Archive for the ‘Photos’ Category

Chatterbox Cafe, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, August 6th, 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 do my absolute best to not judge restaurants based on how they look. Ultimately the food is all I really care about. But I’ll admit, it’s not always easy. Some out of the way adorable hole-in-the-wall with immigrants from the country that originated the cuisine actually making said cuisine for other immigrants from said country will invariably get my hopes up. (Yes, I use profiling in choosing where to eat.) And the house restaurant at a Ramada Inn, I’m usually pretty sure I don’t need to sample it to know what they’re about. That said, prudence is crucial, as one can never tell.

The Chatterbox Cafe, located just south of Seattle’s Capitol Hill district is one of these barely decorated, bubble tea, we serve everything kind of places. They run on a shoestring, and cater to the local businesses and students who need a place for a sandwich or a drink. They’ll get you coffee, bubble tea, a smoothie, as well as a Chicken Caesar Salad, a “Zesty” Roast Beef Sandwich, and Singapore Curry. And this hodgepodge of food all comes out of a kitchen that (from my vantage point) looks to be just barely bigger than the hot plate sitting on a microwave I imagine they’re cooking on.

That’s why it was so strange to eat their Chicken Katsu. Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, often served with a brown sauce and rice. It hails from Japan. And while I’m no expert, I am not without some experience eating the real deal. And to be honest, the Chicken Katsu (Tonkatsu’s chicken cousin) made at Chatterbox is pretty phenomenal in my opinion and (to me) tastes quite authentic. It’s crispy on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside. The sauce has just the right sour notes. Yum yum. (Is the mayo in the realm of authenticity? My recollection is no, but you never know. I do recall some surprisingly liberal mayo distribution while I was in Japan.)

I ate at Chatterbox a year ago and thought it must be a fluke. But here I was again and the Chicken Katsu was just as good. This time I also had the Chicken Satay which was also quite good. Juicy, soft, thick and meaty, and quite flavorful. Also sauced beautifully.

The Thai Green Curry with Chicken (we were having a “chickenganza”) was the only loser in our meal on this day. The meat was dry and flavorless. I enjoyed the curry broth even though I found it thin. I thought the flavor was peppery and enjoyable. My dining companion who claims to be a Thai Green Curry expert wasn’t even pleased with the broth which he thought didn’t have much flavor.

To me, the Chicken Katsu and Chicken Satay are good enough reasons to go back alone. I’ll try and get up the courage to gently explore the rest of (at least) the Asian menu to see what else measures up. But even if these two dishes are the only winners, I think they’re a great reason to head to the Chatterbox Cafe. In my opinion, they make the best Chicken Katsu in Seattle. And if I’d eaten it in Japan I still would have felt good about it.

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

Ten Restaurants Seattle Needs Now

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloggers Taking Pictures at Restaurants — Recommendations for Chefs and Restaurateurs

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Since the very early days of this blog (way back in 2002) I realized that it was important to take pictures of the food I was writing about. My pictures have gotten a bit better since then (not hard given how bad they were when we started) but the value of the pictures is the same. Essentially, using only words to describe food (at least my words) just leaves something to be desired. And of course, even pictures + words isn’t completely optimal but we’re still working on the technology that lets you taste and smell the food via the blog. (More on that at another time.) Tastingmenu was among the first 10 food blogs on the internet. Today there are thousands. Given the explosion of food blogs and the essential nature of pictures in terms of describing food online you’d think that chefs and restaurant owners would be getting more savvy about food bloggers documenting their meals. It turns out this may not be the case, at least in terms of the sample of one I experienced recently.

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently checked out Joe Doe, a small adorable restaurant in NYC. When the food started coming, I took out my camera and started snapping pictures. I usually start out by taking a shot of the menu just so I remember the names of all the dishes I’m about to eat. When it comes to using a flash, I learned early that it basically ruins pictures. I have a bounce flash now, but I don’t want to disturb other diners. I usually only use my flash for that first menu shot. Then I’m all natural light, which unfortunately is usually not very much. Sure enough, even though I’d shot several pictures of the snack that we got before we ordered, it was the flash when I took the menu shot that got the Chef’s attention. Turns out, at least with Chef Joe, this was not a good thing.

Out of the hundreds of restaurants at which I’ve photographed my meal, I’ve only been asked not to take pictures six times (and on more than one occasion the request has come after I’ve already taken the shots – too late!). If the staff of the establishment asks me why I’m taking pictures, I usually try to deflect with a semi-truth, and tell them I really love to document everything I eat – which is true! If they tell me not to take pictures, I beg a bit. If that doesn’t work I usually let them know that I write a food blog, and that I only write about food I really like. So if I am not into my meal, they shouldn’t worry that I’m going to write something shitty, though what that has to do with whether I take pictures or not is not clear to me. I can write about the food with or without pictures. In a couple of cases, my little flowchart of responses has gotten folks to change their mind. In a couple it hasn’t. Chef Joe, through his patient and nervous front of the house staff stuck to his guns and said no.

In my experience, there are four main reasons why a chef might not want diners taking pictures of his or her food. I think three of them have some validity:

  • The photographer will be taking pictures of other diners who didn’t necessarily come to dinner to be featured on a blog. This makes perfect sense to me. And I’m always happy to only take pictures of the food and restaurant and make sure to be respectful of other diners. I’ve even been asked to not photograph staff, and I’m fine with that as well. I’m not there to do a fashion or gossip shoot. I just want pictures of the food.
  • The flash, or mechanics of taking the pictures will ruin the dining experience for other diners. I agree that a flash going off every couple of minutes at a table is distracting and I think it’s reasonable to ask a photographer not to use flash (or maybe just once to shoot the menu) so that it’s not distracting other diners. That said, I think if the photographer is discreet, and not making a big scene, it almost never affects other patrons of the restaurant except that they sometimes get curious and ask what you’re doing.
  • The food won’t look good/the photos are going to suck. I get this concern, but you have to imagine, if the food is good enough to serve to a customer, then it’s good enough to photograph. And I realize that some bloggers’ shitty cameras or bad technique may make the food look worse, but c’est la vie. To be fair to Chef Joe at Joe Doe, he did offer to let me set up an appointment to come and photograph the food properly. I might have even taken him up on it if I lived in NYC, but I don’t. I live in Seattle and my time is limited. On the one hand, I don’t think most food bloggers have the time to come back for a separate photo shoot. On the other hand, if you really like a restaurant, and want to write about it, why not take the time to go do a separate photo shoot.
  • Someone will see the pictures and “steal” the chef’s ideas/concepts/recipes. I’m not sure how to react to this other than to say… bullshit. I don’t buy for a second that somehow photography of your food is going to result in someone cloning your food and stealing your ideas. If you’re ideas are really that novel, most chefs won’t even recognize them as such because they’re so focused on following the latest trends. And besides, a photo is not food. Most great things are 10% conception, and 90% execution. Let other chefs try to steal your ideas, they’ll screw up the execution anyway so you have nothing to worry about.

In the middle of my negotiations with the chef, which took on a middle east peace conference vibe since all of it was done through two servers and the bartender (who were all very nice), I got the impression that the chef didn’t have a soft spot for bloggers. Honestly, I kind of get that. Bloggers are annoying. Present company included. But, tough shit. This annoying gaggle of self-documenting food lovers is only going to get more prevalent and more prolific over the coming years. Best to find a way to accommodate them.

My recommendation to chefs and other restaurant folks on how to deal with someone taking pictures of your food is to let them. Our society is only going to become more transparent, not less, best to adapt to the reality now. As annoying as they may be, there’s no reason to piss off bloggers. These days, many of them get more readers than the reviewer from the local paper (who in my opinion is just as annoying if not moreso). If you notice a diner taking pictures:

  • Thank them for being so interested in the food. Tell them you take it as a compliment. Cause it is.
  • Ask them if they wouldn’t mind not using a flash and not photographing the other diners. This is a reasonable request, and said properly, and in the context of encouraging them to take pictures of the food will almost always be received well.
  • Offer to let the blogger take some behind the scenes shots in the kitchen. Cooking is always great to photograph, especially as more texture for a post about the food itself. The blogger will feel special and be appreciative.
  • Offer to set up time with the blogger to come back and shoot the food when light is better and not during service. I would recommend doing this not instead of letting them shoot their meal but in addition. The blogger will appreciate it, and if they take you up on it, you’ll end up with better pictures on their blog. If they don’t… then they don’t.

Most importantly, chefs should think of bloggers/photographers as super customers. In other words, these are regular customers who are so passionate about your food that they want to tell the world about it. They can be your secret army of fans, evangelizing your restaurant and your food to everyone they know, and many they don’t through their web sites. And yes, some will say crappy things. But there are regular customers who will leave unhappy as well. The question is not one of perfection, it’s about the percentages. It’s true that some diners may rely on one lousy blog post to skip your establishment, but most savvy diners who are already taking the time to research their meal will try to triangulate by reading multiple write-ups. If your food is good, they’ll find out. And you may even have a blogger to thank.

Baking Chocolate Covered Honey-Rosemary Cake

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

With my days now full of savory banquets rather than the pastries I had grown so accustom to in the 2 years past, I come home with a craving. Not a sweet tooth, per se, rather an overwhelming urge to bake. Cookies, brownies, cakes, you name it, I have been a home baking fool.

However, just picking up a recipe and making a few cookies isn’t the kind of satisfaction I come home burning for. No no no. My urges stem from my years developing recipes in a business setting, creating conceptual desserts. Thus, rather than making a few cookies from a recipe I have been looking to try, I have redefined my banana bread. But that wasn’t enough.

I started building a custom cake business. I couldn’t help it, really. It just happened! It’s been two months without a pastry outlet, and I have managed to come up with DC Customs. I even have business cards!

The concept is that I take on very few customers, making it possible to consult with each individually, and create a cake unique and individual based on the event and the person the cake is to please most. Starting from the inside out, I talk about flavors the client likes best, their favorite food as a kid, the bakery they trekked across town weekly to, just for their monkey bread, the cherry lime-aid from sonic that they guzzled in college. I have been building the cakes from the inside-out, choosing flavors and textures first. Then, we can decide how the cake is to look later, based on the limitations and allowances of the flavors, and the emotions you’d like the cake to elicit.

It’s taste I want to inspire each unique creation, not a picture seen in a recent wedding magazine.

To make my image reflect my mission, I have chosen to model it after a custom auto body shop. I am meeting with a tattoo artist soon to design the logo, and have chosen the simplistic name DC Customs to let everyone know, I’m not Martha.

Looking back, it’s almost silly. 2 months without a menu, without flour in my hair and chocolate under my nails and I have come up with a business.

Last weekend I developed a cake for a simple Sunday evening dinner party. Tim the cook, a friend and cohort at the Rainer Club, created his menu using the first of springs ingredients. The cake was to reflect the shifting season, to be elegant, sophisticated, yet humble enough for the intimacy of eight.

Because the world of desserts spends early spring in limbo, this was a challenge. The rich, comforting flavors of winter are no longer desired, yet the bright, acid pop of citrus didn’t fit the relaxed setting of the dinner. Rhubarb, the first hint that fruit is coming, is not quite here.

I chose to use Rosemary, and to scent a Brazilian cornmeal cake with it’s distinct flavor. The cake was split in two layers, soaked in a sweet rosemary syrup, and filled with honey mousse. To bring elegance to this rustic cake, I covered it in dark chocolate glaze. A crown of candied pine-nuts, which share the essence of rosemary, garnished the cake. I don’t often use inedible garnishes, but the petite lavender flowers blooming on rosemary bushes right now were to much to resist.

Thus, Tim’s cake was born.

You can see from the pictures, I had an expert taste tester. Bianka liked the cake so much she had to be sent to “time out” in the bathroom until the cake was safely on it’s way to it’s destiny.

Banffshire Club, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Monday, February 19th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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