I teased you last week with a glimpse into my Tuesday-night classes with Thai cooking maven Kasma Loha-unchit. This most-recent set of classes was the fourth 4-week series I’ve attended; I started with the beginning series nearly 10 years ago, followed up with the intermediate course a few years later, and then — after travelling with Kasma through central and northern Thailand in January 2006 — picked up again with the advanced series last spring.
In the beginning series, you master popular curries, simple stir-fries, spicy soups and salads, and authentic (ketchup-free!) pad thai noodles. Even if you think you know a lot about Thai food, you’re sure to learn a lot: You’ll taste-test multiple brands of coconut milk, learn about the best places to buy ingredients, hear the lowdown on the top brands, and get plenty of practice balancing sweet, salty, sour, and hot flavors under Kasma’s watchful eye.
Intermediate classes move on to more labor-intensive preparations, and a larger assortment of ingredients. By the time you reach this level, you’ll have a thorough understanding of flavors and techniques — pounding curry pastes, balancing flavors, frying ingredients in coconut cream — that will put you in good stead for the advanced courses. A total of six advanced series walk students through regional specialties, intricate preparations, and adventurous foodstuffs. Many students work their way through the entire curriculum and then start again — it’s just that much fun to cook alongside other students who are experienced and passionate about Thai food.
The real joy of learning to cook Thai with Kasma is that she makes Thai cooking accessible without dumbing it down. I hope you won’t think I’m immodest when I say that — even after just the basic courses — I could make Thai food better than what we find at local restaurants. The setup of Kasma’s classes allows for plenty of hands-on work, and lots of time to talk, taste, and learn. Each session starts with a snack while Kasma explains the four to six dishes of the day. Students team up for prep, then gather round as each dish is completed. When the cooking is done, you sit down with Kasma and her charming husband Michael to enjoy the feast you’ve prepared. I promise: You won’t leave hungry.
Kasma also sells specialized tools and hard-to-find items to her students. Years ago, when I first took the beginning series, her dining-room table was one of the few places to find Thai coffee filters and decent papaya graters. Her offerings have blossomed into a veritable general store of favorite brands and equipment, a useful one-stop-shop when stocking your Asian pantry. Students can also buy from a dwindling stock of Kasma’s award-winning (but out-of-print) cookbooks — Dancing Shrimp and It Rains Fishes — at their original retail price … a big savings over the $40-plus prices you’ll see on Amazon for used copies.
And speaking of bargains: You won’t find a better deal on cooking classes anywhere. Each four-class series costs $160 — just $40 per class, less than you’d probably spend for dinner at your favorite Thai restaurant. Kasma’s house is located close to Oakland’s MacArthur BART station (a quick bus ride or a leisurely half-hour stroll gets you the rest of the way there), making it easy for visitors and bridge-averse City-dwellers to attend. If you live outside the Bay Area, you’re not completely out of luck: Kasma offers week-long intensive sessions each summer for a stunning price: $550. You spend five full days covering territory similar to the beginning and intermediate series, or an assortment of advanced recipes in the later intensives.
Now that I have you salivating, let me disappoint you: You’ll have to be patient. All of Kasma’s classes, especially the beginning series, are perennially booked — and the mention she got in this month’s San Francisco Magazine (alongside Shuna Lydon and June Taylor, among others) will only make matters worse. To finagle a spot, join Kasma’s announcement-only Yahoo group, and be the first to hear about next spring’s offerings.
The Art of Thai Cooking
near Piedmont and Grand Avenues
No doubt you’ve seen inside the fridges of dozens of bloggers over the past couple of weeks, ever since Sam opened her refrigerator to our prying eyes and then invited us to follow suit. Curious sort that I am, I’ve been enchanted by all of them, but perhaps none so much as Matt’s tour — complete with diagrams!
Those of you who lack the snooper gene can skip this link to all our photos, with annotations of what’s what. I’ve documented the contents of my main fridge and freezer — all shelves, all doors and drawers. (The garage fridge is more of the same: stock and pasta sauce in the freezer, beer and wine in the fridge.)
I’m not sure whether I’m proud or ashamed to admit I didn’t do any tidying before taking these shots — it’s always staged like this. I clean and organize the fridge every Friday night, as part of my weekly meal planning. I toss out anything old, rotate items up from the downstairs freezer as needed, and then work on my recipes and shopping list without having to run back and forth to see what I have on hand.
Feel free to give me grief about the carbon footprint of my Peruvian white asparagus or the sloth implied by pre-sliced cheese… but I’ll defend my Clearman’s spread to the death.
Although it’s a mainstay of American restaurants — one might even say it’s a cliché in eateries of a certain sort — the original Caesar salad was created in Mexico. The classic combination of romaine lettuce, croutons, Parmesan cheese, and a garlic-laden, egg-emulsified dressing has remained popular since its invention in the 1920s, enduring more than its share of variations throughout the years.
Such are the indignities that this venerable ensalada has suffered that pretty much any creamy, romaine-based salad can be called a Caesar nowadays. On the other end of the spectrum, there are purists who hold that an anchovy-free Caesar isn’t a Caesar at all (although Caesar himself used Worcestershire sauce, no little fishies at all). Adding some bacon or grilled chicken makes a Caesar suitable for a light lunch or simple supper… and that’s just the beginning of all the ways you can tinker with this highly adaptable recipe.
No doubt that sort of flexibility was what Katie at Other People’s Food had in mind when she selected Caesar salad for this month’s ‘Hay, Hay It’s Donna Day’ celebration. She even mentions Caesar wraps and Caesar pizzas — Ay, Dios mío, what would Señor Cardini make of that?
I set to thinking about a way to honor the salad’s historical birthplace, without going too far over into caricature — no multicolored tortilla confetti or salsa-spiked dressing, please. I played around with the basic method, adding a few south-of-the-border notes: A little chile, some avocado cubes, and a few sliced radishes in place of the croutons’ crunch.
This recipe yields a fair bit of dressing — certainly more than we ever need for just the two of us. It keeps for at least a week in the fridge, and if you prep a whole head of romaine on the night you make the dressing, the remaining lettuce will keep as long, provided you treat it right.
Here’s a trick we picked up from Alton Brown: Cut (or better yet, tear) the romaine into bite-sized pieces. Rinse and briefly soak the lettuce pieces in cold water in a salad spinner, then lift up the basket and dump out the water. Replace the basket and spin the lettuce in the usual fashion. Put half of the spun lettuce in the salad bowl, and set aside. Roll out a length of paper towels on the countertop, and sprinkle the lettuce along its length, keeping a single layer as much as possible. When you’ve laid out all the lettuce, roll up the paper towels loosely, and slide the roll into a plastic produce bag. Put the bag gently into your crisper drawer, but do not close the bag.
It’s a pretty neat trick: The paper towel wicks moisture away from the lettuce, but keeps the bag relatively humid. I’m not saying the romaine will be as good as new a week later, but it sure beats the pants off of those overpriced, half-wilted “salad in a bag” thingies.
4 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/2 fresh jalapeno pepper
1/4 tsp. anchovy paste, or a few dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup mild olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 head romaine lettuce
6 to 8 radishes
2 oz Dry Jack (or other hard cheese, such as Parmesan)
1 small, ripe avocado
Roast the garlic and chile in a small, dry skillet, turning frequently until soft and blistered. Cool briefly, then peel the garlic, and roughly chop both the chile and garlic. (Split and seed the chile before chopping, if you prefer a milder heat.) Place the chopped garlic and chiles in the mini-bowl of a food processor with the anchovy paste (or Worcestershire), and process until smooth, adding as much of the oil as needed to form a paste. Add the lemon juice and the egg yolk to the paste, and process briefly to combine. Then slowly add the remaining oil, with the processor running, until combined. Be careful not to overprocess, or you’ll get mayonnaise. Taste, and season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper.
(Alternately, you can crush the solids with a mortar and pestle and then whisk with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl, or use an immersion blender. Either way, be sure to follow the same steps; don’t just dump everything in together or you’ll end up with a broken mess.)
Tear or cut the romaine into bite-sized pieces; wash and dry. Slice the radishes into thin rounds, discarding the stem and end pieces. Shave the cheese with a vegetable peeler into wide, thin strips. Halve the avocado, and remove the pit. With the skin on, score the avocado flesh at 1/2-inch intervals in both directions, all the way down to the skin. With a soup spoon, scoop the avocado flesh from the skin; it should separate into neat cubes.
In a large serving bowl, toss the lettuce with a few tablespoons of dressing, until just coated. Toss in the radishes, half the avocado cubes, and half the cheese. Add more dressing if needed, but be careful not to overdress. Serve on chilled salad plates, garnished with the remaining avocado and cheese.
After reading yet another post extolling the virtues of making your own ginger beer, I decided to take the plunge. Aside from the tedious (but strangely relaxing) task of peeling and grating 2 pounds of fresh ginger, it’s quite a simple operation.
Dale DeGroff’s homemade ginger beer recipe — recommended by Robert at Explore the Pour — isn’t very sweet at all: A mere 3/4 cup of sugar to 2 gallons water. If you want sweetness in your drink, it’s simply a matter of adding simple syrup to taste. Starting with a barely-sweetened ale, you’ve got the flexibility to use liqueurs or flavored syrups without fear of a cloying end result.
Other than a prominent ginger taste, the largest difference between the commercial stuff and the homemade variety is a lack of fizz. I experimented with carbonating part of my batch by running it through a soda siphon; it worked, although perhaps a bit too well. The relatively dense liquid hung on to the CO2 bubbles better than plain water would, resulting in a thick-headed mess. Not wanting to waste any of my brew, I emptied the contents of the siphon into pint glasses, allowed the foam to subside, and funnelled the result into an empty bubbly bottle (which I capped with a spring-loaded Champagne saver). The end result: A lightly carbonated, highly gingery, very dry ginger beer.
Of course, there’s no shortage of good cocktails that use ginger ale as a base: Moscow Mule, Headless Horseman, and Dark & Stormy, to name just three. But this week’s entertaining schedule included a fair number of parents with a sharp eye on their little ones. You can’t just whip up a strong cocktail under these sorts of circumstances (no matter how tempting it may appear to the bartender).
Riffing on Audrey Saunders’ Gin-Gin Mule, an increasingly popular Moscow Mule variation, I combined my ginger beer with the usual gin, lime, and mint, but in a simpler, lighter arrangement. No muddling, less gin, less lime, and a little added fizz… a few variations and you’ve got breezy Mule alternative that’s not the least bit watered down. It’s a faintly boozy drink, a good option when entertaining guests who lack the cocktail gene, or when the weather’s hot enough for multiple cold beverages around the barbecue. In short, it’s a perfect Drink of the Week for summer’s first long weekend.
1/2 oz simple syrup (mint or rosemary flavored, if possible)
1 to 1.5 oz dry gin
4 oz homemade ginger beer
juice of 1/4 to 1/2 lime
In a 12 oz highball glass filled with ice, combine the syrup, gin, ginger beer, and lime juice. Top with soda water to fill, and garnish with a mint sprig.
If you’re using commercial ginger ale, be sure to pick a quality brand with plenty of bite. Skip the soda water and reduce or eliminate the syrup, depending on the sweetness of your mixer; the end result will be more along the lines of a Shady Grove. If you decide to make your own ginger beer, be forwarned that DeGroff’s recipe yields a generous two gallons. It freezes well, however.
Sometimes, we just don’t post because we’re not eating anything interesting, and there’s just nothing to talk about. But I can assure you, that has NOT been the case these last couple of weeks. We’ve been eating our way around the bay, scheduled to the breaking point: Out of the last 11 evenings, we’ve had nine social engagements. No wonder I’m exhausted!
Our little foodie death march all started back on Tuesday the 15th, with my second of four sessions in Kasma Loha-unchit’s Thai cooking classes. I’ll post a complete wrap up at the end of the series, but suffice to say that if you’re looking to learn more about Thai cooking, look no further.
Then that Wednesday, we met up with DPaul and Sean to say farewell to our mutual friend Matt (who’s taking a sabbatical from San Francisco for a while) over a sangria-soaked supper at Piqueo’s, Bernal Heights’ new Peruvian cevicheria and small-plates joint. Although the impossibly long menu was nearly entirely different from our first visit a month or so ago, we enjoyed almost everything we’ve tried there so far.
Thursday of the same week found us stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge approach, on our way to The Blue Door at Berkeley Rep. A car-snarl from hell — more than an hour from SoMa to the Bridge, thanks — meant we missed our Downtown reservations by more than an hour (we called!) and our consolation snack at North Beach Pizza was grim in every way possible. Truly, we were expecting mediocre but fast, and ended up with slow and barely edible.
Saturday we hit the Ferry Building market in the morning, running into Tea at the Rancho Gordo stand. Farmer Steve’s sure the popular boy these days, with dozens of folks stopping by to congratulate him on his much-publicized (and bilingual!) defense against Carlo Petrini’s ill-mannered slagging of the FPFM’s farmers and customers alike. Everyone must’ve bought a bag or three of beans as they stopped by to say “Good on yeh!” to Mr. Sando — many varieties were already sold out by the time we strolled up.
That same afternoon, we hosted two sets of friends and their 2-year-olds for a summer supper of bacon-cheeseburgers, mac salad, and red cabbage slaw, with complete strawberry crisp for dessert. The junior guests had as much fun as their mommies and daddies: Little Toby rocked out on guitar with Cameron, and Miss Martha endeared herself to everyone with sweet hugs and adorable curiosity.
Monday night, an impromptu get-together chez nous. Tea was in town for the week, so we invited her, plus DPaul and Sean (are they sick of us yet?) — and their sweetie-pie girl Reese — over for dinner. We snacked on pencil-thin asparagus dipped in homemade aioli while we tried out yet another recipe for grilled pizza. I’m still not convinced we’ve found a keeper in the pizza department, but the season’s first peach cobbler proved a hit all around. And when we saw Tea later in the week, she declared that the chopped salad we served with the pizza had earned a slot on the menu of foods she expects to find in heaven. (Flattery like that will get you invited back!)
Tuesday was Thai cooking class again, and Wednesday another dinner to-do: Cameron’s cousins and their 2-year-old (we’re toddler magnets!) were in town from Houston, on their way to Yosemite for the long weekend. Little Camden gobbled a Prather Ranch hot dog while the grownups feasted on tri-tip grilled up Santa Maria style (rubbed with an equal mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic powder moistened with oil), sliced thin and served with guacamole on Rancho Gordo tortillas, with a side of beans a la charra. And yes, another quickie dessert: Pear-rosemary crumble, and vanilla ice cream.
Tonight we met up with a gaggle of cool food bloggers from SF, the East Bay and beyond for dinner at Berkeley’s stalwart O Chame. We loved every appetizer we shared — especially the seared ahi cubes and their lovely horseradish drizzle, the grilled shiitake mushrooms with fresh asparagus, and the snackalicious green-onion pancake blocks. Our soba and udon bowls were so-so (flavorful broth, but overdone noodles) but scoops of balsamic vinegar caramel ice cream were hauntingly good… and rapidly gone.
A short stroll down 4th Street led us to Cody’s Books, where we listened to the charming Clotilde speak about her progression from software developer to food blogger to published cookbook author. She gave us all a chuckle when she spoke of the oddness of being a Frenchwoman writing an English-language food blog — to the consternation of some of her compatriots, she confessed — and her passion for ‘dangerous’ recipes like souffles and gougeres, where a cook never knows whether she’s destined for dinner or disaster. (Clotilde’s signing books Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, in case you’d like to meet her and get a copy of her lovely new book.)
Tomorrow? Ugh. I’m more than a little bit sick of cooking, and yet I don’t think I could bear the pressure of going out somewhere new, or even someplace fancy. So… we have reservations at Range, our delightful standby, where they know us just well enough that we can all relax, but not so well that we have to be social. I’m liking that idea a lot. I wouldn’t have missed a single night of the last 2 weeks, but I am sure glad that it’s done.
I’m half hoping that the bounty of the farmers market on Saturday snaps me out of my apathy, but I won’t be surprised (or even too sad) to find that I’ve burned out on planning, prepping, and putting food on the table… at least for a while. We’ve got a freezer full of incredible leftovers from the last six weeks of new-kitchen cooking frenzy, so it’s not like we’ll go hungry.
As we slow down a bit, I’m aiming to do a better job posting here on a more-regular basis. I’ve got a backlog — five posts’ worth and counting — of recipes, photos and stories that should last through a week of diminished cooking capacity. In the meantime, I’ll tide you over with a recipe for an simple (but apparently impressive) salad that’s quick enough for everyday, but with a just enough company-class touches for a weeknight dinner party on the fly. You can vary the vinegar, the cheese, the herbs, and even the olives to complement your main course.
Heavenly Chopped Salad
(adapted from Food & Wine, September 2006)
2 T mild vinegar (such as cider, champagne or sherry)
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 small shallot, chopped fine
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups chopped lettuce or baby greens
4-5 small Belgian endive (preferably red) halved, cored and coarsely chopped
1 English or Japanese cucumber, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
2T to 1/4 cup coarsely chopped chives (or other herbs, as you prefer)
3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved (or other olives)
1/2 pound feta (or bleu) cheese, crumbled
Whisk the vinegar, lemon juice, and shallot in a medium bowl. Whisk in the oil until emulsified, and season the dressing with salt and pepper.
Combine the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl. Add half of the dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and toss. Add the remaining dressing (or less, to taste) toss again, and serve.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a sucker for any drink made with green Chartreuse. But I hadn’t found many cocktails that used the yellow version to good effect until Murray made me an Amber Dream during our most recent visit. This one’s a definite keeper; the gin and the vermouth counter the liqueur’s abundant sweetness.
As I sipped my Amber Dream, our friend Jason appeared beside me, grinning at his cleverness in having tracked us down. It dawned on me almost immediately that Jason’s wife is named Amber. Strange coincidence, no?
Jason and Amber welcomed their first baby Tuesday night, so now the drink is doubly apt: With little Cooper’s arrival, I’d guess there won’t be a lot of dreaming for Amber — or Zig Zag cocktails for Jason — for a while.
A number of recipes call for the drink to be garnished with a flamed orange peel, but just as many leave the cocktail ungarnished. And there seems to be some difference of opinion regarding the bitters, whether aromatic or orange are preferred. (If you prefer a garnish-free version, the orange bitters seem like a smarter accent, in order to keep at least some of the citrus tones in place.) Some recipes call explicitly for French sweet vermouth, and still others favor an Old Fashioned glass — and rocks — to the standard v-stem/up configuration.
Needless to say, there’s plenty of room here for tinkering. Try out a couple of variations, and raise a toast to the littlest foodie in our circle and his proud parents.
1-1/2 oz dry gin
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz yellow Chartreuse
1 dash orange or aromatic bitters
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a flamed orange peel, if desired.
Seattle must have missed us, because she tucked away her raincoat and put on her cutest spring dress for our recent three-day-weekend trip. Not that we would have cared if it had poured rain for 72 straight hours. Well, maybe a little. But the sunshine rounded out an amazing trifecta of food, friends, and fantastic weather.
As soon as we checked in at the hotel, we headed over to ‘Seattle Customs and Immigration’, better known as the Zig Zag Cafe. Anita has already posted about that stop, but I’ll just add that the joint was as packed as we’ve ever seen it. The revival of the cocktail and a couple of years of steady national press, including a spot for Murray on Playboy’s Top 10 American Bartenders list, have alerted the rest of the world to the magic happening there.
We usually keep to ourselves on our first night in Jet City, but we weren’t surprised to run into several friends at the Zig Zag, including Rocky (a.k.a. Old Two Livers). When the lights went on and the chairs went up on the tables, we followed Rocky to The Purple Dot in the International District. The menu at the Purple Dot reads like a description of a catering accident at the United Nations, and we took full advantage, ordering beef internal delicacies (belly, tendon, and tripe), soup noodles with beef and fish balls, beef curry, spaghetti with ham and chicken, and salt-and-pepper pork ribs. This is stuff that’s meant to be eaten at 3am with a serious load on, but I’d go back for those ribs at any time of day or night.
Dawn’s early light made way too much noise on Saturday morning, accompanied by a call at 7:30am from our remodel contractor spouting incomprehensible (and ultimately inessential) gibberish. Seeing round out of one eye and square out of the other, we shaped up as best we could and set course for the Steelhead Diner by way of the Daily Dozen Donut Company at Pike Place Market.
We figured that a mixed dozen baby doughnuts would be essential sustenance for a wait for brunch at the Steelhead, as it was close to noon on a bee-yoo-tifful Saturday. There was no line, but we killed some time snarfing doughnuts and replenishing the world’s stock of pictures of the Market’s famous sign. As it turned out, that bag of pastry would be the best thing that we’d eat that morning.
Despite a promising menu packed with foodstuffs from local purveyors, the half-empty Steelhead took nearly 45 minutes to deliver disappointment on white plates. The fish portion of my fish and chips was pretty good, but the chips absolutely sucked. The whole plate cost $16, and they didn’t even put bourbon in it or anything. Anita’s eggs Ellenburg — a Sysco-style chicken-fried steak topped with (broken!) fried eggs and a terrible sausage gravy — was stunningly bad.
Salvation lay only a couple of hours away. When the mid-afternoon turned peckish, we decided to visit our friend Jason at his ‘office’: Pagliacci Pizzeria in Lower Queen Anne. We ordered a couple of slices, sampled the monthly special ‘za (Portabello Primo: yum!), and re-acquainted ourselves with the sorely missed Pagliaccio salad.
After a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up, we met a crew of friends for drinks at the stylish, strikingly beautiful Vessel. Read Anita’s review and go now: This winning combination of smart, solid cocktails, tasty nibbles, and attentive, welcoming service is already drawing crowds.
From Vessel, we taxi-ed over to Tavolata, a new Belltown Italian venture from Union superchef Ethan Stowell. With a little help from a friendly kitchen, our posse of eight serious eaters managed to sample almost the entire menu. It was all very, very good, right down to the lemon zeppole for dessert. (How can you argue with a day that begins and ends with doughnuts?)
Two weeks later, Anita is still dreaming about this meal. Ethan’s crew is making most of their pasta from scratch in a basement workroom filled with flour-grinders, dough-extruders, and restaurant-sized rollers. And, while the secondi are glorious — both the Fiorentina-style T-bone and the double-cut pork chop are among the best meat dishes of the year so far — the pasta is amazing and totally different than anything else in town. Out of a near-dozen options, we sampled eight and there wasn’t a clinker in the bunch, from familiar standbys like a heart-stoppingly good rigatoni in tomato sauce to more-adventurous recipes like gnocchi with bitter greens.
Mind you, this was after we’d eaten our fill of gorgeous starters like cork-shaped fried polenta with bagna cauda, asparagus and fried duck egg topped with shaved Parmesan, octopus and bean salad (which will win over tentacle haters), and house-made mozzarella cheese served with a hazlenut-butter crostino. And they serve all of this gorgeous fare until 1am daily — sure beats the pants off of Beth’s.
One of the pleasant hazards of visiting our second home city is that we have a long list of ways to complete the sentence, “A visit to Seattle wouldn’t be complete without…” Sunday morning, the Mad Libs answer was, “brunch at Cafe Campagne with friends: ouefs en meurette, ouefs en cocotte, bloody marys, and bowls of cafe au lait.” We filled in another blank later that day with “…pizza and pasta at Cafe Lago,” with Tea and Carla.
Our last day was a bit of a struggle, food-wise. Breakfast: indifferent ouefs plats (but fabulous conversation and to-die-for morning light) at Le Pichet. Lunch: Lots of laughter (and friendly staff) at Bernard’s on Seneca, a “morbid curiosity” favorite as much for its “Germans storming the castle” decor as for the surreal food.
The lone bright spot for our tastebuds on Monday was a pint of cream ale at Hale’s Ales. We knew better than to try and eat at the pub, and decided to grab a pre-flight late afternoon snack at Baguette Box as we passed through lower Cap Hill. Can we say it? We are completely over this place. Every time we go, poor execution torpedoes a nifty “bahn mi-goes-global” sandwich-shop concept. And they’re always out of the first two things I want to eat… argh.
The rain began to fall as we drove south to the airport, and the droplets obscured the glimpses that we were catching of the skirts of Rainier. The distant mountain just barely peeked through the haze that erases her enormous presence even when the day seems clear and bright. We waved and said goodbye. Maybe she’d come out for our next visit — one of the many dear friends that we look forward to seeing again.
ps: You can see photos from all 15(!) food and drink stops in our Seattle Collection.
Purple Dot Cafe
515 Maynard Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98104
Daily Dozen Donut Company
93 Pike Street (Pike Place Market)
Seattle, WA 98101
95 Pine Street
Seattle, WA 98101
550 Queen Anne Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98109
2323 Second Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121
1600 Post Alley
Seattle, WA 98101
2305 24th Avenue East
Seattle, WA 98112
1933 First Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
Bernard’s on Seneca
315 Seneca Street
Seattle, WA 98101
Hale’s Ales Pub
4301 Leary Way NW
Seattle, WA 98107
1203 Pine Street
Seattle, WA 98101
Damn you, Seattle. How can a small city have such an enviable concentration of great watering holes? San Francisco may have a cocktail scene, but so few of our places — especially the ones that turn up on those maddening “best cocktails” lists — are actually worthy of their hype. And yet, inconceivably, Seattle is now home to not one but two drinking establishments that make me want spend every summer weekend in the land of 10pm sunsets.
I never thought any other Seattle bar would turn my head so long as the Zig Zag Cafe served liquor and Murray Stenson tended bar, but now… hang it all, now there’s Vessel, too. Where Zig Zag is cozy, Vessel is swanky. Contrasting all the ways that the Zig Zag crew embodies unpretentious craftsmanship, Vessel’s staff leans toward the amusingly purist. (Shall we cheer or sneer at phrases like “juniper- and citrus-infused vodka” used to woo gin-phobic drinkers?)
Just like in my dreams, Zig Zag bathes in rose-tinted shadows; Vessel goes for the green with a vengeance. Where Zig Zag settles in for the night in warm woods and textured concrete, Vessel puts itself right on display with walls of glass, dark metal accents, and Philippe Starck chairs. The almost-windowless Zig Zag feels sultrily subterranean, whereas Vessel’s mezzanines and vitrines perch you high among Fifth Avenue’s glowing treetops.
And yet, both establishments converge in the expected place: An unwavering commitment to classic and creative cocktails. One early Saturday evening, a single bartender and waitress kept pace with the steady libational needs of our crew of eight (nearly all serious drinkers and drink-makers), putting together bullseye-solid renditions of drinks from their own menu — a pleasant mix of old standbys and original creations — plus more than a couple of tricky off-list requests from the peanut gallery.
For such an unrepentantly contemporary space, Vessel manages to be cozy and comfortable. Within the 1920s-era Skinner Building’s gorgeous old bones, a hive of brightly colored walls, modern furniture, and architectural lighting comes together to create an environment that wouldn’t feel out of place in a European capital. And in lieu of the usual V-stem cocktail glasses, Vessel serves its shaken-and-stirred drinks in gorgeous crystal champagne coupes. (Maddeningly, they’re from a Speigelau line that’s unavailable here. Any readers abroad want to buy us a case and trade for something you can’t get locally?)
Order the house cocktail, dubbed Vessel 75 — not an homage to the same-numbered gin-and-Champagne drink, but a nod to the last warcraft constructed in Seattle’s shipbuilding heyday — and you’ll be served Old Fashioned-like blend of bourbon, bitters, and orange zest. It’s topped with a gimmicky (yet completely lip-smacking) maple syrup foam… it works, yes indeed.
I had a chance to sample a Seelbach, a two-time entrant in last month’s MxMo roundup, and found the Vessel version nicely balanced. Aviations, Manhattans, ‘Ti Punch, Blood & Sand variations… I sipped them all, and loved the lot. And the nibbles our group shared — a charcuterie platter, and an assortment of almonds and olives — were well-constructed enough that I’d consider ordering some of the more-ambitious offerings next time.
I’ll be the first to admit that a couple of rounds of pre-dinner cocktails may not be a solid way to judge the depth of any bar’s talents and charms. But I will say that on the rare occasion when I’m just not in the mood for a trip down to the Hillclimb, or when I’m feeling glittery and uptown, it’s nice to know that Vessel’s garnered enough of a following among Seattle’s cocktail cognoscenti that we’ll have another worthy place to drink in our second hometown.
1321 Fifth Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
- Monday through Friday from 11:30a; weekends from 4p
I can’t remember exactly when I first tried a tequila and tonic, but I can remember why: I was searching for a standard drink. I wanted to have a drink in my mental back pocket that I could order when the specialty cocktail list got too goofy. Or when I’d arrived late and everyone else was already halfway through their glasses and a waitress was asking, “And can I get you anything?” as she whooshed by on her way to another table. An easily-described drink made out of ingredients available pretty much anywhere, one that even the most ham-handed bartender couldn’t screw up too badly.
I started from a gin and tonic baseline. Rum and tonic was too sweet. Vodka and tonic just tasted like tonic. I never tried bourbon and tonic, because that’s just too weird even for me. But one night I asked for a tequila and tonic with a lime, and I’ve never looked back. Tequila and tonic trades on the same bittersweet, citrus pleasures as the gin and tonic, but substitutes spicy roundness for medicinal bite.
These days, I’m looking forward to a tequila and tonic at the homestead even more than usual, as the renewed national interest in cocktails has spawned a couple of boutique tonic waters. So, as part of the Drink of the Week and Mixology Monday festivities, we rounded up a couple of the new entries–Stirrings and Fever Tree–to put them to the test against the supermarket standbys: Schweppes and Canada Dry.
The results were interesting. Canada Dry was the clear loser with a Two Tongues Stuck Out in Disgust rating; “Overly sweet and chemical-tasting,” said our panel. Our tasters were also a bit disappointed by the Stirrings tonic. It had the advantage of tasting like natural product, but was nearly as sweet and oddly fruity as the Canada Dry. The second mass-market entry, Schweppes, fared better, although it brought out the boozy, horse-blanket nature of the tequila. The overall winner was the Fever Tree tonic, which balanced sweet and bitter and added welcome herbal notes.
Purely in the interest of science, we also compared the two supermarket brands in multiple formats: 10-ounce bar bottles and liter-sized big ‘uns. Just as I’ve always thought, the contents of the larger bottles were OK when fresh, but quickly took a turn for the flat and lackluster, which further exacerbated their chemical-y, medicinal undertones.
Tequila & Tonic
2 oz. aged tequila (we use El Jimador Reposado)
3-4 oz. good-quality tonic
lime wedge, for garnish
Build over ice. Sip suavely, Rico.
I’m slightly obsessed with my tattered copy of Big Bowl Noodles and Rice by Asian food guru Bruce Cost. It’s my first choice when I need a comforting stir-fry or noodle dish, especially when I’m in the mood for Eastern flavors without a lot of fuss. But last week, while staring down a bunch of asparagus and looking for a suitable stir-fry side-dish, I came across one recipe that, shockingly, I’d never tried.
Like so many Big Bowl recipes, this salad manages to achieve a completely authentic flavor without any oddball ingredients. (Don’t get me wrong: I love the bottom shelf of my pantry, stocked with goodies from Uwajimaya and 99 Ranch, but sometimes even adventurous cooks don’t want another sticky bottle of imported exotica.) The simple dressing allows the natural beauty of perfectly fresh asparagus — one of my true springtime delights — to shine through, complementing and highlighting the fresh crispness without muddying flavors with overwhelming ingredients.
Asparagus Salad with Sesame Seeds
1 T sesame seeds
1 bunch (approximately 1 pound) fresh asparagus
2 tsp. rice-wine vinegar
3/4 tsp. red-wine vinegar
3/4 tsp. soy sauce or fish sauce
3/4 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 T fine peanut oil
2 tsp. sesame oil
In a small skillet, toast the sesame seeds until golden, shaking the pan so they don’t burn.
Remove any woody ends of the asparagus, cut the stalks into 2-inch lengths. Parboil them in 6 cups of heavily salted water for 2 to 3 minutes, depending on their thickness. Drain and run under cold water to stop cooking. Dry thoroughly. (Once perfectly dry, the asparagus may be chilled, overnight, in a loosely covered container. If you leave any moisture, it will make the spears mushy.)
Mix together the vinegars, soy or fish sauce, sugar, and mustard. Whisk in the oils, as you would for a vinaigrette. Toss the dressing with the asparagus, and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.