Archive for June, 2009

Trophy Cupcakes, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

Small-ish cylinder of cake. Large-ish dollop of frosting. You’re talking cupcake my friend. And that’s my language.

I’ll admit to being turned off by the trendiness of cupcakes. In general when something becomes popular I become more averse to it. (Hence my bad luck at investing but that’s another story.) But trendiness aside, there is simply no denying the appeal of a cupcake. In general, as human beings, we are wired to like the small, the tiny, the miniaturized. And a tiny cake with frosting for one is adorable.

But adorable is not enough to win the day. Seattle may not be Manhattan but we have a decently competitive cupcake scene nonetheless — and Trophy wins the day. I have two main criteria by which to judge a cupcake. They are cake, and frosting. Duh. The single biggest crime when it comes to cake is that it’s too dry and not flavorful. Trophy has moist flavorful cake. Their Hummingbird cupcake, which is banana cake with bits of pineapple and nuts, is almost like a super moist muffin. In fact, why aren’t more muffins like this? The straight up chocolate and vanilla are the dictionary definitions of chocolate and vanilla cupcake cake. Their warm round smooth unintrusive flavors fill your mouth while the frosting smushes everything together with creamy goodness.

When it comes to frosting there are two paths — the typical sugar bomb, or the more intense buttercream approach. While the sugar bomb can be all granular and really belongs only on supermarket cupcakes, I have to admit that buttercream can be too waxy and oily tasting. And at least in my experience, that’s true of most buttercream frostings I try. Not the case at Trophy. Their frosting has a dense center, but it’s neither greasy nor heavy. It’s frosting with depth but the flavor is up front as opposed to the fat.

On the creativity front, Trophy is no slouch either. The keep things simple, but well executed. Nothing too crazy. Just a focus on clean simple combinations like Lemon and Coconut, or S’mores, or mint and chocolate.

If I had to pick on one thing about Trophy it’s that they don’t sell their mini-cupcakes except for special orders. If you thought that miniaturized cakes with frosting were adorable, what about miniaturized miniaturized cakes with frosting. That’s called double adorable in my book. [Note: there is no actual book.] But small is not enough. The trick is the ratios. Trophy’s competitors have mini-cupcakes too, but the ratios are off. The cake is a little too big. Bitesize is really the way to go with just a dollop of frosting on top. Luckily I happened to stop by Trophy one day when they were having some kind of open house and they were handing them out. It seemed like I ate a hundred of them. (It “seemed” that way to the lady counting the number of cupcakes I ate and giving me dirty looks.)

We used to get cupcakes at the cupcakery near our house. Since we started eating Trophy’s, we’re stuck driving all the way to Wallingford (or now University Village) to get our cupcake fix. I suggest you do the same.

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Volunteer Park Cafe, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

Some confessions up front. Two of my co-workers have basically moved into Volunteer Park Cafe. They work out of the cafe many days out of the week. This adorable little cafe located in an otherwise residential portion of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle is quite homey, so it’s no surprise they’re making it their workday “home”. In addition, as I joined them and another friend for lunch, after we ordered, one of the “regulars” informed the owner that I’d be writing about my meal. In addition to all the food we ordered and paid for, a plate of free cookies and cake magically appeared towards the end of our meal. I make it a rule not to let restaurant owners know why I’m there and I pay for my food. I chastised the informer appropriately, but I did eat those cookies.

My general philosophy is that I try to be as fair as possible. I don’t ask for special treatment, and I don’t expect any. That said, I do photograph my food and restaurant folk are not dopes. However, in my experience, any diner that loyally patronizes a restaurant and interacts with the staff in a consistently positive way will get treated like a prince. People in the restaurant business tend to take care of their loyal customers whether they are blogging about the meal or not. OK… enough disclosure. On to the food!

As I’ve written before, as much as I may like the decor or environment of a restaurant, and Volunteer Park Cafe is way cute, I really count it for very little as ultimately I care primarily about the food. Luckily, the food at Volunteer Park Cafe does not disappoint. This is not complicated fair, but it is executed well and with a delicate touch. You stand in line walking past all the prepared baked goods, cookies, and quiches as you decide what to order off the big menu. It’s hard not to salivate. Luckily there’s a glass divider keeping saliva squarely away from the food.

We ended up kicking off with some of the Ham Quiche. Solid if not striking. Moist insides, flaky buttery shell, and a smooth wide flavor. No sparks, but satisfying. The platter of cured meat is hard to beat with a little bean salad, cheese, and cornichons to adorn your bread and meat combinations. Adorn we did. It’s hard to say anything bad about flavorful cured pork products, on fresh french bread, accompanied by various flavorful condiments. And I won’t. The same goes for the Prosciutto Mozarella Baguette. We should have had a more diverse menu but the prosciutto was hard to ignore.

Luckily we ordered the Chicken Salad. A chicken salad sandwich is not something to be ordered lightly. In fact, I generally make it a rule to order anything other than a chicken salad sandwich on menus. A chicken salad sandwich does not automatically get all the benefit of thin slices of smokey ham like the prosciutto sandwich does. Prosciutto sandwiches start with the ball one yard from the goal line. Chicken salad sandwiches start from deep in their own end zone. A very bland end zone. The typical response is to season it. Heavily. Curry is always a favorite path to take. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, the chicken salad was covered with melty cheese. The whole thing came together in a creamy, melty, stretchy, almost sweet bite. The seasoning didn’t need to be “exotic”, it was just right.

While I’m relatively picky about desserts (my co-blogger’s are the exception of course) a cookie is the way to my heart. Chocolate chip with toffee bits that has just the right balance between chewiness and crispyness? Yes! But raisins are my mortal enemy. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do about it. I will never like them. Other dried fruit I’m generally OK with but over the past several years there is a deplorable trend to dry other fruits as some sort of raising substitute — I’m looking at you cherries and cranberries! Combine that with oatmeal raisin cookies masquerading as chocolate chip cookies presented to those who don’t examine their cookies closely and you can start to understand the depth of my fear. As you can imagine, seeing a Cherry Chocolate Oatmeal cookie on my plate felt like a tease at best, and a nightmare at worst. And then, I tried it. That same crispy chewy yin yang harmony was at play. But instead of the comfort of the toffee bits as with the other cookie, this time those dried cherries transcended their raisin cousins and added little sparks of bright sour flavor into my cookie. Fantastic.

Here’s the thing. The folks running Volunteer Park Cafe are not confused. They know what they’re about. Simple, flavorful, slightly refined, down-to-earth, comfort. There’s no need to try to be anything else. This is plenty.

Red Bowls, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Seattle does not exactly have a thriving street food scene. Skillet recently got temporarily closed down, while Maximus Minimus is now open for business (the truck is shaped like a pig!!!). City regulations make it a difficult challenge (though I hear that may be changing). What many people don’t understand about quality street food (the best example of which can be found in Bangkok IMHO) is that at its best, it’s a singular example of one dish done perfectly. The focus, the freshness, the immediacy all help increase the odds that the food you’re getting is good.

And this is why I have no problem falling in love with a restaurant over one dish. One. Perfect. Dish.

A thriving street food scene would not only enrich our city for tourists, it would make the downtown Seattle lunch options much richer. Your choices today are basically fast-food, soup/sandwich/salad, cafeteria quality ethnic food, and the businessman’s sit down lunch. Not a delectable assortment. There are a few exceptions, and while it’s not “street food” as it has its own small establishment, my favorite lunch spot is Red Bowls on Third near Columbia in downtown Seattle. Open only for lunch, five days a week, and run by a sweet Korean couple, Red Bowls is a beacon of focus and freshness in the otherwise overcooked lunch landscape. It’s not that they only make one dish. It’s that they only make one dish that I have fallen in love with. It’s possible the other items on the menu are great. One of my co-workers assures me there are. And they cover a range of Korean protein/rice/veggie bowl combos (as well as some Udon bowls to boot). Despite my constant efforts to expand my experiences, I can’t help but order the same thing every time I go into Red Bowls.

Imagine a thick layer of rice (brown at your option but I always get white). On top of the rice is a heaping helping of fresh vegetables. Carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli. Crunchy, filling, raw, healthy, tasty vegetables. And then a generous portion of chopped raw fish — tuna and salmon combo for me. On top some spicy korean sauce as well as sesame oil and chopped scallions. And finally, because I ask for it every time, some avocado slices on top.

I’ll admit, the slivers of pickled ginger do complete the sushi-ness of the dish, and I do like pickled ginger, but I always leave it on the side. For some reason, I think the dish is complete without it.

For under $10, this bowl of fresh spicy deliciousness pleases every single time. It’s like a huge bowl of Spicy Tuna Roll (without the roll). I’ll admit, that if you put a pile of rice, raw fish, and spicy sauce in front of me I’ll have a hard time not liking it. But the freshness of all the ingredients, the combination of the sesame oil and the scallions, and the value have me in love.

And while it doesn’t affect the way the food tastes, the fact that the proprietors of Red Bowls are absolute sweethearts doesn’t hurt. And if a bowl of spicy (or not spicy) raw fish doesn’t make you happy, I’m assured by many of my dining companions that there are plenty of other delicious dishes on the menu that employ the same core values of freshness and focus. Maybe some day I’ll even try one of them.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would replace 90% of the lunch establishments in downtown Seattle with single dish carts/restaurants focusing on one item, and delivering it consistently and with super fresh ingredients day in and day out. But since I don’t have that magic wand I’ll have to keep eating at Red Bowls and wait for a real street food scene to develop in Seattle. We’re having some fits and starts so now may be the time after all.

Administrative note: Our local formerly print and now web only newspaper has been going without a restaurant column since they dumped the dead tree edition. Since we have an obsession with finding quality restaurants and writing about them, it seemed like there might be a good match. As of today, we’ll have regular Seattle restaurant reviews appearing on Tastingmenu and the Seattle PI simultaneously. We encourage readers of the PI to visit the rest of Tastingmenu where we have other food writing beyond just Seattle restaurant reviews, and we encourage readers of Tastingmenu to check out the rest of the PI. Apparently there’s more to life than food, and they do a good job covering that stuff as well. : ) Should be a fun experiment.

Spinasse, Seattle, Washington

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Seattle is a funny place. Despite having a non-trivial Chinese population and an actual Chinatown (with an arch and everything) it’s got almost no superlative Chinese food. You may think that the odds of a town having good Italian food are greater than it having good Chinese food, but we come up mostly empty on both fronts. I suppose at least with Italian food we could argue that the east coast is the place to go for that. But, I would have imagined that Italian food has ingrained itself more deeply (or at least earlier) in the American culinary psyche.

While Lampreia’s food is from the Alto-Adige region of Italy, and I love every bit of it, I wouldn’t say that going there scratches my itch for Italian food. Tavolata opened recently and I still haven’t made up my mind about it. Beyond that the place I rely on the most for high quality hyper simple Italian dishes is Da Pino’s. Pino cures his own meat, and serves simple, flavorful fresh dishes. But refined AND traditional Italian food? It still escapes Seattle, until that is Spinasse arrived.

Spinasse talks the talk. The window declares “Trattoria Pastificio Artigianale”. I don’t speak Italian but I’m guessing that’s some variation on artisanal pasta restaurant. And honestly, that’s one word more than you need to get me to show up. Spinasse is adorable of course. Small, and homey and instantly comfortable. I really don’t care much about decor (or all that much beyond the service) but the atmosphere at Spinasse is notable in how ably it projects the image of the small authentic artisanal pasta restaurant.

I’m always in a quandary in terms of how excited I should get about a plate of prosciutto as it relates to the restaurant itself. On the one hand, you could serve me some good prosciutto at Burger King and I’d be in love. But, it does take some expertise to make sure to get quality product and serve it well. Regardless of how much credit accrues to the establishment, I find it difficult to complain about a plate covered in delicious cured ham.

Next up is the pasta but I want to talk about that last as it’s clearly the center of attention at Spinasse. The meat dishes, notably the succulent and juicy braised duck leg, the bursting savory handmade sausage, and the absolutely melting squab were all excellent. Juicy, savory, warm, and deep. We did have a some rabbit on our most recent visit that came out dry. That was disappointing but definitely the exception.

The pasta though is really the signature of the restaurant. I’ve been to Spinasse three separate times and think I finally know how I feel. The single best pasta dish on the menu is the artichoke ravioli with sage butter and pine nuts. I have it every time. It’s gentle and warm. Like a quartet of french horns. Buttery, nutty, with a slight tanginess from the cheese. I love and hate finding a favorite dish. Only because I worry that by ordering it I will limit myself from trying other exciting dishes. Luckily, on our last trip we ordered Spinasse’s entire menu. No chance of missing anything that way. The other pasta dishes are good as well, the ragu, etc. The first time I was there I ordered one of the pasta dishes with truffles, and honestly the truffles were not super flavorful. I have a hard time faulting the restaurant for this too badly. A lot of times to get the best truffles you have to get them via mail from Italy. Once the thing shows up, if its not as pungent as it should be it’s not like a small restaurant can eat the cost. The best they can do is tell their supplier to do a better job next time or switch suppliers. But I’m not expert so I’m speculating.

The real issue is the other pasta dishes. They’re good, but they don’t leave the warm tonal range set by the ravioli. It’s not that they all taste like butter and nuts. But they are all in the subtler part of the range with a warm gentle savory quality. This of course is not a bad thing. But it can get a little repetitive. I’m not savvy enough about the region the food comes from to know if I’m longing for flavors that are just not at home for this restaurant, but for me I find the range a touch more narrow than I’d like. It’s not that it would stop me from coming to Spinasse, but it might make me come less often.

One other note, Spinasse has communal seating, which isn’t my favorite, but is absolutely unloved by many of my regular dinner companions. You have to request in advance the one table for four that doesn’t involve listening in on anyone else’s dinner blather. I understand why they do communal sitting. It’s a small restaurant, and the rent ain’t cheap. But it’s not for everyone.

Bottom line, Spinasse is lovely. They’re trying hard, and Seattle is lucky to have them. That said, I know they have a talented new chef transitioning into the lead role. My last visit was likely too early to experience him putting his mark on the menu. But I do hope that while he preserves everything that’s good about Spinasse, he expands on those basic values of authentic/simple/subtle/fresh to a broader range of flavors. I’m sure I’ll be back.