Archive for October, 2009

Le Gourmand, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, October 21st, 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’m not a fan of the term “fine dining” as it connotes some sort of snooty experience in my mind, and after all, any food that’s great seems quite “fine” to me. But I do appreciate refined cooking, high quality ingredients, and multiple courses of food where every detail has been pored over carefully and lovingly. And if the words “fine dining” are the only way to let you know what I’m talking about, then so be it.

Seattle doesn’t exactly have a vast collection of high end restaurants that deliver a really special experience. There are a handful that are trying and only a couple that succeed. While I enjoy living here, there’s no arguing with the fact that when it comes to quantity of quality, Seattle simply can’t compare to the major food hubs of the planet — New York, Tokyo, Paris, London, etc. (Yes this is unsurprising given Seattle’s population and age relative to those other cities, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love a better selection here.) But that shouldn’t stop us from finding things that scratch that refined itch. Enter Le Gourmand.

French in its foundation, Le Gourmand’s main appeal, is surprisingly its almost rustic flavors in refined packages. The delicate flavors that you’d expect in fine dining aren’t exactly what you find here. That’s not to say the flavors aren’t present, or aren’t good. They exist, and are enjoyable. There just isn’t always the delicateness about them that you’d find in other higher end restaurants cooking French food. The blunt quality of the flavors is surprising but enjoyable nonetheless. It is what it is. Enjoy it or don’t. I generally have, and still do.

Bread arrived. It was chewy, but not warm. (Is it wrong that I want to live in a world where all bread is served warm?) I desperately tried not to eat all the bread as I wanted to save room for the food. I lost most of this battle. A token crust remained mocking me, sitting there saying “Are you serious? Do you think that leaving a few molecules of bread on the plate is a demonstration of your willpower and discipline?” I’m often mocked by food. Luckily, it wasn’t too long until the Heirloom Tomato Soup arrived. For my taste, it was underseasoned. We helped it along a bit with some of the salt on the table and things felt better. One saving aspect of the soup was the crisp freshness of the flavor that came through nicely. But otherwise the soup was a bit flat. Following the soup was Local Crayfish and Dungeness Crab Timbale with Champagne Sauce and Chanterelles. Local shellfish with chanterelles — sounded great to me. Again though, it was not thrilling. Not particularly flavorful. Just kind of lying on the plate. The components wondering what they were doing there like a fix-up date gone bad each person wondering what their friend was thinking setting them up with this other person. It wasn’t a bad dish, it just wasn’t at all integrated. And the flavors weren’t particularly interesting or memorable.

At this point in the meal, I was nervous. I’d talked up Le Gourmand as a wonderful restaurant with simple French dishes prepared in an unassuming but flavorful way. Luckily, my favorite dish (and a signature dish of the restaurant) — Blintzes filled with Sally Jackson’s Sheep Milk Cheese with Chive Butter Sauce arrived to save the day. There are very few things on which you could put chive butter sauce or fill with sheep milk cheese and not have me eat them and proclaim them delicious. The blintzes were no exception. Things were looking up.

The mains arrived. First was Sage-wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Crabapple Sauce and House-made Pickled Crabapples. Delicate this dish was not. The pork was literally swimming in an ocean of sour red apple sauce. And yet, the pork was cooked to perfection. Savory, juicy, warm. Covered in a light blanket of the apple sauce, the chunks of pork tasted fantastic. There was nothing subtle about the apple sauce or the pickled crabapples. Even though the pork was gentle in its approach, the apple sauce almost made you feel like you were eating at a BBQ with its “down home” simplicity. The Grilled Tournedos of Beef with Chive and Potato Pancake and Sauce of Blueberries, Huckleberries, and Lemon Thyme also did not disappoint. Much like the pork, the sauce on the beef — this time comprised of berries — was super present. And again, when combined in moderate amounts with a slice of the well cooked meat, the dish just worked. This time more sour, and deep, than the apple sauce. It approached almost a juicy tart wine-like flavor.

In a funny way, the most delicate thing that arrived was the side of vegetables that came with our entrees. Little red potatoes, cabbage, and kale. Cooked just enough. And with a perfect amount of melted butter glistening across the surface of the veggies. Simple, clean, understated, and cooked perfectly. Yummy.

For dessert we had the Creme Brulee a l’Ancienne — Old Fashioned Burnt Cream with raspberries preserved in house-made Ratafia. It was uneventful. But the Raspberry Sorbet (phallic presentation aside) was incredibly sour and fresh tasting. A little shock to the system, cleaning out any traces of the previous dishes from your palate and letting you finish the meal on a with a spring in your step instead of feeling all weighed down.

Even though we were nervous at first, the combination of the blintzes and the entrees really did remind me of everything I liked about Le Gourmand. While not every item we tried found it’s mark, there were more than enough that delighted us through a combination of simple, clean, and mouthwatering flavors. It’s not the super-refined delicate flavors you’d find at some of the higher end French restaurants, and it’s not cheap, but the simple combinations of ingredients and direct and unassuming flavors are more often than not tasty and special in their own way.

Le Gourmand, 425 NW Market Street, Seattle, WA 98107, (206) 784-3463, website. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Habesha, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, October 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.)

I have never claimed to be a food expert or authority. I write about restaurants because I love them. I love the food made by my favorite establishments, and I love the institution itself. And despite my lack of credentials, experience, and all around knowledge, I’ll admit to trying to bring some discipline and focus to my writing about food and the people that make it for me. One (of many) embarrassing gaps in my resume as a food blogger is Ethiopian food.

Up until recently I tried it exactly once. In Washington, DC. I hated it. I’ve lived in Seattle for around twelve years and until recently had never partaken of the local Ethiopian fare. For someone who claims to be into food, and especially into ethnic food, this is clearly a crime of non-trivial proportions. So feel free to criticize. I’d like to blame it on the horrible food I had at that Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC. Or perhaps it was my lack of food perspective at the time. But in all honesty, given the plethora of Ethiopian establishments that I could walk to from my house, there’s simply no excuse.

I decided that there was no reason not to start my reintroduction to Ethiopian food at the Seattle Ethiopian restaurant with one of the best reputations — Habesha. Unlike the bulk of its brethren, Habesha doesn’t have that ethnic hole-in-the-wall feel. Quite to the contrary, it’s a very stylish establishment situated in the edge of Belltown. Habesha is clearly trying to be (what they call in the media world) a cross-over hit. Whether they’ve gotten there or not, I don’t know. And since we’ve already established that I have no real experience eating Ethiopian food (even in its Seattle incarnation) I’m not in a position to judge whether the proprietors of Habesha have moved their food closer to what they think the non-Ethiopian population of Seattle might enjoy. (Picture an Ethiopian version of P.F. Chang’s if you will.) The only thing I can tell you is whether I enjoyed the food at Habesha, and whether I want to go back. I can say definitively that the answer is yes, and yes.

My memory of Ethiopian food was hazy. It was a long time ago and not positive. I remember a big stewed gloopy mess. Everything was gray. Things tasted gray. At Habesha, the various items that dotted our Injera (the big spongy bread serving as plate and spoon) had indeed been cooked thoroughly but their flavors were bright and deep. Spicy. Tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices integrated to give everything warm tone. But the sharpness shone through to punctuate each bite. The lentils resembled the best refried beans. A warm mash with delicious savory tones. Warm and soft in your mouth. Soothing next to the sparks of some of the spicier items. Kei Wot — beef cooked in their spicy red sauce, and Doro Tibs — cubed chicken breast in seasoned olive oil, onion and garlic garnished with tomatoes, awaze, and jalapeno were the stars of the affair, with the Misser Wot lentils stewed in onions and olive oil followed closely behind.

And underneath these mounds of food was this enormous pancake of spongy sour goodness. The bread soaked up the flavors from above but didn’t turn into a soggy mess. Like a thick pancake with a spongy texture and a sourdough base the bread accented all the flavors from the food above. Wrapped them in a soft container and the acidity gave balance to the spicy and smooth flavors above.

And while I have no idea how Habesha stacks up against the myriad other Ethiopian restaurants that dot the Seattle landscape, I do know that I’d like to go back. Now the only challenge will be to try a bunch of others before I go back to Habesha. It’s a hardship, but it’s my cross to bear.

Habesha, 1809 Minor Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101-1490, (206) 624-0801, website. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Chiang’s Gourmet, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, October 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 haven’t exactly been shy about the fact that despite a prime location near the Pacific ocean, Seattle remains without world class Chinese food, unlike Vancouver and San Francisco to the north and south respectively. That said, at least when it comes to Szechuan food, we do have some solid spots. World class? No. Very good? Yes. If you don’t feel like heading all the way to wastelands of the eastside for Szechuan Chef, you can head north to Chiang’s Gourmet. Chiang’s has all the charms you would expect from an establishment that occupies a former A&W restaurant. But if you’re going to Chinese food for the decor, then maybe you’re already happy with the Chinese food Seattle has to offer. (That said… the red and black leather banquettes are iconic at least.)

Standouts at this particular meal include the hot and sour soup which had a really clean flavor. The vinegar was present but not overpowering. Sometimes balance is difficult in hot and sour soup. Kung Pao chicken was beautiful to behold. So many Chinese restaurants oversauce their dishes. Here the sauce is thick and almost gritty in a good way. It sticks to the meat and vegetables like the food will stick to your ribs. Tender juicy chicken chunks coated in spice and just the right amount of oil will make you very happy. The Dry Sauteed String Beans feel the most authentic to me (based on my limited understanding of what Szechuan authenticity is like). This signature coating of enormous quantities of minced sauteed garlic. At first you think there was a spill in the kitchen. But then you know that this is serious business. Garlic is competing with the string beans for the role of main ingredient. It’s not a fair fight.

And finally… potstickers.

Why this deceptively simple concoction of steamed and then pan-fried dough wrapped around a little ball of ground pork should hold such a grip on my imagination, I don’t honestly know. Should I be ashamed of being so in love with a cliche of Americanized Chinese food? There are a few foods that show up in almost every culture. Dough wrapped around meat is one of those cornerstones of almost every cuisine. And while ravioli, kreplach, mandu, gyoza, and pelmeni are good, it’s the potsticker (or the Chinese Ravioli as I called it growing up — apparently according to wikipedia this is a strictly Boston phenomenon) — that outstrips them all. The potstickers at Chiang’s Gourmet are able representatives of their species with slightly thicker definitely not greasy shells, and flavorful fillings. I happily ate every last one.

Those red and black leather banquettes may be from a bygone age of restauranting [sic], but I’d happily settle into one of them, surrounded by the bustling and crowded (in a good way) family-run/family-attended environment of Chiang’s Gourmet any time.

Chiang’s Gourmet, 7845 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, (206) 527-8888, website. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.