Archive for the ‘Seattle’ Category

Brooklyn Bros. Pizzeria, Everett, Washington

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009
(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

I love that pizza is such an emotional subject. My declaration of Delancey as not only the best pizza in Seattle (and possibly the best pizza west of the Mississippi) as well as my claim that Seattle finally had “real” pizza got lots reaction. I think most of the negative responses were over my casual use of the word “real”. To be fair to those folks, all the pizza in Seattle is indeed real. Unfortunately, almost all of it is real bad. To me, the most beautiful, simple, and core expression of pizza in the world is produced by Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano on Coney Island in New York. I am not making a statement about the history of Pizza, where it originates, or anything that has to do with objective facts. I am stating my opinion that Totonno’s Pizza is the most perfect expression of the pizza ideal in my head that I have ever had in the world (including in Italy) and that to me, all pizza should aspire to be like it. And Delancey, in my opinion, has equaled that pizza.

That said, there are other forms of pizza – and in fact, New York produces another favorite style, the uniform standard NYC pizza, not burnt like Totonno’s, and almost always offered by the slice on almost every street corner. Seattle’s pizza establishments most often try to emulate this offering. And they should as it’s often very good, and certainly recognizable to pizza afficionados. I found myself in Everett recently. And since I don’t go to Everett very often I knew that I better take advantage and head over to Brooklyn Bros. Pizzeria. I was told that it was as authentic as they come around here.

The establishment is adorable, and I’m sure if I was a local I’d be a Silvertips fan as well. But I didn’t come for decor or for minor league hockey (as good as they each may be). I came to eat the fifth food group — pizza. We ordered the Bowery. Pepperoni, sausage, and roasted garlic. Lots of all of it. There are many ingredients in what I call the “unfair advantage” category. Add them to most things, and they get better disproportionately to the ingredient’s importance (or quantity) in the dish. Butter, truffles, bacon, etc. Garlic is definitely one of them, and the brothers Brooklyn weren’t shy with it. There were copious quantities of garlic. Boatloads in fact. And the pizza, well, it rocked. Cheating? Perhaps. Delicious? Definitely.

It was certainly not a Delancey pizza. And that was fine. This is a different animal. This pizza more closely resembles the better of the pies you find all throughout Manhattan. It wasn’t just the heady mix of ever-so-slightly spicy sausage, crisply cooked pepperoni curling above the fray, flavorful sauce, and again… that intense amount of garlic in every bight, but the crust… well it was incredibly buttery. I’m not saying butter was used, but buttery is the only way to describe the crust. It was almost drippingly so, and it served the pizza well.

I felt that the only way to really understand the quality here was to have a slice of cheese pizza in addition to our pie. And unfortunately, this wasn’t quite what we’d hoped. To be fair, it sat out for awhile as slices are supposed to do. But even after reheating in the pizza oven it wasn’t great. Something was off in the ratio between the cheese and the sauce. And the overabundance of cheese felt a bit rubbery as well.

The whole pie we got was so yummy garlicky good, that even if that’s the only pizza they make well I would gladly go back to eat it again and again. And I have a feeling that these Brooklyn siblings (such as they are) are probably good at a bunch of others as well. For now I’m assuming the slices just had an off day, and the fresh pies are all a treat. Here’s to finding out for sure!

Brooklyn Bros. Pizzeria, 1919 Hewitt Ave, Everett, WA 98201 (425) 258-6900, website. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Inn at Langley, Langley, Washington

Thursday, November 5th, 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 grew up in New England, Boston specifically. I’ve always had this romantic image of islands and the shore in general. I suppose that’s not super original, but there’s something about the air, the color palette, and even the rainy weather while you’re ensconced safe inside that makes me happy. Moving from that environment, Seattle was always attractive because of the plethora of islands here in Puget Sound. And even though I’ve lived here for almost a decade and a half, I haven’t spent nearly the time I’d like exploring all these spots. One place however that has found me repeatedly visiting is Whidbey Island and the Inn at Langley, specifically. Whether you stay there or not (and staying there for a night is quite lovely), the main attraction for me is the meal. Helmed by Chef Matt Costello, formerly of Dahlia Lounge, the restaurant at The Inn puts on a simple and local dinner. One seating, one fixed menu, all introduced by the Chef speaking at length about his love for the local products and the Whidbey Island agricultural community that produces them. I would never describe a Chef’s job as easy, but it certainly appears that Costello, cooking a fixed menu three nights a week using the local ingredients he loves, definitely has a sweet gig.

Warm bread and butter are always a pleasure. Seriously, it’s hard not to love warm bread. But the oil that came along with the butter was a grapeseed oil produced by Apres Vin made from Cabernet Grapes. Wow. It had this amazing grapey quality and a nuttiness. It was a super pleasant change from the usual olive oil (and I love olive oil).

Things started off with an amuse bouche. I’m generally a fan of stuffing things into other things — and foie gras into a fig is no exception. The 12 year old balsamic drizzled on top didn’t hurt. I’m not a huge fig fan, but these felt crisp, slightly tart, and lovely homes for the creamy duck liver mousseline occupying a rectangular space in their centers.

Soup was next, a celery root puree which was subtle but perhaps a touch underseasoned poured on top of porcini mushroom panna cotta and carrot greens. I was surprised to find the tiny carrot greens as the saviors of the dish. The soup and panna cotta were but creamy foundations for the carrot greens which despite their small size packed a ton of bright fresh almost salty flavor. It was hard but I think I made sure there were at least a few molecules of carrot green in every spoonful I ate.

The highlight of the meal was the Roasted Black Cod with Artichoke and Brown Butter. It’s true that I find it difficult to resist much that’s basted in brown butter. But this piece of fish was cooked perfectly. In general, a small piece of white fish, with only the simplest adornment is a dish I’ve found only in French restaurants… in Seattle, the now closed Mistral was among the better places to get something like this. Outside of Seattle I’ve had this dish, often with John Dory as the fish, at places like Gordon Ramsay in London. And Costello’s Black Cod was competitive with the best I’ve had. Moist, gently flavorful, flaked apart in perfect bite size chunks — truly a pleasure to eat.

It’s almost a shame the meal didn’t end there. Next was the Clove Dusted Duck Breast with Yam Jus and Chanterelles. And while I love Chanterelles, the duck was dry. It just wasn’t enjoyable. Usually duck has so much fat that it’s very difficult to serve it dry. I’m sure it was just an off night, but a bummer nonetheless.

A deconstructed Waldorf Salad (love that cheese) and a Simple and Rustic Pavlova with Marinated Tropical Fruits made up the bulk of dessert. But the little orange creme filled milk chocolates that Costello lovingly introduced to us were the highlights of the meal wind-down. Smooth, creamy, with a sweet thick orange filling. Perfect end note. It was clear that the chef was proud of these, and it showed in their craftsmanship.

It’s impossible not to enjoy the whole atmosphere at the Inn at Langley, especially if you’re staying at The Inn and not just eating there. But ultimately, it would be difficult to really walk away happy if the food did not live up to the cozy yet refined island aesthetic. And I’m pleased to say, I always walk away thinking about when I’ll be returning to the Inn at Langley for more.

Inn at Langley, 400 1st Street, Langley, WA 98260 (360) 221-3033, website. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Le Gourmand, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habesha, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chiang’s Gourmet, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

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

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

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

And finally… potstickers.

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

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

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

Shultzy’s Sausage, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, September 17th, 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.)

Writing about restaurants is a little bit of a silly task. First of all, whether you’re facile with language or not, no amount of well-crafted prose can convey the flavor of a dish the way eating it would. And while the result of writing about a restaurant will always be a distant second, the process of deciding which ones to write positively about is even murkier. I don’t care what anyone says, it basically comes down to one person’s semi-random opinion. You may or may not agree with that person. But ultimately, it’s their impression of a restaurant that guides the review. There’s no objectivity. There’s no science. There’s hopefully honesty and fairness (whatever that means).

Restaurant reviewers get influenced by things. There’s no way not to be. Sometimes, I get influenced in advance by decor. It sets my expectations. Only because it’s usually an omen signalling what’s coming on my plate. Ethnic hole-in-the wall decor — we’ve got a shot at a great meal. Polished wood and marble found at a mall — we’re screwed. I try to entertain the possibility that the negative indicators could be wrong, and once-in-awhile they are. But more often than not… they’re a dead giveaway. Luckily, if the food’s good, I forget all about the decor no matter what the hell it looks like.

And when it comes to deciding how to rate a restaurant, I’ve eschewed stars or numbers or grades for a simple Love, Like, or Other. Love means that I adore the restaurant and go back at every opportunity. It’s special. If you’re visiting this town. Go to all the Loves. Like means, I can always have a very good meal here. I’d eat here in a pinch. Other means, well, other. But there’s still the matter of deciding what goes in what bucket. And ultimately, after seven years of doing this, it’s come down to one simple factor… do I remember the food and does it make me want to go back.

When it comes to Shultzy’s in the University District in Seattle, it looks like a great place for University of Washington students to eat sausages as an excuse to drink more beer. Nobody would blame Shultzy’s for limiting their aspirations to just that. The district is filled with little restaurants and ethnic eateries, but standouts are hard to find in my experience. Students like their food quick and cheap. Quick cheap food can be good. But the University District eateries typically aren’t anything special. Shultzy’s however, for some reason, has decided to make all their own sausages in house. And this, I suspect, is their secret weapon. The German Sausage Plate with Bratwurst on a bed of sauerkraut, with a buttery warm potato salad (I’d never had potato salad warm, and it was a soft pile of melty savory goodness), and a “big hot pretzel”. The pretzel may have pushed the quantity of food a little over the edge for me, but I just loved that it came with. And in fact, it was big and hot.

The non-sausage dishes we had were just ok — the Swiss Mushroom Steak and the BBQ Beef sandwiches. I suppose you could say that we got what we deserved ordering those in a place that’s focused on sausage. But one can always hope. And, the sweet potato fries were actually pretty good, with that sweet potato essence in a soft, thin cut, nicely salted fry. We decimated them. The sparkling lemonade was also a nice counterpoint — like homemade Sprite.

The real standout for me, the reason I go back to Shultzy’s, is The Shultzy. They describe it as “the Italian sausage burger that started it all”. I don’t know what “it all” is. And since I’m no journalist I couldn’t be bothered to read the historical notes in the menu that probably would have told me how taking sausage meat, and serving it caseless in the hamburger style is the innovation that brought Shultzy’s its (self-proclaimed) world-renowned reputation. But honestly, does it really matter? The bottom line is this. That Sausage Burger rocks. The meat is so nicely spiced, so juicy. Hamburgers often have a problem of being too big, too dry, or too flavorless. The sausage consistency filled with juiciness, and a bolder flavor than you’d find in your typical hamburger is really what I crave. The Shultzy delivers. I respect and appreciate that these folks make all their own sausages in house. And I hope to try all the varieties during my visits. But I have to tell you that ordering anything other than The Shultzy is difficult for me. I can’t get it out of mind, and I want to go back.

So next time you see some place that looks like just the run of the mill college restaurant where the food is just an excuse to deliver salt to your palate so you want to order more beer, consider that Shultzy’s delivers that salt in a delicious sausagey package. Who knows what other gems you may find when you ignore your instincts.

Shultzy’s Sausage, 4114 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105, (206) 548-9461, website. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Szechuan Chef, Bellevue, Washington

Friday, September 4th, 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 don’t claim to be an expert on just about any cuisine. And having never been to mainland China, Chinese cuisines certainly falls into my non-expert category. It’s not that I haven’t eaten hundreds of Chinese meals in North America… I have. Many of them, superlative. But I recognize that the delta between what I’m eating here, and the distinct regional cuisines in China is non-trivial. I’m not pining for the real thing when I eat here… I just recognize that in many cases it may be something different.

That said, I have some limited experience with the distinction between Szechuan vs. Cantonese vs. Hong Kong style dishes. I got some of this insight from my trip to Hong Kong. Not mainland China, but China nonetheless. In fact, the very best Szechuan meal I’ve ever had was in Hong Kong at Shui Hu Ju.

Now roll back to Seattle, ensconced between two (American) Chinese food meccas — San Francisco and Vancouver (or more accurately: Richmond, B.C.). And as much as I love Seattle, I have often lamented the lack of super high quality Chinese food in this area. But it turns out that Seattle is not devoid of some excellent Chinese dishes (as opposed to reliably standout menus), you just have to work a little harder to find them.

Imagine my surprise when a truly incredible Szechuan dish is found amidst the sea of food mediocrity that folks here like to call “the Eastside”. The Eastside is like a barren wasteland for decent food. Amidst the rocky gray waters that are chain steakhouses, and restaurants serving oversized portions of novelty cheesecake (Ed note: he periodically enjoys an oversized slice of novelty cheesecake whether he admits it or not), there are a few oases. But they are so few and far between, that for the Seattle resident, when the question of travelling all the way across one of the bridges for a decent meal comes up, the answer is invariably “why bother?”.

Well Szechuan Chef in Bellevue is a reason to bother. It’s not that the entire menu at Szechuan Chef in Bellevue isn’t good. I haven’t tried the whole thing certainly, but the dishes I’ve had have generally been tasty, fresh, flavorful affairs. Crisp, hot, oily potstickers with a savory steamy pork filling. Thick and rich hot and sour soup with a velvety texture get things started admirably. And there are many many dishes to choose from including massive hot pots brimming with goodness. And despite my efforts to diversify my ordering every time I go to a restaurant so that I can get a sense of its depth and breadth, when I return to Szechuan Chef, there’s one dish that I order every single time. Honestly, I really have no choice. I apologize as it does a disservice to my ability to describe the rest of the menu, especially on this last visit where we had limited time and appetite and went with the intention of ordering this one dish so a friend could try it.

But in fairness, given how this one dish embeds itself in my brain, I think it alone is reason enough to travel over the bridge and brave this sad little strip mall (though no sadder than the countless other sad little strip malls that dot the eastside). On the menu the dish is called Chong Qing Hot Chicken. It’s got a “5″ next to the little jalapeño graphic sitting to the left of the menu item. I think the 5 translates to “pretty damn spicy”. (Though in truth, I didn’t find it too tough to eat at all in terms of how hot it was.) The dish is basically deep fried chicken, green onions, hot peppers, and green beans. (I owe the waitress who originally recommended I order it a beer, or some sort of gift because I probably never would have picked this non-descript item off the rather vast menu without guidance.) But aside from the crispness of the vegetables, the perfect chicken chunks with their moist insides ensconced in a sharp crispy coating, the thing that makes this dish is the use of Sichuan Pepper. Sichuan Pepper, which was actually the subject of an import ban to the United States until 2005 (for fear that it could carry citrus canker) contains 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool which causes a numbing sensation in the mouth.

The best way I can describe it is that your mouth will feel like a spicy rainbow. Honestly you just have to try it for yourself. The numbing sensation isn’t a novelty either, it creates a wholly unique way to experience the clean and deep flavors of the dish. Rather than tasting less, the “numbness” lets you experience every little edge of the flavor of this dish in a mouth that’s been stripped down to just the basics of sensation.

I’m sure that Szechuan Chef has other dishes on the menu that don’t just delight, but stand out. And if I can find enough people to go with me, I will eventually find some of them. But for me, if this is the only superstar dish that I ever find, it will still be enough of a reason to make the trek over to Bellevue.

Szechuan Chef, 15015 Main Street, Bellevue, WA 98007-5229
(425) 746-9008. For all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Genki Sushi, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, August 20th, 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.)

If you were to ask me for my favorite food, for the last 20 years the answer would (and continues to) be sushi. I find its freshness, lightness, diversity of forms, and general clean yet present flavors to be heavenly. The bites are small which lets me try a lot of different varieties, and you get to try different creative combinations making it basically the Lego of food. And Seattle is lucky to have (in my experience) one of the best, if not the best, sushi restaurants on the West Coast — Nishino.

But Nishino isn’t exactly cheap, I can’t eat there all the time. I also have children and I definitely can’t afford to have them eat there all the time. I thought teaching them to love sushi was a good idea, but it’s come with some cons as well — namely, they want to eat sushi all the time. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to go out to eat with my kids and still eat decent food (and not yucky “kid-friendly” food). I’ve documented that in this post about eating out with your kids. One key secrets of taking kids out to eat sushi is finding a restaurant with a conveyor belt. In Japan, this is called Kaiten Sushi. At some point, some restaurateur who wants to appeal to parents will realize that you can put other kinds of food on a conveyor belt, not just sushi. But that day has yet to come and that’s not the focus of today’s discussion.

Seattle is lucky to have three different establishments specializing in conveyor belt sushi, some with multiple locations. They are Sushi Land, Blue C Sushi, and Genki Sushi. Sushi Land, also called Marinepolis Sushi Land (or even Marine Polis Sushi Land) is a pacific northwest chain with locations in Portland and all around Seattle and its suburbs. Blue C Sushi is a local endeavor and has five locations around Seattle and Bellevue. And finally, Genki Sushi is a chain of restaurants from Hawaii with their new Seattle location as their first outpost on the mainland.

Conveyor belt sushi is a staple in Japan and I’m glad it’s finally gotten to the states. Given that one of my standard activities with the kids is to take them out for lunch and the latest kids movie, we have sampled each of the local establishments multiple times. In truth, I never expected to write about any of them here on Tastingmenu. Mainly because I try to write only about restaurants that I love or really like. Chain sushi delivered in mass quantities typically doesn’t get there. But in the case of Genki Sushi, at least for me, it has.

I’m not claiming that Genki Sushi is delivering the best sushi of all time or even authentic sushi. In fact, it’s a relatively recent development (and a feedback loop from America) that sushi choices like the Spicy Tuna roll can even be found in a handful of sushi establishments in Tokyo. The complicated makis, the alternative wrappers, the fancy combinations appear to be all non-traditional innovation in the sushi arena. And that’s fine. I like tradition, and I also like innovation. Sometimes separately, and sometimes together. Genki is squarely in the innovation camp. In fact, many of their items are some type of riff on the classic spicy tuna, or incorporate non-traditional ingredients like Thai sweet chili sauce. There’s also a nod to their Hawaiian roots with spam ngiri (a Hawaiian staple – though typically in musubi form – which is pretty good in my opinion). Mainly though, Genki Sushi is enjoyable because the food is fresh, the ratios in terms of fish to rice are good, the variety is creative and especially flavorful, and they are not expensive. (Blue C is pretty pricey in my experience relative to both Sushi Land and Genki Sushi).

I used to go to conveyor belt sushi cause I needed to economize as my kids wanted sushi almost every week. And while it’s no Nishino (as almost nothing is), we now go to Genki Sushi periodically, not because we have to, but because we want to. I can’t argue with my desire to return which is ultimately what guides my decisions on which restaurants to write about.

For the address of this restaurant as well as all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Delancey, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, August 13th, 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.)

Two weeks ago Seattle readers had a chance to shoot their arrows at my post about Ten Restaurants that Seattle Needs Now. Note number 11 (yes, it was the bonus entry):

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.

Anyone offended by my putting eleven items in a ten item list can now rest easy. Number eleven has been delivered in the form of Delancey. I’ve known through friends that for months that Brandon Pettit was slaving away at creating incredibly high quality authentic pizza here in Seattle. The oven gets to 900 degrees, the pizzas don’t bake… they are essentially being fired in a kiln… like they’re supposed to be.

The pizza I desire, the pizza I need, is the pizza that I tasted at Totonno’s on Coney Island in New York. The dough is thin and unevenly cooked but in a good way. Splotches of burnt blisters and stretches of chewy goodness. A Totonno’s pizza is not carefully cooked, it’s blasted. And frankly, nothing else compares. Savory sauce, fresh mozarella, possibly some basil, it’s not thick, it’s not deep, it’s a grilled disc with all the ingredients, textures, and flavors in perfect balance.

This is what Brandon has created at Delancey in Seattle. It is unquestionably authentic, and incredibly delicious. Seattle finally has real pizza. To those people who urged me to leave Seattle if I wasn’t happy with its lack of quality pizza, I urge them to never go to Delancey. The presence of extraordinary pizza in their town would clearly upset them to the point that they might have to leave themselves.

It’s really unfair to go to a new restaurant on the second day with any intention of forming a judgment. I rarely write about restaurants I don’t like, and I was fully prepared to give Delancey multiple chances over the next few months before forming an opinion. But my enthusiasm for the pizza we ate: a Brooklyn with mozarella, grana, and basil, a pepperoni, and a crimini mushroom with thyme was so overwhelming that I couldn’t wait to share it with everyone.

Delancey pizza isn’t a uniform food. It’s a combination of ingredients that only stay connected in a very narrow window. Think of the dough, the cheese, sauce, and veggies/meat as elements from the periodic table that only combine when conditions are just right. A few degrees off in either direction and you have a mess. The crimini mushroom pizza wasn’t a block of cheese and dough with sad dessicated mushrooms dotting the landscape. It was all the ingredients joining together voluntarily to present a varied experience for your mouth. Crispy grilled flavor, subtle cheese, oh there’s a hint of the thyme, the mushroom is cooked just right… not overcooked but rather… soft and almost buttery, and so on.

Delancey has other items on the menu. It also has wine. It’s a sit down restaurant and doesn’t take reservations except for parties of six or more where it has one table available per night. Personally I would prefer they strip out all the tables, get rid of the waitstaff, and make nothing but pizza all day and all night. But that’s my selfish desire to increase the output. In truth, having a bit of a sense of how hard Brandon has worked on Delancey, I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do. Especially given how good the pizza is on only the second day of being open to the public. So instead, let me say this: any young pizza dreamer who hopes to one day make incredible pizza should go intern for and work for Brandon. Maybe one day he’ll let you open up another branch of Delancey that’s closer to my house. But my sense is that it will take you years to earn his trust that you’ll do it just so. So you better get started because I’d like a branch of Delancey to open closer to my house as soon as possible. Until then, I’ll be making the trek to Ballard on a regular basis. And if I look a little doughier over the next few months, blame Delancey.

(My camera should be back from Canon this week. Apologies in advance for the pictures as they were taken on a loaner. I promise to go back to Delancey and take better ones.)

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries as well as addresses for all the Seattle restaurants we write about at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

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.