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Athens Restaurants

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment
Five Points, Athens, Georgia

Five Points, Athens, Georgia

First off, I should clarify that I’m talking about the Athens in Georgia, not Greece, and about Georgia the US state, not Georgia the country in the Caucasus.

As I’ve indicated in previous posts, we flew down to Atlanta from New York last Sunday, then drove to Athens, home of the University of Georgia and fifth largest city in the state. (What’s bigger? Atlanta of course. Also Augusta, Columbus, Savannah.)

That night we had our first of many superb meals, though not at a restaurant. This one was at Dan and RuthElizabeth’s home. Ribs, macaroni and cheese, green beans and Vidalia onions (with or without bacon). A great introduction to southern cooking, even if Dan’s from right here in greater Seattle and RuthElizabeth is from Syracuse. And the red velvet cupcakes that their daughter made were a perfect ending.

Monday morning, Gail and I explored the university and downtown. Having not eaten a real breakfast, we were hungry, so we stopped for an early lunch downtown at Al’s Beef, a Chicago chain whose only non-Illinois locations for now are in Athens and Scottdale. Why Athens has one is a mystery, but I tell you what—if you stumble on an Al’s Beef somewhere, give it a try. It’s implausibly good. We both tried their classic, the Al’s Italian Beef with hot and sweet peppers and provolone.

alsbeef

The Masters golf tournament may be what brought us to Georgia, but once we decided to make Athens our home base (getting accommodations in Augusta would have been hopeless by the time we decided to use the tickets we won in the Masters lottery), a visit to UGA’s math department also became part of the plan, thanks to Dan’s kind invitation. I spent the afternoon in the department, after which we were taken out to dinner at 5 & 10, just down the street from campus at Five Points, pictured above.

5&10

This place is great. It is owned by Hugh Acheson. From the website:

Five & Ten is Hugh’s flagship restaurant, started from scratch in 2000. “The menu,” says Hugh, “has always been an open interpretation of Southern food, melding Georgia cookery with French and Italian influences I learned growing up. It’s been a very fun restaurant over the years.”

Acheson’s fresh approach to Southern food has earned him a great deal of recognition including Food & Wine’s Best New Chef (2002), the Atlanta Journal Constitution Restaurant of the Year (2007), a James Beard winner for Best Chef Southeast in 2012, a 2007 Rising Star and 2012 winner of the Mentor Chef award from StarChefs.com.

In 2012, the James Beard Foundation awarded Hugh’s first cookbook A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, published by Clarkson Potter, Best Cookbook in the field of American Cooking.

newturninsouth

Gail and I shared two appetizers. One is described on the menu as 5&10 “Little Ears Pasta” stinging nettles, garlic sausage, favas, calabrian peppers, lemon. The other was Romaine Hearts classic caesar dressing, crisp parmesan, bacon, pressed bread. I started with the Caesar and didn’t want to give it up. But once I switched to the pasta, I wished I had more of that.

For the main dish, Gail had Low Country Frogmore Stew gulf shrimp, potatoes, corn, andouille, leek & tomato broth and grilled bread. I’m not a big shrimp eater, but it looked fabulous. And at the end Gail let me try it. Fabulous indeed. I had the Roasted Hanger Steak, anson mills farro, fiddlehead ferns, beet greens, abalone mushrooms. No, that doesn’t sound right. It’s what’s on the online menu, but I didn’t have farro. I had oats. Incredibly good oats, as was everything else.

They have an extensive wine list, plus additional choices by the glass. I tried a glass of Sicilian red, as did Brian. Gail had a rosé, and later a syrah-grenache blend, both French. I can’t remember what, but all were good.

For dessert, in addition to their pastries, they have a daily selection of ice cream, sorbet, and cookies. I went for a scoop of coconut ice cream and an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. I can’t remember what Gail had. The online menu lists Chocolate Nemesis cake with malt ice cream, white chocolate crumb, brandied cherries, bruleed banana, whipped cream. I know she didn’t have that, but maybe she had a variant.

I was learning fast that people eat well in Athens.

Tuesday was Masters day. We were on the road to Augusta with Dan and RE by 6:45 in the morning, back around 7:15 in the evening. Once we collected the girls (well, they were collected in stages, but no matter), we headed to Cali-N-Tito’s, which is just a block up from 5 & 10, in walking distance of both our on-campus hotel and Dan and RE’s house. It’s a Cuban restaurant, the kind of place where you order and pay at the counter, take a number, and wait for the food to be brought to your table. The line to order was about 25 minutes long, giving Gail and me loads of time to study the menu.

Given Cali-N-Titos’ proximity to campus and the preponderance of students among the diners, I might have had low expectations if not for Dan and RE’s having chosen it. The food came quickly after ordering, and it was good. More than good. I’ve never had a better Cubano sandwich. Standards are high in Athens.

Wednesday Dan and RE joined us for a tour of UGA’s Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. It’s the UGA sports Hall of Fame—the central atrium anyway—with the offices of the Department of Athletics, workout space, and more in the corners and below. And it’s amazing, to the extent that a university sports museum can be amazing. National championship trophies, Heisman trophies, history, photos, old football helmets, and on and on. One could wander the space for hours.

UGAhelmets

Next stop was the Georgia Museum of Art, the university art museum that doubles as the state art museum. We were running into time pressure at this point, since we were all supposed to meet Natalie (another Washington native who has found her way to Athens) for lunch, after which Dan and Natalie had to get on with their days. So we cut the museum visit short in order to get over to The Grit.

Natalie had suggested The Grit while we were texting back and forth from the art museum, and I remembered reading about it before the trip, so I instantly agreed. We would meet up in about half an hour, with Gail and me returning to the museum on our own after lunch.

According to The Grit’s wikipedia entry—which is where I must have read about it, since the website information is minimal—

The Grit is perhaps best known for its relationship to the Athens music scene. It is located on the edge of downtown Athens, site of numerous performance venues. The Grit is a popular stop for touring performers and local musicians. Although he is not involved in the operation of the restaurant, the building is owned by R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe. In 2001 the restaurant’s owners published The Grit Cookbook: World-Wise, Down-Home Recipes, which contains testimonials from many of The Grit’s fans in the music industry and elsewhere. Admirers included Stipe, Kate Pierson (of the B-52’s), Kevn Kinney, Vic Chesnutt and Spalding Gray, along with members of Pylon, Widespread Panic, Fugazi, The Jayhawks, Counting Crows, and even Hee Haw’s Marianne Rogers. The Grit’s menu is entirely vegetarian, and a significant portion of items are vegan.

And from the website:

If you’ve never visited The Grit, you should know that we’ve been an old favorite in Athens, GA for more than two decades. We serve vegetarian food in a way that appeals to ALL kinds of eaters. The lure of delicious homemade food served in generous portions at inexpensive prices, coupled with a lovingly restored pair of handsome dining rooms in a splendid historic building…it all brings people back and back again. So again, welcome to TheGrit.com!

gritcookbook

I started with the day’s soup special, the lentil soup, though the split pea dal sounded tempting too. Then I had the Falafel Platter: Five chickpea fritters served with lemon-tahini dressing, pita points, cucumbers, carrots, celery and radishes. I’ve been eating falafel a long time. Like, since my Israeli cousin ordered them for me in an Arab restaurant in Jaffa in July 1970. And these were as good as any I’ve ever had. Tasty and light.

Another option is The Grit Veggie Plate, in which you choose three items from among the dishes on the special board or from a selection of regular menu items. Gail went for this. I can’t remember which three she chose, other than one being two falafels and another being one of the soups. Maybe the other special of the day, a bean soup. Oh, and tabouli salad. She was as delighted as I was.

We don’t seem to get to vegetarian restaurants too often. One thing we realized is that when it comes to desserts, their offerings aren’t much different from the offerings of non-vegetarian restaurants. For instance, a beautiful red velvet cake from which one can order slices. And homemade cookies. Natalie and I split a cookie. We all shared a slice of cake.

The Grit’s website description is accurate. Their food does appeal to “ALL kinds of eaters.” It is indeed “delicious homemade food served in generous portions at inexpensive prices, coupled with a lovingly restored pair of handsome dining rooms in a splendid historic building.” And it would bring me “back and back again.”

That last line applies, by the way, to Athens dining—and Athens—in general. I’m hooked.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

La Grenouille

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

lagrenouille

I’ve developed a backlog of over a dozen posts, partially listed here last night. With this post, I begin the process of digging myself out.

Two Thursdays ago, Gail and I flew to New York on the occasion of my mother’s 93rd birthday. I wrote a week ago about our dinner that evening with my sister, my cousin, and their spouses at a place on 84th called Italianissimo, and about Joel’s arrival from LaGuardia (and North Carolina) late in the meal. The next day was the birthday, which we celebrated with a meal at New York’s great French restaurant La Grenouille.

La Grenouille celebrated its 50th anniversary this past December. From the website, we are told that it “serves classic French cuisine and spontaneous creations in a glowing setting that many consider home.” Among those people would be my parents, who have eaten there many times over the last five decades. I believe I ate there twice—back in the 1970s—but not since.

grenouille2

The dining room is beautiful, as the photo above from their website may suggest. And the service is impeccable. While waiting for the rest of the family to arrive, we were offered bread that was a treat on its own.

grenoillebread

To start, I chose Le Potage Saint Germain, or the “Saint Germain” Split Green Pea Soup. Perhaps I should have been more adventurous. Joel had the Pâté de Campagne et Céleri Remoulade, or Country Pâté with Celery Root “Remoulade”. Gail might have had Le Confit de Canard au Pistou, or Duck Confit With “Pistou”. (These descriptions are all as on the online lunch menu.) But I was extremely happy with my soup.

For a main dish, one simply can’t go wrong with their classic sole: La Sole Grillée, Sauce Moutarde, or Grilled Dover Sole, Mustard Sauce. Four of us had it. Before filleting it, they brought a platter with the four servings to show us, then carried it to a side table where it was placed on a warming tray and prepared. I miss sole here in Seattle. Gail keeps telling me that it’s readily available, but mostly what I see on menus is salmon and halibut. The sole was perfect.

Once again, I’m having difficulty remembering what Gail chose. Joel had Les Quenelles de Brochet “Lyonnaise”, or “Quenelles” of Pike “Lyonnaise”. Maybe Gail did too.

The online dessert menu doesn’t seem to match up well with what we had. We were asked as we ordered the main meal if we wanted some of the options that take extra preparation, like soufflés. (According to the menu, there are three options: Grand Marnier, Chocolat ou Citron “Meyer”. Other options offered were an apple tart and a tarte tatin. I chose the apple tart, Gail one of the soufflés. Once again, I couldn’t be happier. The meal was delicious, the service both warm and unobtrusive.

I ought to have more to say, but I don’t remember much more of interest. There was a salmon special that both my parents had. I believe my sister had the tarte tatin. Maybe my brother too. Well, suffice to say that I’ll be happy not to wait another 35 years before returning.

Categories: Family, Restaurants

Catchup Time Coming Soon

April 13, 2013 Leave a comment
All the Devils, RA Miller, enamel paint on barn door, Georgia Museum of Art

All the Devils, R.A. Miller, enamel paint on barn door, Georgia Museum of Art

With work and travel, I haven’t been posting, being content instead to add to my coming attractions list (here and here). One more time, with catchup scheduled to begin tomorrow, if I can tear myself away from final-round Masters coverage.

The list so far:

1. Lunch two Fridays ago at La Grenouille, one of the great restaurants of New York.

lagrenouille

2. Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be , which I started reading on the plane flight to New York two Thursdays ago and finished last Monday.

delbancocollege

3. Hockey on ice. A silly little post about a pun.

4. Our flight to Atlanta last Sunday, views of New York and Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake and downtown Baltimore, and my inability to come up with a clue to the Delta flight magazine crossword puzzle clue “New York’s ____ Island” even as I looked down on the very island and pointed it out to Gail.

5. Last Monday at the University of Georgia.

ugaarch

6. Dinner Monday night at Athens’ great 5 & 10.

5&10

7. Last Tuesday at the Masters. A dream come true.

12th hole, Augusta National Golf Club

12th hole, Augusta National Golf Club

[Photo by Dan Nakano]

8. Wednesday visit to the University of Georgia sports museum (Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall).

Herschel Walker's 1982 Heisman Trophy

Herschel Walker’s 1982 Heisman Trophy

9. The subsequent visit to the Georgia Museum of Art (the state museum, on campus).

Jimmy Lee Sudduth, self-portrait, homemade pigments and house paint on tin, Georgia Museum of Art

Jimmy Lee Sudduth*, self-portrait, homemade pigments and house paint on tin, Georgia Museum of Art

*A year ago we went to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke and saw an exhibition that featured another Jimmy Lee Sudduth painting, which I featured at the time leading off a post.

10. Wednesday lunch at another great Athens restaurant (who knew they had so many?), The Grit.

gritcrown

11. Our drive to and then around Atlanta Wednesday afternoon, with a stop at the MLK National Historic Site and The King Center before heading down to the airport.

mlk

12. Our flight home Thursday in a 767 set up for international travel, with a change in the weather.

Hmm. Maybe I won’t get through all of this. But doing so is the plan.

13. Oh, and one more post, on yet another long history book I need to add to my ever-growing list: William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, due out Tuesday and reviewed today in the WSJ. It came out in January in the UK, to strong reviews. And Dalrymple has an op-ed piece on Afghanistan in tomorrow’s NYT.

returnking

Coming Attractions

April 6, 2013 Leave a comment

lagrenouille

My time for blogging has been limited this past week, and it will remain so for a little longer. I’ve just written about our dinner at New York’s Italianissimo two nights ago. Here are two coming attractions:

1. Lunch yesterday at La Grenouille, one of the great restaurants of New York, where I last ate some time back in the 1970s.

2. A short book I downloaded Wednesday night and began reading on the plane Thursday morning, Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be from a year ago. (Yes, I’m still reading Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire and thorougly enjoying it. I’m just taking a short break, since I have a feeling I’ll be reading A World on Fire forever.) I’ve been meaning to read Delbanco’s book for some time, and now I am.

delbancocollege

Consider these placeholders for two posts to come.

Categories: Books, Restaurants

Italianissimo

April 6, 2013 Leave a comment

italianissimo

[Cynthia Chung, New York Magazine]

Here we are, in New York. We woke up 3:50 Thursday morning for our 7:00 AM flight, landed at 3:00 PM, and spent twenty minutes at the gate waiting for the ground people to get the jetway door unlocked and the jetway properly aligned with the plane. I had the pleasure, early in our wait, of watching our two suitcases emerge first in line from below my seat and head down the conveyor belt. As we exited security, the carousel directly ahead on our left was ours and our two bags were right at that end of the belt. Never before had I walked out to find our bags within an arm’s reach.

By 4:45, we were in the corner room on the 9th floor of the Hotel Wales (subject of a post last October), on Madison and 92nd. Out two windows, we looked straight down 92nd and across 5th Avenue to Central Park and the reservoir At a right angle, out the other two, we looked south down Madison.

walesview

A couple of hours later, we were walking down Madison and then over to Italianissimo, an intimate Italian restaurant on 84th just east of 2nd that my cousin John had suggested we all meet at. Already there were John and Joan, plus my sister Gail and Jacques, in two days earlier from Paris.

It’s a lovely little place, with a row of tables along one wall and another along the opposite wall, leaving only a narrow path for staff and those heading to tables farther back or the bar. We were at the second table in, right by the check-in counter and the door. (You can pretty well make out where we were in the photo above, on the right side just short of the window.) The restaurant profile in New York magazine from which I grabbed the photo describes Italianissimo as “a homey 12-table spot, enhanced by fresh flowers, exposed brick walls, and dusty bottles of wine strewn throughout.” I don’t recall eating at a place quite that small. Certainly not that narrow. The atmosphere and service were a delight.

I won’t try to recount what we all ate. I’ll just talk about my own choices. As usual at such a restaurant, my first decision is whether to have a full-sized pasta order as my main dish, with soup or salad or antipasta to start, or whether to have a small order of pasta followed by a meat or fish dish.

A week earlier, at Cafe Juanita (the subject of my last post), I went for the full pasta order. This time, I started with a half order of spaghetti carbonara, described as “Spaghetti with a touch of cream, cured Italian Bacon, onions, and parsley.” Excellent choice.

John had ordered a couple of plates of breaded zucchini for us all to share while eating our appetizers. It came with a tomato dipping sauce and was an unexpected treat. Oh, I should mention the wonderful basil dipping sauce that accompanied the bread.

For my main dish, I ordered the “Filetto di sogliola alla Francese,” or “Fresh fillet of sole sautéed with white wine lemon and butter.” It was served with a small scoop of mashed potato adorned with a homemade potato chip and with green beans. The sole was both light and rich at the same time, again excellent, and the potato chip, minor adornment that it was, was fantastic. Accompanying all this was a delicious Barolo that Jacques had selected.

I didn’t order dessert, but John chose an order of Tartufo Ice cream to be shared, and my two spoonfuls were plenty.

As we were finishing dessert, Joel arrived, having flown into LaGuardia from North Carolina and taken a taxi straight to the restaurant. It was 9:15 by then, but we were in no hurry, so he ordered the daily pasta special, along with a glass of Montepulciano.

Gail reminds me that she had the salad special, consisting of lobster, avocado, and tomatoes on endive, followed by one of the entree specials, chicken on the bone with sausage and a balsamic reduction, accompanied by those same mashed potatoes and green beans.

A pretty good meal, all in all. I’d be happy to return. But in fact, if we were staying at the Wales again, I might rather just go downstairs to Paola’s, which sits eight floors below the hotel room we were in and which we have loved in the past. (See this earlier post.) I was going to suggest Paola’s to John as an alternative once we selected our hotel, but it was already booked for the evening.

In any case, we had a great evening, capped by the arrival of our son, the best dessert of all.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Cafe Juanita

March 31, 2013 Leave a comment

juanita

In 2000, Holly Smith took over Cafe Juanita, a highly regarded restaurant on the east side (the descriptor for the Seattle suburbs on the other side of Lake Washington). It’s in a former house a short walk from the lake, surrounded now by an urban village that appears to be of recent vintage, with five- or six-story mixed-use buildings, residential above and retail on the main floor. Smith had been sous chef at Dahlia Lounge, an early restaurant in Tom Douglas’s ever-growing empire and a place that we love. She then, well, I suppose I should let her tell her own story. From the website:

Holly Smith grew up in Monkton, Maryland in a food loving family. Holly studied political science at both Colby College and Washington College later attending the Baltimore International Culinary College. Holly completed an externship in Ireland with Master Chef Peter Timmins while at BICC.

In 1993 Holly moved to Seattle and accepted a position with Tom Douglas at the Dahlia Lounge. Holly was the sous chef of the Dahlia Lounge for 4 years. In 1999, Chef Tamara Murphy encouraged Holly to become a part of the opening of Brasa. She spent that year as sous chef, leaving to open Cafe Juanita in April of 2000.

Cafe Juanita has been a labor of love, allowing Holly to express her passion for Northern Italian food and wine; a commitment to organics and sustainability and a holistic approach to the dining experience. Holly hopes to showcase local products while serving modern Northern Italian inspired cuisine.

And here is the website’s restaurant description:

Chef Holly Smith opened Cafe Juanita in April of 2000, driven by her interest to have creative control in her own restaurant and a strong passion for the foods of Northern Italy. Her hallmark rests with the special care she takes to cook seasonally with the finest local produce and artisan products available from Italy and the Pacific Northwest.

The menu at Cafe Juanita changes frequently, but always includes an eclectic mix of meats and seafood, illustrating the commitment to fresh, bold dishes that most often utilize organic products. As a member of the food community, Holly believes in sustainable agriculture, supporting growers whose outstanding quality is tantamount to their long-term commitment to the land. In addition to nurturing the farm industry, Cafe Juanita is committed to offering great wine. The menu is complemented by an award-winning wine list with primary focus on Northern Italian producers and rounded-out with outstanding Northwest wines.

From the beginning, Cafe Juanita has received rave reviews, such as Nancy Leson‘s in the Seattle Times in July 2000.

Make reservations now. Because once Peter Dow’s old customers get hip to the new Cafe Juanita, and once newcomers get their first taste of Holly Smith’s restaurant revitalization, this Eastsider is going to be booked solid – with both siders.

[snip]

Today, supple leathery banquettes line the L-shaped room’s perimeter, whose oversized windows provide a bucolic view of the new kitchen garden, a gorgeous old apple tree, and lush lawns leading to Juanita Creek. Indoors, the white linen/votive candle/Diana Krall-crooning atmosphere conspires to arouse sensual excitement. That excitement extends to the oft-changing menu, which is informed by seasonality and inspired by Smith’s passion for Northern Italy.

[snip]

Ribbons of fresh tagliatelle tossed with sauteed porcini mushrooms and crowned with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano ($10/$19), are an Italian understatement, though I can’t possibly overstate this pasta’s appeal. Even more alluring is the risotto mantacato ($8/$15), hinting of Marsala and caramelized shallots and lavishly laced with a double chicken stock. Each of the four pastas offered is available as a first, second or main course.

Innovation, artistry, and superior ingredients are key to the kitchen’s success, particularly where the short roster of meat, fish and fowl are concerned. Two elegant, rosy-centered filets of lamb tenderloin are a rustic revelation when sauced with tomatoes, capers, Lucques olives and fresh artichokes. Grouse if you must (we did) at the use of the word “gnocchi” to describe the cake-like square of creamy semolina attending the lamb ($24). We were silenced once this side dish met our mouths.

Despite all the praise, we had never made it over the bridge to eat there. Last May, we committed ourselves to doing so by buying dinner for two as an auction item at a fundraiser for Seattle Central Community College’s scholarship fund. Given our interest in and support of SCCC’s Seattle Culinary Academy, this was a natural item to spend our money on. And we had a year to fit in a visit. But that year comes to an end in a month, and our last-minute efforts a couple of months ago to book a table failed. We realized that serious advance planning would be necessary.

A month ago, we agreed to have dinner out four weeks later with our friends Brooke and Robin. This was our chance. We checked and, yes, a table was available. Two nights ago, we went.

Befitting its origins as a house, Cafe Juanita has limited parking on site. Perhaps eight spots. On our arrival, Gail ran in and learned that they have auxiliary parking rights at a retirement home just down the street. We parked, called B&R, and told them to head there. As we spoke, they drove by, so everything worked out well.

Cafe Juanita has a large open kitchen, divided from the seating space by an attractive display of wines. We sat at a table along the wall with the “oversized windows” that Leson described, above the “lush lawns” that sit a floor below. Gail and I took the banquette seats on the window side, giving us a view of the wine storage and, above that, a glimpse of the kitchen. B&R faced us with a view through the windows.

As has become our custom when we dine together, we studied the appetizers at length in order to arrive at four that we would collectively enjoy. The pastas come in two sizes, so we couldn’t choose appetizers without each of us first deciding whether we wanted any of the pastas as a main dish or a starter. I always struggle with this decision. A small pasta portion and a meat or fish entree? Or a lovely salad of foraged greens followed by a full-sized pasta portion?

The waiter, who was outstanding, described the specials, which included a cured salmon antipasto with crème fraîche. Also on the menu is a small selection of specialty cocktails, each paired with a morsel. Prosecco with Parmigiano Reggiano. The Velluto with Castelvetrano Olives. The Negociant with Fried Rabbit Liver. While we struggled with appetizers, Gail ordered the Prosecco and Brooke the Negociant, but with olives in place of rabbit liver.

Eventually we each selected an appetizer. Gail went with the Barbera Risotto Mantecato, which presumably is much like what Nancy Leson described in 2000, but with the change in wine from Marsala to Barbera. I chose the Local Watercress with Cherry Vinaigrette, Robin the salmon special, and Brooke the Shaved Beets and Cara Cara with Walnut Oil and Watercress.

I’m relying on the menu that is currently available online for these descriptions. Some details may differ from what we had. I do know the beets had Cara Cara, which Gail had to explain is a navel orange.

We all tried all four dishes. I don’t know how to choose a favorite. Probably the risotto and the watercress. I’m not a beet lover, usually, but I’ll admit to really liking that too.

For a main dish, I chose the full portion of Maltagliati with Jones Family Pork Sugo, Honey Ricotta, and Black Pepper. Here, as elsewhere on the menu, we needed our waiter to explain what words meant. It was obvious enough that maltagliata is a pasta, but I had no idea what type. The essential information is that all their pasta is homemade and “badly cut”. I can’t remember what he said about the shape, but it was a wide noodle. Gail chose the fish special, a striped bass with various accompaniments that I no longer remember, except that one of them was fresh chick peas. Robin chose the lamb dish, which may or may not be exactly what’s now on the online menu: Saddle of Lamb with Confit of Baby Artichokes, Fresh Chickpeas, Taggia Croccantini and Yogurt. And Brooke chose the lone pasta dish that came only in a small size, and that has dropped off the menu, so I can’t find the menu description. The three key words were mortadella, tortellini, and brodo. But was the tortellini stuffed with mortadella? Or was the dish a soup with both tortellini and pieces of mortadella floating around? We asked. The waiter confirmed that the mortadella was inside the pasta, along with other meats, and that the dish was more a pasta than a soup.

juanita2

Oh, speaking of fresh chickpeas, Gail recalled the great ones we had a few years ago at Cyrus during our trip to Healdsburg. I asked our waiter, when we were discussing appetizers, if we could order a small dish of fresh chickpeas for all of us to try. He said sure, and talked about how much work is involved in peeling them. And also, the menu has some side vegetable dishes. We ordered the Roasted Spicy Cauliflower with Cumin, Lime and Pinenuts.

We were all thrilled with our entrees, and we all got to taste the others, though we hesitated to taste Brooke’s. Small order that it was, it had a limited amount of tortellini. We would have been happy if they had a larger version, allowing the other three of us to try one or two. (Gail and I were content to cut one in half to split, although that meant all the stuffing fell out.) Robin’s lamb was perfect. If I were to go again with it on the menu, I’d have it. Maybe it’s a menu constant. What Leson described in 2000 sounds like much the same dish. My pasta was great too, but awfully rich. Of course, I couldn’t resist finishing it. However, a little less of that and a little more vegetable might have been a more suitable combination. Speaking of which, the cauliflower was spectacularly good.

We required some waiter assistance to sort through the dessert options. The first, Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Cardoon Blossom Honey and Vanilla Salt, was clear enough. So was Torta di Mousse al Cioccolato with Olive Oil, Earl Grey Crumb, Bittersweet Chocolate Sorbetto. Piccoli Pasticcini Ginger Biscotti, Hazelnut Baci di Dama, Chocolate Bon Bons, Scorze di Agrumi turned out to be a cookie platter, though in retrospect that seems obvious too. I had the panna cotta, Gail and Robin the mousse, Brooke the cookies. Everyone appeared to be happy.

This being the sort of restaurant people dine at for special occasions, we were asked both by the hostess and our waiter if we were celebrating anything. The first time we said no, but then I remembered that Gail and I met 30 years ago this week, so the second time, I told the waiter that. (Looking back at a 1983 calendar now, I’m guessing we met on March 28, which means we were just a day late.) Good thing I told him—in our our honor, he surprised us with four glasses of muscat before dessert came.

Which reminds me, I didn’t mention our wine selection. We made a traditional choice, a chianti classico. It was interesting to see that many of the Washington State wineries we’ve been favoring lately made their wine list: Quilceda Creek, Long Shadows, Waters, Buty, Pepper Bridge, Leonetti. We must be doing something right.

That pretty well covers it. We left a little after 10:00, not quite 3 1/2 hours after we arrived. It was a great evening.

Categories: Restaurants

Il Terrazzo Carmine

February 3, 2013 Leave a comment

rigatonicarmine

[Bob Peterson, for Il Terrazzo Carmine]

We had dinner last night at Il Terrazzo Carmine, one of our favorite Seattle restaurants. We last went there for Gail’s birthday two Novembers ago, at which time I concluded a post with the words, “I’m hoping this time we won’t wait another year for our next visit to Carmine’s.”

It turned out to be a year and then some. We did try. I called to book a table for Gail’s most recent birthday, only to discover that a Washington Husky home football game was being played that night at nearby CenturyLink Field.* They could fit us in at game time, when the crowd left, but that would require us to drive down in game traffic, a thankless task. We passed. (Punted?)

*CenturyLink Field is the home field of the Seahawk’s, Seattle’s NFL team. However, the Huskies played their home games there this past season because their usual home, Husky Stadium, is in the midst of a major remodel.

I wrote about Carmine’s just over a year ago, on learning that founder-owner Carmine Smeraldo had died, noting that “we have celebrated many birthdays there in recent years, and always wonder why we don’t go more often. I love their cannelloni, their rigatoni, their constantly changing risotto specials, their lamb, their green peppercorn steak. Gail’s partial to their ossobuco. But more than that, it’s such a warm and welcoming place. Carmine will be greatly missed.” (See the Seattle Times obituary.)

Last night, rather than wondering why we don’t go more often, we went. And I’m pleased to report that Carmine’s is wonderful as ever.

We weren’t adventurous in our order, just sticking to our favorites. For me that meant the Rigatoni Bolognese followed by Bistecca Al Pepe Verde—New York steak “Angus” and green peppercorn sauce, served with shoestring potatoes. For Gail, Cannelloni Fiorentina—Pasta tubes with veal, ricotta, spinach and salsa rosa—followed by Ossobuco with saffron risotto. And for dessert, I had the profiteroles, Gail a Napoleon.

Perfection. What more is there to say? Well, I should add that to accompany the meal, we selected a bottle of Planeta’s 2006 Santa Cecilia, a superb Nero d’Avola. We’ve been trying out different Nero d’Avolas since ordering a bottle with dinner at Sant Ambroeus in Manhattan last November. None were as good as that one, until last night.

Categories: Restaurants

Olive Garden Return

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

olivegarden

From time to time here at Ron’s View, I ask, “Why do people eat at Olive Garden?” With so many good Italian restaurants around, what is its appeal? I ask this question sincerely, and with affection, an affection shared by one-time Wall Street Journal food columnist Raymond Sokolov, who four years ago wrote a great piece comparing Olive Garden to famed Chicago Italian restaurant Spiaggia. I followed up at the time with my first Olive Garden post, marveling at their Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where chefs and managers learn the trade. And don’t forget Marilyn Hagerty’s classic review of Olive Garden last March in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald. (See my discussion here.)

It has been a year and a half since we undertook our last Olive Garden research. On that outing, Gail and I both ordered the Tour of Italy, OG’s over-the-top entree option for those who want it all. As I wrote at the time,

The Tour of Italy is not a coherent meal. It’s really three meals in one. Are you thinking of that old standby, the chicken parm? Or maybe lasagna? Wait, I know. Fettucini alfredo. Well, think no more. You can have it all. Yup, on your tour you will have a piece of chicken parm, a block of lasagna, and some fettucini alfredo. I can never choose, and now I didn’t have to.

We were not happy. I blame myself as much as OG. There’s no way this greedy selection can work out. I committed myself to choosing a simpler meal the next time.

Last Saturday, the next time arrived. It was Jessica’s birthday. We needed to select a restaurant in the northern suburbs, accessible to all nine celebrants and pleasing to a wide variety of tastes. Olive Garden to the rescue.

One thing about OG: they don’t take reservations. We couldn’t go too early, because we had to wait for Bryan to get over to the downtown ferry terminal from Bremerton, then up to Lynnwood. We set 6:30 as dinner time.

Another thing about OG: if you go on a Saturday night at 6:30, you’ll be at the hottest spot in town. In case you’re wondering where everyone is, wonder no longer. Just head over to your closest OG. They’re there.

What a scene! Dozens of people sitting, standing, waiting, wandering around with their electronic buzzers waiting to be buzzed. Stand out of the way of the woman exiting from the ladies’ room and you’ll be knocked over by one of the team of OG hosts ushering a party to their table. If you’re a party of nine, bring some entertainment, especially if they think you’re a party of seven and call you prematurely, only to leave you waiting another half hour once their mistake is brought to their attention. At 7:20, we were led to our seats.

A signature of Olive Garden is their unlimited breadsticks and salad. To quote from the menu, “Garden-Fresh Salad: Our famous house salad, tossed with our signature Italian dressing. (Unlimited refills!)” You can order the salad a la carte, or get it for free if you order an entree. Five minutes after we sat, a party of 12 took the table parallel to ours. While we were still examining the menus, their breadsticks and salad arrived. We wouldn’t see ours for another 20 minutes. Drink orders first. Drinks. Long delay. Food order, after which our servers knew how many salad eaters there were amongst us. Then breadsticks and salad. What did we do wrong? Can one ask for sticks and salad on being seated?

We were served by a duo. The model of efficiency, I thought at first, but not when they are alternately taking care of other, small-group tables, so that whenever one is free, the other is busy. After the drinks came, I wondered if we would ever order. Finally, the guy said he’d start us. Then the woman, a charming, beautifully accented Brazilian, joined him to finish taking our order. A few minutes later, they emerged with a flourish to put down three breadstick baskets and three salad bowls from which we served ourselves.

It was pushing 8:00 by now. I happily ate the sticks and salad. Was this a reflection of their high quality or my hunger? Hard to know. I did take three helpings of salad. Iceberg lettuce, red onion, olives, some hot peppers, parmesan. What’s not to like? Do I get better salad at home? Of course. But it was tasty.

In selecting my entree, I decided to restrict myself to the menu section called “Cucina Classica (Classic Recipes).” Cute, that. And what’s more classic than Spaghetti & Meatballs or Chicken Parmigiana? The “Leggeri (Lighter Fare)” section might have served me well, with temptations like Venetian Apricot Chicken. Or the “Carne (Beef & Pork)” section, with Braised Beef & Tortelloni, or Parmesan Crusted Bistecca. I would have enjoyed sampling that bistecca: “Grilled 8 oz center cut sirloin topped with parmesan-herb breading, baked golden brown. Served with garlic parmesan mashed potatoes and asparagus drizzled with balsamic glaze.” But I stuck with the classics, choosing the chicken parm.

How was it? This is the Olive Garden mystery. I’ve had better. But it was an honest and decent effort, thoroughly enjoyable. Plus, even if I’ve had better, not at places with such a menu selection. I could eat there every night for a month and find something different to enjoy each night. With sticks, salad, and parm, I was full and content. So full that dessert was unimaginable.

This was a birthday party, though. Dessert had to be ordered. One option is the “Dolcini: Piccoli Dolci, ‘little dessert treats’, layered with cake, mousse, pastry creams and berries. Choose from: Chocolate Mousse, Limoncello Mousse, Strawberry & White Chocolate, Amaretto Tiramisu, Dark Chocolate Caramel Cream.” I wasn’t paying attention when several in our party ordered a selection of these. Gail ordered the “Zeppoli: Soft, traditional Italian doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar, served with chocolate sauce for dipping.”

Yet another thing about OG: it’s here where I developed my law about birthdays and restaurant quality. Many years ago, when Jessica was a teenager, we took her and a group of friends to this very same OG for her birthday party. Dessert came along with eight OG servers, who lined up and sang happy birthday. My law: the quality of a restaurant is inversely proportional to the number of servers who sing happy birthday to you.

If the law still holds, this is good news for Olive Garden. This time around, years later, our Brazilian server didn’t even bother coming over to help out. We had just our lone male server, who placed one of the dolcini in front of Jessica with a lit candle. He stood, but didn’t sing. Tamara took him to task for it, to which he responded that he didn’t want to get in the way, waiting to see what we wanted to do. We had gone from eight singers to a reluctant one. According to my law, Olive Garden has risen high up the quality scale.

Oh, dessert itself. Gail’s zeppoli were first rate. I didn’t try the dolcini.

It was well past 9:00 now. The crowds had moved on to wherever Lynnwood crowds move on to on a Saturday night. Olive Garden was peaceful. I’ve learned yet another Olive Garden truth. Want to eat there on a Saturday night? Arrive at 9:00.

What can I say? I love the place. We may wait another year and a half before our next research outing. We don’t exactly lack closer alternatives. Why drive 15 miles when just 4 miles away is Tom Douglas’s Cuoco, a superior restaurant about which I wrote last month.

But Olive Garden has an irresistible charm, the explanation of which continues to elude me. We’ll continue our research until I figure it out.

Categories: Restaurants

ART Restaurant

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

ART

Three days ago, my cousin John and wife Joan flew in from New York. He proposed an early dinner, preferably near the Pike Place Market, where they would be staying. I knew that as a lover of food, with the restaurants of New York at his fingertips, he would want something distinctive, representative in some way of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. That presented a bit of a challenge.

Right in the market is Il Bistro, a Seattle institution that Gail and Joel independently thought might be worth a shot, all the more since we had never eaten there. But it’s Italian. John might do better in New York. Not to mention that he and Joan just got back last month from their latest exploration of the food of Italy. Superstorm Sandy may have delayed their departure, but it didn’t stop them.

Then I thought of ART, just a block down from the market. Yet another famed Seattle restaurant that we had never been to, though not as old as Il Bistro. It opened only in 2010, along with the new Four Seasons Hotel of which it is a part, just across from the Seattle Art Museum.

We decided to go to both. We met John and Joan in front of Il Bistro just before 5:00. It opens at 5:00, not a second earlier as we discovered, so we stood around for a few minutes before being let in. We also learned that our mutual cousin’s daughter-in-law Kim was in town on a consulting gig. John had reached her and she would join us for part one of the evening. Twenty minutes after we were seated, she arrived.

We spent an hour and a half at Il Bistro, sharing dishes off the happy hour menu: crostini, ravioli, prawns, pizza. I selected a glass of wine from Puglia from the wine menu only to be told that it was in fact the same wine listed on the happy hour menu as a primitivo without further identification, at about one-third the price. Good deal. I took it. Everything they served was good, convincing us that we need to return for dinner.

We got our coats and umbrellas, walked the block down to the Four Seasons (where Gail, Joel and I had begun the evening by leaving our car), said goodbye to Kim, and were seated in ART. Here’s the restaurant self-description:

ART provides exquisite views of Elliott Bay through floor to ceiling windows from: the main dining room, the perfect spot for a business lunch or dinner with friends; ART Lounge, the city’s hottest spot for happy hour and inventive cocktails; the Private Dining Room, an intimate dining experience and The Communal Table, a 13 foot Douglas Fir table set in front of the 12-foot wine wall.

The chefs at ART Restaurant are committed to a Market-to-Table philosophy. We have nurtured relationships with our region’s finest farmers, foragers and our neighbors, the vendors of Pike Place Market. Dishes are inspired by the highest quality, market-driven ingredients of the Pacific Northwest and served in a welcoming and lively atmosphere. Order from the 250 bottles of wine or try a TV Tray, four courses, served at once.

And more, about the chef.

Executive Chef Kerry Sear’s culinary experience includes 15 years with Four Seasons in Vancouver and Toronto, as well as with Four Seasons Olympic in Seattle. For the last 10 years, Kerry has owned and operated Cascadia, an award-winning downtown Seattle restaurant.

In his signature style, Sear will highlight fresh, seasonal ingredients from a wide variety of regional farmers, ranchers and markets, incorporating culinary influences gathered from around the world into his creations.

We ate at the Olympic’s Georgian Room years back when Sear was in charge—it’s an anniversary regular for us, since we were married in the hotel—but we never made it to Cascadia.

Along the north-south wall on the restaurant’s east side, across from the windowed west side that looks out over the waterfront, is a banquette with a series of two-tops that can be slid together as needed for long runs. Six or so were adjoined to accommodate a large group of women. Another three were adjoined for us, giving us lots of space but also stretching us out a bit. As soon as we sat down, small white paper bags were placed on the table with hot potato chips, lightly spiced with curry and salt.

We would spend the next 4 1/2 hours there. The room was unexpectedly relaxing. Despite the large group just down the banquette from us, we never had a sense of noise. The setting was peaceful, comfortable, even a little enchanting. Or maybe I’m confusing the atmosphere with the company.

I spent most of the time facing the banquette and west wall, but after dessert, I moved over to the banquette so I could look out into the room. Nearby was a counter gently lit in a continually changing set of colors. Out the window, steam rose from a plant just below. The giant waterfront ferris wheel on Elliott Bay that opened earlier this year showed off its white lights as it turned, with ferries coming and going on the water beyond.

You can see a sample dinner menu here. The details differed on Wednesday, but the layout was the same. Atop the front side is a message about eating local and relationships with “the region’s finest farmers, foragers and the vendors of the Pike Place Market.” Below are six sections, titled Farm, Share, Coast, Ocean, Ranch, and Land. At the bottom is a selection of side dishes. And on the rear is a list of ART’s vendors, each name followed by the items they provide.

To start, Joan took the arugula and artichoke salad, Gail the crazy salad mix (which the server explained is mixed greens, varying from day to day), John and Joel the caesar salad and anchovies, me the potato gnocchi. All a delight.

For entrees, Joan had a salmon and Gail a seared char that aren’t on the online menu. Listed on that menu is Lamb 3 ways: Uli’s sausage, rib, chop. John had the variant listed that evening: lamb shank and sausage. Joel took the shellfish and spaghetti dish, which came with clams, mussels, some scallops. I was torn between the fish and the lamb, but everyone having ordered ahead of me and chosen those, I changed to the New York strip, once the server commented that it’s really good, with Painted Hills beef (from Oregon). We added three side dishes: the Doolie’s hot sauce broccolini, brussels sprouts, and chickpea fries.

Accompanying all this was a bottle of the McCrea Cellars 2006 Sirocco. McCrea is a Washington State winery that specializes in southern Rhone style wines, the Sirocco being a blend of mourvèdre, grenache, syrah, and small amounts of counoise and cinsault.

ARTwine

Everything was superb. My steak came on a bed of carrots and, oh gosh, I don’t remember. Something else. The broccolini surprised us with its heat, despite the server’s warning. (See yesterday’s post for more on Doolie’s hot hot sauce.) The Brussels sprouts were mixed with small pancetta cubes. The chickpea fries were fantastic. Only five, unfortunately, one apiece, served with a small bottle of ketchup that, like the hot sauce, is produced by an unfamiliar company. I wish I wrote down the name so I could look it up. The rolls were great too.

We didn’t study the dessert menu, being plenty full after the meal and the first round at Il Bistro. When our server came to see if we wanted anything, I took note of one dish, named “There are Holes in my Bucket,” with additional words explaining that it’s “vanilla bean dusted donut holes.” I asked how many holes were in an order, she said 12, and that sounded like an easily shareable little treat, so we ordered it and gave back our menus. I realized as we did so that I would have enjoyed taking the time to read one in full. All the dessert items have clever or silly names.

Best of all, of course, was getting to hang out with John and Joan. The combination of family, food, and setting was unbeatable. I sure hope we don’t let too much time pass before getting back to ART. Or before seeing John and Joan again.

Categories: Family, Restaurants

Cuoco

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment

cuocopasta

We’re a little slow to get to new restaurants, thanks in part to the many old ones that we don’t get to often enough. By the time we try a new one, it isn’t new anymore. Like Cuoco, which must have opened over a year ago, and which the Seattle Times reviewed just about a year ago. We made it there Friday night, discovering in the process a whole new center of evening activity.

The area of Seattle known as South Lake Union has been a locus of potential development for decades, thanks in part to the efforts of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who started buying up property at least twenty years ago. Once an industrial area of low-rise buildings, it is now the booming home of biotech companies, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the flagship REI store, the Group Health Cooperative offices where Jessica works, and much more, including most notably Amazon, which has continuing ambitious expansion plans.

Then there’s Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most famous chef-entrepreneur. Clustered at 4th and Virginia, on the northern edge of downtown, are four of his operations: Dahlia Lounge, Lola, Serious Pie, and Dahlia Bakery. All are superb. Combine newly upscale South Lake Union, thousands of office workers with a need for places to eat, and Tom Douglas and what do you get? A suite of new restaurants. There’s a second branch of Serious Pie. A second branch of the bakery. And, in one of the new Amazon buildings, Cuoco and Brave Horse Tavern.

On Thursday, we were trying to figure out where to eat the next night with some friends when one of them reminded me that Gail had previously suggested a new Tom Douglas restaurants in South Lake Union. She recalled the name Brave Horse Tavern. I looked at the list online and decided Gail must have been referring to Cuoco. We made reservations.

Friday brought heavy rain, as many days seem to do lately. I knew the address and, in principle, how to get there, but hadn’t seen the new Amazon building since it opened and had no idea where parking was. We approached from Denny, the east-west street forming the southern border of South Lake Union, turning north onto Terry, the street the restaurant was supposed to be on. We found ourselves among unlit, low buildings and darkness—the old South Lake Union, not where one would expect to find a restaurant, or have any reason to go to at night. Up ahead we could see a brightly lit area.

In another couple of blocks, we found ourselves in a thriving community, swarms of cars, traffic cops at every intersection controlling the flow. To the left was Jessica’s office building. To the right, a building we had never seen before. As we drove past it, we saw Cuoco. At the far end, we turned right and saw a parking garage entrance within the building. Pretty easy. We parked, took the elevator up a level, passed a bank of Amazon lockers for employees, exited into a courtyard and heavy rain, with the Cuoco entrance just ten feet over, within the courtyard, set back from the street.

Our friends, unfortunately, came from the north. This turned out to be a disaster, because of road construction, traffic, and the weather. They never did find the garage. They just parked where they found a spot and walked in the rain to Cuomo. We had studied the menu several times over by that point, which was good, since are now prepared to order our next three dinners there. The back side of the single-sheet menu has the wine list, which, though not long, has an intriguing mix of Italian wines that I’d love to sample.

Once our friends settled in and had a chance to review the menu, we agreed to share three appetizers. I see now that the online menu lists only one: 24 month aged prosciutto parma, honey crisp apples, arugula. Next time I go, I might order just this. It was great. The dish I chose was a green salad, the details of which already escape me. And we had an order of some sort of risotto balls, maybe with olives of some sort in them. These were great too.

Preceding this was what the menu calls their “bread service”, for which one pays: Dahlia workshop “house loaf” with olives, olive oil, rosemary lard. The bread is served with a small three-part dish, the parts containing butter, the olive oil, and the lard. Everyone else loved the lardo. I was avoiding it, until they insisted I try. I was happy enough with the butter up to that point. They’re right. It was good.

For the main dish, I had the Bucatini: hollow dried wheat pasta, marinara, braised beef meatballs. Gail had the Tagliatelle: house made egg pasta, braised painted hills beef, melted leeks, prosser farm kale, as did one of our friends. Our other friend had Ricotta cavatelli: crimini ragu, cotechino sausage, pecorino.

My meatballs were perfect. Well, as Gail observed yesterday, my dish looked dry. Maybe it was, a little. Certainly it wasn’t swimming in marinara. But the flavors were excellent and I couldn’t have been happier. I tasted a little of Gail’s tagliatelle at the end. It was overwhelmingly rich, at least compared to my dish, which is one reason she had a little left over. A tantalizing array of tastes, but too much for me by that point in the meal. Accompanying all this was a bottle of Montepulciano, the 2008 Corte alla Flora.

Gail being a Tom Douglas donut fanatic, it was hard to leave without some, but we had decided to retreat to our friends’ home for dessert. They come with a hot chocolate sauce. Taking out may not be the ideal way to eat them. They survived the drive, though, and we’re glad we got them.

I’m just now looking at what the Seattle Times reviewer had to say. Here’s her discussion of the pasta options:

Just about everyone orders pasta here. With 10 different noodles on the menu, the choice isn’t easy. Will you have the ethereal tajarin, unimaginably thin hand-cut egg noodles dressed in butter and sage, or their much wider, marinara-sauced cousins, tagliatelle, twined around roasted Delicata squash and chunks of spicy Italian sausage? Will you opt for the dainty cheese-filled cappelletti in silky fonduta sauce, or the savory, meat-stuffed agnolotti dal plin that resemble tiny origami birds just emerged from a butter and marjoram bath? What about butternut squash gnocchi, so light and supremely autumnal tossed with chanterelles, hazelnuts and sage? I’m no help: I loved them all.

We do need to go back to sample more of the pastas.

Oh, I didn’t mention that right by the entrance, you can see the pasta-making area and look into the kitchen. We turned the other way on being seated, so we didn’t even notice. On the way out, we stood by the door for a minute while the hostess went to get a bag for us to carry our chocolate sauce carton in. That gave us a chance to look around, and to realize as we went out into the rain that all that time, Tom Douglas was standing just five feet away from us. We should have said hi.

Categories: Restaurants