in the field (out standing?) takes diners to amazing outdoor locations and boasts such names as Alice Waters. In San Fransisco a group called Ghetto Gourmet which began in a basement apartment, dinners prepared by a pair of brothers for a loyal following has swollen to include a national reputation, nightly performers, and guest chefs. Portland’s original underground restaurant, Ripe, dissolved recently and the creator has moved our way starting an underground movement called One Pot. Yup, you guessed it, the meal strips away all airs of dining humbly restricting the meal to be cooked in a single pot.

In Seattle the scattering of underground restaurants has long been dominated by Gypsy. Started in the living room of an in home culinary school, the restaurant gained momentum throughout the Seattle dining scene when food writer Nancy Leason featured it in her column for the Seattle Times, and the well read alternative newspaper The Stranger fawned over the alternative style dining experience. The mailing list grew, the guest chef roster added local chefs, myself in February 2006. Garnering a position in a lengthy Wall Street Journal piece, Gypsy began to attract national attention. In fall of 2006, Gypsy gave birth to a second restaurant, Vagabond. Housed in Portalis Wine Bar in Ballard, this Monday night supper club offers a humble 3 course meal priced moderately, and the opportunity to pull a bottle from the wine shops collection at retail price.

Thanks to the efforts of local P.R. agent Traca Savadago, Gypsy shared a July dinner with Anthony Bourdain. Tony, as I learned he likes to be called, sauntered in, camera’s in tow, and enjoyed an 11 course menu prepared by Gabriel Claycamp, desserts by myself. The dual menus running side by side offered dishes like tequila and strawberry “otter pops”, rosemary skewered chicken hearts, bone marrow “fries”, and an addictive white port marinated foie gras that was bruleed with vanilla sugar. The cheese course, an orange colored whipped epoisse called “cheese whiz” was served with a story of smuggling the cheese into the country in a place no french authority would dare go, a baby’s diaper bag, and was smartly paired with Boones Strawberry Hill.

For dessert a bittersweet chocolate terrine was served with a “cluttering” of garnishes. Made from scharffenberger’s 70 percent bar, the dish highlighted chocolates’ versatility by complimenting it with a myriad of flavors. Candied nuts, salty toasted sesame seeds, Madagascar vanilla cream, pastis preserved cherries, toasted marshmallows, Breton shortbread, fresh raspberries, candied ginger, all sat in a still life of garnishes before the proud wall of a chocolate terrine.

The second dessert was a lime cheesecake mousse set over the top of an “aural” crust. Strawberry pop rocks were implanted into the graham cracker crust for a surprising aural firework display with every bite. The dish was accompanied by strawberry sorbet over a salad of black pepper and strawberries, a strawberry sauce, and a fresh grating of lime zest.

Tony managed to polish off his chocolate terrine and a second helping of the lime cheesecake, and said between mouthfuls that I was “prodigiously talented”. A compliment that would have made me blush even more had I understood what “prodigiously” meant at the time. As it was, being surrounded by cameras was nerve racking enough to keep me singularly focused on the food at hand.

The dinner filmed for The Pacific Northwest episode of No Reservations reruns this Monday at 10pm on the Travel Channel. You can see a bit of me on the show, given the title “Evil Pastry Chef” in a montage casting the characters of this irreverent dinner, and describing the use of pop rocks to remind us that we use our sense of sound while eating more than we know.

During dinner, Bourdain asked his stock question, “What would you eat as your last meal if on death row?” The guests at the table added their own desired meals, mom’s spaghetti, potatoes in any form, foie, chocolate, and roasted marrow in the bone for Bourdain. When I offered my desire for a big fat hot dog on a toasty bun, ketchup, mustard, relish, and chopped onion a top, a bag of plain lays potato chips, and a coca cola so cold there were tiny shards of icy crystals, I was declared to be a cook, through and through. In his first book he highlights the fact that most cooks who put their life into the industry, making your dream meals, in the end are most satisfyed by the simplest of fare.

So set your TiVo, write a sticky note, or just remember, 10 pm, Monday the 26th, on the Travel Channel. Tony does the Pacific Northwest.

WD~50, New York, New York [Vintage Post]

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Since we have bunches of new readers as of late, we’ve decided to bring forward some of our favorite meals that bear repeating. Apologies if you already read this. Dana and I have lots of exciting stuff coming down the pike. A bunch of us are heading to New York City in a few weeks and WD~50 is on our itinerary so it seemed fitting to bring forward this vintage tastingmenu account.

Before we get into the details of this meal, I think a short discourse on the current state of food and innovation is in order.

Here are some things I believe: a) good food requires focus, b) removing variables usually drives creativity and innovation, c) almost always, the best way to have focus and fewer variables means cooking food within a regional/traditional framework that’s evolved over decades or centuries. And while I believe A and B are always true, I admit that there are exceptions to C. The exceptions essentially fall into two categories: 99.99% (or more) in this category are random restaurants that claim to have an eclectic mix with a little of everything when in fact they are just all over the place; a tiny fraction (the remainder) are considered the most cutting edge restaurants on the planet. These include: El Bulli, Fat Duck (for which I haven’t yet posted my write-up), and wd~50. I have never eaten at the first, but I have eaten at Trio when the Chef was Grant Achatz who I believe was also cooking in this vein.

Staying focused and removing variables without cooking based on a traditional framework is only for the very talented. Because basically it means that a) there’s nothing for the chef to rely on in terms of a basic value system. It also means that there’s no obvious touchstone for the diner. Or more accurately in the case of these restaurants there are multiple touchstones. With Trio and Fat Duck not only was there a tour of different culinary traditions, but there was cleverness, humor, and sometimes shtick. Most of the time at these meals these elements were innovative, interesting, challenging, and enjoyable. But sometimes I admit they seemed overly clever, and honestly not something I’d really like to eat on a regular basis. The smoke geleé from Trio and the parsnip cereal (basically a box of frosted flakes made from parsnip, and served with a small pitcher of parsnip milk) from Fat Duck are cases in point. These are the exceptions and not the rule, and in both cases I really quite loved my meals at Trio and Fat Duck.

Some people put wd~50 in the same category of innovative cooking as the others. And certainly Wylie Dufresne’s cooking is interesting, challenging, innovative, and enjoyable. But I separate him from the others. His innovation is never a lark. It’s not that he has no sense of humor, it’s just that cleverness isn’t the right metric for his food. There are no combinations that seem only interesting to me; instead I’d want to eat each one again. And while you may not recognize the framework from which his food comes, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. His food is reductionist and beautiful. Ingredients are combined in new and interesting ways not because they are trendy, uncommon, or clever, but because Dufresne believes they will taste great together. In fact, what I’ve found is that the “depth of field” in his dishes is relatively narrow, but perfect when in focus. What I mean is, it’s always best to carefully assemble forkfuls that have little bits of every item on a plate as the ingredients are so carefully balanced that missing even one can result in a completely different experience. Luckily the number of ingredients on each plate are few, not to mention beautiful to behold. Is every dish a home run? No. But many of them are not only super successful but delivered in such a special and interesting way that they’re unforgettable. I’m lucky enough to get to eat in New York 2-3 times a year, but I must confess that I probably think about (and crave) going back to wd~50 more than any restaurant I know of in New York City. And to be clear, I’ve been to quite a few restaurants in New York City. It’s not that I didn’t love the meals I had at those other innovative restaurants. I did. It’s just that in a select group of restaurants that are trying to do something new, from my experience, the food at wd~50 is unique. Given how much I like to eat out, finding something truly one-of-a-kind is a singular pleasure for me. OK. Onto the meal.

Things started off with Sesame Flat Bread. It was super crispy, and very flavorful in a warm and unobtrusive way. Next up was Duck Breast, Beet Juice, and Olive Soil. It was warm, savory with the beet flavor foundation underneath and then olive on the finish. Definitely yummy. (I’m embarrassed to say that we ripped into this so quickly that I didn’t get a picture until most of it was eaten. Oops!)

The next dish was Foie Gras, Grapefruit-Basil Crumble, and Nori Caramel. It was wild. This dish almost defied description. Inky nori caramel, bitter and thin seeps onto the plate from a disc-shaped cavity in center of perfect cylinder of foie gras pate. The key was to eat everything together in one bite to get the effect. The salty croutons and acidic grapefruit combined with the foie and nori filled your mouth with an explosive collection of flavors. Alone the pieces were unremarkable. Together the ingredients were simply exciting!

After the foie explosion we had Rainbow Trout, Pork Belly, Cider Meringue, and Miso Paper. This dish was a touch subtle for me except for the chip with its concentrated shoyu flavor. The meringue was like an apple cloud. I was excited to eat these two dishes, Michael and Anh were not thrilled by them. However, Debbie and Anh’s brother agreed with me though.

Then the Beef Tongue, Fried Mayo, and Tomato Molasses arrived. This dish was simply beautiful. The cubes of fried mayo were still hot. Yes, fried mayo. I’m still not exactly sure you fry mayo but I’m glad they did. The tomato molasses had a really deep flavor. The super thin shavings of tongue tasted as great as they looked.

As I recount the meal I’m reminded of just how composed everything feels on every plate. The next dish was no exception – Spanish Mackerel, Smoked Banana, Juniper, and Pickled Parsley. I want to be clear, some might jump to the conclusion that these ingredients were put together here to be different. And there’s no doubt that some chefs confuse being different with being interesting. All I can tell you is that it wasn’t the difference that I walked away with after eating this dish, it was how the fish was like a awarm tasty tiny pillow that perfectly balanced with all the other flavors and textures in the dish including the crispy crispy puffed rice and the crunchy saba skin.

Next up was Slow Poached Egg, Parmesan Broth, and Tomato. It was certainly neat that the egg was poached for an hour at exactly 176 degrees to get it to this great soft-boiled state. But that’s not why I loved this dish. The soup was a gorgeous and crystal clear with the absolute “chewy” essence of parmigiana reggiano. The egg in the soup gets split and leaks thick yolk throughout. The dish ends up being almost some form of almost an eggdrop soup with crunchy bits throughout. This dish was wildly superlative.

After the egg we were treated to Lamb Belly, Green Daikon, Black Bean, and Chocolate Powder. The lamb belly was super fatty and lamby but when combined with the smokey eggplant garlic flavors that came from the rest of the components the dish was simply excellent and well balanced.

Next up was the Braised Short Ribs, Smoked Flatiron Beef, Kimchee Spaetzle, and Papaya. This was one of the best dishes of beef I have ever had… ever. The rectangle of short rib had a crispy outside and a flaky inside and the flavor was fantastic – deep and dark in a good way. The combination with the savoriness of the spaetzle, the sweet tart of the papaya, and the (what I think was) dried kimchee’s spicy qualities, was extraordinary. The addition of the flat iron beef took it over the top with its bright savory juiciness. I tore through it as this dish was a whirlwind of flavor. A juicy savory base filled with gentle bright sparks of acid and heat.

Dessert began with Raisin Consommé, Banana, and Rum Ice Cream. Even though Michael had not deigned to try the egg dish, I had to conquer my own fears and try this one filled with raisin. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that eating the ingredients separately instead of together yielded completely different tastes. The raisins really were not a factor until I ate a spoonful of the consommé alone that tasted raisiny (and as raisins go, it wasn’t bad). But before that moment the consommé was like a tangy plum liqueur foundation for the bananas which were unusually bright. Quite good altogether.

The only dish that bore some resemblance to a dish we’d had the last time at wd~50 was the Carrot-Lime Ravioli with Coconut Tapioca. (I must have been so distracted during this meal as I spaced on this picture too, which is a shame because the ravioli were beautiful to behold.) The lime flavor was quite sweet in a good way. Anh loved the coconut tapioca. Altogether the dish was tart, crunchy, and even spicy. These are Anh’s favorite qualities in food as well as (I think) in people.

The Tonka Bean Panna Cotta, with Chocolate Sorbet and Basil was like the Good Humor strawberry shortcake on a stick – but chocolate. The cofee soil didn’t bother me or Deb strangely enough. And the apricot added a special quality. Nice.

Winding these down were the Mulled Apple Cider, and the Ginger Cotton Candy. The cotton candy tasted traditional but with a subtle ginger fire on the finish. Michael had never had cotton candy at a restaurant. To close we had a bowl of Chocolate Curried Almonds. These were cold, cinnamony, and calmed down and rounded out our palates.

The combinations of ingredients we had were definitely new and interesting in many cases. Some people find some key experiences in life enjoyable early on and spend their days trying to repeat and perfect those experiences. To some extent I think everyone has some capacity for that. For Debbie I think it’s pizza. For me (at least lately) it’s Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches. But there are a subset of people in the world (I think) that also enjoy trying new things. And while new experiences only sometimes match up to old favorites, to a certain extent it’s the journey itself that’s exciting. Luckily, with wd~50 the journey and the destination are rewarding.

If you’re not into trying new things, or if you are but have never eaten his food, it might be easy to dismiss it as a bunch of odd combinations. There was a time however when for each of us some ethnic food was an “odd” combination simply because we didn’t grow up with it. And at least from my perspective, the food at wd~50 is anything but randomly thrown together. It’s delicate, deliberate, composed, and exciting. The balance between the ingredients feels measured to the millimeter to me. And ultimately even though I deeply respect and appreciate the innovation and willingness to try new things, none of these are the why I enjoy eating so much at wd~50. The reason? The food tastes great.

Banffshire Club, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Monday, February 19th, 2007

We got away for a couple of days last week and wanted to go somewhere in the mountains. Turns out, that Banff (way too many consonants for one word), Alberta, is only an hour-and-a-half direct flight from Seattle. And nestled near this adorable little touristy town is a castle containing the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The hotel is quite lovely. (It’s hard to go wrong when it’s a castle.) As with most expensive hotels they have their own requisite expensive restaurant.

The problem with most fancy hotel restaurants is that they have no real need to compete. They can’t go out of business or who would cook for the hotel guests. The hotel subsidizes them so they get lazy. You might think that this is optimal. A chef can just worry about cooking and not worries about the ups and downs of fickle customers. With that bias, we signed up for dinner at the Banffshire Club Restaurant hoping against hope.

After glasses of Taittinger and Kir Royale (with a local sparkling wine) dinner started off with a couple of amuse bouche: Foie Gras Mousse on a Pistachio Cookie Tomato Gelee and a Potato Scone with Tallegio Cheese. Simple clean flavors, the cheese stood out. Next up was a Village Bay Oyster from New Brunswick with Tomato Sauce and Arugula Mousse. It was yummy because of the tomato sauce which was watery in a good way (if you can imagine that). Bread was fun including Parmesan Prosciutto Bread Sticks with Housemade Caramelized Pecan Spread. The pecan spread was surprisingly sweet. And special.

Braised Alberta Berkshire Pork Belly with Flageolet Bean Cassoulet and Hotchkiss Farm Salsify started off the next round. The Pork belly was all earthy tones with lots of texture. The oil and graininess in the dish were a good balance. Then we had the Foie Gras of Québec Moulard Duck Pan Seared with Okanagan Braised Cherries, Pistachio Crusted Terrine. The sauteed foie was a touch livery. I know it actually is liver, but foie gras should never have a livery flavor in my opinion.

Soup and salad was on its way next. First was a Carrot Veloute with Mussels and a piece of fish. The soup was like a mild carrot milkshake. Quite lovely. The fish was cooked perfectly. This was a very special dish. The Local Vegetable Salad with Vin Jaune Vinaigrette and Fairwinds Farm Goat Cheese, Hotchkiss Farm Beans, Tomatoes, Beets, Carrots, and Radish was nice. Its best feature of course was that there were beet flavors laced throughout every bite.

Palate cleanser up next… Passionfruit Granite with a Blood Orange Disk. It was excellent. The passionfruit flavor was super present. Not watered down. Nice. It also came in a novelty ice sphere. The waitstaff insisted that that we break the ice before they took away the “dishes”. Needless to say it was a little nervewracking smashing ice balls with a spoon around the wineglasses, but we managed to survive without making too much of a mess.

So far the food had been quite decent on the whole, especially for a North American hotel restaurant. That made it all the stranger when we noticed that the background music was in fact not music but Muzak! And what was playing? The theme from The Young and the Restless. Kind of surreal.

In our last round we started with Roasted Bison Tenderloin, Oxtail and Mushroom Ravioli, and Braised Sweetbreads. The Bison was a touch dry and not super flavorful. But the veggies were excellent. The ravioli was a touch undercooked but was bursting with an excellent bold and savory flavor. The sauce was deep, deep, viscous, and rich. And even though there were highlights and inconsistencies in the bison, the Roasted Turbot and Scallop with Confit Local Potatoes, Perigord Truffles, Truffle Emulsion, and Winter Vegetable Terrine was excellent. The fish was nicely cooked but the scallop was better. A little light savory seared gem. Just the right level of seasoning.

We were stuffed and didn’t go for dessert but couldn’t get out without some sort of sweet item. The friendly folks brought us what basically amounted to a chocolate discus. It was yummy as were the Meringue, Cassis Jelly, and Grand Marnier Marzipan Truffles that rested atop the frisbee. We ate it all.

I know that the Banffshire wasn’t as consistent as I would hope. But there were enough highlights – the way they cooked their seafood, the pork belly’s balance, and of course, the carrot veloute, that I’d love to go back and see what they can do. And besides, it’s in a cool castle.

Skinning Hazelnuts

Monday, February 19th, 2007

An announcement of one’s profession often comes with a predictable series of questions. A mechanic in given various vocal interpretations of engine noises. A doctor is flushed with descriptions of odd body functions. And I, upon announcement of working as a pastry chef, was most commonly asked how to peel hazelnuts.

No joke.

A common task that seems to stump nearly everyone who tries to detach the papery skin from the nut, I was specifically asked how to complete the task without it being so difficult. My answer always started with confirmation that while yes, I was a pastry chef, and yes, I do work with hazelnuts often, and in large quantities, they are always a pain in the ass.

I have come up with a few steps to make it less so, but I’ll say it again, it’s an obnoxious task.

Toast the nuts at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. During this time, the nut swells. The brittle, papery skin will not stretch with the swollen nut and cracks under the pressure of the swelling. When the nut meats have toasted properly, turning a nice golden color and started to offer an obvious aroma, remove them from the oven.

Now walk away. This is the point I find most crucial to the entire process. The nut should be allowed to cool for at least half an hour before attempting to remove skin. In this time, the swollen nut meat will return to it’s original size, and the oils will cool. If you attempt to remove the skin soon after the nuts have been pulled from the oven, the oils will adhere the skin to the nut, making it nearly impossible to remove.

When the nuts are cooled, they can be rubbed together like ball bearings in your hands, or in a dish towel, and the skins should flake away. Some skin will remain, but don’t fret. Instead of seeing what you failed to remove, remember that the flecks of skin in any hazelnut dessert are a recognizable visual clue to the amazing flavor imparted to the dish by this particular nut.

Brown Butter

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

I began rolling this post around my thoughts a week or two ago while making one of my favorite ittie bittie cakes, financiers. I was planning to expound upon the ease in preparation of the batter, and the seemingly fail-safe results that consistently come out of the oven. I had clever anecdotes contesting pie for it’s place in the term, “easy as….”, and nut variations on the almond that is ground for the batter.

But as I started to distinguish the qualities of the financier that I liked best, I continuously came back to one in particular. The flavor of the financier, while based off the almond, is made truly spectacular by the addition of brown butter. Legend has it that the thin cakes were created at a bakery in the heart of a Paris banking district, and were said to be as rich as the financiers they were sold to. It is not a stretch then to say that brown butter, the rich heart of these wealthy cakes, is liquid gold.

Made by cooking butter until the milk solids caramelize, the french have named it Beurre Noisette. Meaning “hazelnut”, the term aromatically describes the nutty scent that wafts from the pan. Visually, the brown bits of milk solids fleck the butter as bits of stubborn hazelnut skins dot a cookie.

Brown butter is no secret to a seasoned chef. Many home cooks are in on it too. This is particularly true of cooks near New Orleans, a city who’s distinct cuisine has long taken advantage of the nutty flavor. Restaurant chefs borrow brown butter for both sides of their menu, sweet and savory, and I suggest we all follow in suit.

I have seen brown butter used to enrich a wintry squash soup, added to a pan to saute fish or vegetables, and used as a condiment spread atop toasted bread or warm sweet muffins. It has been found in bakeries gilding cupcake icing, hiding in tart fillings, deepening caramels, and has lately been seen flavoring ice cream in haute kitchens across the country. The versatility and generosity of flavor suggest keeping a little jar in your fridge at all times. Creative additions of brown butter to your cooking will surprise both you and your audience.

Brown butter is simple enough to make, provided you can take the pan off the stove at the appropriate time. Cut unsalted butter into cubes, and place it in a cold sauce pan. Cook the butter over medium heat and step back. Just watch as the butter melts and begins to sizzle, a sign that the water is evaporating. When the sizzling dies down, the butter will begin to foam, and soon the milk solids will brown and drop to the bottom of the pan. This is the point in which you want to remove the pan from heat and strain the brown solids from the butter oil.

I’ll warn you, it takes a few tries to find the perfect balance. If underdone the butter is not nutty enough, but if left too long the aroma from burnt milk solids permeate the butter detrimentally. The caramelization of the milk solids begins when all the water, which can equal 15 to 20 percent of the butters weight, evaporates. At this point the milk solids have a short window in which they go from light brown, to burnt very quickly. Keeping the flame on medium, or low depending on your stove, helps keep your window open a bit longer, but it truly takes a watchful eye to pull the butter from the heat at the most opportune moment.

So go, grab a stick of butter and practice. Burn it on purpose, and remember what it looked like moments before the blackening began. When you get it right, try making financiers. After all, they are where this post began.

Financiers

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Have ready oblong financier pans, regular or mini muffin tins, or individual tart pans, coated well with flavorless non stick cooking spray (Pam) or canola oil.

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup finely ground almonds (almond flour)
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup cake flour
  1. Brown the butter over medium-low heat, and strain immediately through a fine mesh strainer. Set this aside in a warm place.
  2. Sift the powdered sugar into the bowl of a kitchenaid, and add the finely ground almonds and salt. Place the bowl on the mixer and fit it with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, combine the sugar and almonds.
  3. Add the egg whites and mix on medium speed until an even paste forms. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the brown butter. Mix again on medium speed until the batter emulsifies and makes a smooth paste.
  4. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the cake flour. Mix the batter on low until the cake flour is just incorporated.
  5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pans, filling them to a depth of approximately 2 centimeters. Bake the cakes in a 400 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Rotate the pans front to back half way through baking. The cakes are done when they are nicely golden brown and begin to pull away from the edges of the pans.
  6. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes before unmolding them. When they are completely cool, they can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days, if they aren’t devoured immediately.

11 Ways to Make Every Meal an Opportunity for a Memorable Experience

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

I had a great time at Ignite Seattle. There were lots of excellent speakers, and I even got to give my own little presentation. Here’s the essay version of my five minute talk.

 

You’re on a business trip. Your meetings are over for the day. There’s no group dinner, and you can’t face room service at the hotel. You need to figure out where to eat and you want to eat well. What do you do?

You’re at home. You can’t face cooking. You want to go out to dinner. But you’re sick of all the places you usually go. What do you do?

You love food. You love trying new things. You consider every meal an opportunity to have a memorable culinary experience and you want to increase your odds of picking a winner. What do you do?

 

The following advice is for people who focus more on flavor than environment, more on food than on service. It’s not that decor and prompt service aren’t ok things to focus on, it’s just that they are not my personal priority, so I don’t factor them in nearly as much as others. This list is focused on getting food that tastes great. With that, let’s list:

  1. Don’t Cook For Yourself – This is probably the most provocative statement so we might as well start out with it. I’ve found that most people who consider themselves food experts are truly offended at this thought. They should probably tune out right now. If you’re a good cook then I apologize as this post is directed at most people, not the exceptions. And if you’re dying to flame me for advising that most people are not good cooks and should have a professional do it then feel free to go over to this past article where I’ve been roasted (34 comments no less). I will however leave you with this thought: most people don’t make their own clothes or fill their own cavities. If you consider what food you eat at least as important as what you wear or your dental health then consider having a professional do it for you when possible.
  2. Don’t Trust Most People – I suppose it’s obvious that if most people aren’t good cooks then most people are also not capable of distinguishing good from bad. I envy them (and I used to be one of them). They can eat anything and be happy. But their recommendations may not make you happy.
  3. Eat Street Food – This one is simple. It’s fresh and it’s fast. There isn’t a lot of room to store things so everything is prepared fresh. There also isn’t a lot of room for many different things so the street vendor has to focus on one thing and do it very well if they intend to survive.
  4. Find the Local Ethnic Population – Wherever you may be there is likely a local immigrant population that has brought their cuisine with them. And transplants from another country want to be reminded of home. Nothing reminds you of home more than authenticity. And ultimately an authentic food experience is most likely a good one. Another important metric is noticing how many people from the country where the cuisine is from actually eat at the restaurant.
  5. Look for Long Lines – This one is from my friend Peyman. Peyman looks for restaurants with long lines snaking out their door. Needless to say, if everyone was jumping off a bridge, Peyman would dive off too. But when it comes to food he may be on to something.
  6. Let the Chef Choose – If you’ve gotten this far then you likely agree that you have a better shot of eating well when a professional is cooking for you. Given this assumption, let them really do thier job and choose what you eat as well. They know what’s fresh and tasty. They know what they prepare the best. And shockingly, there is a very strong chance (in my personal experience) that prepared by a talented chef, most ingredients you think you hate can be delicious. I find that very few ingredients are inherently bad when prepared by the right person.
  7. Lots of Small Portions – And in the case where you might get something you don’t like, don’t worry as you should be ordering a wide and diverse set of items. Split everything with your dining companions and try as much as you can. You’re bound to find something you really enjoy and your palate won’t fatigue eating heaping mounds of the same thing.
  8. If It’s Too Expensive, Try Lunch – There are tons of opportunities to eat out for cheap. But if you want to go somewhere pricey, see if they are open for lunch. Typically the menu is almost identical and the prices are significantly lower. Why? Don’t ask or they might get wise.
  9. Don’t Throw Good Appetite After Bad – Order the first round of food at a restaurant. If it’s not good? Leave and go to the next place. Why stick around sentenced to eating course after course of progressively bad food. (And I guarantee it will get progressively worse if only because you get more and more disappointed when nothing special comes out of the kitchen.
  10. Why Only Eat at One Restaurant? – There’s no reason you can’t treat a set of nearby restaurants as your personal foodcourt. Appetizers at one place, more dishes at another, and dessert at a third. Many restaurants have a particular strength, why not only patronize them for what they’re good at?
  11. Say Thank You – Cooking professionally is a backbreaking, low paying job (despite what you may have surmised from seeing chefs on television. And for most of these folks the main reason they continue in this job is that they love to make people happy by feeding them great food. If you like the food, tell them. Tell the waitstaff. Tell the kitchen. Tell the waitstaff to tell the folks in the kitchen. It will make them feel good and they deserve it if they’ve done a good job. Also, there’s a chance that in the future they’ll try and do an even better job for you cause they know you’ll appreciate their effort.

Life is short. And eating a meal together is one of the few remaining social experiences where we sit, face each other, talk to each other, and enjoy a communal sensory experience. There’s no reason not to try and make it the best experience you can. Hopefully these tips will help increase your odds that it will be.

Talking at Ignite Seattle

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

Tonight I’m giving a quick talk on how to increase your odds of eating well no matter where you are – especially useful if you’re out-of-town and don’t know where to eat (and the web isn’t handy). It’s only a five minute talk at Ignite Seattle which is an event for folks involved in the Seattle startup and tech culture (so not really food focused unless you consider Jolt and Doritos food). But should be fun. There will be plenty of other talks to check out as well. I’ll post a written version of the presentation here after tonight.

Newbie

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Starting a new job is hard. Once the after glow of gratifying verification received by landing the job is gone, the warm fuzzy goodbyes of previous coworkers are said, and the expectant tension is broken by walking into the new kitchen for the first time there is nothing to distract you from the fact that you might not have any idea what you got yourself into. It’s just you and the skills you promised, jumping in head first, and you’d better be able to swim.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt my ability to succeed in my new position in the banquet department at the Rainier Club. But the first week is always a blur.

It may have been an easier transition if I had continued climbing the pastry ladder I was on. It may have been calmer if I had entered another quiet 4 man kitchen in a casual neighborhood restaurant. But during the last part of my shift this Friday, wrapping up my first week, it was clear to me I had definitely chosen a challenge by stepping so far out of my comfort zone and into the uncharted territory of the banquet department.

The banquet department at the Rainier Club is their bread and butter, the driving force that allows the other kitchen outlets to work at such a high level. It does so by preparing massive amounts of high end food daily, which is no easy task. And the only way to keep such a high volume of food going 10 different places is a switch board.

The switch board at the Rainier club is a bulletin board covering an entire wall. An order for a banquet comes in triplicate, the front of the house, the banquet department, and the pastry department all receiving copies. After the banquet department receives their master copy, a second chart is prepared breaking down the requested menu into individual components. These components are then taken to the banquet chefs who make task lists of the steps needed to create each component.

If your head isn’t spinning yet, three simple initials which sat on the list yesterday, BPS, lost me. It started by Tim describing the creation of the BPS, or black pepper sauce. The only words I can pull out of the fog I was lodged in yesterday involve multiple staged reductions, timed additions that involve bottles of Madeira, white wine, roasted garlic cloves, and black pepper I assume. I thought I was up to speed when he described the introduction of Poultry Jus. “OK, what is that, just a reduced stock?” I innocently asked.  I should have kept my mouth shut, because when the reductions and additions started rolling off his tongue, my eyes lost focus, and his voice became distant. Plain and simple, I was lost.

It didn’t really get better from there, but I hung on for dear life.  At one point I caught myself scowling at the Art Institute culinary intern. I almost laughed out loud when I realized I was jealous of him. I was jealous because he was moving from task to task, he looked like he knew what he was doing. I was still taking 5 minutes to look for items I was sent to fetch, often coming back empty handed. I was being scolded by the chef to quiet my placement of pans in the dish pit as not to disturb the guests sitting at the chef’s table placed in the center of the kitchen (obviously), or walking in the middle of the busy dinner line to fetch something (duh). I was at times caught standing still, a true kitchen crime, because I didn’t know what else to do, or how to find something to do without someone telling me.  Me, who was just the confident pastry chef, was envious of the culinary student for the simple fact that he knew what to do with himself at all times.

It will get better, quickly I assume. Keeping pace seems to be the biggest challenge at the moment, and learning to interpret the switchboard. I need some serious brushing up on my culinary terms, so I don’t mistakenly bring out the remoulade when asked to find a remoulage. But I chose this kitchen for it’s emphasis on constant education and self improvement no matter what level you are on. I commiserated with Rudy, the sous chef who was recently put in charge of the pastry department, my old haunt. We likened our new positions to new toys as I slumped off, mentally exhausted, to change and go home for the day.

I’ll start the next week off fresh, and on better footing. Which means I can pay more attention to the food!! Once I can find it on the massive switchboard.

Tastingmenu 2.0

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

I’ll admit it. I’ve been sick of food.

OK. Not really, but sort of. I’ve eaten at hundreds of restaurants. I’ve written tons of write-ups and taken thousands of photos. I’ve had some incredible meals. And most importantly I’ve learned an enormous amount. And while the number of things I don’t know about food still outnumber the things I do know by 10,000 to 1 (or more), I still do enjoy learning. And yet, I’ve been feeling lethargic and uninspired.

I have always loved sharing superlative food experiences with friends and family. Tastingmenu has always been an expression of that passion. When I’m having a hard time finding food experiences that are exciting, I have a hard time finding things to share with readers. I’ve been wrestling with the problem of how to make tastingmenu exciting, focused, and vibrant, and I’ve finally come upon the answer.

I met Dana Cree when she was a cook at Lampreia restaurant in Seattle. Dana, a Seattle native, is a young chef who has been building her career thoughtfully for several years now. After a short stint at culinary school, Dana spent significant time at Lampreia. She then worked at the Fat Duck (in England), Eva (in Seattle), and has just started the latest step in her burgeoning and exciting career at the Rainier Club (also in Seattle).

For a long time I’ve known that another voice, a complementary voice would really make tastingmenu much much better. And as I wrestled with how to reignite my passion around food I realized that adding Dana’s voice would do the trick. While I have always (and will continue) to focus my writing on what it’s like to eat at and experience some of the finest restaurants, food stalls, and food venues across the planet, Dana is on a mission to become a creator of some of that memorable and incredible food. Her resume already speaks to her early success. Her popular blog, Phat Duck, has also given her plenty of experience writing thoughtfully and intimately about her trials and travails in the kitchen for a loyal readership.

I’m pleased to announce that Dana is joining tastingmenu as of today. She and I are both encouraging her loyal readers to join us over here at tastingmenu to continue to follow her growing career and her insightful perspective. We believe that writing focused on the restaurant experience (which we both adore) from behind the plate as well as behind the stove will prove interesting, exciting, and fun.

In addition to Dana joining the team, we’ve made one more key change which hopefully should improve the tastingmenu experience for authors and readers alike. When tastingmenu began in August of 2002 there was no good blogging software. (Apologies to those packages that existed then, but none really allowed me to make the site look the way I wanted.) I’m embarassed to admit it, but tastingmenu has been built manually since its inception. And when I say manually, I mean completely manually. The RSS feed is built by hand. Those of you not into these technical details will yawn at that, but folks who understand these matters will consider this remarkable. Remarkably stupid. But all that is over. As of today tastingmenu is published by the lovely and powerful WordPress software.

The entire old site has come along for the ride in its old form. The urls remain the same. The old site will have the old look, and won’t get too much of the new fun and features, but at least it will be there. Thanks for your patience while we work through this transition. And please accept our apologies in advance if you encounter random inconsistencies and broken links. We’ll try and fix them as we go.

One side effect of the old system (or lack thereof) is that posting had actually become more and more difficult taking way more time than it should have. Hopefully this new streamlined system will result in it being easier to post, and therefore, more posts. Wish us luck. :)

That’s it for now. Tastingmenu has always been focused on superlative restaurant experiences. Now you get that focus from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. We’re excited to embark on this new chapter of tastingmenu. We hope you are too.