Archive for the ‘Seattle’ Category

Porcella Urban Market, Bellevue, Washington

Friday, April 13th, 2007

It’s funny that after having finally escaped having to travel daily to the confines of the (culinarily) dreary eastside of the Seattle metro area that I should be writing about a little gem nestled firmly in eastside territory. But that’s what I’m doing. It’s all the more surprising given that the number of little urban markets, delis, and sandwich shops (and many times all of the above) that cater to a higher end clientele is growing like sexed up rabbits. These little shops are a dime a dozen. That’s why I didn’t have super high hopes when I was given a tip to check out Porcella Urban Market nestled in downtown Bellevue (across the lake from Seattle). When I saw they had a French bent to their offerings it only made me groan more – great! An even more pretentious little sandwich shop. But much to my pleasant surprise, what I found was something special and delicious.

It’s true that the Porcella Urban Market has a wide selection of fancy specialty items (the single serving beverages alone occupy an entire wall of fridge space). It’s also true that the meat and cheese counter serve all manner of delicious items including pork rillettes and the always hard to find guanciale. But neither of those interested me as much as lunch. And lunch there is. Soups, salads, baguette sandwiches, and various plates grace the menu.

The real problem with Porcella is that amid the very very good sandwiches, is a standout that is not just better, it’s singularly perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the Warm Lamb with Nicoise Olive and Preserved Lemon Relish, Mizithra Cheese, and Shallot Confit. It’s quite delicious. So was the Pork Rillette with Shaved Red Onion, Wine Plumped Currants, and Dijon Mustard Sauce. But one sandwich in particular haunts my dreams. And even though we all ordered it for lunch on this day, we were adventurous enough to try a soup.

We had just finished chewing on the absolutely perfect mini-baguettes and butter whose short-lived existences on our table were due to their absolutely intoxicating and perfect french bread smell. Before we could shove them all down our throats, a bowl of Roasted Tomato with Ham and Cheese Flan soup came for us to try. With the first spoonful I was immediately struck by the tone of the flavor. This wasn’t a tomato soup with some roasted flavor. This was roasted tomato soup. A deep roasted tone permeated the liquid. The flan was relatively mild but made up for it by being dotted with chunks of ham.

Then it was on to the main event. The sandwich that puts all the other (quite good) sandwiches to shame is the Prosciutto di Parma with Warm Frisee, Lardonettes, Truffled Aioli and Fried Egg. This sandwich like some sort of crazy ass overboard super high-end Egg McMuffin. But way way better. (And I like Egg McMuffins so that’s high praise.) The large portion of Truffled Gaufrette Chips served with each sandwich doesn’t hurt either. There is so much going on in this sandwich it’s hard to know where to start. Each bite is filled with crusty, crunchy, crispy, hammy, salty, gooey, eggy excellence. The lardonettes are like little salty smokey landmines exploding wherever your mouth ventures. There are times when I’m eating this sandwich when I really just consider letting myself go entirely – Jabba the Hut style – just so I can eat these more than once every few weeks. I suppose it’s unfair to focus so much on this sandwich as there are many other lovely items on the menu. But I have to admit, the rules of engagement for eating at Porcella is that at least someone at the table must order this sandwich so that everyone can get at least one bite. Sharing does sometimes become a problem so consider yourself forwarned.

I guess the eastside of Seattle does have some food goodness. Just make sure to avoid the traffic!

Eating “Menu Americana” at Vagabond, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

As Dana said in her last post(s), we’re experimenting with giving you a view of a single meal from both her and my perspective. Granted as much as I love to eat Dana’s cooking this will likely be a rare occurrence as it’s logistically difficult for her to cook in every restaurant I eat at. :) It’s also important to note, that even though I claim objectivity is not a real goal for any food reviewer, you’ll have to understand that since I am an unabashed fan of Dana’s cooking (and we’re partners here on tastingmenu) that my opinion comes from a fan’s perspective. With all the small talk out of the way, let’s get on with the meal.

As Dana explained, Vagabond is a non-traditional or underground restaurant “event”. On this evening we were at Portalis Wine Bar who had graciously offered their lovely space for the Vagabond dinner. The kitchen was small, but it didn’t seem to matter. Dana and her small crew of helpers kept things simple. One of the nice things about the restaurant is the selection of bottles that literally surround you. There’s something nice about picking a bottle of wine for dinner from a rack or a shelf as opposed to a printed list. I don’t know why more restaurants don’t make a visit to the cellar (even a guided one) part of the dining experience. I bet most people would love it. We chose an Australian bottle – 2004 Two Hands Brave Faces, 65% shiraz and 35% grenache. Super enjoyable.

Dinner started off with a Salad of Romaine Lettuce, Red Onion, and Croutons tossed in a Roasted Garlic Ranch Dressing. The dressing was thinner than I expected and gave the salad an almost coleslaw like quality. The thinness was unexpected, but not unpleasant. The flavor was decidedly buttermilky. The highlight however was the croutons (which I fought over when a second bowl came around). Normally I refuse to eat croutons. They are essentially stale bread. Why would I want to eat stale bread. These were definitely something else altogether. The best way I can describe them is as buttery cubes of crispy goodness. Soft, toasted, almost juicy with butter. These are croutons I could fall in love with.

Next up was Corn Bread. The corn bread was sweet and cakey but still light. With the honey butter it was delectable and it had already started out pretty buttery. Walter, who grew up in Tennessee was the perfect dinner companion as he had an opinion to offer on the authenticity of the food. His take on the corn bread was that it was good but not like Mom’s. In Chatanooga the corn bread is crispy and crumbly and not at all sweet. Walter described Dana’s corn bread as “not-all-the-way-north-northern-cornbread”. I described it as yummy. Walter agreed with that description as well.

I’m a fan of corn. On the cob, niblets, etc. I love it. We got an enormous bowl of Corn off the cob with red pepper. It had a slight spike on the finish and was oily in a good way. I wasn’t happy sharing.

Finally we moved into high gear and got to the main event – the Pork and Beans. Adding garam masala to the pork was a very good idea. It was clearly there but still in the background, not overpowering. The beans (which often can go awry) were not overcooked and mealy. Instead they were firm and juicy providing an excellent foundation for the pork.

Every dish of the evening had a sweetness to it. And while in general I gravitate towards the savory side of things, this realization was nice as the sweet was like a note on which the food could rely as a baseline while other flavors weaved around it. Dessert stayed the course in terms of the sweet factor with Fluffernuttter Pie and a Rice Krispie Treat. I’m not entirely sure how to describe this other than amazing. Any word I choose seems to pale in comparison to the deep peanut and chocolate flavors, the impossibly smooth textures, and the incredible integration and balance present in this “simple” dessert. I usually don’t spend a whole lot of time on dessert, but this was a dish to honor with a slow and appreciative pace. And besides, it was so rich that you had no choice but to eat it slowly or you’d go into a diabetic coma.

Lest I be accused (again) of being a snob or too cool for school because I appreciated being invited to this meal, anyone (even you) can find a way to Vagabond dinner by sending mail to dinner@codenamevagabond.com. Do it soon before the waiting list gets way too long.

Cooking “Menu Americana” at Vagabond, Seattle, WA

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

As of late, tastingmenu has begun to offer you a second point of view. Originally the documentation of Hillel’s journey through experiencing cuisine at tables around the world, I have recently come aboard to offer a second point of view. Not from the seat next to him, but from behind the doors to the kitchen.

Occasionally, Hillel and I share an experience from inside the same restaurant. We thought it would be interesting to bring you a true review of one of these experiences, starting from the kitchen to the table. Last month, an underground dinner with Vagabond, myself as the guest chef, and Hillel in attendance offered us just that. The Monday night supper-club is housed in Portalis, a small wine bar tucked down the old main street of Ballard.

Vagabond emerged from Gabriel Claycamp’s collaboration with Portland’s irreverent Michael Hebberoy, who created a hip dining empire out of an underground restaurant. Seemingly built on quick sand, the empire crumbled and Michael found his way to Seattle looking for new aveneus. Here in Seattle the tragic tale of Hebberoy’s “Ripe” empire filled the gastronomic gossip forum enough to pave his way directly into the heart of our food scene. He came, he saw, and he vowed to undermine the restaurant by launching an underground movement here called “One Pot.”

One Pot’s anarchist intentions caught the attention of the people behind Seattle’s largest underground dining movement, Gypsy. Of these parents, Vagabond was born. Stripped of Gypsy’s white tablecloths, but cooked in more than “one pot”, Vagabond is an supper of 3 courses, humble in nature and rooted in tradition. “Sexy peasant food” the founders call it. After a month of collaboration, One Pot left the well versed waitstaff and restaurant style service behind for an experience more chaotic.

Originally, I was asked to prepare the desserts for every dinner. A challenge I wasn’t prepared to turn down, the format shifted, and I agreed to create an entire menu instead. I dug deep into my own tradition and came up with a “Menu Americana.”

Using dishes that are rooted not only in deep american tradition, but in comercial pop culture, I set to work. The first course was a salad of romaine lettuce, sliced red onion, and soft toasted croutons tossed in a Roasted Garlic Ranch Dressing.

Ranch Dressing’s roots grow deep into American culture, beginning at Steve and Gayle Henson’s Hidden Valley Ranch guest house outside Santa Barbara, California. The proprietors created this simple dressing of mayonnaise, buttermilk, fresh herbs and garlic for their guests as early as 1952. The popularity grew with every new guest and soon they were preparing enough of the dressing to send home with each. The demand for the dressing became stronger than their kitchen could produce and the Henson’s set up a small plant that manufactured seasoning packets to be mixed in the home.

In 1972 Ranch Dressing took it’s leap into infamy when the brand was purchased by Clorox, formulated for stability on the grocery store shelf, and sold nation wide. Since then Ranch has surpassed all other prepared dressing sales, dominating the market and our daily eating habits. From down home American roots to commercial prominence, Ranch is a flavor every American can relate to.

Recreating this popular flavor while surpassing the store bought standard was the challenge I gave myself. I began with a mayonnaise base made with roasted garlic cloves and the oil they were cooked in. The base was mixed with a thick Bulgarian Buttermilk, fresh chopped parsley, a hint of lemon, and seasoned with salt and fresh cracked pepper. A fancy ranch indeed, but to hold this flavor to it’s roots, it needed the bite of raw shallots. Less aggressive than the raw garlic flavor of the commercial product responsible for the lingering “ranch breath”, the shallot added just the dynamic Ranch needs.

The second course possesses the most recognizable American brand in the entire world, Coca Cola. The dish, playfully called “Pork and Beans” featured a coca cola braised pork shoulder served over Boston style beans. The dish, I must admit, grew entirely out of my desire to serve corn bread as a side dish. From there, I began pondering American flavors that worked with corn bread like chili and barbecue. My corn bread, it must be said, is made in the northern tradition of sweet, moist cake-like bread. Southern style corn bread is dry and crumbly, ideal for absorbing the syrup that is a staple on the southern table.

The highly marketed term “Pork and Beans” stuck in my little ol’ American head, and the dish began to take shape. Five varieties of heirloom beans were cooked in the Boston style with bacon, brown sugar and molasses, mustard and tomato paste.

The pork began with a simple braise with onions and ginger, following a generous rub of Garam Masala. Garam Masala, an indian blend of spices that includes cinnamon might insinuate a straying from american flavors. But as all american cuisine was carried from other continents, to absorb and assimilate the cultures that continue to come ashore is a truly american statement, and Garam Masala will forever live in my cupboards. The pork however truly took shape when I witnessed the sous chef at the Rainier Club pouring Coca Cola into a pork braise for mexican carnitas. My face beamed, “Eureka!” and with just under a week to put the finishing touches on my dinner, the crowning American touch came to be.

The resulting pork melted in your mouth, spicy from the ginger and garam masala, and deep from the coca cola. Served over a bed of the heirloom Boston beans, the pork was topped with a layer of crispy fried shallots. The crispy fried shallots are a play on Durkee’s french fried onions, an american grocery store staple, and something every green bean casserole would be empty without.

Two side dishes were served, corn bread, and corn. While corn was not in season, a better-than-your-average-bear frozen brand was purchased, and brought back to life with a quick saute in honey butter. The dish was brightened with roasted red peppers and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The corn bread was served with honey butter on the side, a touch my friend Amanda introduced me to in culinary school.

The last course was a pie born of this country. “Apple pie!” you might say. You’re right in thinking that. What’s more American than Apple Pie? Well, I argue Fluffernutter pie. Peanut butter is a flavor that not only boasts of being born of this country, but also experiences it’s only true popularity in this country. A chocolate crumb crust was filled with peanut-butter cream mousse, and topped with a greasy spoon diner-style rosette of marshmallow cream, toasted just before serving. A fudge sauce based off of cocoa made for an American chocolate sauce smeared on the plate. Bittie little cubes of rice crispie treats garnished the top, making me confident that this pie is surely more American than apple pie.

My labor of love does not stop here. If I have spoken to the american in you, then read on. The recipes follow, and you too can create my American dream on any given night.

Mashed Potatoes

Friday, March 9th, 2007

People watching is a favorite pastime of mine. A true Seatellite, I am often found in a coffee shop, getting my daily (OK, twice daily) fix of caffeine (double tall americano, room for cream). The busy hub offers glimpses of people also going about their lives at varying paces, and when I have the time I pause for a moment, take a table, and watch.

One thing I always take notice of is shoes. I have often thought a person reveals a bit about themselves from the shoes on their feet. Clothes change daily, but shoes are a true commitment and often give better insight into true personality.

This said, the same can be estimated of a restaurant by it’s mashed potatoes. Not yet have I worked in a restaurant that didn’t serve mashed potatoes, and each revealed a bit of their soul through their preparation of the side dish, a constant component on ever changing seasonal menus.
001.JPG

My first job in the kitchen was at a growing Seattle restaurant group called the Bluwater Bistro. A upscale American bistro with a menu designed for mass appeal, their roast chicken, stuffed pork chops, and dry aged new york steaks all sat atop garlic mashed potatoes. Garlic cloves boiled with the potatoes presented the flavor subtly, adding mass appeal to the dish, and insight into the restaurants use of American standards to gain a large customer base.

Lampreia, a restaurant known for it’s pure, minimalistic cuisine prepared nightly by the savant chef served their potatoes in just that fashion. Potatoes hand chosen by Scott Carsberg at the market early in the week for their particular starch content, are peeled and boiled in salted water. Passed by hand through a fine mesh drum sieve to achieve the finest texture, the puree is then moistened with whole milk, mounted with butter, and seasoned to perfection. Before going to the table, each portion is individually rewarmed and lightly whipped with additional cream, placed in a miniature dutch oven to retain warmth, and served separate from the plate, to be enjoyed as the diner feels appropriate.

The Fat Duck’s potatoes were a true reflection on Heston Blumenthal’s intellectually grounded cuisine. Treated for service in a Michelin 3 star restaurant, a correctly chosen variety of potato was boiled, passed through the drum sieve, and mixed with an exacted and tested combination of milk, salt, and clarified butter. This recipe, treated for service in a Michelin 3 star restaurant appears as Pomme Puree in the cookbook Blumenthal wrote called Family Food. A reflection on his duality, Blumenthal is driving cuisine into the future yet puts the same attention to the simplest and most traditional of dishes, and places it on the simplest of tables, your home.

At Eva, a restaurant that is built on a solid foundation of locally sourced organics, seasonal ingredients, and close relationships with those that grow and produce the food they use, the potatoes were kept as close to their natural state as possible. Dug recently from local soil, skins sometimes left on, and occasionally studded with Neuske bacon, Chef Amy McCray calls them smashed potatoes, and leaves them earthy, lumpy, and hearty. Offering a flavorful and memorable experience, the meals at Eva are meant to be as comfortably satisfying as their smashed potatoes.

During my first week at the Rainier Club I was given a glimpse at the kitchens soul by learning their preparation of mashed potatoes. Peeled and weighed to the portion, the potatoes are cooked in large batches, held in single layer trays in a steamer. They are then milled through a ricer with the salt and pepper for proper distribution, and mounted with butter. Mixed by the aid of a large stand mixer, the potatoes are moistened with an aromatic cream. The cream, steeped with varying herbs and peppercorns, adds a hint of luxury and a sense of dignity to the potatoes. The recipe is calculated exactly, balancing everything a large kitchen like the Rainier Club needs to take into consideration; controlling cost through exacting portions, speed in preparing large quantities, and a consistently luxurious and high quality product.

I often consider how I would prepare the humble potato for mashing had I a kitchen of my own. I would most likely combine a bit of everything I have learned, first and foremost keeping the earthy quality of the potato intact. I would hand choose the potatoes like Scott and perhaps even serve them in adorable little dishes on the side.  I might add clarified butter like Heston, leave the skins on like Amy, and aromatically steep the cream like the Rainier Club. If the mood strikes, I’ll know to boil cloves of garlic with the potatoes for a subtle addition of the flavor, or stud them with bacon, adding all the rendered fat for extra flavor. For my own touch, I would add sour cream. A rich acidic balance, the addition of sour cream, or perhaps thick Bulgarian buttermilk would make these potatoes my own, and offer you a hint at the balance I insist all my cuisine holds.

Coupage, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

I don’t believe it’s possible to write our opinion about something in an “objective” fashion. This is an odd myth that has arisen among those in the journalism profession. The people who review restaurants for a living in the mainstream media have of course taken to this code like vinegar to rice. Being that they are on the very periphery of journalism it’s no surprise that they are some of the most fervent believers in this myth.

While I don’t believe it’s possible to be objective, I do believe it’s possible (and important) to be fair. Fair means disclosing your bias, being transparent about your perspective, being consistent, and honest. So when I write about restaurants I try to be as clear as possible about my personal priorities. I know they don’t match all other folks but at least they’re out there. Service, decor, and even price to a certain extent are all pretty much secondary (if not tertiary) for me. Food, namely flavor and texture, are really the primary concern. If there was one other factor that I weighed in any significant fashion, I would have to say it’s location. While I long for Star Trek transporters to take us to Tokyo for dinner, they’re still not quite ready for prime time. So until then the reality for most people is that you have to factor in how hard it is to get to a place to its overall rating.

For example, the best ramen noodle shop in Seattle may be great… for Seattle. But it may not compare to a decent stand in Tokyo. But for a place you can actually get to, it could be considered quite enjoyable. And while proximity has some impact, there also has to be a baseline and a standard. So as it turns out, in reality that Ramen shop in Seattle is not very good even factoring in that you can actually get to it. So in this case even proximity could not overcome the quality of the soup.

This brings us to a space in my neighborhood that has gone through about 6 restaurants in the past year (or something like that). Each restaurant was progressively worse than the next. Each bringing their own non-descript and cliche melange of crap to their table. Each searching for an indentity and not realizing the only place an authentic perspective can come from is from inside the proprietors and food professionals. And then, finally, a restaurant called Coupage arrived. With the cooks having experience in Manhattan, and the owner already a successful restarauteur from Portland, the stage was set. The food? Korean French mix.

You may be surprised, but I hope that I will absolutely adore every restaurant I try. I’d much rather have a great experience than a bad one. I don’t enjoy being disappointed. Additionally, I would absolutely love having a restaurant that I really enjoyed around the corner from me. And finally, my favorite perspective on food is that of someone taking a very refined, minimalist, and modern technical approach to a very traditional cuisine. This doesn’t mean reinventing the food. Just using every evolved technique to make the single best examples of a culinary tradition that’s evolved over decades or even centuries. Cuisines like Italian, French, Japanese, etc. I love perfect examples of these cuisines, and often I find that people with a deep background in and respect for the tradition as well as an incredible facility with modern techniques and procuring the best ingredients do the best job of preparing that cuisine. Refined authenticity is probably the best way to describe it.

So you might be able to imagine my excitement when I heard that a Korean restaurant featuring chefs from a French restaurant in Manhattan (my second favorite food city in the world) were coming to cook around the corner from my house I could barely contain my excitement. But after three visits, Coupage is still not living up to the hopes I had for it. I’ve wrestled with this post for some time thinking on and off about it for literally months. Normally, if a restaurant isn’t one I recommend, I don’t write about it at all. Why waste all our time talking about a place I wouldn’t want you to go. What I’ve never done is write about a restaurant that I think could stand improvement and get very specific about what I think they should do to improve. There are many reasons for this.

The main reason I don’t give advice is because, what the hell do I know? These people are running a business. I don’t believe that I’m typical of most people who go out to eat, and I’ve never had to run a restaurant (not to mention that I’m not a particularly good cook). The combination of my inexperience, and their risk means it’s really none of my business. I don’t have to eat there, but do they really need me blabbing on about what they should do to improve so that I like them? But for Coupage I’m breaking that rule. They’re right next door to me. So I really have no choice but to offer my unwanted advice. I’ve decided that I will blather on about what they should do because I so desparately want them to be the restaurant I imagined. The most frustrating part is that I think they can be.

Let’s start off with our most recent meal there. It was pretty representative of the others we’d experienced. For a space that was tainted with the stench of failed restaurants the owners did a nice job dressing and recasting the interior of coupage. The place feels good. Feels like a restaurant you could enjoy going back to again and again. Refined, but comfortable. Our meal started off with Asian Clam Chowder – A Clear Broth with a Rich Smoky Flavor Enhanced by Rustic Korean Bean Paste and Smoky Bacon Foam. The soup was a bit thin at first but warmed to it after several spoonfuls. That said, it wasn’t super integrated. There was simply not enough flavor to go around. I had to go hunting for it like a needle in a haystack. And when I did I liked it. But the journey was arduous.

Next up was Wild Mushroom Bi Bim Bop – A Modern Take on a Favorite Korean Rice Dish with Crispy Napa Cabbage Salad, Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, a Soft Boiled Quail Egg, and Sweet Chili Sauce. This dish had a shot. A real shot at being the iconic dish that represented what I had hoped the cuisine would accomplish – a deep understanding of traditional flavors and techniques, refined to the point where the expression of the tradition is pure and unmistakable. The addition of the Mushrooms I thought was in concert with the roots of the dish and felt traditional even though I’d never seen it done this way. The stiff whole grain rice and the Korean Spicy Sauce were what anchored this dish. The thinly sliced musrooms were also a great element. There was a rustic Asian heartiness to this dish. The quail egg was cute, a nod to the traditional raw chicken egg put on top of Bi Bim Bap. And while clearly on path to the dishes I was hoping to eat, it still fell a touch short with the flavors again not being completely integrated (tasted more like disparate elements on the plate). It just felt somewhat jumbled even though most of the right pieces seemed present.

We then got the “Coupage” Beef Platter – Korean style Hanger steak, Braised Shortribs Served with Various European and Asian Dipping Sauces; Bearnaise, Blue Cheese Fondue, Soy Yuzu with Jalapeno, and Crudites. I don’t know fi I’m a fan of the multiple sauces. On the one hand I love the choices. But I also feel better if the chef just picks a direction and goes with it. As it happens, the bearnaise was bland and the blue cheese was uneventful. The soy yuzu however was bright, sharp, and tasty. The dish had big hunks of steak. Nice and red. A touch chewy. The compressed cubes of beef were a textural counterpoint. I tasted one of the onion bits and it was packed/bursting with flavor.

In the home stretch we got the “Coupage” Burger – Fresh House Ground Short Rib Lightly Seasoned and Grilled, with Seared Foie Gras, Red Onion Kimchi, Tomato Confit, and Truffle Perfumed Potato Crisp. Honestly, the burger was insanely good. Super oily in a good way and juicy too. Very very juicy. The savory flavors were rustic ad earthy with all the different meat going into it. The chips were truffley good. They came with chili ketchup, truffle mayo, and dijon mustard. Finally we ate the Shitake Cannelloni with Sunchoke cream, Sweet Chinese Sausage, and Creamed Swiss Chard. This dish had incredible contrasting textures, but honestly the flavors were too subtle in my opinion except for the bits of sausage dotting the landscape.

So we could have left well enough alone and not written about Coupage. Or we could have just written about how Coupage has potential but is inconsistent. Instead I will put forward the following theory: Coupage needs to pick. What is it going to be? Right now it’s a modern American restaurant with French techniques and asian ingredients providing bits of “interest” as they are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the dishes. The exceptions being the Bi Bim Bap and the the Beef platter a little bit. The other option of course (and my personal preference) would be for them to focus on making an amazing modern korean restaurant serving a wide range of traditional Korean dishes refined to their core essence. Korean food is rich, delicious, savory, and bursting with flavor. We didn’t eat it this time but the Coupage Mac and Cheese, while refined and delicate, it’s flavor can best be described as subtle. Less charitably it would be called bland. Korean food isn’t bland. Korean cuisine can also have a rustic quality to it. Bringing the refinement and restraint of the mac and cheese dish to Korean cuisine could be incredible. But it must be grounded or better yet firmly and eternally rooted deep within the traditional cuisine, or else the result is just shallow.

I know the last thing the folks at Coupage want is my advice. And frankly, I’m not sure they’d be wrong to ignore it. The place looks full relatively often. I’ll close with the following: never mind that Coupage can be inconsistent in terms of presence of flavor, that to me is a function of their lack of focus, or rather the fact that they haven’t made up their mind about what they truly are. What’s important is that they have a vision in their head and deep conviction about their food, not just an idea or a “concept”. On the current path, their concept will have a short shelf life when the Seattle diners who often care more about the trappings of good food than actually eating good food move on to the next cool spot that opens nearby and Coupage is left looking dated. Authenticity is never tired, it’s timeless. And I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m hoping Coupage will turn the corner towards timeless cause it would be so great to have a truly fantastic restaurant that I could walk to.

Gypsy, Seattle, Washington

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Thanks to growing numbers of food minded people around the country, underground dining has been gaining momentum. What was once spoken of with hushed tones in foodie circles, underground restaurants have of late been receiving local and national press. In cities with large restaurant scenes, a desire for an alternative to the restrictions of a restaurant have taken both chefs and diners off the radar.

In California a group called Outstanding in the field (out standing?) takes diners to amazing outdoor locations and boasts such names as Alice Waters. In San Fransisco a group called Ghetto Gourmet which began in a basement apartment, dinners prepared by a pair of brothers for a loyal following has swollen to include a national reputation, nightly performers, and guest chefs. Portland’s original underground restaurant, Ripe, dissolved recently and the creator has moved our way starting an underground movement called One Pot. Yup, you guessed it, the meal strips away all airs of dining humbly restricting the meal to be cooked in a single pot.

In Seattle the scattering of underground restaurants has long been dominated by Gypsy. Started in the living room of an in home culinary school, the restaurant gained momentum throughout the Seattle dining scene when food writer Nancy Leason featured it in her column for the Seattle Times, and the well read alternative newspaper The Stranger fawned over the alternative style dining experience. The mailing list grew, the guest chef roster added local chefs, myself in February 2006. Garnering a position in a lengthy Wall Street Journal piece, Gypsy began to attract national attention. In fall of 2006, Gypsy gave birth to a second restaurant, Vagabond. Housed in Portalis Wine Bar in Ballard, this Monday night supper club offers a humble 3 course meal priced moderately, and the opportunity to pull a bottle from the wine shops collection at retail price.

Thanks to the efforts of local P.R. agent Traca Savadago, Gypsy shared a July dinner with Anthony Bourdain. Tony, as I learned he likes to be called, sauntered in, camera’s in tow, and enjoyed an 11 course menu prepared by Gabriel Claycamp, desserts by myself. The dual menus running side by side offered dishes like tequila and strawberry “otter pops”, rosemary skewered chicken hearts, bone marrow “fries”, and an addictive white port marinated foie gras that was bruleed with vanilla sugar. The cheese course, an orange colored whipped epoisse called “cheese whiz” was served with a story of smuggling the cheese into the country in a place no french authority would dare go, a baby’s diaper bag, and was smartly paired with Boones Strawberry Hill.

For dessert a bittersweet chocolate terrine was served with a “cluttering” of garnishes. Made from scharffenberger’s 70 percent bar, the dish highlighted chocolates’ versatility by complimenting it with a myriad of flavors. Candied nuts, salty toasted sesame seeds, Madagascar vanilla cream, pastis preserved cherries, toasted marshmallows, Breton shortbread, fresh raspberries, candied ginger, all sat in a still life of garnishes before the proud wall of a chocolate terrine.

The second dessert was a lime cheesecake mousse set over the top of an “aural” crust. Strawberry pop rocks were implanted into the graham cracker crust for a surprising aural firework display with every bite. The dish was accompanied by strawberry sorbet over a salad of black pepper and strawberries, a strawberry sauce, and a fresh grating of lime zest.

Tony managed to polish off his chocolate terrine and a second helping of the lime cheesecake, and said between mouthfuls that I was “prodigiously talented”. A compliment that would have made me blush even more had I understood what “prodigiously” meant at the time. As it was, being surrounded by cameras was nerve racking enough to keep me singularly focused on the food at hand.

The dinner filmed for The Pacific Northwest episode of No Reservations reruns this Monday at 10pm on the Travel Channel. You can see a bit of me on the show, given the title “Evil Pastry Chef” in a montage casting the characters of this irreverent dinner, and describing the use of pop rocks to remind us that we use our sense of sound while eating more than we know.

During dinner, Bourdain asked his stock question, “What would you eat as your last meal if on death row?” The guests at the table added their own desired meals, mom’s spaghetti, potatoes in any form, foie, chocolate, and roasted marrow in the bone for Bourdain. When I offered my desire for a big fat hot dog on a toasty bun, ketchup, mustard, relish, and chopped onion a top, a bag of plain lays potato chips, and a coca cola so cold there were tiny shards of icy crystals, I was declared to be a cook, through and through. In his first book he highlights the fact that most cooks who put their life into the industry, making your dream meals, in the end are most satisfyed by the simplest of fare.

So set your TiVo, write a sticky note, or just remember, 10 pm, Monday the 26th, on the Travel Channel. Tony does the Pacific Northwest.