Movin’ up to the Eastside

Posted by Anita on 10.01.06 3:07 PM

onion pancake (c)2006 AECA recurring theme at our house is the sad downward slide into mediocrity that many of our former restaurant favorites have taken. I’m sure we’ve got more than a handful of friends who are thoroughly sick of hearing me crab about how Thep Phanom has languished, for just one example. So we were sad to hear of the departure of the chef (and most of the staff) of our old Seattle haunt, Seven Stars Pepper. Apparently they’re still cranking out decent food, but nothing compared to the mind- (and mouth-) numbingly amazing treats of yore.

Thank the eight immortals that Szechuan Chef is essentially the reincarnation of Seven Stars Pepper. Instead of a dingy Asian mini-mall at 12th and Jackson on the fringe of the International District, you’ll now find yourself at a thoroughly generic strip-mall in the ass-end of Bellevue, which once housed a really skeevy Kmart. (One interesting side note: The drive may be a haul, but the parking lot is a lot less reminiscent of a place where the hero gets jumped in a video game.) And Szechuan Chef has slightly higher pretensions than ol’ Seven Star: better decor, better uniforms, nicer dishes and menus — although the prices remain insanely reasonable. Six of us ordered a thoroughly sufficient amount of food — check out the photos if you don’t believe me — and spent exactly $20 each, including tax and a 20% tip.

Best of all, it seems that much of the kitchen staff and most of the waitresses have followed the chef to his new location, including Ming, the amiable woman who we’ve always called Szechuan Auntie. As we walked through the door Friday, she stopped cold in her tracks and blinked, then walked toward us with outstretched arms and a huge grin.

“I can’t believe it’s you!” she said, cracking a huge grin. Man, we knew we missed her, but we had no idea she missed us, too. She must have come over three times in the next 10 minutes just to explain how surprised / happy / amazed she was to see us. And then she quipped: “I’ll tell them to start your Chong Qin chicken right now!” Wowsa… this doesn’t happen at San Tung.

Never one to tamper with a successful formula, we started out with a pair of old favorites: the green onion pancake and an order of hand-shaven dandan noodles with pork. Both were served promptly and piping hot… and tasted just as good as ever. We waited for one our party to arrive, and enjoyed an array of beverages, including a trio of house-made (but adorably packaged) fruit slushies. And then the food onslaught began. Chong Qin chicken, just as crispy and glorious as in the old days, smoky flash-cooked water spinach (aka ong choy), and many other faves. Even a couple of mis-steps — they were out of shell-on prawns so our salt-and-pepper shrimp came white-people style, and the whole Szechuan fish we thought we were ordering turned out to be chunks — couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm.

It’s good to be missed, but it’s even better to find an old favorite doing even better than you remembered.

Szechuan Chef
15015 Main Street
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.746.9008

restaurants, Seattle
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Union reunion

Posted by Anita on 10.01.06 2:35 PM

union sign (c)2006 AEC Even if you don’t live in Seattle, you’ve probably read plenty about Union, a restaurant that crops up on all the “best-of” lists in glossy food mags. But unlike some hotspots that offer more style than substance, Union actually has the culinary cred to remain a fixture in the fickle downtown scene.

Union splashed onto the foodie radar in fall 2003 by besting the city’s “25 for $25″ promotion with a deal of their own. Just like at the official 25 restaurants, you’d pay just $25 for your November meal at Union. But instead of a cheap appetizer, a meager entree, and a dessert you didn’t want, you’d actually get a full-blown seven-course tasting menu. Needless to say, this made a huge impression on many of our foodie friends — especially when Union reprised the offer in the spring.

Union quickly became known as the place to go for high-end food without the high-end pricetag, a place to enjoy an entire evening’s worth of small, perfectly-exectuted tastes, along with exquisitely paired flights of wine. Even when the $25 deal ended, I think we were paying somewhere in the $75 range for dinner with sommelier-selected wines… an unbeliveable steal of a deal, even in affordable Seattle.

Like all good things, it wouldn’t last. Word ’round the campfire was that Chef Ethan Stowell became frustrated with diners ignoring the a-la-carte side of his menu in favor of the tastings. First the wine pairings disappeared, then the tasting menu shrank to a tiny footnote, eventually disappearing all together. (It’s still available by request for those who ask, but I presume few folks do.) Union’s reinvented itself with a bar menu that would knock the socks off any other restaurant’s main offerings, and it’s paying off: The average age of the clientele has taken a noticable dip, and the buzz near the front windows draws in more customers to fill the main dining room.

The whole place was hopping when we gathered eight of our nearest & dearest on Thursday night for dinner. We’d asked Chef Stowell to return to the days of the tasting menu, and sat at the table just outside the kitchen’s pass. (Pics — such as they are — can be seen here.)

We started out with a salad of tomino cheese, stacked with roasted beets and arugula. Served with a slightly sparkling 2005 Furst Muller-Thurgau, the earthy beets made a convert out of Richard, who just moments before professed his loathing for them. It reminded me of the many times at Union that I’ve eaten things I “knew” I didn’t like, only to discover that I found them much more interesting — and often delicious — when Chef Stowell made them.

Speaking of which… the second course, grilled sardines, came served atop a panzanella that featured tiny breadcubes and baby tomatoes. I’m not a huge fan of sardines, or oily fish in general, but I’ve eaten them plenty of times at Union. I still don’t think I’d go out of my way to order them, but that’s precisely why I love tasting menus. These sardines were quite pungent, but in a flavorful way, and the fresh-crunchy panzanella served as an excellent foil for the fishiness, as did the 2004 Renard Rousanne from the Santa Ynez Valley.

My favorite dish of the evening came next. A signature soup presentation at Union, we were brought bowls with just the garnish — in this case, a poached duck egg and a drizzle of pumpkinseed oil — to which our waiters then added creamy kohlrabi soup. I thought the accompanying 2005 Qupe Chardonnay “Bien Nacidio Y Block” was a touch too oaky-acid for this unctuous soup, but plenty of my friends disagreed. There was no argument that the kohlrabi puree was sublime, as so many of Chef Stowell’s soup courses have always been.

Many at the table felt that the following course of grilled branzino with cranberry beans and parsley pesto was the highlight of the evening. Smoky and perfectly cooked, the firm-fleshed fish worked well with its sides, but I thought the beans were a touch bland. (I think I’m spoiled by all the good heirloom beans we’ve been coooking at home. Even fresh beans can’t compare for me, anymore.) I have no strong memory of the accompanying 2005 Rene Noel Legrand Samur-Champigny “Les Lizieres”, but I’m sure one of my cohorts will step up in the comments section and remind me!

Given the love affair that Northwest chefs have with Wagyu beef, you’d think they’d do a better job of it, on the whole. I’m not the first person to remark that choosing a soft-textured cut like filet mignon when you’re paying for Kobe-style beef is the culinary equivalent of wearing suspenders and a belt: unnecessary and rather foolish. Luckily, this is a principle that Union well understands: Our next course of sirloin steak married the softness of Wagyu with the beefiness of a heartier cut, striking a perfect balance. Cooked on the rare side of medium-rare with a stunning crust, served atop potato puree, Thumbelina carrots and a thyme-heavy red-wine sauce, this was a course for the carnivorous. The 2003 Waters Cabernet Sauvignon set off the heartiness of the beef and the richness of the sauce.

Another Union favorite: pot de creme for dessert. Ours was a chocolate-espresso version served in a demi-tasse, topped with whipped cream and a shaving of cacao nibs mimicking cinnamon sprinkes. With a spot of 1999 Quinta de la Rosa late-bottled port, we had our after-dinner drinks and our ‘coffee’ all at once. Our favorite server (and oft-times maitre d’) Hans took great care of us, and chose an assortment of wines to complement our meal. In many ways, it felt like old times.

Cameron adds: I hadn’t had kohlrabi in at least 25 years and hadn’t missed it much, but one of Chef Stowell’s X-Men powers is an amazing facility with purees, liquids, custards, and creams. It’s like he’s got an extra “texture” sense that the rest of us lack. I also had to smile when the sardines and panzanella course arrived. Anita avoids strongly-flavored fish, and I rank panzanella as one of my least-favorite uses for bread. And yet in the hands of Chef Stowell, Anita found a sardine that she could love and I was able to make peace with bread salad.

Union
1400 First Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
206.838.8000

restaurants, Seattle, wine & bubbly
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I say Salumi

Posted by Anita on 10.01.06 1:35 PM

salumi at Salumi (c)2006 AEC If you’ve read Bill Buford’s Heat, you know about Dario, the Tuscan butcher who taught Mario Batali the arcane mysteries of traditional Italian meat-curing. What you may not know is that Dario also taught Mario’s pop, Armandino, much of what he knows about the art of salumi. There’s even a Dario namesake salami on the menu at Salumi, Batali Senior’s pint-size salumeria near Pioneer Square.

A zillion other bloggers have written about the heady pleasures of Salumi — it seems like dozens of Bay Area folks have trekked to Seattle in the past few weeks, and they all made their dutiful pilgrimage to the altar of pig. And given the breadth of our own ramblngs on the subject over the years, I don’t have a whole lot new to report.

But, following our homesick hearts, we found ourselves casting about for lunch options of Wednesday, and for once we were (a) in town during the week and (b) not otherwise occupied during the slender slice of time that Salumi is open for business.

We shuffled in at the end of the lunch rush, amazed to find one lone Muffo sandwich — Salumi’s take on the muffaletta — waiting for Cameron. Lucky me, I managed to get the very last trio of meatballs (along with some glorious house-made mozzarella) in my own sandwich. Mindful of our upcoming dinner at Union, we grabbed a table, ate exactly half of our sandwiches, and dutifully wrapped up the leftovers. Resisting the siren song of cured meats is never easy, but we both pratcially whimpered as we shuttled the sandwiches back to the hotel mini-fridge.

Armandino’s Salumi
309 3rd Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98104
206.621.8772

literary, lunch, Seattle
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Hot doughnuts? No.

Posted by Anita on 09.29.06 11:01 AM

top pot doughnuts (c)2006 AECAmong Seattleites, Top Pot doughnuts have acquired something of a cult status. When the Seattle Rep coffee bar began offering them a few years ago, for example, they so vastly understimated demand that their entire supply sold out nearly an hour before the curtain went up, leaving not a crumb for late arrivals… much less intermission.

Now we love us some doughnuts, but it took us ages before we managed to get our mitts on a Top Pot. We’d walk by their Belltown location after dinner or a movie, and shake our fists at the darkened storefront — who closes a doughnut shop at 7pm?? (Luckily, the original Capitol Hill shop keeps slightly more-sane hours.)

Ironically enough, it was breakfast time when we finally succeeded in scoring one of these babies. And what an assortment met our hungry eyes: Crullers of all colors, maple bars, sprinkled cake, sugar-glazed…. mmmm. Dense and intense, they’re like the anti-Krispy Kreme: not hot, not fluffy, not angelic in the least. Served alongside custom-roasted coffee, you’ve got yourself a breakfast worth hunting down.

Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts
609 Summit Avenue East
Seattle, WA 98102
206.323.7841

breakfast, coffee & tea, Seattle
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DOTW: Last Word

Posted by Anita on 09.29.06 9:47 AM

last word + murray (c)2006 AECAbout a year into our Great Northwest Experiement, we were both desperately homesick for all of our friends in San Francisco… and utterly sick of trying out restaurants that “everyone” said were great, but that were either nothing special or unspeakably terrible. I think it was Cameron who first started posting on Chowhound’s Northwest forum, looking for better food; I soon joined him, posting reviews of places we tried and hated (usually) or loved (occasionally).

One fine day, a CH poster called MsRamsey sent me an email and told me to check out eGullet. Once we landed on eG, we found a fantabulous crew of like-minded souls — people who knew where to find the really good stuff and weren’t satisfied until they found even more of it. We became great friends with many of these folks over the course of the next couple of years; they became our primary social circle. (The ultimate irony is, of course, we miss the Seattle crew now at least as much as the people we left behind in San Francisco.)

Not long after, three of our foodie friends invited me our for “drinks with the girls” at Zig Zag Cafe, a bar I’d never even heard of, much less visited. Little did I know that I was in for a life-changing experience. I met a man named Murray Stenson that night — a man who would become a friend and a mentor. He made me a drink that night that opened my eyes to the wonders of cocktails beyond plebian Gin & Tonics and Whiskey Sours.

This, ladies and gents, was that drink. It remains a favorite of mine — and retains its place on the Zig Zag menu — to this day.

Last Word
1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. Maraschino liqueur
1/2 oz. green Chartreuse
1/2 oz. lime juice

Shake with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.

bar culture, Drink of the Week, drinks, food boards, recipes, Seattle
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Cafe of my heart

Posted by Anita on 09.28.06 12:49 PM

cafe lago (c)2006 AECThe last few times we’ve come back to Seattle, we’ve filled our schedules with favorites, but somehow managed to leave Cafe Lago out of the mix — a crying shame, given how much we love the place, and what a huge place it occupied in our culinary life when we lived nearby. (Full disclosure: We’ve become friends with the chef-owners, Carla and Jordi… but we were fans first and foremost.)

As we took our seat near the pizza oven, we glanced at the menu full of all our old favorites: antipasti, handmade pastas, salsiccia pizza, grilled sirloin with shoestring fries… sigh. I’m sure it was a combination of exhaustion and sentiment, but I actually caught myself tearing up a little.

We sat back with a couple of cocktails, and — after a brief flirtation with trying something new — ordered what can only be described as “the usual”: Caesar salad and pizza for Cameron, bleu cheese salad and fettucine with meatballs for me. Sure, there were some changes, but all for the better. “My” salad now includes a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which helps cut the salty-creaminess of the bleu cheese dressing. And the special pizza — topped with marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil — served as a nice riff on the menu’s usual Margherita.

We marveled again at how continues to Lago neatly bridge the gap between neighborhood eatery and fine dining. One of the two tables behind ours was occupied by a couple in jeans and T-shirts, another by an elegantly attired pair who might have been headed to the theatre. Service, as always, was perfect: Attentive without smothering, helpful and gracious. We headed back to our hotel content and just a touch homesick, happy to have spent the evening with an old friend.

Cafe Lago
2305 E. 24th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98112
206.329.8005

Italian, restaurants, Seattle
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Catching the Fevre

Posted by Anita on 09.28.06 12:10 PM

fevre cheesesteak (c)2006 AECWe found our friend Carla sitting on a park bench outside Madison Valley’s third — and newest — French eatery, Saint Germain. She told us the manager said he should have a table for us in about 30 minutes — a perfect chance to see what was new in our old ‘hood.

We strolled up Madison, checking out the mommy brigade at Essential, browsing window displays in all the same old shops, strolling around the back past the pocket park, and stopping to admire the vintage-modern design of one of the bungalows on Arthur Place.

As our half-hour ended, we ambled back to le St. G and inquired about the table, noticing that none of the occupants of the bistro’s (admittedly few) tables looked like they had any intention of leaving. The manager sniffed at Carla with a brusque “I have no idea when I can seat you” before blazing past us to fawn on someone else. Oh…kay.

“Cheesesteaks?” said Cameron, as we walked back out to the sidewalk. “Oh, yeah!” we replied, and piled into our rented PT Cruiser.

As we pulled up into a Doris Day parking spot out front of The Fev, Carla confessed from the back seat that she’d never had a cheesesteak. What!? Oh, well… now we know why we had such merde luck — this is obviously fate.

We ordered cheesesteaks, beers and crinkle fries, and sat at the counter watching the cooks dish up food to other customers. We caught up on local gossip as the TV blared images of Terrell Owens issuing a series of bizarre suicide denials… and all was right with the world. Who needs francais when you’ve got the Fevre?

Philadelphia Fevre
2332 E. Madison Street
Seattle, WA 98112
206.323.1000

lunch, restaurants, Seattle
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Good to be home

Posted by Anita on 09.28.06 11:30 AM

violet martini (c)2006 AECBoth of us made it home safely to San Francisco from our various wanderings last week. Words can’t describe how lovely it was to sleep in our bed and cuddle with the dogs.

But, in this case, “home” has an alternate meaning. This week, we’re making a pass through Seattle — our second hometown — en route to a wedding near Portland. As is our custom, we headed straight from the rental-car lot to the Zig Zag Cafe to visit our friend Murray. And as soon as we walked in the door and drank in the pink-tinged light, felt the coziness of the low ceiling envelop us, and caught a smile from behind the bar, I felt my stress level drop a dozen notches. It’s such a cliche… but it’s true: Zig Zag feels like home.

We’d brought Murray a fresh bottle of Carpano Antica, so of course he started us off with little tastes, both of the “king of vermouths” (as it’s known, probably only by its PR agent and people who read their fluff) as well as the two other hard-to-find ingredients that the Zig Zag boys are using to make one hell of a top-shelf Manhattan: Rittenhouse bonded rye, and a new German aromatic bitters called Bitter Truth. The Antica is a lovely sipping vermouth all on its own, with a complexity that makes you understand why folks went to the trouble of resurrecting it. It’s also got a stunning packaging, with a wine-bottle-shaped profile and a gorgeous duotone label. The Bitter Truth bitters lay on the cloves and other sweet spices with a heavy hand — just the way I like it. Cameron couldn’t resist trying the complete cocktail after tasting the components.

Before I had a chance to think much about my thirst-quenching needs, Murray brought out another bottle with a similarly gorgeous label, this time a Japanese creme violette called Hermes Violet — a gift from an admirer in Tokyo, ooh la la. I’d read about violet-flavored liqueuers in cocktail books — Creme Yvette and similar brands were the original third flavor in the Aviation — but for the most part they’re incredibly difficult to find. I’d never even seen a bottle, much less tasted it.

Unsurprisingly, the sweet-syrupy deep-purple-hued concoction tastes just like old-fashoned violet gum or pastilles. Murray made me a “sample” of a martini he’s been serving: Boodles gin and the Hermes Violet, with a lemon twist… oh my. Faintly lavender colored and absolutely subtle at first, it became sweeter and less floral — but no less interesting — as it warmed. This is my kind of cocktail…

bar culture, drinks, Seattle, travel
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Luscious leftovers

Posted by Anita on 09.14.06 4:52 PM

cornbread pudding (c)2006 AECWe had the Prather chili last night. What can I say? Even a few days’ rest in the fridge didn’t make it taste much better. But, while puzzling over what to serve alongside it, I realized that we still had cornbread left over from a batch Cameron made with Bob’s Red Mill coarse-grain cornmeal. It was all dried out, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt terrible throwing out a batch of cornbread just in time to turn around and make a fresh pan. Too bad there wasn’t a way to revive it. Or was there??

Thankfully, I didn’t have to go far for inspiration: One of our favorite chef-type-guys, Tom Douglas, offers recipe for Etta’s Cornbread Pudding in his first cookbook, Seattle Kitchen. I made a few tweaks and voilá… recycled food at its most-utterly luxurious! Custardy, corny goodness with a kiss of cheesy love. Even Cameron — certified bread-pudding loather — licked the bowl clean and asked me to put the recipe in the permanent file.

Tom-Meets-Bob Cornbread Pudding
2-2/3 cups 1-inch cubes of leftover cornbread
– preferably made with coarse-grind, whole-grain cornmeal
1T butter (plus a little more for buttering the pan)
1 cup thinly sliced onions
3/4 cup grated Dry Jack or other semi-hard cheese
2 tsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp. chopped rosemary
1/2 tsp. chopped thyme
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup chicken stock or broth
4 large eggs
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

Preheat oven temperature to 350 degrees. Butter an 8×8* baking dish and set aside.

Melt butter in a sauté pan over medium-low heat and carmelize the onions very slowly until golden brown, at least 20 minutes. While the onions are cooking, cube the cornbread and place cubes in the buttered pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the cream, stock or broth, eggs, salt and pepper and set aside.

When onions are done, sprinkle them evenly over the cornbread, followed by the cheese and herbs. Pour custard mixture over the cornbread cubes, and let sit for 10 minutes to absorb. Bake until custard is mostly set and the top is golden, about 40-45 minutes, and serve hot.

* Note: A 9×9 square pan is too large; the custard won’t adequately cover the bread cubes. Use a pan with a maximum bottom area of 64 square inches. A deep 9-inch round cake pan would do, as would a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan. I happen to have a rectangular 6×8 inch Pyrex baking dish that worked fabulously.

cookbooks, cooking, recipes, restaurants, Seattle
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Hot links!

Posted by Anita on 09.12.06 1:52 PM

FairTip logoSeems like today’s a big food-news day, and I couldn’t resist sharing some of the headlines.

Another hilarious coffee-related news article from Seattle: Baristas having a cow over dairy “thefts”.

The AP latches onto a blogosphere favorite: Waiters get miffed about the unfairness of tipping.

Do we need smart linen? The Chron reports on a new high-tech, E. coli-detecting napkin.

And apparently they’re eating raw crabs in The OC… and getting really sick.

coffee & tea, geekery, news, restaurants, Seattle, SoCal
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