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Tuesday, September 30, 2003, 11:27 PM


For our first dinner out in England we decided to stay local to the area we were staying - Islington (pronounced IZ-LING-TUN). The Rough Guide to London Restaurants 2002 was our guide. Its author Charles Campion says that every restaurant in the book is "wholeheartedly" recommended so we put our fate in his hands. London is rich with ethnic restaurants and while it's atypical for them to be at the top of Debbie's list something about the London fog has changed changed her wiring. No complaints from me as ethnic restaurants are always at the top of my list. Our destination for dinner was Pasha. Mr. Campion said two things that piqued our interest: 1) the restaurant was dedicated to "producing fresh, light, authentic Turkish food", and 2) you are encouraged to eat "Turkish Style" served lots of small dishes ("meze"). This sounded like our kind of place.

Sure enough within 30 seconds of being seated in this lovely restaurant with an open face to the summer weather we had made our choice and ordered the "Pasha Feast". It required a minimum of 2 people, and there were two of us so we were in business. Things started off with a series of "mezes" which appears to mean several small salads. They were as follows: Tarama - a kind of fish/dairy spread; Cacik - Turkish yogurt (or "yoghurt" as they spell it here) with cucumbers and spices (think of it as Turkish Tzatziki); Hummus; Barbunya Pilaki - (lima?) beans with tomato sauce and spices; Kisir - couscous with a light tomato sauce and chunks of chickpea and onion. In addition to the mezes we received a bread basket containing "Turkish bread" which consisted of a bunch of warm yummy pita and some warmed over slices of what appeared to be baguette to me. This was also accompanied by a sampler of hot items: an oblong Falafel unit (funny shape) that had sesame seeds in it; Cizbiz Kofte - a minced lamb kebab; and (I stupidly forgot to write the Turkish name down) a courgette fritter (a courgette is the French word for zucchini which they use in England). The best of the bunch were clearly the Kisir which was a surprisingly good mix of couscous and sauce - the chunks of chickpea and onion made for a nice textural contrast; the yogurt and cucumber mix was quite tasty, and the lamb kebab was fantastic, the pita was warm and stretchy, and the courgette fritter had a yummy eggy center with a crunchy outer crust. The flavorful tomato sauce on the beans was also quite good.

As we browsed the drink menu I noticed them offering the Pasha Mojito, and the Champagne Vyagra mixed drinks. I think this is part of the restaurants attempt to be "hip." (Debbie thought the "y" in their "Vyagra" came from an alcohol that was part of the drink called "Vya" and not just a lawsuit dodge.)

Next up was the  Kebab platter: a mixture of four different kinds of kebabs, a yummy rice with bits of vegetables, a roasted tomato or two, and sprinkles of green onion. On the side was a Turkish vegetable salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber cut small), and a sort of spicy Turkish chunky salsa. Overall things were pretty good but there were highs and lows. The lamb kebab (on the bone) was definitely the best - juicy, spice infused, lamby, yummy. A close second was more of the minced lamb kebab we'd had earlier. Still juicy and delicious. The chicken kebab was juicy but bland, and the beef kebab was not only bland but dry. The vegetable salad was a bit too oily, but the spicy stuff was just great. Chunky. Delicious.

We got our requisite dessert platter - decent baklava, cinnamon ice cream, and some additional Turkish pastries. Bottom line: Pasha had some yummy moments. And we're definitely not the worse for starting our London food adventures there, but I do expect to raise the bar with our very next outing.

 

Monday, September 29, 2003, 10:12 PM


While we'll be spending a lot of time eating various cuisines that are not British, one example of the native foodstuffs that is world class is cheese. One glance at the cheese aisle in the local Sainsbury's will tell you all you need to know. Forget slices of American, or simple wedges of Cheddar and Monterey Jack - the cheese aisle contains countless examples of interesting and yummy cheeses Hereford, various triple crèmes, the Gloucester, and its friend that's twice the fun - Double Gloucester. And in addition to the cheese aisle, there is a cheese counter with an additional decent selection of yummy goodness. Our early selections were Tintern, Cambozola, and of course Cheddar. But strangely enough the biggest and baddest Cheddar flavor wasn't local but came by way of New Zealand's Anchor Special Reserve Cheddar. Tangy. Strong. Rich. Delicious. (Note: I've looked for this cheese on the web. An old mention on a cached page is the best I can find. If anyone knows how to find this cheese in the US, let me know.)

 

Sunday, September 28, 2003, 11:09 AM


Attentive readers will note that this site was in a frozen state for the month of August. Don't think we were goofing off during that time. In fact we were traveling in Europe trying to get you critical food information from "across the pond". We spent most of the month in London, with short trips to Israel and Paris during the course of the month. Some might ask: why London? Why not a month in Paris and a short trip to London? A not uncommon recent perception of London (and England in general) is that the food is terrible. While I think most people know this is a thing of the past, there are some who still cling to that view. I think this historical reputation may be a conflation of British food and food available in Britain. Anyone who's eaten Indian food in London knows that the two are not the same. An "international" city (which I think London qualifies as) with 15,000 restaurants cannot be ignorant of good food. Our task is simply to find it, eat it, and document it. To the Batmobile!

 

Saturday, September 27, 2003, 1:05 PM


As I mentioned before, Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything is my new favorite food book of all time (don't ask me what my previous one was as it's been completely eclipsed by this book and I simply don't remember). Peyman and DebDu recommended the book and I'm embarrassed to admit that at first I was nervous because I thought it was by David Rosengarten, the former Food network personality. A book all about his perfect wine pairings seemed not super interesting. Luckily, Jeffrey Steingarten is the food critic for Vogue. His 1997 book is a collection of essays detailing his adventures with food. The spectrum includes everything from traditional eating and cooking all the way to understanding much of the science and reality behind food, cooking, biology and more. But that description doesn't do the book justice.

There are two things I love about this book: 1) the intelligent and clever writing, and 2) the obsessive focus on the ultimate food experiences. While I write about food and have been described (along with our gaggle of friends) as having an obsessive focus on food experiences (and a variety of other things), in both cases my contributions are paltry shadows of Steingarten's stories. His writing is funny, intelligent, slightly sarcastic without overdoing it, and fun. Even more exciting is that there is no topic that passes in front of him that he doesn't throw all his energy into discovering and experiencing.

Each essay follows the same (fun) formula. An idea, factoid, or opinion (microwaved fish is excellent; ice cream originated on a snowcapped mountain in Sicily; Wagyu beef is the best in the world;) triggers an adventure in obsessively tracking down every detail about the idea, traveling the world to try things first hand, and then slavishly trying to recreate the experience in his Manhattan apartment. The chapter on subsistence diets starts out: "Years ago  I read somewhere that the absolutely cheapest survival diet consists of peanut butter, whole wheat bread, nonfat dry milk, and a vitamin pill. Eager to try it, I rushed to the supermarket, returned home with provisions for a week's survival, and went to work with my calculator and butter knife." The chapter proceeds debunking the FDA's recommendations and delivering quality criticism of the gastronomic value of it and other subsistence culinary recommendations. Ultimately the chapter ends with Steingarten's recipe for Perfumed Rice with Lamb and Lentils - subsistence with flavor.

Another chapter on Choucroute (an Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and pork) contains the following passage: "Whenever I travel to France, I like to hit the ground eating, but my urgency on this trip was even more intense than usual - a brief week in Alsace was barely long enough to sample fourteen authentic choucroutes." My brief disappointment at the lack of originality of our eat-off/tour of the top pizza establishments in Manhattan or the "creation" of second, third, and fourth dinner, was quickly replaced by admiration and respect for Steingarten, his focus on important things (like 14 pages each on how to tell when fruit is really ripe, and comparing 33 different ketchups including two homemade to find which one is best - all tested on mounds and mounds of McDonald's French Fries), and his incredible attention to detail.

There's no hint of snobbishness as his love for good food knows no bounds, geographical or economic. Also, throughout the wonderful narrative no claim is unquestioned or unverified - Steingarten debunks myths around fat, sugar, and salt with glee. The book is worth it alone so you can quote from it to people who have propagated these myths to your face in the past. And finally, Each chapter typically wraps up with a recipe or three so you can enjoy the fruit of his labors right in your very own kitchen. And as is common with books you fall in love with, nothing's better than finding out there's another one after you've resigned yourself to having run out of pages to read in the first one. Sure enough, in 2002 Steingarten put out another tome of inventive food writing - It Must've Been Something I Ate. I'll report on it soon. I'm sure it will be great.

The best I can do after being inspired by The Man Who Ate Everything is to try and pay homage by doing a good job in my own food adventuring. My writing may never be as entertaining. My lack of free time and short attention span may never allow me to delve into the details the way he does. But I will do my best to try and have as much fun eating as possible and document that fun in as exacting detail as possible for your enjoyment.

And if that's not enough, whereas his book is all text (how traditional), we've got pictures.

 

Wednesday, September 24, 2003, 11:57 PM


I got to thinking about the new lesson learned from my adventures exposing my family to new and different foods. We are raised to determine what we do and don't like in advance based on what ingredients it contains and not based on how it's prepared. If my two-year-old is any indication there must be biological roots in this pattern of behavior. Maybe to avoid poisons children are biologically programmed to taste enough foods to give them sustenance and then stop trying new foods for fear of being poisoned. Then again, maybe not. Maybe (whatever the biology) humans just like the comfort of the familiar. It's easy to eat things we like. It's hard to try the unknown.

And to a certain extent this serves us well. There are some ingredients that people just don't like. It doesn't matter how many times you try it, in what form, how it was prepared, or by whom. That said, I have been out to eat too many times with picky eaters only to see them try something prepared by a talented chef with an ingredient they don't like only to see them new fans of said ingredient with a religious fervor reserved exclusively for recently reformed smokers.

How do you explain cilantro? Two years ago, a fouler green did not exist on my flavor roster. The smell? Atrocious. The taste. Overpowering. In my food? No thanks - makes it taste soapy. "No cilantro please" was my motto. And now???

I can't get enough of it. It has an incredible smell and flavor that brighten everything it's in. I keep it on hand at home in bunches and think about things I can make with it. In the same time period, this cilantro conversion has happened to two other people I know. Did the genetic makeup for cilantro crops world-wide  change over the last two years to make it suddenly pleasing and palatable? Were we somehow hypnotized by the "Cilantro Council"? Or did something more insidious happen?

What happened is that I got used to it. And once I was familiar with the flavor, I wanted to get familiar with it as often as possible. If this could happen with an ingredient I used to despise, why not with any ingredient I simply don't like or prefer. And remember, it wasn't just me, this happened to two other people.

This is even more counter-intuitive than it seems. It's not just people's likes that define them, their dislikes are equally (if not more) visible  signs defining their personas. People love to proudly declare their dislike for various foods. And it's not just limited to the fast-food set. The "enlightened" can be even worse, deriding simple pleasures like good street food, and breakfast diner buttered white toast. As hard as it may be to put something in your mouth that might not taste good, once you've decided you're brave enough to do that at least once per food item, you realize that by trying things you might like them. And what if you all of a sudden like the food that for years you've made fun of your friends for eating?

The weirdest (and for me most embarrassing) thing is that not all of these dislikes are based on actual experience. Yep. I've found that not all things people dislike have they actually tried. In fact (while I await funding for my scientific study) I will venture a guess that most foods that people claim to not like, they have never tried.

I realized recently that I like cherries, capers, and beets.

Given that I've been writing this website for over a year, it's pretty shameful to admit, but that's right, I hadn't really eaten a cherry up until recently. Thirty-four years without tasting a real fresh cherry. The funny thing is that I was absolutely certain I didn't like cherries. How did that happen? I think Cherry flavored cough syrup was the main culprit. I still find that flavor vile. Of course only recently did I realize it tastes nothing like cherries. It tastes like cough syrup. Of course I did have lingering doubts about my cherry phobia only because the medicine-ish cherry-flavored Luden's "cough drops" are so yummy.

With capers, it was just that they looked yucky. And then I realized (after I actually tried one) that they were little pods of salty goodness.

With beets, I never tried them and they somehow ended up in the dislike bucket. I admit that I wasn't immediately super in love with their flavor, but golden beets have a lighter flavor that led me to fall in love with the whole beet family. How many people are out there not eating yummy food because of cough syrup. I believe people have a list of food they eat and a list of food they don't. Long gone are the reasons items showed up on the don't list.

The psychological warfare I am engaged in with my two-year-old son sheds a little light on the subject. Before his birth and during the first few months of his existence when his diet was pretty regulated, I planned long and hard about all the food adventures we'd have together as soon as he could eat real food. I imagined us going to dim sum every Sunday morning, fighting over the last piece of sushi at dinner, and hunting for the perfect Vietnamese restaurant together. The picky eater that took over my son's body has no place in my fantasies. Months of peanut butter on matzah forced me to develop new pathways of creativity when it comes to getting him to try new foods. Reasoning with a two-year-old is not a path to success.

For awhile I thought his preference for certain foods was really about their flavor. I was so proud the day I got him to eat chicken satay at the Thai restaurant after I shoved it with some peanut sauce between the toast points they gave us. I started to wonder if it really mattered what was between the pieces of toast. It seems that the satay benefited from the peanut sauce, which he was already comfortable with because of his peanut butter obsession. That said, when he does taste a new flavor it does take him a minute to adapt and decide whether he likes it or not. And there are so many things that I wanted him to try that I thought wouldn't work between two pieces of toast.

He likes to eat apples. We always have granny smith in the house, so those are apples. Anything else round and edible is a different colored apple. For awhile, oranges were orange apples. I used to disabuse him of this notion. Now I leave it in place. The association is critical to him being comfortable with eating the fruit. When he insisted on eating a "red apple" recently I made no objection or correction. And now he's a big fan of plums.

The proudest moment of inspiration was recently when somehow I got him to take a bite of a red pepper - and he liked it. I sliced the top off, emptied out the insides and then called him over to show him how I could open and close the pepper like a little container with a top. When I took a bite of the top, that was fun, so he took one too. Progress! Before we knew it, we had eaten so many bites that what was left of the piece attached to the stem of the pepper was no longer an effective top for the pepper "bowl". With the fun gone, his willingness to eat pepper disappeared as well. I offered him any part he wanted of the other 90% of the pepper, but tops were all he wanted. I started to scheme furiously at how I could use up all that extra pepper with him only eating pepper tops. (The similarity to the Seinfeld "Muffin Top" episode was not lost  on me.) And then inspiration hit - pepper stars. Sure enough, the very same pepper cut into little star shapes was acceptable and even considered yummy by my son.

Freud aside, I think in some ways most people are stuck at two when it comes to food. The list of foods we don't like, won't try, have never eaten, etc. is not necessarily rational, but it exists. Maybe if people try the food they dislike in the shape of stars or hearts their worlds might open up a bit. As much as I love pepper stars, I have to admit, I am already counting the days until my infant daughter starts eating solid food, as the first Sunday following, she and I will be taking a road trip to Vancouver, B.C. to wolf down some dim sum.

All this musing leads me to shamelessly steal a page from Jeffrey Steingarten's book - The Man Who Ate Everything. I will go on and on praising him and his incredibly inspiring book in a later entry, but for now I will take a page from his [play]book. When he started out as food critic for Vogue he realized that to be a completely neutral observer of all things culinary he needed to dispense with any of his prejudices. He spent long hours determining that biologically there is almost nothing we can't eat, and in fact - as human beings - we're supposed to eat as many things as possible - we're designed for it. He lists out everything he dislikes including Greek food, desserts served at Indian restaurants, and blue food to name a few. He then goes on a program of exposure and open-mindedness where he overcomes essentially all his food phobias. I did note when I read the book that he didn't include bugs. Though in the sequel - It Must Have Been Something I Ate - he does come back to bugs and in fact has made progress in that arena. I will not be discussing bugs either. Not now, not ever. Bugs are yucky. Maybe if someone decides to pay me to do this job then I'll consider it, but doubtful even then. Anyway, back to things I don't like other than bugs. Here it is: my all time list of major dislikes when it comes to food. These are the items that will cause me to not eat something. These are things I will pick out of other things:

  • Raisins. These are the cockroaches of the dried fruit world. Yes, I like grapes. Yes, I like other dried fruits - apples, apricots, etc. Yes I like grapes. Yes I know that raisins are just dried grapes. But I cannot abide raisins. They are small, and chewy, and usually inserted into dishes where they don't belong as tiny invisible smart bombs of yucky overly sweet chewy fruit taste when I was just enjoying my Persian rice or my challah. I don't know if I'll ever get over my hatred (and yes, I mean hatred) of raisins.
  • Coffee. My parents loves coffee. They consider themselves coffee gourmands. They have all sorts of apparatuses for grinding, filtering, and brewing it. I grew up around it, and never fell in love with it. Quite the opposite. Coffee tastes to me like someone found an old car in a junkyard that belonged to a chain smoker, scraped the ashtrays, added hot water, steeped, and poured the resulting liquid into a mug and offered to dilute it with cream and sugar. (I always hear of incidental association between coffee and cigarettes as a fine pairing for people who are into both, but that's something to investigate another time.) The funny thing is that I've grown to love the smell of coffee. Brewing, roasting. It smells great. You'd think I was halfway there, but every couple of years I take a sip (of high quality stuff I'm told) and I find it yucky. Fall back to the slew of coffee-type products - the frappucinos with all sorts of enticing flavors - even coffee ice cream; I don't like any of them. I will admit to having mixed a tiny bit of ground coffee into my recipe for chocolate spread (it gives the spread a bittersweet tinge). But beyond that I really just don't like coffee.  As their appears to be a crack in the armor of my dislike, I think there's a fighting chance coffee will eventually leave this list. At least in one of it's watered down forms - like the multitude of desserts or dessert beverages that are so overloaded with dairy and sugar products that the coffee is reduced to a mere essence.
  • Tea.  This is coffee's "friendly" cousin. Take the recipe from above and substitute flowers for ashtray scrapings and voila - tea! I know tea lovers across the planet are horrified at my generalization. I must be referring to herbal tea. Nope. It all tastes like flower water to me. I'm not entirely sure of the odds of overcoming my dislike of tea. I think in order to be on the road to solving a problem you have to be able to visualize the solution and frankly I just can't picture myself drinking tea.

Note: my aversion to the world's agreed upon hot drinks is especially difficult for waiters and waitresses at the end of meals, and hosts and hostesses in cultures where serving someone a hot drink when they visit your home is missed only on pain of death. Hot chocolate? Hot water with lemon? Chicken consomme? None seem to be realistic alternatives when a friendly host is pushing their ashtray/flower water on me. Though I will say Starbucks' menu of "Coffee Alternatives" (they're alternatives to tea as well but the Starbucks folks didn't mind this technical inaccuracy) is quite delicious. They have a vanilla "creme" drink that's like a warm vanilla milkshake. Not an appetizing description but quite nice once you try it. Their caramel apple beverage is also excellent. Thanks to Steve and Kira for turning me on to these. Anyway, back to my food therapy.

  • Shellfish in the shell. This may seem like a nit since I've overcome my "dislike" of shellfish. In fact it never was quite that. More of a fear since I grew up in a house without - Kosher. Now I adore shrimp, am having a love affair with scallops, guzzle clam chowder, and even like buttery morsels of lobster tail. But serve those in their native homes and I am grossed out. I think this is too reminiscent of the bug ban. A big lobster in the shell looks too much like a cockroach for my taste. Sucking on those spindly legs (are they legs?) is just too much for me though I'm sure the flavor is quite lovely. This one may never get fixed. (On a related note: I also find certain shellfish too rubbery in certain forms - squid, octopus, cuttlefish, etc. Though I've had them roasted or in other forms that were quite nice so I guess they don't really count.)
  • Ethiopian food. This one is probably too silly to mention. I tried it once at a restaurant in Washington DC. Lentils are ok. But this was like a huge mash of tasteless gray lentils spread across an enormous pita. I should probably try a good Ethiopian restaurant and be converted.
  • Stews. They're just a big soppy mess. Everything kind of merges together and gets dull. Paella counts too. I have to assume that there's a stew out there that will blow me away.
  • Cooked green peppers. For years I thought I didn't like peppers. My first exposure too any kind of pepper was cooked green peppers. The bitterness that's more prevalent in the green pepper (versus the other colors) is accentuated in a distasteful way (in my opinion) when you cook it. My phobia of all things pepper went on for more years than it had to likely because my budget didn't allow for spending $5 a pound on a red, orange, or yellow pepper. Needless to say, when I finally realized what I was missing, I measured my career success by whether my salary let me buy red peppers without a second thought. That's rich!
  • Black Licorice. Gross. Though, maybe it's the concentration that bothers me. I love anise and fennel. I couldn't imagine my vietnamese pho without that flavor.
  • Root Beer. Maybe I should put this one under the tea phobia. It's kind of flowery to me. My friend Steve knowing that I'm not shy about taking food from other people's plates, drank root beer all throughout college even though it wasn't his favorite, just so I wouldn't take any.
  • Mint flavored desserts. I've been working hard trying to pinpoint the issue here and only figured it out recently. At first I thought I didn't like mint. But I brush my teeth with minty toothpaste, and eat minty gum. Then I thought I didn't like mint mixed with anything else, but in fact the mint in Vietnamese dishes like Goi Cuon or Pho is quite delicious and essential. Then I thought I didn't like mint in desserts, but I've had a couple of sprigs on a sorbet that were refreshing. And then it finally distilled into its essence: I don't like desserts where one of the main flavors is mint. Mint ice cream is really gross. The only thing worse is the combination of mint and chocolate. Truly despicable.

That's it. The whole list. I've tried to be exhaustive here even to the point where it's just embarrassing. But nothing can be done about that. I figure, if I'm going to try and be as honest as possible about the food I love, then it's critical that I'm just as honest about the foods I avoid. Everything else is pretty much "on the menu". Some things I love. Some I'm just ok with, but I'll eat them all. I can't promise that I'll overcome each of these dislikes, but I am doing my best to put them behind me by exposing myself to the best in each category when I have the time (and energy). At least now though, you can read what follows enlightened about my blind spots.

 

Tuesday, September 23, 2003, 10:25 PM


20030715-lampreia 063.jpgMy parents recently came to visit their new granddaughter here in Seattle. She and her brother are quite captivating (if I do say so myself), but I hoped to give my family some exposure to some of the best food Seattle has to offer - Lampreia of course.  It's a risky proposition to be honest. My mom is a picky eater. My father is semi-adventurous. My sister I think could be a real honest-to-goodness chef someday but all of them to one degree or another are much like the old me. Comfortable with the food they know and like. (Not to mention that none of them eat any shellfish.)

Of course, the right way to experience Lampreia is to let it's Chef, Scott Carsberg, cook for you. No ordering off the menu. Whatever the chef sends is what we eat. "What if we don't like it?" they all chimed in. The one restriction/request Scott has been consistently comfortable with is making a version of dinner vegetarian. Lauren has to eat too you know. Knowing that Lauren always has to share  bits of her dish with all of us while she can't eat many of ours, I thought this might be a nice solution. I'd order my family all vegetarian tasting menus and they'd have a hard time finding an ingredient they were averse to, and might even give dinner a chance.

Dinner was scheduled for Tuesday. On Monday events did not portend well for our trip to Lampreia. After a quick stop at Malay Satay Hut (well received) my father and I went out to Pike Place market to shop for fresh ingredients with which to make dinner. We came home with gorgeous raspberries, a variety of yummy vegetables, and some beautiful pieces of sashimi grade tuna. My mom immediately declared that she didn't like tuna. "Why?" I asked. "It's always too dry." Sashimi grade tuna, dry? Always?

I prepared the tuna with one of Tom Douglas' rubs and just seared the outside of it before depositing it on a bed of greens and drizzled some sauce over it. Despite the fact that we ended up getting her some salmon she ended up trying the "tuna salad". She said the tuna was great and not dry. Let's take her at her word (and not assume she was being polite) as I tried the tuna and it was definitely juicy and not dry.

This got me thinking. Throughout our lives we are trained to determine what we like based on what ingredients it contains and not based on the attentiveness with which it was prepared or the quality of the ingredient itself. First question asked by a person eating some type of ethnic food for the first time: "what's in it?" Would it matter if they knew there was fish sauce in the Thai food? First of all, fish sauce bears little resemblance to fish in its final form. Second, fish sauce bears little resemblance to the dish in which it's used as fish sauce alone is pretty powerful, yet when used as part of a Thai dish, strangely complementary despite its potency. What good would knowing what was in the Thai food help the first time diner with determining in advance whether they liked it? I suppose if you pick from ingredients you do like in other contexts then it helps with the transition, but it's still a pretty limiting way to think when it comes to trying new foods.

I took a moment after the potentially dry yet juicy tuna incident to muse on this new bit of insight to my family as a way of getting their minds more open for our trip to Lampreia. I knew they were still stressed out about going to a meal where they didn't get to pick their dishes, though the vegetarian filter their dinner was going to pass through calmed them to some degree, but we marched on. Tuesday night came and we went to dinner.

Dinner was of course magnificent. Things started off smashingly where the first dish we all received was only distinguished for the non-vegetarian orderers by the presence of duck carpaccio. Needless to say I immediately pounced and pointed out to my parents and my sister that their conservatism had deprived them of duck carpaccio. Though I made sure that I didn't deprive them of any and gave them some of mine. Score 1 for broadening your horizons.

The meal continued with a large number of wonderful dishes both ones that excluded meat and fish and ones that were not. The poached egg with truffle was absolutely delicious. Give credit to my shy family that they appeared to be genuinely enthused about the truffleness. The corn veloute was the perfect essence of just sweet enough corn in liquid form. And the encrusted lamb was yet another dish that made my family wistful for limiting themselves to the vegetarian dishes. Though I must say, if you're going to be a vegetarian, eating at Lampreia is still an incredibly enjoyable and luxurious experience. When we got to dessert and a super thin slice of pineapple was used as a dumpling wrapper we were all impressed. And it was delicious.

So what did my family think of the meal? They said nice things, and I think they enjoyed the adventure. But I think it definitely took them out of their comfort zone, and I'm not sure they really enjoyed it as a meal per se. I have a feeling that they were a little bummed at the (from their perspective) "small" portions (by the way, there were 7 courses - count 'em 7 courses and while the portions were not Claimjumperesque they were not microbial by any stretch). And of course the moderation of size is what made the courses enjoyable and let us try so many of them. Nobody walked away hungry.

Ultimately I give credit to my family for trying. Among our friends there are parents that wouldn't even be willing to give it a shot, and mine definitely did. Afterwards I thought to myself that maybe I had pushed a little too hard for them to broaden their food world view. They were comfortable where they were, why should I push? My measure of a meal I love is often that there's at least one dish that I can remember with deep affection months or years later. These are courses that make deep and lasting impressions. A week after our trip to Lampreia I get a call from my mother and my sister: "Hi, we're trying to recreate the corn soup from Lampreia. Any tips?" Maybe our trip to Lampreia was the the tipping point for my family after all.

Postscript: my mom and sister's attempt at recreating Scott Carsberg's Corn Veloute was unsuccessful. While I need to ask him how he did it, I conveyed to them that I was sure it involved some ungodly number of hours of preparation, possibly a vegetable stock that didn't give away a hint of its presence except to support the essential "corn-ness" of the liquid, and an amazing amount of straining through a chinoise. This simple soup was not so simple anymore.

 

Monday, September 22, 2003, 2:48 PM


It's time to give a quick update on some of the dining options in Redmond, WA. These are critical as they're near where I work and therefore define much of  my weekday lunch experience. Unfortunately none of them bear more than a quick mention.

Golden Chopsticks is a relatively new Chinese place in Redmond Town Center. The dishes are light and fresh, and (unlike many crappy Chinese restaurants) are not oversauced. Unfortunately, the dishes often have odd flavors. I don't think it's creativity. I think it's just off a bit.

Saigon City is a Vietnamese place in Redmond. I've been there a few times now, and always leave a bit disappointed. They don't seem to really have great attention to detail when it comes to the food they serve. Things are sort of thrown together, and not as fresh as they could be.

Looking for decent Seattle eastside falafel I went to Byblos Deli. A nice little Arab market in Bellevue. However, as soon as I saw the proprietor microwaving my falafel balls before putting them in my sandwich I should have known it was not going to be a premium experience. While better than most Falafel in the region, it doesn't hold a candle to Kosher Delight. Byblos is still a fine spot to stock up on your Middle Eastern groceries. The small pickles in brine are absolutely delicious and a bit spicy too. They come in cans.

I've been desperate for good kebabs for some time. When Kebab Palace recently opened I had high hopes. Maybe too high. I thought it would be Middle Eastern, but the restaurant is basically Indian. Not a huge deal since I love Indian food, but I was hoping for the other center of gravity. The two times I've been there have been oddly similar. In both cases there were only two types of kebabs available. Two kebab variations does not a palace make. In both cases one type of kebab was super delicious (typically the lamb) and the other was not great. And in both cases, they quickly ran out of the good kind and took almost forever to replenish the container in the buffet. Bummer.

Always on the look out for decent food to eat near work.

 

Saturday, September 20, 2003, 11:52 PM


I recently explained our interesting experience at Cafe Campagne. It is Campagne's less formal sister bistro located downstairs. Ketchup incident aside, I was really looking forward to eating at Campagne. It's not just that I'm always looking to expand the roster of favorite Seattle restaurants, but in terms of word-of-mouth recommendations, I really could not go on any longer without seeing for myself what everyone loved about Campagne. And the truth is, this wasn't really my first time there. We'd gone there for a fantastic dessert once to repair our psyches after a dinner gone wrong at nearby Vivanda Ristorante.

Campagne is a beautiful restaurant located right in the heart of some of the busy market buildings that look over Puget Sound. From the window by our table we were able to see the street slope down towards Pike Place, and the sun set over Puget Sound. Beautiful. The table was set with bowls of olives and Spanish almonds, and we also got some French Bread with yummy butter. Things really started off with a bang with the Pan-roasted Sea Scallops on Carrot Puree with Carrot, Fennel, Ginger Emulsion and Crispy Bacon. The searing had turned the scallops a beautiful golden color. The flavor was amazing, and the combination of ingredients - especially the sweetness - was great.

The beef tartare dish had bold flavors but was a bit salty. The salad of endive and radish on the side was delicious, but the toast was lame and crumbly. Next up was a Sweet Onion and Parmesan Gratin topped with a Salad of Watercress, Arugula, and Verjus. It was stunning, rich and creamy in flavor, and textured beautifully. We also really enjoyed the beet dish - Roasted Baby Beets with Beurre Sale on Asparagus Drizzled with Pistachio Oil. The beets had great color, and were tender and young. And finally, the Sauteed Champignons Sauvages with Pearl Onions and Thyme on English Pea Fondant was delicious as well - the onions had a nice soft texture.

We also had a beet dish with goat cheese. It was nice, but not special. We had the Salad Verte - which was... a salad. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Salad is certainly hard to screw up, but it's also hard to make it special. I would love to eat a really special salad some day. The Marinated Asparagus with a Poached Aracauna Egg and White Truffle Mousseline could have used a pinch more salt, but had stellar flavor. The truffle mousseline was amazing. And the runny yolk inside the egg was a lovely surprise.

In terms of entrees the Roasted Squab Breasts and Confit Legs on Artichoke and Foie Gras emulsion was the best except for the psychotically oversalted fennel bulb. The creamy sauce had a "grilly" quality. We also had the Entrecote Roti Boneless Rib-Eye on Wilted Spinach with Braised Shallots and Garlic in Red Wine Foie Gras Sauce. It's easy to get my attention when combining steak and foie gras. Though I don't think "wilted" is the word that shoots to the top of my list when I want to describe food in an appetizing way. The dish was decent, nothing memorable. Lauren had the Vegetables of the Moment on Golden Beet Spetzli with a watercress and Marsanne Roussanne sauce. Apparently, the "moment" was one of extreme saltiness. She sent it back, it still came back too salty. Deb liked the Sea Bass special with grapefruit sauce and chickpeas. I thought it was uninspiring and didn't hang together. Then again, Deb was also inspired enough by one dish's adornment to ask aloud "why do people think candied fennel is a good idea"? We then had the Grilled Lamb Loin and Roasted House-Made Lamb Crepinette, with Potato Galette, and Red Wine Olive Sauce. As they had at the cafe, they had knocked the the lamb burger out of the park. The grilled loin was ok. The sauce caught whatever was afflicting the vegetable plate. We also had the Pan-Roasted Alaskan Halibut on English Pea and Tarragon Puree with Caviar Cream.  It was tasty, flavorful, and herby, but not really exceptional. Desserts were good including a yummy berry sorbet, an Opera with Passion Fruit Mousse, and the best of the desserts - Twice Baked Chocolate Gateau served warm with Toasted Cashew Ice Cream and Apricot Ginger Creme Anglaise.

The meal had begun with high expectations starting to get realized with delicious dishes like the beets, scallops, and gratin. But it just got worse and worse over time. Roughly two hours into the meal Chris pointed out that Campagne "is only good when there's food, and there's only been food a quarter of the time". The pacing was not good. To be fair to Campagne, there were eight of us, which did not seem typical. But still, the wait was often interminable between courses. Inconsistency seemed to be the rule of the realm unfortunately. There were small things like Deb asking for her dessert with mixed berry sorbet and getting rhubarb instead. There were big things like the random acts of saltiness throughout the meal. And then there were the little things that added insult to the injury of the big things, like when Lauren had to send back her egregiously oversalted plate of vegetables, the waiter eventually replaced her dish with the comment "the Chef apologizes that the dish was not to your liking". None of us were looking for an apology from the Chef or anyone else. But we certainly didn't want a passive aggressive apology to accompany our hunger. (And, no we're not crazy people who are hyper-sensitive to salt perceiving Wasa crackers as being too salty). The best word we could come up with to describe the evening was "bummer". It's so clear that Campagne has the ability to make really flavorful, fresh, and comfortable (in a good way) food. It was also so clear (at least on the night we were there) that they were all over the map. We'll definitely need to go back. I'm hoping rough spots at our visit were just temporary.

 

Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 11:58 PM


The LA Times talks about some of the problems in running a restaurant which is already a notoriously difficult business in which to succeed. People making reservations and not showing up is a real blow to profitability.

 

Monday, September 15, 2003, 11:21 PM


09-tuna.jpgMany friends at work had been telling me to eat at Harvest Vine in Seattle's Madison Park neighborhood for some time. And I did. And it was pretty good. I had to go back to really decide how good. And I can say that after this last visit, I think about returning. Often. Very often. There is something fresh and exciting about the food at Harvest Vine (though not everyone had excited reactions that evening). Their authentic Spanish Tapas menu is certainly part of the allure, but the food just tastes fresh. Here's what we ate last time we were there (which was too long ago).

Dinner started off with some yummy doughy crusty bread. No butter or oil. But yummy. We had a glass of red wine a 2000 Les Terrases. It had some nice tannins, but it was served cold. I'm not a fan of cold red wine. I've heard that in some parts of France they serve red wine cold to cover for poor quality. Also some people serve red wines from Provence or Beaujolais cold. I remain to be convinced. Maybe it's a Spanish thing. I'll need to investigate further.

That said, the food was fantastic. First up was the dish that made me fall in love with golden beets. A plate of thinly sliced golden beets drenched in oil, amazing garlic, herbs, and salt. It's so simple, fresh, and delicious. Next was a simple and perfect plate of jamon. It brought memories flooding back of of shops in Madrid with row after row of cured pigs hanging from floor to ceiling.

 am having an affair with gazpacho. Don't tell my wife. I can't get enough of it. I think about it more than I'd like to admit. The gazpacho at Harvest vine was sweet, tangy, and super liquidy. The pulp was almost too small, but not quite. There were beautiful pools of olive oil resting on the surface of the soup. The entire effect of the soup was almost like that of a wine with the flavors dancing on my tongue and an incredibly long finish. I went as far as looking around the room to see if the coast was clear before I decided that I couldn't get away with licking my bowl. I can't guarantee that I'll be able to stop myself next time.

Vanilla tuna. Yep. Debbie wasn't hot on it. She said it "smelled like dessert". Dessert fish? She may be right that it smelled like dessert. But she was wrong on her assessment of whether it would be good. It was fantastic. The flavor combination was interesting and (most importantly) tasty. The wonderful Spanish sea salt made a reapperance. The flavors hit your tongue in layers - vanilla at first, then herbs, fish, and salt. Yum! I thought the tuna could have been a touch more rare, but I still really enjoyed the dish.

Next up was a dish of string beans in tomato sauce. The beans were good, but the tomato sauce that covered them was the star. The plate of chorizo was quite nice though a touch too chewy. (I'm not sure if it's supposed to be like that, but I thought it was a bit tough.) Super smoky strong with roasted garlic. It had almost a touch of peanut butter flavor. Finally we had the duck. It was just great. I've never eaten anything that made me want to eat the fat. But there I was eating it. The fact that it was super crispy helped certainly. The sauce, green onion, and orange section completed the dish.

Harvest Vine is cozy and cool. The staff is friendly. And the food is fresh, interesting, authentic, and super flavorful. I need to get my fix, soon. And be warned if you're easily offended, I will definitely be licking the gazpacho bowl.

 

Sunday, September 14, 2003, 11:41 PM


My friend and co-worker Ted has been bugging me for awhile to try Matt's in the Market - a tiny little restaurant/kitchen buried in the nooks and crannies above Pike Place market in the heart of Seattle. Finding it is a little tough, though surprisingly it's nestled among even more tiny restaurants that make this spot their home.

Here's a quick impression. The entire restaurant is a narrow rectangular space with the open kitchen behind the bar along one side and the seats all the way in a little area at the end of the room. Charming and relaxed and "cool" are clear first impressions when you walk into Matt's. In addition, the promise of an establishment on top of Pike Place Market is that the food is super fresh as it comes daily from "the market". And while Matt's certainly has all the ingredients to make a lasting impression, other than the cool space, they unfortunately didn't. It's true that the cod fish cake was super fresh tasting. And the tuna was good. But none of the dishes were really moving or memorable. There was nothing wrong with our dinner. But the food didn't make an impression on me that makes me dream of going back either. All the ingredients are certainly there. Maybe they will gel into something special over time.

 

Saturday, September 13, 2003, 9:54 PM


05-swedishpancackes.jpgFirst things first. When you tell people to have breakfast at Sears' in San Francisco you must always pay the tax of going through the interminable discussion assuring them that this Sears' is in fact different from the hardware and appliance purveyor. And, that no you don't expect them to eat their breakfast with Craftsman tools instead of a fork and knife. With that out of the way we can get to more important things like little Swedish pancakes. Yes. That's it. Little Swedish pancakes - 18 of them to be exact. "World famous" according to the folks at Sears' Fine Foods.

Swedish pancakes? They are super thin. Not fluffy and thick like their IHOP compatriots. They are almost crepe-like except that when properly griddled they have a nice browned pattern on either side, and their edges are almost crispy. What little mass they have inside is filled with air bubbles that give these little morsels structure. That structure is a good place for the whipped semi-melted butter and syrup they serve with your pancakes. The heavy feeling that can accompany eating a stack of pancakes does not make an appearance here. Instead you wolf down 10 or 11 of these things before you realize that you're (sadly) more than halfway done.

The rest of the experience is super complementary. Traditional diner food (good greasy breakfast food, lots of pork products, etc.). Traditional diner waitresses (friendly and gruff at the same time). Traditional diner decor (lots of pink). And traditional pictures on the wall of the proprietors and celebrities including local sports stars and Lou Ferrigno (one of the proprietors is into bodybuilding). All in all a complete and wonderful experience. When you go to San Francisco, deal with the line that goes out the door (it moves quickly) and have breakfast at Sears'. And of course, when you go, order the World Famous 18 Swedish Pancakes. Delicious!

 

Friday, September 12, 2003, 11:59 PM


04-fennelleeksoup.jpgWhile I knew a trip to San Francisco had to include some favorites, there was also the matter of trying something new. New to me that is. Chez Panisse came to mind first, but a trip to Berkeley seemed a touch out-of-the-way. Gary Danko was also at the top of my list in terms of restaurants I wanted to try. A member of the high-end Relais Gourmand affiliation of restaurants I knew there was a high chance Gary Danko would deliver an excellent meal in a refined setting, and an even higher chance it wouldn't be priced for every day dining. Luckily, only one meal is required in order to savor the flavors and the experience for months on end.

There were four of us eating, and it was just enough to sample under half of what was on the a la carte menu. There was also a tasting menu which consisted entirely of items from the a la carte side, so for diversity's sake we crafted our own tasting menus. The table was beautiful and set the right tone for our upcoming meal. First up was a small item from the kitchen not on the menu, a Fennel Leek Soup with Smoked Duck Breast. An excellent combination, just delicious. The duck was completely balanced in flavor and the drizzle of oil on the top was great. Starting off the meal with good strong flavors like fennel and duck was like a shot across our bow, saying: "pay attention, we're not wasting any time in creating a great meal." And indeed they weren't.

First up were appetizers. The Risotto with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Spring Vegetables and Sage Oil was dreamy. It had a perfect texture, awesome green oil, and tender seafood that was a subtle but solid flavor in the dish. The Shellfish Bisque with Mussel, Clam, Scallop and Lobster was a table favorite with a special milk flavor and a light great seafood essence. The Seared Foie Gras, Caramalized Red Onions and Oven Roasted Apricots had a touch too little foie gras. I know I am always complaining about portions that are too large, but this one seemed on the smallish side. The apricot was also a bit too sour. But the foie gras was delicious with amazing flavor and texture. I wrote in my notes at dinner that it had "perfect substance". That's always a good thing. And finally, the Lobster Salad with Artichokes and Mustard Tarragon Vinaigrette was also subtle (in a good way) and tender with five different flavors and a range of textures complementing each other beautifully. All the appetizers were really perfect in terms of how much flavor they had. The bisque was the best example with its amazingly focused flavor. The risotto though was our favorite.

The seafood courses didn't miss a beat in terms of keeping silly ear-to-ear grins on our faces. We started with Seared Scallops with Braised Artichokes, Shiitake Mushrooms, and Sauce Marechal. The perfect tiny scallops were excellently sauteed without a hint of rubbery texture. The sauce was an echo (but not a repetitive one) from some of our appetizers. The beet wedges and artichoke hearts were so very tender. Next up was  Seared Tuna with Red Pepper Eggplant Marmalade and White Asparagus. Before we could discuss what we thought of the dish, the last of the sweet creamy sauce on the now empty plate was being mopped up with bread. The Roast Maine Lobster with Asparagus, Morel mushrooms, Tarragon and Potato Puree was essentially perfect. Normally roast lobster is a bit crisp, but this was super soft. "Tastes like chicken" is the cliche description of frog legs, but they really did taste like chicken. Really good chicken in a smoky yummy sauce. I suppose that's to be expected when they are Pancetta Wrapped Frog Legs with Sunchoke Garlic Puree, Potato, Lentils, and Parsley Sauce. One tweak might be that the pancetta was slightly overpowering. It kills me to advocate less pancetta in anything, but that was our impression when we ate it.

Next up was the Lemon Herb Duck Breast with Rhubarb Compote. This was the best duck breast I'd ever had. The herbs were incredible. The meat was super tender. And the tomato confit was a perfect sweet tangy complement to the duck. Also cool was the duck confit done hash brown style sitting under the duck breast. The Herb Crusted Loin of Lamb wit Potato Gratin, Roasted Beets and Fennel won over one newly former lamb avoider at the table. There wasn't a hint of gaminess. The beets and the gratin were just delicious. The Juniper Spiced Venison Medallions, Cranberry Onion Compote and Braised Endive was excellent. The hint of bitter flavor was counter-balanced by the mandarin orange in the dish. The Beef Medallion with Wild Nettle Risotto and Mushroom Confit was surprisingly great. (Though you have to wonder why being served something great at this point was surprising at all.) That said, the duck was the clear favorite of this course.

Before full on dessert there was a pretty diverse cheese cart. We had a nutty blue cheese, a triple cream from Cowgirl Creamery, and a cow's milk cheese where the farmer knows the names of all 177 of his cows (I apologize as my notes are garbled and I can't tell you the name of that particular cheese). For wine, I brought with me a pair I had been dying to try. A brand new 2000 Clos De Sarpe that was chewy, soft, and delicious with delicate but present tannins. Later in the meal we opened a 2001 Pride Syrah. It was huge with a big bouquet, some chocolate notes, great tannins, and a bit of spice on a long long finish.

We were so full we only got a couple of desserts (these were before the amazing tray of petit fours) including Trio of Creme Brulee with Cookies, and Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Chocolate Sorbet and Hot Chocolate. Not only was this super yummy, but included a perfect ice cold plain milk chaser. It's like they read our mind in terms of what would be perfect after all that chocolate. Though I suppose it would be on most people's minds. That said, most high end restaurants forget some of those simple combinations. And the beauty of the dinner was that there were many combinations that seemed simple on the surface but were the results of amazing effort on the part of the kitchen. (Speaking of the kitchen, we got a quick tour as well which was nice.) Gary Danko was an absolutely elevated food experience. I am counting the days until I get to go back.

 

Thursday, September 11, 2003, 11:56 PM


AP courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times writes about a new food-ish book. Amanda Hesser's new book Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, With Recipes is the subject of the writeup but there's also a decent list of other "liter-eat-ture" as the author calls it.

 

Wednesday, September 10, 2003, 11:56 PM


It's funny. San Francisco by all rights should be a great place for food. They have a large population with a significant percentage of people who appreciate food as well as large ethnic communities. In addition San Francisco lies south of the bounty of Napa and Sonoma Valley and east of the Pacific ocean. Life should be good. Yet there are still funny anomalies in San Francisco's food scene - for example, there is no world-class sushi there. Luckily that is not the case for Chinese food. Hunan Home is a fantastic Chinese restaurant located in San Francisco's Chinatown. Almost every time I'm in the bay area I go there for lunch, dinner, or both.

Lunch was simple. Hot and Sour Soup, Potstickers, Hunan Spiced Garlic Beef, Sizzling Prawns, and Asparagus Beef in Black Bean Sauce. My lunch companions Ted, Tjeerd, and Mark came to Hunan Home slightly doubtful. The wild look in my eye, and the grandiose descriptions of the quality of the food didn't help my credibility. Yet when those first dishes showed up I calmly watched as understanding flooded their faces. We were here to get some really really really good Chinese food.

The hot and sour soup was excellent. Ted commented that there was no tinny or gummy aftertaste. Mark felt it was the best Hot and Sour soup he'd ever had. Tjeerd said it had great balanced spiciness so it was hot but you could still taste the flavors. I loved it and thought it had a nice kick. The potstickers were light and delicious. They were perfectly pan-fried. The beef was excellent as well. It was tender beyond belief accompanied by perfectly cooked asparagus. Typically I'm not a fan of sweeter sauces, but the sauce on our shrimp was slightly sweet, garlicky, and delicious.

Hunan Home consistently delivers fantastic, fresh, and scrumptious Chinese food in the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown. If I had one thing to complain about it would be my fortune cookie. It was the same factory-made slightly orange tasting cookie-cutter cookie. And I know that Hunan Homes doesn't specify the fortunes. But if you get a fortune cookie it should contain a fortune, not a baseless and inaccurate observation/assessment. Mine was: "you are quiet and unobtrusive". Never mind that I am neither quiet nor unobtrusive. Never mind that the person that wrote the fortune has never observed me personally and has no basis on which to make that kind of judgment. The inaccuracy doesn't bother me nearly as much as the fact that an observation (even a wrong one) is not a fortune. When I get a fortune cookie I want to know what the future holds. One thing I know for sure, my future contains many more trips to Hunan Home for fresh flavors, flavorful sauces, and perfect cooking.

 

Tuesday, September 9, 2003, 6:26 PM


Short and sweet. That's the story of the oddly named Szechuan Noodle Bowl Alex and I ate at in Seattle's International District. Oddly named as their specialty is dumplings. A more non-descript and unassuming restaurant you'll be hard pressed to find (although it's usually easy to find understatement in Seattle's International District). We ordered a variety of dumplings off the menu. They were all good. Some better than others. Dumpling nirvana? No. Nice place to stop for lunch when you're in a hurry and want to eat about 100 dumplings? Yes.

 

Monday, September 8, 2003, 11:59 PM


In my never-ending search for decent Italian food in Seattle, Pasta Freska is a novel entry. Situated near Lake Union, the friendly chef at Pasta Freska comes to your table, asks you if you don't like any particular ingredient, and then makes you dinner. Dishes come out of the kitchen, when they're ready, steaming hot on family size (or bigger) platters. Cool! Double points as the chef is Persian, and was eager to prepare us some Persian specialties also. This restaurant is kind of like what I thought Craft in Manhattan was going to be like (and wasn't).

Salad started things off. Really good feta cheese, but not quite enough vinegar. The garlic bread was delicious. Next up was Persian Green Rice with Dill. The herbs really made for an aromatic treat. Chicken with Prunes was next, which I have it on good Persian authority was authentic. I thought it was tasty. This was followed by Spaghetti with shrimp and salmon. It was creamy and flavorful. Next up was a dish of rice with ground beef and greens. This was more of a Persian style dish rather than an authentic recipe.

While most people (unless they ask) won't get the Persian dishes, for Italian food, Pasta Freska is a positive experience. The food is good, and the atmosphere is fun and easy.

 

Sunday, September 7, 2003, 11:59 PM


Campagne is a local Seattle restaurant serving modern French-ish dishes in a lovely downtown restaurant. In their two-story spot near Pike Place market they not only have their main restaurant but their bistro - Cafe Campagne. While I've been meaning to try Campagne for some time, on this day I found myself at the Cafe. I'd been there before for brunch a couple of times and enjoyed myself. This was the first time for lunch.

Cafe Campagne offers a $15 prix fixe lunch that includes soup and a sandwich. I'm always a fan of that combination for lunch. It seems to cover all the bases, be simple, and yet be filled with possibilities - gazpacho and grilled cheese? clam chowder and turkey breast? onion soup and a hamburger? You see what I mean. Soup and a sandwich is "good eats". (Who says "good eats"? Apparently I do. Weird.) Even stranger is that despite my affection for the soup and sandwich lunch, we only went for sandwiches. I think we might have been saving room for dinner. I know. Room schmoom. Lame.

Things started off with some good crusty bread with a slab of creamy butter. (I think good butter offered in anything smaller than slab form is just not going to be enough.) Debbie ordered the Lamb Burger which was served with balsamic grilled onions, roasted peppers, aioli, and pomme frites (a.k.a. french fries). I got the Croque Savoyard. This is Parisian ham and melted gruyere cheese with vine ripe tomatoes, with a salad on the side. I'll admit that I've always felt embarassed ordering Croque Monsieurs, Madames, or Savoyards I suppose. Not that I'm on path to replace the Marlboro Man, but I've always felt somehow unmanly or childish ordering one of these sandwiches. Not too worry, my love of ham and melted cheese on buttered toast always overcomes any weird insecurities I have.

The sandwiches were great. The croque was delicious (it's hard for ham and melted cheese not to be). The caramelized onion was really amazing, flavorful. The lamb burger was also super savory. As for the fries, I'm just not a fan of the thick fry (also known as the steak fry). I like my french fries thin. The thinner the better. All of this made for a lovely lunch except that Debbie was not happy. What could she be unhappy about with a delicious lamb burger and a pile of fries? Ketchup. Lack of ketchup.

There are a variety of issues, so let's dissect them one at a time. First of all the burger and fries were served with aioli. No fool, Debbie says "I'm not eating my burger with mayonnaise." I respond: "It's not mayonnaise, it's aioli, don't you know the difference?" Debbie snaps: "I don't know the difference, and neither do you, because there isn't one. It's mayonnaise and I don't like it." Fine I like mayo, she doesn't. Nothing can be done about that. She's a picky eater. (Her pickiness is complicated. On the one hand, I'm truly in pain that she doesn't like onions and missed out on the wonderful caramelized onions served with her burger. On the other hand - more for me!)

Even if I couldn't understand her hatred of aioli/mayonnaise, I could definitely relate to her need for ketchup. I say, if you're going to serve fries, you need to serve ketchup. Ketchup is wonderful and fries should never be without it. However, Debbie asserted that it was not the ketchup that demanded fries but the burger. This was pretty mind-boggling. Where she got it into her head that the serving of a burger without ketchup is somehow unacceptable, but naked fries are fine is absolutely beyond me. I am starting to wonder what other weird surprises lay in store for me when she expresses her view of the world. Then she asked the waiter for ketchup.

Now, I'll admit that there's no way for me to know what the waiter was thinking. But I am a relatively good read of people, and he seemed to take a bit of pleasure in informing her that there was no ketchup anywhere in the restaurant. He didn't say, "sorry we don't have ketchup". He made it clear that no ketchup was to be found anywhere in the restaurant. That was his first response. It's as if the folks at Cafe Campagne hate ketchup and love serving ketchup friendly food to unsuspecting customers only to gloat that giving them ketchup for the burger or fries is a physical impossibility.

I started to wonder why this was. Was it snobbery? Let's say they were trying to be strictly French. I'm not convinced that a lamb burger is really authentically French, I'm not sure why ketchup would be  any less so. Maybe it's the attitude that they don't want to serve any packaged products. I suppose I can understand that, though Heinz Ketchup I think should surely qualify for an exception. But even so, why not make your own ketchup then? That would be a nice addition to the menu and an expression of what the kitchen is capable of that's harmonious with the quality food. Whatever the motivation I sense some anti-ketchupists at Cafe Campagne. I stand by my claim that fries demand ketchup. Don't serve the former without the latter. Debbie of course added another wrinkle by rejecting my homemade ketchup alternative saying that only store-bought would do.

Anyway, Cafe Campagne made us a lovely lunch. Just if you go, sneak in some ketchup packets in your pockets so you can really have a complete lunch.

 

Friday, September 6, 2003, 10:49 PM


Seattle does not have a large Jewish community. There are no Kosher butchers, only a couple of supermarkets that offer narrow to middling selections of Kosher meat. When the Dahlia Lounge - one of the best restaurants in town - announced a series of three themed dinners based each on a different Jewish Cookbook, I got excited. It wasn't Kosher of course, but still supposedly an expression of the food of my cultural heritage executed by a highly skilled kitchen. Done and done. While I was only able to attend one, I'm still glad they tried it and hope they do so again.

The dinner we attended was based on Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food. Jewish food is a funny thing. Since for most of their history Jews have lived dispersed among other people's countries and cultures their cuisine typically consists of some adoption and favoring of the local cuisine attached to Jewish cultural and religious events. It  makes you wonder if there really is a Jewish cuisine, but that's a topic for another day. Things started off quite nicely with a first course that came from Syria, Turkey, and Spain. The Pipiruchkas had an amazingly focused pepper/tomato flavor with a cheese and spiciness. The Muhamarra was delicious. The Dolma not super interesting.

Things were not quite as good from then on. Next up was a Moroccan Pastilla. The Bastille Jews take credit for  this dish according to the host of the meal who is explaining as we eat. There are Borekitas from Istanbul with a chicken that's a bit too sweet. I felt like I made better Lahmejun (a ground lamb on pita, pizza-like in form, concoction) at home. We were also served pigeon that was frankly too dry. Dessert included a candied orange item. It's not my thing, but then again, candied orange items are never my thing. But the Mascarpone sherbet (which Jews pioneered this dish?) rescued dessert.

Here's the thing. The meal was not really great at all. It had a couple of minor moments but was in general - "eh". I'm still thrilled that Dahlia Lounge did it. And I hope they do it again. Here's why: 1) having the kitchen at a really great restaurant prepare dishes that are different than the ones they usually prepare is a treat for their customers who'd like to try interesting new food done well, 2) having the kitchen at a really great restaurant prepare dishes that are different than the ones they usually prepare may stretch the staff into doing new things, as well as have new ingredients and flavors that work particularly well find their way onto the regular menu. I know it didn't come out that well this time, but maybe the cookbook they chose was to blame. Maybe they thought Jews like food that isn't great. (A common mistake.) Maybe this was their first time and their working out the kinks. Whatever the reason I hope they do it again. Maybe a Vietnamese or Moroccan theme next time - attached to a particular cookbook or not. It's a cool idea, and when it comes together I hope to be there to enjoy.

 

Thursday, September 4, 2003, 10:50 PM


In the outer reaches of Seattle's east side lies the sleepy suburb of Sammamish. Not the hotbed of dining experiences that I wish. Actually I'd settle for a decent Vietnamese place, but that's not likely as I doubt any potential Vietnamese restaurant proprietors would imagine that the population of this sleepy suburb would make a Vietnamese restaurant successful, but I digress... There had been a small Italian place nearby that  was unfortunately not very good. Recently they appear to have been new ownership and the restaurant is now called Salvatore. They apparently had an Italian restaurant in Seattle some years ago that got at least one good review in the local paper which they proudly display at roughly ten times its original size on a large poster board at the entrance to the restaurant.

The Italian restaurant I'm looking for (and still haven't found in Seattle) is simple simple simple. Fresh ingredients. Cooking a la minute. And bright flavors. Salvatore isn't it. Dinner started off on an odd note with an order of grilled prawns with guacamole on the side. Is guacamole a traditional Italian accompaniment? I'll have to look into it. The prawns were fine. The entrees of Veal Marsala and Spaghetti Carbonara were ok in a pinch, but nothing to write home about. The fact that the mediocre food is surrounded by a flat decor and my fellow suburbanites marveling at the Italian accents of the staff makes the whole experience kind of depressing. It pains me to be negative about an intrepid restaurateur who is trying to bring a little flavor to the outer reaches of sleepy Sammamish. But maybe success that the previous management didn't find can be had with a simpler approach that focuses like a laser on flavor and freshness.

 

Wednesday, September 3, 2003, 10:12 PM


I think it's time to start planning a serious eating trip to Vancouver, BC, Canada. Deb and Peyman recently went to Vij's and said it was fantastic.

Nearby in Whistler, BC, is Cornucopia - Whistler's Food and Wine Celebration on November 5-9, 2003.

Interesting food-related website - gayot.com. Not quite sure what it is yet.

The Boston Globe writes briefly about Sherry Vinegar.

This is cool. The LA Times (free registration required) discusses a guy who goes around selling fancy kitchen equipment to chefs from his van.

 

Tuesday, September 2, 2003, 11:14 PM


Always searching for simple and superb Italian food my quest landed me on this evening at Seattle's Mamma Melina Ristorante. Funky, noisy (in a good way), and with a weird organ performer in one corner (not in a good way), Mamma Melina had a good vibe. Things started off with Baby Greens with Gorgonzola and Walnuts. The walnuts were covered in brown sugar and were delicious. Next up was a Crostini of Portobello grilled with Tomatoes. The Caprese they served was quite good. There was also a mushroom dish. The mushrooms were drenched in oil, but in a good way. The mushrooms were fresh and delicious and the basil was quite nice.

Next up with Ziti di Sorrento. An oven-baked Ziti with meatballs and mozarella. I like the tomato sauce (which needs to have a modest kick for me), but Debbie didn't like it. This was followed by Gnocchi di Ricotta - homemade baby ricotta dumplings baked in tomato sauce with mozarella and basil. It was fresh and delicious - on path to the dream Italian restaurant I wish/still hope is located somewhere near me. The Pollo al Marsala was not amazing but solid. The Bistecca al Pepe Verde however was so chewy that the texture of the meat distracted from the flavor. The Saltimbocca Alla Romano was also solid. Same with Scampi al Grigli which had a great pancetta flavor.

All in all, Mamma Melina is one of the better Italian restaurants in Seattle. We even compared it at times to Cafe Lago which is probably the best in town. Unfortunately while a solid meal is good, it's not the transcendant and memorable experience that is so very possible with fantastic Italian food. Italian food should not just be functional, it should be magical. With an incredible combination of rich fresh flavors all coming together at the very last second on your plate and in your mouth. We'll likely return to Mamma Melina, but in the meantime, the search continues.

 

Monday, September 1, 2003, 9:49 PM


Ten years ago I used to love eating out at Chili's. Now even the thought of it makes me queasy. Five years ago I was making fun of Lauren and Alex for eating asparagus soup out of egg shells at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. Now I'm licking the inside of the eggshell to get the last drop while I wonder how they got the edges so uniform. Something happened between then and now that I don't fully understand. I feel like in order to introduce other people to more interesting food, I have to understand how I was able to expand my own horizons.

First, some background. I grew up in a Kosher home (still keep Kosher at home today). No pork. No shellfish. No mixing of milk and meat. Two sets of everything - dishes, silverware, etc. Yet we did not keep kosher when eating outside the home (this is a dichotomy that may seem odd but that I'm comfortable with and can explain another time). While we ate "out" we typically avoided ingredients that were innately unkosher. For example, it was a lot more likely to get a cheeseburger (where the combination of the dairy and meat was the first contributing factor to the unkosherness) than a pork or shrimp dish (where no matter how it's prepared it's never going to be kosher). I ate my first shrimp at age 18 at a Chinese restaurant with friends. It tasted rubbery.

We mostly stayed home to eat. My mom did almost all the cooking. It's funny but I don't remember much about the range of dishes she made but there must have been a variety as she cooked almost every night. They were also all from scratch... no pre-made dinners at our house. A few standouts do come to mind: the beef, tomato, and noodle dish that was made many times during the early years of our family when we couldn't afford much more - it wasn't one of my favorites especially when it had green peppers in it; Friday night (Sabbath) dinners which were good with  chicken soup, chopped hard boiled eggs with a super delicious fried chicken fat (grieven - sp?), and chicken wings - I loved the ones that look like little drumsticks - "drumettes" they're called by Empire Kosher; there were also wonderful apple pies and hamentaschen (little mini triangular apple cookies for the Jewish holiday of Purim) that essentially were like mini-versions of the apple pie; and a really tasty meatloaf my mom used to make - I never understood why they always made fun of meatloaf on sitcoms - I loved the one my mom made.

Our standard exception to eating at home was going out for Chinese food. And while my parents wouldn't partake of any of the meat or seafood dishes, my sister and I would wolf down "Peking Ravioli" at Hsing Hsing Chinese restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. I loved hot and sour soup too (even with the bits of pork in it). (Now that I've had time to reminisce a bit we also ate out at this little Italian place in Newton Centre, MA every so often - I think they're long gone and the name escapes me.) (Note: someone wrote me and reminded me. It was called Cantina Abruzzi.)

Once in awhile my Dad would do the cooking. Two things stand out: getting cold cuts at the neighborhood deli and eating them for weekend lunches, and him making us large meals of Italian food out of his one and only Italian cookbook - Food alla Florentine, by Naomi Barry and Beppe Bellini. He would work for hours on meals of pasta with tomato sauce and veal marsala. These were always among my favorites. These days he's expanded his repertoire and spends quite a bit of time baking.

My grandmothers left some lasting impressions as well. One made the best chicken soup I've ever had in my life - a rich yellow, with pools of delicious chicken fat, and an intense chicken flavor. She fried up eggs as "loction" and cut them into strips to put in the soup. Up until recently we thought she had taken her soup secrets to the grave. We have the recipe, but have been unable to reproduce her soup. We had all sorts of theories - the water in Toronto; the chicken in Toronto; she cheated and snuck in a bouillon cube, etc. For awhile we think my mom was doubling the water - that didn't help matters. This past year I thought maybe it was under-salted as my Mom accidentally put in "too much" salt, but for me it was just right. There was a point at which the soup started to bring back memories of the original but later it turned into something else entirely. I might have left the parsnip in too long. And finally, just during the last couple of months, my father is convinced he's figure out the secret by adding a bit of sugar to the soup. Anyway, the conclusion of this quest is something for later. This same grandmother made mandelbroit (kind of a biscotti - no anise) and moon cookies (poppy seed cookies) that I loved as well. My other grandmother had her signature recipes as well: smoked carp, peppery gefilte fish, and apricot "pasties" (not for strippers but apricot filling in little soft dough "purses" for dessert). Yummy.

Back to the question of how I made the transition. Actually, maybe the question should be how did I start the transition to lover of all things food, as it's by no means complete. I may have painted a slightly bleaker picture than really existed. There were seeds of the future. I always loved to cook. My mother says I was watching Julia Child on TV religiously at a very early age. My dishes may not have been fancy: creative milkshakes after school, "egg-in-a-nest" and a variety of omelets, salads and salad dressings, but I did have fun making and eating them.

I also had a healthy appreciation for a variety of ethnic foods. Aside from the Chinese and sometimes Israeli food I grew up liking, during (and just after) college I fell in love with Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Indian as well. (Waltham, MA where Brandeis University is located had a bunch of super cheap Indian restaurants as well as a very inexpensive shack cum restaurant serving Vietnamese yummy goodness. I guess lack of money drove me to some of these cuisines.

It was also at that time that I somehow fell in love with sushi. This is  incredibly odd as I only remember two points on the spectrum: going out to dinner with a friend and his family and them having to beat on me to even try a cucumber maki, and sometime later not being able to get enough sushi. Ever. How that evolution happened I'll never know. However I still was relatively sheltered compared to my current habits and awareness of food.

I think the thing that eventually drove me to a more diversified set of food adventures was my metabolism slowing down. In college I weighed 135 pounds. I'm not tall by any means but this was still pretty skinny. I looked weird - like Anthony Michael Hall in Breakfast Club. Skinny geek. Sometime soon after college my metabolism started slowing down. By 5 years after college my weight was up to 182. I remember seeing my uncle Nat one day and in the way of the very old (and the very young) he unceremoniously pronounced how fat I'd gotten. Me? Fat? It freaked me out. I was a "skinny guy". By 1999 I was on track to getting married and didn't plan on looking puffy at my wedding. Since exercise is against my religion (not Judaism, but my own personal religion that forbids me from spending countless hours bored out of my mind), I needed to find a way to eat less. The first thing I realized was that since through college I was able to eat any amount of any food at any time and continue to be hungry that I had basically become immune to my body's own signals that I was full. To turn insight into action I came up with a new rule. Translated into plain English it goes something like "don't eat when you're not hungry." It is amazing to me that something so simple appears (at least for me personally) to be a challenge of significant proportion.

I started noticing several interesting behavior and thought patterns that for years had existed only in my sub-conscious. 1) I eat food I love. If there's a plate full of sushi, I'll eat it - whether I'm hungry or not. Some shrimp sitting on a plate? I'll eat them. Doesn't matter that I just had 500 shrimp. There are two more sitting there and I love shrimp. 2) I eat food I don't love. I don't like waste. This is deadly. The meal is over. I'm full. There's some leftovers on one of the communal dishes? I'll eat them. 3) I eat out of boredom. Bottom line: there was no situation where I said "no thank you". As soon as I realized this I started noticing this "sick" feeling I had after many meals. I started to feel a little nuts. At every meal I would stuff myself until I was sick and not even notice how yucky I felt. After this realization things started to progress naturally. And while I did get a bunch of the weight off in time for the wedding in 1999 (hopefully not to the point where people are confusing me for Anthony Michael Hall) it was only a few weeks ago that I realized the most important lesson - most people focus on quantity of food. I now focus on quantity of tastes.

By focusing on tasting as many things as possible I am becoming more and more averse to eating large portions of anything. And by looking for as high quality tastes as possible I limit myself even further so that when the opportunity arises to eat something that is high quality I have room in my stomach, and can enjoy it. I'm averse to eating large portions even of things that are of super high quality as I want to preserve the memory of those first few bites and not ruin the memory via repetitious overkill. I am aspiring to a state that exposes me to as much high quality food as possible, and keeps me within some reasonable bounds of being height/weight proportionate. In the interest of full disclosure I must confess that in practice my old ways do still find a home at my table. I find it almost impossible to leave a shrimp or piece of high quality sushi uneaten. But if I'm still on track to try as many interesting and superb dishes as possible is eating some extra sushi such a terrible crime?

Administrative note: With this entry (since we took August off) tastingmenu.com has officially had its first birthday. Here's the very first entry from Sunday, August 4, 2002, at 11:34 PM. Hopefully this first anniversary will mark a point where you see even higher quality and consistency and depth from the site. Additionally, while we can't reveal details just yet, we are looking at ways to give you even more detailed glimpses into some of our favorite restaurants, chefs, ingredients, and recipes. More on that over the next couple of months. Thanks for your support.


 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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