Shultzy’s Sausage, Seattle, Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Old School Frozen Custard, Seattle, Washington

July 15th, 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.)

With all the fuss about new ice cream shops opening in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, I wonder if Old School Frozen Custard has gotten the attention it deserves. Open for a few weeks I’ve been there more often than I care to admit. The vintage pictures of Seattle high schools on the wall are cute, but it’s the smell of fresh waffle cone being made that hits you when you walk in. But before that, let’s back up. What’s with “custard” anyway?

The folks at Old School will tell you that Frozen Custard is prevalent in the Midwest. It differs from Ice Cream in that it has some egg yolk which replaces a bunch of the typical fat in the ice cream. The folks at Old School say their base (imported from the Midwest) uses a tiny amount of pasteurized egg yolk to reduce the fat by a third. (No, I’m not advocating frozen custard as a diet food.) Every hour (when things are busy) the folks at Old School make fresh frozen custard, flavoring it on the spot in their big custard machine. Vanilla and chocolate are staples and each day there’s a new special flavor. I’ve seen Tiramisu, Blueberry, and Lemon (and tasted them all). On this day the specialty flavor was Chocolate Banana Nut.

(I did confirm with an official Midwesterner that frozen custard is indeed found in the Midwest and is “butterier and creamier” than regular ice cream.)

OK. Here’s the deal. Flavor-wise, the vanilla is excellent, the chocolate is very good, and the specials have been hit or miss for me. For example, I didn’t get much banana in the Chocolate Banana Nut but my eating companions got a mouthful. And despite that I’m a flavor snob (and perhaps it’s because I generally get the vanilla) the texture of the frozen custard is what wins the day for me. Holy crap! That is the densest, silkiest ice cream I’ve ever had. It is just an absolute pleasure to eat. And since you’re only dealing with a foundation of three flavors each day, the toppings available are numerous.

Various sauces and syrups are on the menu including all the zillions of candy/cookie toppings you would expect. The waffle cones are handmade to order on the spot. Hence the welcoming smell. There are enough topping varieties to keep you busy for some time. Right now my favored combo is hot fudge and whole peanuts. There’s something about the whole peanuts that just ratchets up the deliciousness relative to crushed peanuts.

Bottom line: I’m still a fan of ice cream parlors with lots of interesting, handmade, delicious flavors. And Old School Frozen Custard could certainly ramp up their flavors, but the texture of their custard is positively mesmerizing. While I have plenty of choices of where to get my ice cream, I keep coming back to Old School.

(Note on the pictures: another week without my trusty DSLR means another week of crappy pictures. Damn you iPhone for tempting me with your convenience!)

UPDATE: I got my camera back and it’s behaving… for now. Added a five more pictures to the gallery. They’re better quality. And yes, this necessitated a repeat visit to Old School. Oh well.

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

Mike’s Chili Parlor, Seattle, Washington

July 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.)

My camera is broken. Again. How the heck can I take decent pictures of yummy food to share with you without my camera? As it happens, my camera repair shop is located in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. And every time I drive my camera over there (which is way too many times) I pass by Mike’s Chili Parlor and think to myself… “self, that looks like a place I need to try”. Maybe my camera keeps breaking to get me to go to Mike’s. So I did. With my trusty iPhone and its not-so-great camera functionality by my side.

I ordered two quarts of chili to go and took them with me to a barbecue my friends were having celebrating Al Franken’s belated win. The theme was food from Minnesota. I had no idea what food from Minnesota looks like, I found out — there was hot dish, cake cake, and other “food”. (I thought to myself, chili counts. It’s from the middle of the country. And as a product of the coasts, that’s close enough for me. Yeah, I know, that’s offensive coast-ish snobbery, but at least It’s honest.) Anyway, I showed up with two plastic containers filled with chili. It’s not like I brought sushi or foie gras.

There are times when you want something subtle, something refined, something that challenges you. This was not one of those times. Mike’s chili is like the bar/”chili parlor” where Mike sells his chili (is there a real Mike still there? I forgot to ask) — simple, straightforward, packed with texture and solid flavor, and kind of greasy. Beans, ground beef, and a strong but not spicy sauce bringing it all together. I imagine if I’d eaten my chili there that the oil would have been more integrated. It’s not their fault that it separated a touch by the time I got it to the BBQ. That said, after some quick mixing, everything more or less stayed together, and the chili disappeared in no time. I diced some onions to put on mine.

Mike’s chili is basic. Definitely not fancy. But it’s also reassuring and unassuming in its honesty. What you see is what you get. And what you get is some very decent flavorful and filling red chili.

As for my pictures of Mike’s chili, maybe my regular camera is too fancy to take pictures of this chili. Maybe it knew that it had to sacrifice itself to get me to head over to Mike’s and that my simple phone camera was the right way to take these pictures. Or maybe my camera just sucks and wants to make me unhappy and cost me money. (Or maybe I spend way too much time anthropomorphizing my camera and need to spend some time discussing this tendency with a professional?)

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

Locavore, for your iPhone

July 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 know our task is to write about great restaurants. But in the broadest sense, our job is to alert you to ways to get great food nearby. And in that respect, Locavore, a cute iPhone application is squarely on topic.

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch you already know that there are tens of thousands of applications available to you. The countless recipe apps mostly bore me to tears. Urban Spoon’s random restaurant finder is cute, but more often than not points me somewhere meh. It’s not Urban Spoon’s fault. The people rating those restaurants are all over the map and the recommendations sometimes reflect that. And while Locavore doesn’t point you to restaurants, it does tell you what’s in season depending on where you are in the United States.

Finding out what’s in season is not only critical for cooking, but ultimately it’s key for eating. Imagine going into a restaurant and realizing that the dish you wanted is comprised of items that are not locally in season. That’s critical information that can help you pick the right dish, or (more likely) the right restaurant. In addition, there’s a guide to farmer’s markets near wherever you happen to be. Not only is this a great use of the iPhone’s GPS functionality, but it’s critical to helping you get fresh food. And for those of us who prefer finished goods to ingredients, nine out of ten farmers’ markets I’ve attended have somebody selling something you can eat right on the spot. And usually it’s something delicious.

Finally, Locavore lets you broadcast what fresh items you’re eating by connecting your Facebook account to the app. I’m not sure whether this feature is there to help tell me about local fresh finds, or to torture me when people talk about what great veggies they’re eating out of their garden. Perhaps in the future it could include their GPS location so I could go raid their pea patch.

There’s tons of things that could be even better about Locavore including — support for the whole world instead of just the U.S. and farmers’ market details formatted for the iPhone and not for a big computer screen. That said, it’s already pretty good, and I have no doubt the proprietor of Enjoymentland (Locavore’s creator) is hard at work on these improvements and others even as we speak. (Full disclosure: Buster, who runs Enjoymentland and writes Locavore is someone I have broken bread with and a general good guy. But I paid my $3.99 for Locavore like everyone else.)

Bottom line, for anyone who’s seeking out freshness, Locavore is indispensable. Back to writing about restaurants next week folks.

Trophy Cupcakes, Seattle, Washington

June 23rd, 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.)

Small-ish cylinder of cake. Large-ish dollop of frosting. You’re talking cupcake my friend. And that’s my language.

I’ll admit to being turned off by the trendiness of cupcakes. In general when something becomes popular I become more averse to it. (Hence my bad luck at investing but that’s another story.) But trendiness aside, there is simply no denying the appeal of a cupcake. In general, as human beings, we are wired to like the small, the tiny, the miniaturized. And a tiny cake with frosting for one is adorable.

But adorable is not enough to win the day. Seattle may not be Manhattan but we have a decently competitive cupcake scene nonetheless — and Trophy wins the day. I have two main criteria by which to judge a cupcake. They are cake, and frosting. Duh. The single biggest crime when it comes to cake is that it’s too dry and not flavorful. Trophy has moist flavorful cake. Their Hummingbird cupcake, which is banana cake with bits of pineapple and nuts, is almost like a super moist muffin. In fact, why aren’t more muffins like this? The straight up chocolate and vanilla are the dictionary definitions of chocolate and vanilla cupcake cake. Their warm round smooth unintrusive flavors fill your mouth while the frosting smushes everything together with creamy goodness.

When it comes to frosting there are two paths — the typical sugar bomb, or the more intense buttercream approach. While the sugar bomb can be all granular and really belongs only on supermarket cupcakes, I have to admit that buttercream can be too waxy and oily tasting. And at least in my experience, that’s true of most buttercream frostings I try. Not the case at Trophy. Their frosting has a dense center, but it’s neither greasy nor heavy. It’s frosting with depth but the flavor is up front as opposed to the fat.

On the creativity front, Trophy is no slouch either. The keep things simple, but well executed. Nothing too crazy. Just a focus on clean simple combinations like Lemon and Coconut, or S’mores, or mint and chocolate.

If I had to pick on one thing about Trophy it’s that they don’t sell their mini-cupcakes except for special orders. If you thought that miniaturized cakes with frosting were adorable, what about miniaturized miniaturized cakes with frosting. That’s called double adorable in my book. [Note: there is no actual book.] But small is not enough. The trick is the ratios. Trophy’s competitors have mini-cupcakes too, but the ratios are off. The cake is a little too big. Bitesize is really the way to go with just a dollop of frosting on top. Luckily I happened to stop by Trophy one day when they were having some kind of open house and they were handing them out. It seemed like I ate a hundred of them. (It “seemed” that way to the lady counting the number of cupcakes I ate and giving me dirty looks.)

We used to get cupcakes at the cupcakery near our house. Since we started eating Trophy’s, we’re stuck driving all the way to Wallingford (or now University Village) to get our cupcake fix. I suggest you do the same.

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