Archive for July, 2009

Ten Restaurants Seattle Needs Now

Wednesday, July 29th, 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.)

As I’ve written about restaurants for the past seven years I have focused not only on Seattle but on restaurants all over the world. After eating here and abroad, one can’t help but make some comparisons. And for awhile, I felt disappointed in Seattle from a food perspective. It’s not that we don’t have some absolute standouts. We do. We even have a few that would compare to restaurants in any major food Mecca. It’s the missing pieces that cause me to lament our local food scene. But the more I thought about it, the more i realized, that given its size, and relative to similar cities in the rest of the country, Seattle is actually no slouch. I put Seattle in the same league for restaurant quality and diversity as Boston, Washington, DC, and pretty close to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I consider all these cities basically food peers. Chicago is above them all, and New York (of course) well above that.

And while Seattle can hold its own, it’s by no means complete. There are many holes in the Seattle restaurant scene, and I’ve listed the things I miss the most below. I have little doubt that this list will spark some good debate. But if I am informed that I’ve overlooked some key Seattle food outpost, I’ll be only too thrilled to check it out. Also feel free to suggest if I’ve missed some glaring holes. I’m sure I have. Here we go (in no particular order):

  1. A proper pastrami sandwich. — Yes, I’ve been to Goldberg’s, Roxy’s, and Market House Meats. I don’t always follow the maxim that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, but in this case I will (follow the maxim). We’re not talking about rocket science here either. I want something that approximates Katz’s Deli in New York. And frankly, I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. Fly it in if you have to.
  2. Delicious Dim Sum — I don’t understand why a Pacific city like Seattle with a healthy population of Chinese immigrants doesn’t have high quality Dim Sum, but it doesn’t. We’re bookended by San Francisco and Vancouver (and especially Richmond, B.C.) and all of them have fantastic Dim Sum. So should we. See Sun Sui Wah in Richmond, B.C. for reference.
  3. High quality Chinese food — I’ve recently discovered two pretty excellent sources for Szechuan food in Seattle. Not world class per se, but with some pretty great standout dishes — Szechuan Chef in Bellevue, and Chiang’s Gourmet in North Seattle on Lake City Way. These are in the same class as (or perhaps slightly better than) Sichuanese Cuisine on Jackson in the I.D. But for Mandarin or Cantonese the best I’ve found is Hing Loon. And while I’m fond of the ladies who run the front of the house and have had many consistently decent meals there, it’s not what we deserve in terms of higher quality Chinese Food. See Hunan Homes in San Francisco for reference.
  4. Dunkin Donuts — Waa waa. I can hear the complaining. Yes, this is a corporate donut chain. Yes, we have Top Pot, and even Daily Dozen. I like both and they clearly have their strengths. But when I’m not in the mood for hand-crafted mostly cake donuts (I know Top Pot has some raised, but not as much of a selection as I’d like), or for mini-cinnamon and sugar donuts, I want a broad selection of fried-donut goodness, and Krispy Kreme is just too sugary for me. Dunkin Donuts chocolate frosted, jelly filled, and honey dipped hit exactly the right spot. And it’s crazy to me that we don’t have one. I believe that the Dunkin Donuts ads that come on TV periodically are designed to torture me personally.
  5. In-N-Out Burger — Since we’re on the topic of fast food chains, nothing beats In-N-Out Burger in my opinion. The hamburgers are loaded with flavor and freshness, and perhaps most importantly, have the perfect ratio of meat and accompaniments to bun. I’ve had ridiculously expensive hamburgers made from wagyu beef and filled with foie gras. They simply do not compare to In-n-Out. And don’t even mention Dick’s to me. Seriously. Don’t mention it. Hey In-n-Out folks, how about expanding north?
  6. Authentic Israeli falafel — Falafel is a staple across much of the middle east. But did you know that while some of it is made from chickpeas, some is also made from fava beans. Also, size varies across this region. Bottom line, I like all the varieties but I’ll admit to being partial to the Israeli chickpea-based moderately sized falafel balls. The endless bowls of various chopped salads and pickled items just make the experience positively perfect for me. For awhile a lovely gentleman of Moroccan Jewish descent ran Kosher Delight down in Pike Place Market that did a pretty good job on this front. But he’s long gone and nobody has replaced him to my knowlege. Rami’s in Brookline, MA does a really excellent job at this, as do I’m sure many outlets in New York City. They’re more focused on chummus, but I’d settle for a branch of NYC’s Hummus Place as well.
  7. A really good bagel — No, I’m not referring to bagels from New York City. They’re fine, but not even close to the best in my opinion. Strangely, the source of the best bagels on the planet, IMHO, is Canada. Toronto and Montreal to be specific. And these fine cities produce not one type of superlative bagel but two! The Toronto bagel embodied by Gryfe’s Bagels is light and airy — almost bread-like. I can eat 3 between the cash register and the car and not even notice. The Montreal bagel, exemplified by St-Viateur Bagel is chewy, flavorful and almost more in the realm of the pretzel. Beggars can’t be choosers and I’d take either one. Right now the bagel choices are sad here in Seattle. Won’t someone take pity on us?
  8. Refined and delicious Indian cuisine — To me, the regional standard bearer is, of course, Vij’s in Vancouver. I’d heard that there was a possibility he’d bring some of his expertise to a Seattle outpost possibly partnering with the Wild Ginger ownership. But that was a few years ago and I’ve seen nothing since.
  9. Fine vegetarian vegetable dining — While I wish there were more original superlative fine dining in Seattle, I’m relatively content with Lampreia which is absolutely world class from my perspective. Some cities don’t even have that. But, some of my absolute favorite high end meals have been all veggie. One at Alain Passard’s L’ Arp├Ęge in Paris and one at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City. To me the transcendance happens when the chef decides to cook vegetables in a way that celebrates the vegetables, and abandons any notion of trying to compensate for the lack of meat in the dish. This is when veggie dishes truly shine. Don’t compensate, vegetables are amazing enough on their own and should be highlighted. This restaurant I’m wishing for wouldn’t be all veggie because of a disdain for meat, it would focus in this fashion because of a deep love of vegetables.
  10. Street food. Really diverse street food.Asia has some of the best street food in the world. The middle east is pretty amazing too. But at this point I’d settle for New York City’s predictable street food vendors or Portland’s more diverse street food conclaves. Personally I’d like the city to insist that Thai street food vendors be imported to practice their craft on Seattle’s streets. But that seems unlikely, so I’ll settle for something more local. I know some folks may be working on this, so please please hurry. When I need meat on a stick, I can’t be expected to actually go inside a building to get it. I want it on the sidewalk and I want it now.
  11. Pizza. Actual real good New York pizza. (BONUS #11) — While I’m not a fan of NYC’s bagels, just about any random pizza place you walk into on any corner in Manhattan is going to be way way better than the best pizza you can get in Seattle. I don’t know if it’s the water, or the temperature of the oven. And no, I don’t want to bake it at home. My oven is not suitable for baking a pizza no matter how many bricks I jam in there. Memo to the next person who’s dying to open a restaurant that serves lots of salmon and other pacific northwest specialities [sic]. The salmon are endangered and I’m sick of them anyway. Good pizza… not endangered. Just impossible to find. Like the sasquatch. When you open your new pizza place, a trip to Totonno’s on Coney Island will be necessary for reference.

That’s the list. Restaurateurs please seek financing, and critics let your arrows fly. :-)

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

Old School Frozen Custard, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, July 15th, 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.)

With all the fuss about new ice cream shops opening in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, I wonder if Old School Frozen Custard has gotten the attention it deserves. Open for a few weeks I’ve been there more often than I care to admit. The vintage pictures of Seattle high schools on the wall are cute, but it’s the smell of fresh waffle cone being made that hits you when you walk in. But before that, let’s back up. What’s with “custard” anyway?

The folks at Old School will tell you that Frozen Custard is prevalent in the Midwest. It differs from Ice Cream in that it has some egg yolk which replaces a bunch of the typical fat in the ice cream. The folks at Old School say their base (imported from the Midwest) uses a tiny amount of pasteurized egg yolk to reduce the fat by a third. (No, I’m not advocating frozen custard as a diet food.) Every hour (when things are busy) the folks at Old School make fresh frozen custard, flavoring it on the spot in their big custard machine. Vanilla and chocolate are staples and each day there’s a new special flavor. I’ve seen Tiramisu, Blueberry, and Lemon (and tasted them all). On this day the specialty flavor was Chocolate Banana Nut.

(I did confirm with an official Midwesterner that frozen custard is indeed found in the Midwest and is “butterier and creamier” than regular ice cream.)

OK. Here’s the deal. Flavor-wise, the vanilla is excellent, the chocolate is very good, and the specials have been hit or miss for me. For example, I didn’t get much banana in the Chocolate Banana Nut but my eating companions got a mouthful. And despite that I’m a flavor snob (and perhaps it’s because I generally get the vanilla) the texture of the frozen custard is what wins the day for me. Holy crap! That is the densest, silkiest ice cream I’ve ever had. It is just an absolute pleasure to eat. And since you’re only dealing with a foundation of three flavors each day, the toppings available are numerous.

Various sauces and syrups are on the menu including all the zillions of candy/cookie toppings you would expect. The waffle cones are handmade to order on the spot. Hence the welcoming smell. There are enough topping varieties to keep you busy for some time. Right now my favored combo is hot fudge and whole peanuts. There’s something about the whole peanuts that just ratchets up the deliciousness relative to crushed peanuts.

Bottom line: I’m still a fan of ice cream parlors with lots of interesting, handmade, delicious flavors. And Old School Frozen Custard could certainly ramp up their flavors, but the texture of their custard is positively mesmerizing. While I have plenty of choices of where to get my ice cream, I keep coming back to Old School.

(Note on the pictures: another week without my trusty DSLR means another week of crappy pictures. Damn you iPhone for tempting me with your convenience!)

UPDATE: I got my camera back and it’s behaving… for now. Added a five more pictures to the gallery. They’re better quality. And yes, this necessitated a repeat visit to Old School. Oh well.

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

Mike’s Chili Parlor, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, July 8th, 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.)

My camera is broken. Again. How the heck can I take decent pictures of yummy food to share with you without my camera? As it happens, my camera repair shop is located in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. And every time I drive my camera over there (which is way too many times) I pass by Mike’s Chili Parlor and think to myself… “self, that looks like a place I need to try”. Maybe my camera keeps breaking to get me to go to Mike’s. So I did. With my trusty iPhone and its not-so-great camera functionality by my side.

I ordered two quarts of chili to go and took them with me to a barbecue my friends were having celebrating Al Franken’s belated win. The theme was food from Minnesota. I had no idea what food from Minnesota looks like, I found out — there was hot dish, cake cake, and other “food”. (I thought to myself, chili counts. It’s from the middle of the country. And as a product of the coasts, that’s close enough for me. Yeah, I know, that’s offensive coast-ish snobbery, but at least It’s honest.) Anyway, I showed up with two plastic containers filled with chili. It’s not like I brought sushi or foie gras.

There are times when you want something subtle, something refined, something that challenges you. This was not one of those times. Mike’s chili is like the bar/”chili parlor” where Mike sells his chili (is there a real Mike still there? I forgot to ask) — simple, straightforward, packed with texture and solid flavor, and kind of greasy. Beans, ground beef, and a strong but not spicy sauce bringing it all together. I imagine if I’d eaten my chili there that the oil would have been more integrated. It’s not their fault that it separated a touch by the time I got it to the BBQ. That said, after some quick mixing, everything more or less stayed together, and the chili disappeared in no time. I diced some onions to put on mine.

Mike’s chili is basic. Definitely not fancy. But it’s also reassuring and unassuming in its honesty. What you see is what you get. And what you get is some very decent flavorful and filling red chili.

As for my pictures of Mike’s chili, maybe my regular camera is too fancy to take pictures of this chili. Maybe it knew that it had to sacrifice itself to get me to head over to Mike’s and that my simple phone camera was the right way to take these pictures. Or maybe my camera just sucks and wants to make me unhappy and cost me money. (Or maybe I spend way too much time anthropomorphizing my camera and need to spend some time discussing this tendency with a professional?)

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

Locavore, for your iPhone

Wednesday, July 1st, 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.)

I know our task is to write about great restaurants. But in the broadest sense, our job is to alert you to ways to get great food nearby. And in that respect, Locavore, a cute iPhone application is squarely on topic.

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch you already know that there are tens of thousands of applications available to you. The countless recipe apps mostly bore me to tears. Urban Spoon’s random restaurant finder is cute, but more often than not points me somewhere meh. It’s not Urban Spoon’s fault. The people rating those restaurants are all over the map and the recommendations sometimes reflect that. And while Locavore doesn’t point you to restaurants, it does tell you what’s in season depending on where you are in the United States.

Finding out what’s in season is not only critical for cooking, but ultimately it’s key for eating. Imagine going into a restaurant and realizing that the dish you wanted is comprised of items that are not locally in season. That’s critical information that can help you pick the right dish, or (more likely) the right restaurant. In addition, there’s a guide to farmer’s markets near wherever you happen to be. Not only is this a great use of the iPhone’s GPS functionality, but it’s critical to helping you get fresh food. And for those of us who prefer finished goods to ingredients, nine out of ten farmers’ markets I’ve attended have somebody selling something you can eat right on the spot. And usually it’s something delicious.

Finally, Locavore lets you broadcast what fresh items you’re eating by connecting your Facebook account to the app. I’m not sure whether this feature is there to help tell me about local fresh finds, or to torture me when people talk about what great veggies they’re eating out of their garden. Perhaps in the future it could include their GPS location so I could go raid their pea patch.

There’s tons of things that could be even better about Locavore including — support for the whole world instead of just the U.S. and farmers’ market details formatted for the iPhone and not for a big computer screen. That said, it’s already pretty good, and I have no doubt the proprietor of Enjoymentland (Locavore’s creator) is hard at work on these improvements and others even as we speak. (Full disclosure: Buster, who runs Enjoymentland and writes Locavore is someone I have broken bread with and a general good guy. But I paid my $3.99 for Locavore like everyone else.)

Bottom line, for anyone who’s seeking out freshness, Locavore is indispensable. Back to writing about restaurants next week folks.