Volunteer Park Cafe, Seattle, Washington

June 16th, 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.)

Some confessions up front. Two of my co-workers have basically moved into Volunteer Park Cafe. They work out of the cafe many days out of the week. This adorable little cafe located in an otherwise residential portion of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle is quite homey, so it’s no surprise they’re making it their workday “home”. In addition, as I joined them and another friend for lunch, after we ordered, one of the “regulars” informed the owner that I’d be writing about my meal. In addition to all the food we ordered and paid for, a plate of free cookies and cake magically appeared towards the end of our meal. I make it a rule not to let restaurant owners know why I’m there and I pay for my food. I chastised the informer appropriately, but I did eat those cookies.

My general philosophy is that I try to be as fair as possible. I don’t ask for special treatment, and I don’t expect any. That said, I do photograph my food and restaurant folk are not dopes. However, in my experience, any diner that loyally patronizes a restaurant and interacts with the staff in a consistently positive way will get treated like a prince. People in the restaurant business tend to take care of their loyal customers whether they are blogging about the meal or not. OK… enough disclosure. On to the food!

As I’ve written before, as much as I may like the decor or environment of a restaurant, and Volunteer Park Cafe is way cute, I really count it for very little as ultimately I care primarily about the food. Luckily, the food at Volunteer Park Cafe does not disappoint. This is not complicated fair, but it is executed well and with a delicate touch. You stand in line walking past all the prepared baked goods, cookies, and quiches as you decide what to order off the big menu. It’s hard not to salivate. Luckily there’s a glass divider keeping saliva squarely away from the food.

We ended up kicking off with some of the Ham Quiche. Solid if not striking. Moist insides, flaky buttery shell, and a smooth wide flavor. No sparks, but satisfying. The platter of cured meat is hard to beat with a little bean salad, cheese, and cornichons to adorn your bread and meat combinations. Adorn we did. It’s hard to say anything bad about flavorful cured pork products, on fresh french bread, accompanied by various flavorful condiments. And I won’t. The same goes for the Prosciutto Mozarella Baguette. We should have had a more diverse menu but the prosciutto was hard to ignore.

Luckily we ordered the Chicken Salad. A chicken salad sandwich is not something to be ordered lightly. In fact, I generally make it a rule to order anything other than a chicken salad sandwich on menus. A chicken salad sandwich does not automatically get all the benefit of thin slices of smokey ham like the prosciutto sandwich does. Prosciutto sandwiches start with the ball one yard from the goal line. Chicken salad sandwiches start from deep in their own end zone. A very bland end zone. The typical response is to season it. Heavily. Curry is always a favorite path to take. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, the chicken salad was covered with melty cheese. The whole thing came together in a creamy, melty, stretchy, almost sweet bite. The seasoning didn’t need to be “exotic”, it was just right.

While I’m relatively picky about desserts (my co-blogger’s are the exception of course) a cookie is the way to my heart. Chocolate chip with toffee bits that has just the right balance between chewiness and crispyness? Yes! But raisins are my mortal enemy. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do about it. I will never like them. Other dried fruit I’m generally OK with but over the past several years there is a deplorable trend to dry other fruits as some sort of raising substitute — I’m looking at you cherries and cranberries! Combine that with oatmeal raisin cookies masquerading as chocolate chip cookies presented to those who don’t examine their cookies closely and you can start to understand the depth of my fear. As you can imagine, seeing a Cherry Chocolate Oatmeal cookie on my plate felt like a tease at best, and a nightmare at worst. And then, I tried it. That same crispy chewy yin yang harmony was at play. But instead of the comfort of the toffee bits as with the other cookie, this time those dried cherries transcended their raisin cousins and added little sparks of bright sour flavor into my cookie. Fantastic.

Here’s the thing. The folks running Volunteer Park Cafe are not confused. They know what they’re about. Simple, flavorful, slightly refined, down-to-earth, comfort. There’s no need to try to be anything else. This is plenty.

Red Bowls, Seattle, Washington

June 9th, 2009

Seattle does not exactly have a thriving street food scene. Skillet recently got temporarily closed down, while Maximus Minimus is now open for business (the truck is shaped like a pig!!!). City regulations make it a difficult challenge (though I hear that may be changing). What many people don’t understand about quality street food (the best example of which can be found in Bangkok IMHO) is that at its best, it’s a singular example of one dish done perfectly. The focus, the freshness, the immediacy all help increase the odds that the food you’re getting is good.

And this is why I have no problem falling in love with a restaurant over one dish. One. Perfect. Dish.

A thriving street food scene would not only enrich our city for tourists, it would make the downtown Seattle lunch options much richer. Your choices today are basically fast-food, soup/sandwich/salad, cafeteria quality ethnic food, and the businessman’s sit down lunch. Not a delectable assortment. There are a few exceptions, and while it’s not “street food” as it has its own small establishment, my favorite lunch spot is Red Bowls on Third near Columbia in downtown Seattle. Open only for lunch, five days a week, and run by a sweet Korean couple, Red Bowls is a beacon of focus and freshness in the otherwise overcooked lunch landscape. It’s not that they only make one dish. It’s that they only make one dish that I have fallen in love with. It’s possible the other items on the menu are great. One of my co-workers assures me there are. And they cover a range of Korean protein/rice/veggie bowl combos (as well as some Udon bowls to boot). Despite my constant efforts to expand my experiences, I can’t help but order the same thing every time I go into Red Bowls.

Imagine a thick layer of rice (brown at your option but I always get white). On top of the rice is a heaping helping of fresh vegetables. Carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli. Crunchy, filling, raw, healthy, tasty vegetables. And then a generous portion of chopped raw fish — tuna and salmon combo for me. On top some spicy korean sauce as well as sesame oil and chopped scallions. And finally, because I ask for it every time, some avocado slices on top.

I’ll admit, the slivers of pickled ginger do complete the sushi-ness of the dish, and I do like pickled ginger, but I always leave it on the side. For some reason, I think the dish is complete without it.

For under $10, this bowl of fresh spicy deliciousness pleases every single time. It’s like a huge bowl of Spicy Tuna Roll (without the roll). I’ll admit, that if you put a pile of rice, raw fish, and spicy sauce in front of me I’ll have a hard time not liking it. But the freshness of all the ingredients, the combination of the sesame oil and the scallions, and the value have me in love.

And while it doesn’t affect the way the food tastes, the fact that the proprietors of Red Bowls are absolute sweethearts doesn’t hurt. And if a bowl of spicy (or not spicy) raw fish doesn’t make you happy, I’m assured by many of my dining companions that there are plenty of other delicious dishes on the menu that employ the same core values of freshness and focus. Maybe some day I’ll even try one of them.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would replace 90% of the lunch establishments in downtown Seattle with single dish carts/restaurants focusing on one item, and delivering it consistently and with super fresh ingredients day in and day out. But since I don’t have that magic wand I’ll have to keep eating at Red Bowls and wait for a real street food scene to develop in Seattle. We’re having some fits and starts so now may be the time after all.

Administrative note: Our local formerly print and now web only newspaper has been going without a restaurant column since they dumped the dead tree edition. Since we have an obsession with finding quality restaurants and writing about them, it seemed like there might be a good match. As of today, we’ll have regular Seattle restaurant reviews appearing on Tastingmenu and the Seattle PI simultaneously. We encourage readers of the PI to visit the rest of Tastingmenu where we have other food writing beyond just Seattle restaurant reviews, and we encourage readers of Tastingmenu to check out the rest of the PI. Apparently there’s more to life than food, and they do a good job covering that stuff as well. : ) Should be a fun experiment.

Spinasse, Seattle, Washington

June 1st, 2009

Seattle is a funny place. Despite having a non-trivial Chinese population and an actual Chinatown (with an arch and everything) it’s got almost no superlative Chinese food. You may think that the odds of a town having good Italian food are greater than it having good Chinese food, but we come up mostly empty on both fronts. I suppose at least with Italian food we could argue that the east coast is the place to go for that. But, I would have imagined that Italian food has ingrained itself more deeply (or at least earlier) in the American culinary psyche.

While Lampreia’s food is from the Alto-Adige region of Italy, and I love every bit of it, I wouldn’t say that going there scratches my itch for Italian food. Tavolata opened recently and I still haven’t made up my mind about it. Beyond that the place I rely on the most for high quality hyper simple Italian dishes is Da Pino’s. Pino cures his own meat, and serves simple, flavorful fresh dishes. But refined AND traditional Italian food? It still escapes Seattle, until that is Spinasse arrived.

Spinasse talks the talk. The window declares “Trattoria Pastificio Artigianale”. I don’t speak Italian but I’m guessing that’s some variation on artisanal pasta restaurant. And honestly, that’s one word more than you need to get me to show up. Spinasse is adorable of course. Small, and homey and instantly comfortable. I really don’t care much about decor (or all that much beyond the service) but the atmosphere at Spinasse is notable in how ably it projects the image of the small authentic artisanal pasta restaurant.

I’m always in a quandary in terms of how excited I should get about a plate of prosciutto as it relates to the restaurant itself. On the one hand, you could serve me some good prosciutto at Burger King and I’d be in love. But, it does take some expertise to make sure to get quality product and serve it well. Regardless of how much credit accrues to the establishment, I find it difficult to complain about a plate covered in delicious cured ham.

Next up is the pasta but I want to talk about that last as it’s clearly the center of attention at Spinasse. The meat dishes, notably the succulent and juicy braised duck leg, the bursting savory handmade sausage, and the absolutely melting squab were all excellent. Juicy, savory, warm, and deep. We did have a some rabbit on our most recent visit that came out dry. That was disappointing but definitely the exception.

The pasta though is really the signature of the restaurant. I’ve been to Spinasse three separate times and think I finally know how I feel. The single best pasta dish on the menu is the artichoke ravioli with sage butter and pine nuts. I have it every time. It’s gentle and warm. Like a quartet of french horns. Buttery, nutty, with a slight tanginess from the cheese. I love and hate finding a favorite dish. Only because I worry that by ordering it I will limit myself from trying other exciting dishes. Luckily, on our last trip we ordered Spinasse’s entire menu. No chance of missing anything that way. The other pasta dishes are good as well, the ragu, etc. The first time I was there I ordered one of the pasta dishes with truffles, and honestly the truffles were not super flavorful. I have a hard time faulting the restaurant for this too badly. A lot of times to get the best truffles you have to get them via mail from Italy. Once the thing shows up, if its not as pungent as it should be it’s not like a small restaurant can eat the cost. The best they can do is tell their supplier to do a better job next time or switch suppliers. But I’m not expert so I’m speculating.

The real issue is the other pasta dishes. They’re good, but they don’t leave the warm tonal range set by the ravioli. It’s not that they all taste like butter and nuts. But they are all in the subtler part of the range with a warm gentle savory quality. This of course is not a bad thing. But it can get a little repetitive. I’m not savvy enough about the region the food comes from to know if I’m longing for flavors that are just not at home for this restaurant, but for me I find the range a touch more narrow than I’d like. It’s not that it would stop me from coming to Spinasse, but it might make me come less often.

One other note, Spinasse has communal seating, which isn’t my favorite, but is absolutely unloved by many of my regular dinner companions. You have to request in advance the one table for four that doesn’t involve listening in on anyone else’s dinner blather. I understand why they do communal sitting. It’s a small restaurant, and the rent ain’t cheap. But it’s not for everyone.

Bottom line, Spinasse is lovely. They’re trying hard, and Seattle is lucky to have them. That said, I know they have a talented new chef transitioning into the lead role. My last visit was likely too early to experience him putting his mark on the menu. But I do hope that while he preserves everything that’s good about Spinasse, he expands on those basic values of authentic/simple/subtle/fresh to a broader range of flavors. I’m sure I’ll be back.

More Accolades for Dana

May 7th, 2009

It seems like you can’t go more than a few days recently without having someone sing her praises. Of course, it’s all well deserved. Here at Tastingmenu, we’ve known how great Dana is for some time (even before she started writing here — in fact it’s why we wanted her to share her opinions on this site.) The latest praise is from the editor herself of Seattle Magazine. And since Dana would never post it, I will. Allison Austin Scheff writes:

“Dana Cree, the pastry chef at Poppy (and one of the Rebel Chefs from April’s Best Restaurants issue) is the thinking-diner’s pastry chef. She analyzes, tweeks, re-works (and Twitters about all of it @deensie) and all of her smarty-chef work really pays off.”

She goes on:

“The most intriguing thing I tasted was Cree’s sassafrass ice cream, made with anise hyssop and sassafrass root (plus spices). I kept taking small spoonfuls and catching intriguing tastes of this, no that. It didn’t quite taste like a rootbeer float, as our waiter had said, it was more like those little barrel-shaped rootbeer candies, with a strange, illusive heat somewhere that disappeared before you could nail exactly what it was. What a fantastic scoop of ice cream.”

And finally:

“…for a dessert that’ll make you think, that might leave you in awe or open your eyes to possibilities you might not have imagined, do yourself a favor and get to Poppy. Dana Cree’s a serious talent.”

Yay Dana! Go read the entire thing.

I now have a vegetable garden. Vegetables coming soon.

May 4th, 2009

I am a big fan of vegetables. Fresh, flavorful, crispy, juicy vegetables can’t be beat. One of my favorite meals of all time was almost entirely composed of vegetables. (The meal was prepared emphasizing the greatness of the vegetables themselves rather than trying to simulate some sort of meat-based dish.) I would eat a lot more vegetables at home if this country was better designed for fresh vegetable consumption (1. Americans need to demand vegetables that have great flavor, not just ones that look good and are cheap, 2. these mythical vegetables need to be available within walking distance from your house, so you can buy them fresh every day.)

Pending a major restructuring of this country’s priorities when it comes to fresh vegetables, I had been resigned to mediocre veggies once a week from the supermarket, and eating expensive quality veggies from Wholefoods once every two weeks. But, I still yearn for better. The econapocolypse and the inevitable crumbling of society has brought all this into focus for me — I need to grow my own vegetables. Unfortunately, if I gauged my ability to nurture living things based on my history with plants then I never would have had children. Past performance would have indicated that they never would have made it to their first birthdays. In addition, the pacific northwest is not exactly prime vegetable growing territory.

Enter Seattle Farm.

For a minimum of $250 they’ll come set up a raised bed in a sunny spot in your yard, fill it with good dirt, run automatic drip irrigation lines so you don’t have to water it every day (this is key for me!!!). And then, even better, for $35 a week they’ll come and maintain your vegetable garden, pick the vegetables, plant new ones, and then walk the freshly picked veggies the 10 feet from the garden to the door to our kitchen. This is my kind of vegetable gardening!!! As for the $35, I spend that much on vegetables just driving by Wholefoods.

Here’s a shot of our new garden:

Over the next few weeks/months we’ll be swimming in: cucumbers, tomatoes, golden beets, sugar snap peas, red cabbage, arugula, ratte potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, purple carrots, scallions, radishes, shallots, cilantro, basil, garlic, and kohlrabi (Dana’s request). Be nice and you might get some.

This company is adorable. They’re providing an awesome and convenient service. While it’s too early to tell you about the quality of my veggies, so far they’ve been doing a great job. I hope they become a huge success.

A-Game

April 17th, 2009

Hey you. Whatcha doin?

Surfing your collection of food blogs daily? Thinking about food? Maybe thinking about ice cream?

Snacking?

Maybe snacking on ice cream?

You like ice cream, I can tell. I do too!

Didn’t I just see you waiting in an obscenely long line for a scoop or two at Full Tilt, or Mollly Moons, or Humphry Slocombes, or Bi Rite, or Ici? In the rain?

It was you! You were the person eagerly asking for just one more sample, juggling 10 dirty paddle spoons as you reached to take the teensy bite from the scooper, promising the people behind you, “the last one, I swear.”

I’ll bet you have some pretty good ideas for ice cream flavors.

I’ll even bet you could win a competition with some of your original ideas.

Maybe you could even win this competition.

Winner not only gets to brag that their ice cream flavor is on Spur’s summer menu, but gets to do so at Spur, with 5 friends all eating your ice cream at an ice cream social.

And hey, I’m curious. What flavor did you make up?

Oh, I feel ya. Don’t wanna give the competition any ideas. Yeah, that’s cool. I get it. But I’ll just put this out there. I do moderate comments, you know. And I could, if need be, delete any comment that was super duper top secret after reading it.

Hmmmmmm, understood. I see where you are coming from. Well, I wasn’t going to enter the competition myself, that’s not really fair. Those guys are my friends, and I’ve already got my ice cream inventions on a menu. This is about your unsung creative genius. But you’re smart, intellectual property is valuable. In that case, just go ahead and email your ideas strait over to this guy…..

spellmans@spurseattle.com

And put “Spur Ice Cream Idea” in the subject box.

Now get out there and show them what you are made of!

Totonno’s, Coney Island, New York FIRE!!!

April 17th, 2009

Shit. This is not good.

Ice Cream for Sandwiches

April 7th, 2009

With summer coming, I have been working on ice cream sandwiches. The format of the sandwich works well for the high volume Poppy, simple to plate, texturally interesting, nostalgic, and focused on a minimal amount of flavors; that of the cookie, the ice cream, and the dish of something or other to dip it in.

Currently, as per the relentless nagging request of one of the line cooks, Abby, I have vanilla ice cream sandwiched between gingersnaps, with lemon curd to dip it in.

However, one of my huge pet peeves in eating ice cream sandwiches, is that of the drippy soft ice cream that often inhabits the space between the cookie. I disdain the ice cream squirting out as I sink my teeth into the mixture, rushing to the back of my throat and covering my fingers.

So I set to the task of making an ice cream that would stay firm through the entire process of eating. This would require a hard ice cream, and one that has a slow melt down. The texture needed to endure the entire time it takes for the cook to pull it from the freezer, cut it and plate it, flag down a food runner, run the plate to the table, and then stand up to the 5 or 10 minutes it takes to eat the dessert.

I found my answer in cocoa butter.  Because cocoa butter has a high melting point, around 90 degrees, it stays very firm at cold temperatures, and is slow to melt. Those who have made an ice cream or two will recognize that chocolate ice creams are always hardest to scoop. This is exactly the quality I wanted to present inside the sandwich. By using deodorized cocoa butter, Mycryo, I have been able to give this quality to ice creams without chocolate flavor.

I have been substituting 3 percent of the total fat, which is at a high 16 percent, for cocoa butter, which hardens the texture just the way I wanted.  It also allows me to use a crisp cookie for the sandwich.  Because the ice cream offers enough resistance to the pressure of your teeth, they are able to cut through a crisp gingersnap.

The flavor combos of possible ice cream sandwiches have been discussed highly in the kitchen, as the sun has made it’s first appearance in Seattle in what feels like 6 months. Any requests?

Follow Through

March 30th, 2009

In my previous life, the one I lived before I became an adult, I played softball. “Played” isn’t really the right word, though. I lived softball. Fast pitch softball, not the slow underhanded game old men play. I was on a very competitive regional team. I spend every day at 2 practices, at the least. I tournament every weekend. I went home at night and watched training videos on throwing technique, or batting stances, or how to increase sprinting speed within the first 5 steps. I went to every “clinic” within reasonable parental driving distance. Then I grew up, and went to cooking school.

While I make every attempt to subdue the sports analogies in the kitchen, it’s very hard for me to divorce myself from the similarities.

At the moment, a batters box philosophy has been replaying in my head as I collect my thoughts on serving desserts to a diner. This concept is follow through.

Baseball is the great American pastime, so I can make a safe bet that you know the drill. A person with a bat stands in a little box next to home plate, preparing themselves, completing their tiny ritual, and waiting for a ball to be thrown towards them. This is the most exciting part of the game, really, especially for the spectator. The point of contact. When the ball reaches home plate, the bat strikes it, and the game springs into motion. And that point of contact is what the whole game is built around.

However, the fraction of a second that the bat strikes the ball is such a small part of what makes successful contact. You are taught very early on as a batter, that if you only think about the bat hitting the ball, you will fail. You think very little about the point of contact. Rather you train yourself to think of the followthrough.  That is, for you, the bat swings from your back shoulder, past your front shoulder.  That is your main consideration, using a complete motion that strikes through the point of contact, landing the bat firmly on your back, your body twisted forward.

If done correctly, the point of contact is inevitable. But it’s the entire process that achieves it, not the idea of hitting the ball with the bat.

In desserts, I think about this a lot. The point of contact is that of the dessert being set on the table in front of the diner. And if we stop our thought process there, I believe we fail.

Because once the dessert is on the table, just like the ball being struck with the bat, the infinate variables begin. Where the ball goes, who fields it, the errors and brilliance that the other players inflect, this is where the game gets exciting.

But rather than players reacting a ball, we have people reacting to a dessert. When the dessert is set on the table before them, the diner is beginning a very complex process of flavor perception.

To make this long and perhaps cumbersome analogy complete, we have to understand that flavor is a mental construct that does not exist outside the brain. This mental construct is built with the information we recieve from our 5 senses while dining, first sight, then smell, taste, touch and sound. Once the information is provided from our 5 senses, it mingles with mood, memories, and anything else floating around in the diners head.

And what’s in your head, those are the exciting variables. Those are the things I have no control over. Once my dessert, which I have used my hands to physically create perfectly, consistently, day after day, is set on the table, I have absolutely no more control over what happens. I am out there running the bases, and the diner has the ball. Your mood is in the outfield, your memories are fielding 3rd base, and I have just hit the ball somewhere out there. A very good batter has some control over where the ball goes, but still, no control over what happens to the ball once it’s on the field.

So, if I, the pastry chef, only ever think the process through to the point of contact, the moment at which the dessert hits the table, or worse, the point at which the dessert leaves my kitchen, I fail. It’s up to me to understand where the dessert is going, how perception is created, and what, if anything, I can do to encourage that perception to be pleasant.

Lets just forget about the physical dessert itself, the ingredients I have manipulated and put on a plate. The dessert has been built for maximum success, texture spot on, flavors matched perfectly, plated beautifully. Now it’s on the table, the point of contact has been made.

Lets consider follow through, and consider the perception that is beginning, and what’s already floating around in the diners head.

First and foremost is the mood they are in, which is very effected by the service, and the atmosphere of the dining room. This, a restaurant has the power to influence. But what if they have suffered loss within the past week, a pet being sick, a broken relationship, a fight with a sibling, trouble at work. This portion of their mood I have absolutely no control over, yet it still mingles with perception.

And what of the memories of food already implanted in the diner. How can I tap into these, making a dessert they’ve never seen before feel familiar? I can make safe guesses working within the framework of american nostalgia. I grew up eating American food, and so did you, so I bet we share some of the same memories. But what of the diner that grew up in Germany?

The follow through, the consideration of the perception of my desserts is the most fascinating part to me. Maybe because it’s the truly challenging part, the part I could spend a lifetime attempting to effect, yet would be different every day, every year, every city, every restaurant, and especially every person.

I can take the same amount of flour, sugar, butter, chocolate, and eggs, and make the same brownie every day, for 50 years. But it becomes something unique, and individual every time I put it in a different pair of hands, and that to me is amazing.

I once read that in cuisine texture is the final frontier. But for me, the final frontier is perception. The frontier of texture is that of the American west, wild for quite some time, but eventually just part of our country. For me, it seems the frontier of perception is that of outer space. Infinite and ever changing, and there whether you look up to see it or not.

Rest In Peace

March 23rd, 2009

This is the sad state of the first scale to be brought into the poppy kitchen.  It was part of the opening team, and it’s faithfully helped us measure every batch of naan, every dessert that’s made it to the tables in the short 6 months we’ve been open.

As you can see, it’s on it’s very last leg, but still pulling us through.  New scales come tomorow, and this little helper will finally be laid to rest.