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Hold the Pesto

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

[From The Wall Street Journal]

One of these days the WSJ will finally stop arriving at our door.* Two months have passed since we stopped paying for it. But as long as it shows up, I’ll keep reading the great fluff features, such as yesterday’s on casual dining restaurants.

Regular Ron’s View readers know I have an unending fascination with Olive Garden. I’m determined to understand why people love it. My interest is more conceptual than experiential. Years can go by between field investigations. (Though see here for a report on our last field trip.) Thus, when new research appears on their business model and offerings, I devour it. I dream of dropping by Olive Garden’s research and development center, the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, next time we’re in the neighborhood. And I always ask Gail to unmute the TV or avoid the skip button on the remote when an Olive Garden ad appears.

What a joy, then, to discover yesterday’s WSJ article, with its review of the pressures on our national casual-dining chains to upgrade their offerings while maintaining their appeal to a broad demographic, and its focus on Olive Garden as the prime example. Let me highlight one revealing line:

“We don’t use the word authentic,” to describe the Olive Garden experience, [Olive Garden president John] Caron says. The chain prefers “Italian inspired.”

The article offers this example of Italian inspired:

Chefs at Olive Garden headquarters reverse-engineer menu items from real Italian dishes. A current seasonal dish, baked pasta romana—a mix of lasagna pasta, rich cheese sauce, spinach and either a beef or chicken topping—started as a fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs eaten by company chefs on a trip to Northern Italy.

Chefs found the dish “really rustic, but still kind of normal,” the magic formula Olive Garden chefs often look for, says Marie Grimm, director of culinary development for Olive Garden. In restaurant tests, the company tried a chicken version with roasted tomato sauce, but diners didn’t find it “cravable,” says Ms. Grimm. The restaurant switched to a cheese sauce.

That “fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs” sounds enticing, doesn’t it? But, if I went to a high-end Italian restaurant and saw that on the menu, would I choose it or would I search lower down the menu in hope of finding a dish of lasagna pasta, cheese sauce, spinach, and beef? Am I a member of the Olive Garden demographic? I don’t know.

I do know I like my pesto. Yet, earlier in the article we learn that “for chains that aim to entice almost every demographic group through their doors, there are limits. In several years of tests, Olive Garden diners often deemed pesto too oily, bitter or green.” I fear that I’m trapped between demographic groups, condemned never to find my proper home.

Read the entire article, check out the accompanying video, and study the graphic, which I’ve copied above.

*As a reminder of my desire to bar the WSJ from our house, see today’s opinion piece on Ron Paul by editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz, in which she feels free to describe him as “a leading spokesman for, and recycler of, the long and familiar litany of charges that point to the United States as a leading agent of evil and injustice, the militarist victimizer of millions who want only to live in peace.” And that’s only the beginning of her unsubstantiated hatchet job. Boy oh boy. I have written often of my affection for the WSJ’s Saturday arts and culture sections. The TV reviews, courtesy of Ms. Rabinowitz? Not so much.

Categories: Business, Restaurants

Voilà

December 4, 2011 1 comment

Two months ago I wrote about our dinner at Chloe, a self-described French bistrot near the university. After describing the meal, I confessed to telling Gail as we left that I would eat there all the time if it were in our neighborhood, not realizing that its older sibling, Voilà, is in fact in our neighborhood. As I explained then, Voilà is one of four French restaurants in a one-block stretch in Madison Valley, just over a mile from our house. I have written often about Rover’s and Luc. A month ago I wrote about La Côte Crêperie. But until yesterday, we had never eaten at Voilà.

Like Chloé, Voilà describes itself as a French bistrot, but at lunchtime it turns into a burger joint, albeit a fancy, French-influenced one. The left half of the single-sided, one-sheet menu lists Les Burgers, each with aioli, lettuce, tomato, and choice of frites or a mixed greens salad. One can pay more for additional toppings: bleu cheese, brie, emmental, red onion, truffle oil, sun-dried tomato, caramelized onions, wild mushrooms, fried egg, bacon. Or, one can order the tartine de légumes (open grilled baguette with mixed vegetables) or the gnocchi au pistou (hand-made potato dumplings with pesto cream sauce). These sounded good, but we focused on the right half of the menu. Both of us started with soup (onion soup for Gail, vichyssoise for me), then we ordered the salade gourmand (mixed greens, tomato, ham, egg and apple).

A simple meal, but a good one. Oh, I forgot. We also shared a side order of frites. Those were first rate. I would happily return for another Saturday lunch.

We passed on the crème brûlée and the lemon tarte in favor of going down the street to yet another neighborhood French enterprise, Inès Pâtisserie. It’s relatively new, and I had never been there before, though Gail had brought home a few of their items from time to time. The proprietor has a distinctive approach to her customers. Ahead of us at the counter were two mothers and three young children. One mother started to order when Inès stopped her to ask how many children there were, then went into a case and pulled out pretzel-shaped biscuits for each of them. When the second mother and her child were leaving a few minutes later, Inès pulled a candy out of a glass dish for the child.

Gail was set on ordering canalés, the famous Bordeaux pastries that my sister introduced us to some time ago. (I devoted a post to them three years ago, after returning to Seattle from a trip to New York with a box that my sister had brought to New York from Paris. Two years ago, on the morning we arrived in Paris at the start of our France/Italy trip, Gail and I went food shopping with my brother-in-law and stopped to buy some on the way back to their apartment.) There were several in the display case, or so we thought, but when Gail asked for them, Inès said they were savory pastries, not canelés. But she assured us there would be canelés today. She then brought out the pitcher of batter that she had refrigerated for several days and gave us a lesson on the importance of refrigeration. She ran through the batter ingredients, held up a couple of the canelé molds, and assured us that canelés are easy to make, as long as you are patient and let the batter set.

As consolation, I asked what the similar-sized chocolate-looking pastries were that were under glass on the counter. Chocolate, or something else. Inès looked at me blankly for a second, sizing me up it seemed, then wordlessly lifted the lid, pulled out one of the chocolate-looking pastries, grabbed a knife, cut it in half, and gave each of us a half. Yup, chocolate. And pretty darn good. We bought one, along with a chocolate macaroon and a pistachio one.

This morning, Gail returned for the canelés. That pitcher held only a small amount of batter, enough for a dozen, which were waiting when Gail arrived. She bought two (or so she says) and we each had one this afternoon. As good as the Lemoine canelés that my sister buys? It’s been a while. I can’t really compare. Perhaps not. But what’s the difference? They’re great, and they’re available just down the street.

Categories: Restaurants

Pizza, Pizza

November 25, 2011 1 comment

[From the Via Tribunali website]

Joel flew back from North Carolina Wednesday. Despite a delay getting out of Atlanta that resulted in his flight arriving here 40 minutes late, he arrived in time for us to have dinner together. Of course, it was three hours later for him, but he was game to stop at a restaurant on the way home and voted for the Georgetown location of Neapolitan pizzeria Via Tribunali. I wrote about Via Tribunali three years ago, after we went there on the day after Christmas. That post focused more on the accident of our stumbling on it after choosing not to stop at Via Tribunali’s Capitol Hill location in favor of heading farther afield to the Georgetown restaurant Stellar, only to find Stellar closed and then find ourselves at the Georgetown Via Tribunali in our search for somewhere else to eat.

Joel was with us that time too and had been a veteran of the Capitol Hill branch, the original. He had frequently urged us to try it, and we were there at last. My verdict, from the post that day: “Everything was great. A superb meal, well worth driving to Georgetown for.”

Since then, whenever we eat at the better pizza places in Seattle, Gail holds up Via Tribunali as her model, even though we never got back to it. You’ll recall our latest experiment, dinner two months ago at Delancey with Robin and Brooke. We quite enjoyed it, but Gail was convinced it was no Via Tribunali. I didn’t presume to remember well enough.

So two nights ago we were there once again, with Joel and with Jessica as well. We arrived moments before the end of happy hour, so we hastily ordered wine and beer and Jessica, who wasn’t interested in the full range of offerings, ordered a small, happy-hour sized Margherita (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, grana padano, olive oil basil), which she declared the best pizza she ever had. Gail, Joel, and I bypassed the waning happy hour options, ordering two salads and two pizzas from the dinner menu.

To start, we had the Insalata di Caesar (romaine hearts, caesar dressing, anchovies, grana padana, croutons) and the Insalata della Casa (seasonal greens, fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, olives, prosciutto cotto). Hmm. I’m getting these descriptions off the on-line menu, but I don’t remember getting croutons in the Caesar salad. What we had instead were small pieces of what I thought was pita. And we asked for the anchovies on the side, for Joel to eat. Both salads were excellent. I especially liked the prosciutto.

Then we had a Primavera pizza (cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, grana, basil) and a Salsiccia (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, grana padano, basil). Excellent once again. The primavera surprised me. I expected to like it, but to prefer the salsiccia. Instead, I enjoyed both equally, and found the primavera perhaps the more interesting of the two, probably because having sausage and basil on a pizza is common enough, but I don’t recall having a pizza covered with arugula. It turned out to be a great mix of ingredients: light but full of flavor.

For dessert, Gail and Joel shared a piece of tiramisu while Jessica had some chocolate ice cream. I tasted the ice cream. First rate.

Is Via Tribunali the best? Do I prefer it to Delancey or Tutta Bella or Cafe Lago? I can’t say. I enjoy them all. What I can say is that we shouldn’t wait another three years for a return visit. That would be a mistake.

Yesterday was a day off from pizza, what with Thanksgiving dinner and all. And tomorrow we have family plans that will prevent us from eating pizza. So if we were to get to Northlake Tavern and Pizza House while Joel was home, tonight had to be the night. Plus, it was the right night in any case, since Northlake is our Friday standby. Off we went, the same four of us, a few hours ago. Not much to report. We had our usual: salads with honey mustard dressing, the combo (sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives), vegetarian (mushrooms, peppers, onions, olives, tomatoes), and salty dog (secret ingredients; only those in the know have the privilege of ordering order this, since it’s not on the menu, and being in the know means knowing Russ, Northlake’s best customer, who conceived it).

There’s no point comparing Northlake to Via Tribunali. They reside in different food universes. That I have come to love Northlake is one of the great mysteries of my life. I can’t explain it. Nor will I try. What I know is, I’m fortunate that Gail introduced me to it decades ago, that it became smoke free a few years back, and that Russ turned us into regulars.

Oh, and the turkey last night was pretty darn good too, not to mention the fabulous squash soup and today’s lunchtime turkey hash. Thanks Gail.

Categories: Family, Restaurants

Carmine’s

November 13, 2011 Leave a comment

[From Il Terrazzo Carmine’s website]

I just finished a post about my current visit to O’Hare, mentioning in passing my fondness for the O’Hare Hilton’s Italian restaurant, Andiamo. Not the greatest, but comfortable. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out in contrast that two nights ago, we celebrated Gail’s birthday a day late at our favorite Italian restaurant in Seattle, Il Terrazzo Carmine. It is a continuing puzzle why we don’t eat there more often.

Sometimes we get there twice in a year, once for Gail’s birthday and once for mine. Sometimes just once. You may recall my post in March 2009 about our visit for my own birthday. (Well, non-birthday, since I didn’t have one that year, but I did get a year older, and that’s when we went.) That’s the time we had dinner in the bar, since we were too late to reserve a table, and Dale Chihuly dropped in to join the celebration.

This time Dale didn’t show. We had a good evening nonetheless. We always do. The menu never changes. But there’s always a risotto of the day, always yet another risotto served as a side dish with one of the dinner specials, always a soup of the day, a fish of the day, another three or four appetizer and main dish specials. Lots of variety. And the constant menu is plenty large. I’m invariably drawn to the cannelloni or rigatoni as an appetizer, to the rack of lamb or veal chop or pork chop or steak as a main dish. And then I hear the specials and want the soup, or the fish, or some other concoction. This time I went with the risotto special, with pancetta, and then the peppercorn steak with shoestring potatoes. Those potatoes are the greatest, one reason I can’t resist the steak.

For dessert, Gail was brought tiramisu with a candle in it. Then our (fabulous) waiter brought a tray with all the desserts to view. I resisted the profiteroles, difficult to do, and went with the pear tart, served with berries.

Let’s not forget the outstanding bottle of wine that accompanied the meal, a 2006 Brunello di Montalcino from Casanova di Neri.

I’m hoping this time we won’t wait another year for our next visit to Carmine’s.

Categories: Restaurants

La Côte Crêperie

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

[From their website]

Two Junes ago, I wrote briefly about La Côte Crêperie, a small restaurant in Madison Valley, about a mile from us. We’ve eaten a few times since, including just this past Saturday. Looking over what I wrote the first time, I don’t have much to add. But I love the place, and we had such a good meal the other day, so I want to highlight it again.

We ran some errands in mid-afternoon. Having not eaten any lunch, we decided to head down the street to the creperie for our day’s main meal. It’s small, with just a handful of tables. We figured eating in mid-afternoon would be a good strategy. To our surprise, the place was packed. We got the lone remaining open table. Who knew that heading over La Côte Crêperie is the thing to do at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon? Service is often slow, but we were in no hurry, so the pace suited us. And it had the additional benefit that by choosing to stay for dessert crepes, we had the place to ourselves. Just us, the proprietor, and the chef.

What did I eat? Well, I’m embarrassed to say I ate exactly what I did on our first visit, as I have learned by reviewing my old post. I started with the house salad: butter lettuce, shaved fennel, apple, shallot vinaigrette. Gail, who usually goes for the onion soup, chose instead the soup of the day, a creamy squash soup that the proprietor told us was from a recipe of his grandmother. Both were so good that we ended up sharing so we could each enjoy the two.

Gail next had the alpine crepe, with brie, yukon potatoes, bacon, and crème fraiche. The crepes are made from buckwheat, in the style of Brittany. I went off the crepe menu to get their version of a croque-madame (the classic croque-monsieur sandwich of ham and cheese with a fried egg on top). I tasted some of the bacon and potato that had spilled out of Gail’s crepe. A delight. And while Gail sampled a couple of their wines, I had the traditional drink of a Brittany creperie, cider. A couple of Breton ciders are available, poured into what look like giant coffee cups.

How could we pass up dessert? I had my favorite, La Belle-Hélène (pear, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce). Gail had La Martiniquaise (banana, chocolate sauce). And we chatted a bit with the proprietor.

It’s been 13 years since we were in Brittany, a trip I have written about before. It’s the one we took to visit my sister and her family in La Baule, then their customary August vacation spot, on the occasion of a major birthday celebration for my sister. One of my pleasures in eating at La Côte Crêperie is that it takes me back in some small way to that trip, and to the crêperie my sister took us to. As I wrote a year and a half ago, “One morning, we went over to the nearby walled town of Guérande — well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Within its lies what by my sister’s testimony — and I believe her — one of the great crêperies in France. It was a family favorite, and we were in for a treat. I can’t remember what I ordered, but I remember that as a matter of course, bottles of cider were put out for us all. I don’t think I did much more than taste it. I learned, though, that when in a crêperie, drink cider. And thanks to my pal Russ, I have learned to enjoy cider more.”

Indeed I have learned to enjoy cider more. I sure wish we could go back to that Guérande restaurant. As good as La Côte Crêperie is, I bet that one’s better. For now, I’ll content myself with this photo of Guérande.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Per Se

October 11, 2011 Leave a comment

[Daniel Krieger for The New York Times]

Whenever the NYT restaurant critic of the day offers a four-star review, I take note.

It’s take-note time! In tomorrow’s paper, Sam Sifton’s exalts Per Se. However tempted you are by his words, wait till you see the accompanying slide show, from which the photo above is taken. As for those words, Sifton gets right to the point, announcing, “So this is the best restaurant in New York City” and going on to say,

I make the argument unreservedly. I have eaten in restaurants five or more nights a week for the last two years, always in search of the best and most delectable, the most interesting and important. And I have come back again and again to Per Se to find it.

[snip]

[I]n recent years, and particularly under the kitchen command of Eli Kaimeh, who has been Per Se’s chef since early 2010, Per Se has matured. Its synthesis of culinary art and exquisite service is now complete. It represents the ideal of an American high-culture luxury restaurant.

There’s much more, including Sifton’s musings on the role of restaurants such as Per Se and the cost for such luxury. But you should read it all yourself, so I’ll quote no more.

Categories: Restaurants

Chloé

October 3, 2011 Leave a comment

[From the Chloé website]

Still another restaurant post, but maybe the last one for a while.

Two nights ago we ate at Chloé, a self-described French bistrot. I had suggested to our friend Kai the day before that we attend an event the next night at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. A new exhibit, Carnaval, opened last week, an exhibit that “highlights eight Carnival celebrations from communities in Europe and the Americas.” Saturday night there was to be a celebration of the exhibit, with music and food and special guests. I also suggested that we might eat dinner nearby first, and Kai in turn proposed Chloé.

Chloé occupies the space that for over two decades was the home of the popular Union Bay Cafe. We hadn’t paid much attention to its replacement until driving by last spring, when we caught its name and agreed that we should try it. We made a reservation for some upcoming occasion, perhaps Mother’s Day, then found ourselves needing to cancel. Thus, Kai’s proposal was a welcome one.

Given the museum event, we had to eat early. When we arrived at 5:30, we had the place to ourselves. That would change. It was nearly full on our departure at 7:15. The menu is a small one, faithful as best we could tell to the mission of duplicating a French bistrot. There’s a section given over to mussels. The entrées include trout amandine with haricots verts, poulet rôti, hanger steak, steak frites (or, more precisely, medallions of beef in a green peppercorn sauce with french fries). Appetizers include a duck leg confit and frogs legs.

The soup of the day Saturday was potato leek. Kai and I had that while Gail had the onion soup. Kai and I agreed that our soup was excellent. Gail seemed pretty happy with hers. For dinner, Gail ordered one of the specials, lamb chops with potatoes au gratin. I was tempted, but went instead with the medallions of beef. What did Kai have? I’m picturing something pink, like a beet risotto, with scallops on top. Maybe so. It would have been the other special entrée.

Once again, we were all happy with our selections. I hadn’t had french fries in a while. I loved mine. And the beef was good too, in a delightful peppercorn sauce. I don’t know where they get their bread, but it was fabulous.

The museum and its off-season celebration of Carnaval beckoned. No crème brûlée for me. But not to worry. We’ll be back. I remarked to Gail as we got into the car that if Chloé were in our neighborhood, I’d eat there all the time.

By the way — funny thing about that. We have more than our share of French restaurants in the commercial strip of the nearby neighborhood known as Madison Valley, just over a mile’s walk away from here. I have written often about Rover’s, perhaps the best French restaurant in Seattle, and its newer, simpler sibling Luc, Chef Thierry Rautureau’s take on French bistros. Across the street from them are two more French restaurants, La Côte Crêperie and Voilà. I have written about La Côte Crêperie, though not lately.

Voilà? I never wrote about it, for the good reason that I’ve never been there. Gail has urged me to try it. I figured I was happy enough with the other three. I didn’t need to. Not a very intelligent response. Plus, if we don’t want to walk, it can be hard to park in that neighborhood, a fact that doesn’t seem to stand in the way of our getting to Rover’s, Luc, or La Côte Crêperie.

Why have I resisted eating at Voilà? I have no idea. But guess what? It is in fact the older sibling to Chloé. The menu doesn’t look a whole lot different from Chloé’s. Several choices of mussels. Two steak frites options, the hanger steak or a New York strip. Duck leg confit. The menus are different, for sure, but with plenty of overlap.

Silly me — it would seem that Voilà is the answer to my pronouncement to Gail Saturday that I would eat at Chloé all the time if it were in our neighborhood. You may be seeing me at Voilà regularly now.

Categories: Restaurants

Poppy

October 2, 2011 2 comments

[From Poppy’s website]

Wednesday night was the start of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Normally, even the most minimally observant of Jews would go to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. I suppose I qualify as minimally observant. But over a decade ago, we began a variant tradition. We had already begun to celebrate assorted Jewish holidays with our friends Cynthia, Andy, and their family. One year, we were having Rosh Hashanah dinner at their house, welcoming the new year, when it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to both finish dinner and get to evening services. We went with finishing dinner. So began the tradition of eating dinner in lieu of services, then attending services the next morning.

We don’t adhere to this tradition every year, sometimes because travel intervenes. Last year, for instance, Rosh Hashanah came early (as part of the continuing back-and-forth drift between the lunar-based Jewish calendar and the solar-based calendar of our daily lives), so early that we were still on vacation in Nantucket. Gail and I attended the Rosh Hashanah evening services of Congregation Shirat Ha Yam, held in Nantucket’s historic Unitarian church, then grabbed a couple of slices of pizza for holiday dinner at Steamboat Pizza.

Which brings us to this year. The powers that be decided we would return to the tradition of building our Rosh Hashanah evening celebration around dinner. And rather than a traditional Jewish holiday dinner, we would open with ceremonial challah, apples, and honey at our house, then head to a restaurant.

So it was that we headed up to Poppy, where Gail had eaten before, but not the rest of us. What’s Poppy? According to its website,

jerry traunfeld’s capitol hill restaurant brings a new style of dining to the northwest. jerry’s inspiration comes from the “thali,” a platter served to each guest holding a variety of small dishes. poppy’s menu borrows the idea of the thali to present jerry’s own style of northwest cooking, highlighting seasonal ingredients, fresh herbs, and spices. it’s a modern northwest tasting menu served all at once.

Traunfeld is one of the northwest’s most famous chefs, thanks largely to his years at The Herbfarm. A visit to Poppy was long overdue.

I understood from studying the menu ahead of time that one chooses either a 7-item or 10-item thali. What I didn’t understand was how large each item was and whether diners were encouraged to share with others at the table or focus on their own thalis. Our server explained that we should each just choose our own thali. As for portion size, the 7-item thali has one primary dish, the 10-item two, and these are modest sized entrees, the other items serving as smaller complements.

The menu keeps changing. What you see online differs from what we had, though the current listing is close. There is also a selection under the heading to start. Each of us chose a starter from the list below:

spice crispies

eggplant fries with sea salt & honey

spiced fig, onion, blue cheese and sage tart

batata wada (potato fritters) with cilantro lime sauce

heirloom tomato, herb, feta and olive salad

little lobster roll fines herbes

lightly fried mussels with lovage

poached oysters with sorrel sauce and bacon

*half-shell kumomoto oysters with anise hyssop ice

lavender duck, radicchio, blackberry and hazelnut salad

washington farmstead cheeses with rye-thyme crackers

three spreads with naan

grilled monterey bay squid with arugula, walnut, peppers and orange

Namely, the eggplant fries, spiced fig tart, potato fritters, and lobster roll. We then shared a bit. I chose the potato fritters, anticipating that they might be like samosa, which they were, though much smaller, little balls. They were perfect. I had two of the four. And I had lots of eggplant fries, which were astonishingly good.

As for thalis, here are the current online choices.

10-item thali

king salmon with chanterelles, bacon and lemon-thyme sorrel sauce
grilled waygu beef with tomato, capers and fingerlings
red-pepper apricot soup
watermelon, cucumber, cinnamon basil and almond salad
radish, purslane and grilled spring onion salad
local roots carrots with fresh fennel seed
golden beets with spice bread and mint
corn basil spoonbread
peach, blueberry and anise hyssop pickle
nigella-poppy naan

10-item vegetarian thali
cauliflower agnolotti with lobster mushrooms
quinoa cakes with goat cheese, squash blossoms, fillet beans and tomato
tomato, sage and strawberry soup
watermelon, cucumber, cinnamon basil and almond salad
radish, purslane and grilled spring onion salad
golden beets with spice bread and mint
corn and basil spoonbread
sprouting broccoli with oregano
plum-shiso pickle
nigella-poppy naan

7-item thalis

king salmon with chantarelles, bacon and lemon-thyme sorrel sauce
tomato, sage and strawberry soup
watermelon, cucumber, cinnamon basil and almond salad
local roots carrots with fresh fennel seed
corn and basil spoonbread
plum-shiso pickle
nigella-poppy naan

tandoori poussin with fresh figs and huckleberries
tomato, sage and strawberry soup
radish, purslane and grilled spring onion salad
golden beets with spice bread and mint
corn and basil spoonbread
plum-shiso pickle
nigella-poppy naan

grilled wagyu beef with tomato, capers and fingerlings
red-pepper apricot soup
watermelon, cucumber, cinnamon basil and almond salad
sprouting broccoli with oregano
golden beets with spice bread and mint
peach, blueberry and anise hyssop pickle
nigella-poppy naan

The first two items in the 10-item thalis are the main dishes, the first one in the 7-item the lone main dish. Wednesday, the actual main dishes in the 10-item non-vegetarian thali were the salmon, as listed, and the poussin, shown above as a 7-item main dish. I wanted to try the beef, and wanted some of the 10-item accompaniments, so I was stuck until the server said we could swap the beef salmon or poussin. That made it easy. I had the 10-item. Gail had the 7-item with beef. Andy and Cynthia chose 7-items with salmon.

It turns out that a 10-item thali is a lot of food. I should have copied Gail and chosen the 7-item beef thali. I somehow missed that the beef doesn’t come alone. As you see on the menu, it has its own accompaniments, the tomato, capers, and fingerlings. It is a min-meal by itself. Similarly with the salmon.

When the server brought our thalis, she explained that we should rotate among the dishes, using the pickle item as a palate cleanser. As listed above, I had peach, blueberry and anise hyssop pickle as my cleanser, but I only occasionally followed instructions. I did rotate. I only occasionally went to the pickle as an intermediary.

So many delicious items. The soup. The corn and basil spoon bread. The beets, and I don’t even like beets. The carrots. The naan. Everything was so good. I can’t wait to return.

And then there’s the garden, which is just outside the back door, between the building and a parking lot. Below is one image of it. See the website for more.

If I had gotten this post written more quickly (but, you know, it was Rosh Hashanah, and also I had a new book to read), you might be thinking, let’s see, Wednesday night, Wednesday night … wasn’t that the night when all those amazing baseball games were played, the night that will go down in history? You mean to say you were sitting in a restaurant instead of watching them all?

Yes, that’s right. The only consolation is that if we weren’t out to dinner, I would have been at services. Then again, we might instead have been eating dinner at one of our homes, in which case we surely would have switched over to watching the games in time for their dramatic ends.

Andy and I did get to check the scores on our phones. We did have some idea of the flow of the games. But we didn’t realize that Papelbon had two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, or that Dan Johnson hit his game-tying home run in Tampa with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. We didn’t really understand the extraordinary events unfolding while we were eating our thalis.

Fortunately, a half hour or so after we got home, I got on the treadmill and turned on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight just as they started a recap of the four crucial games. At least I got summaries and understood what we had missed. And it was my holiday. One must have priorities.

But Andy, I’m sorry. You sacrificed too much. There’s no way to make it up. Thank you for choosing Rosh Hashanah dinner over baseball.

Categories: Baseball, Restaurants

Delancey

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment

[Delancey, from their website]

Another day, another restaurant. It’s not my goal to turn this into a food blog, but we keep eating at interesting restaurants, so what can I do? Last night, we ate at Delancey, which I’ll get to in a bit.

When I moved here thirty years ago, it was difficult to find pizza like what I was accustomed to in New York and Boston. Pagliacci had opened its first place near the university a couple of years before. Piecora’s, which styles itself as a Brooklyn kind of place, opened a year after. I wouldn’t get to Piecora’s for years. I met Gail and was introduced to two of her favorites, Northlake Tavern and Italian Spaghetti House. Northlake, being a bar, was filled with smokers, and I couldn’t bear eating there. When we took out, I thought its product the anti-pizza. It was all about toppings, with a mediocre crust. The Italian Spaghetti House’s pizza was mediocre in a more all-around way.

Funny thing is, my tastes changed, adjusting I suppose to what was available. We bought a home on the same street as the Italian Spaghetti House and in our last couple of years there, I would routinely and happily drive over the hill and down to take out their pizza. As for Northlake, well, it would eventually become my favorite Seattle hangout, thanks in part to the banning of smokers and in part to my growing friendship with their number one customer. I could eat their pizza every night.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, more and more small pizza places have opened that make thin-crust pizza of the sort one might find in Italy. Even before the last decade, there was Cafe Lago, with their near-perfect thin-crust, wood-oven-baked pizzas. We discovered them soon after they opened, then moved to within walking distance of them, or a short drive. More recently, we began to eat at Tutta Bella, Via Tribunali, and Tom Douglas’s Serious Pie, each superb in its own way. We aren’t lacking in thin-crust pizza places here, that’s for sure.

And then there’s Delancey. It opened two years ago to some fanfare. I read about it, made a note to eat there some time. The problem is, it’s in Ballard, not all that far from our neighborhood, but far enough that I’m never motivated to drive that far. Ballard, as it turns out, is Gail’s home turf. It was once an independent city, annexed by Seattle in 1907. And it became the home of a large Scandinavian immigrant community, including many fishing families. When I first met Gail, that hadn’t changed much, but it would soon. With easy access to downtown, by car or bus, and modestly priced houses, it has become home to many young families, with older Scandinavians selling or dying while their children moved on. (Gail’s family is an example of this process.) And home to many new restaurants that are regularly praised in the local and national press. My unwillingness to get over that way means we don’t get to try all these restaurants.

One more strand. Seattle is home to one of the most widely read food bloggers in the world, Molly Wizenberg. Gail subscribes to her blog, Orangette. I never have. I knew of her. And I knew she started some restaurant recently. But that was about it, until we went to a huge fundraising luncheon last March for a local cancer care organization at which Molly was the keynote speaker. She spoke not about herself but about her mother, whose bout with cancer brought Molly to Seattle. That’s when I finally put all the pieces together and realized that Molly was the well-known food blogger who had started a pizza place in Ballard — Delancey — with her husband and that we really should go there.

It’s a bit of a puzzle that I entirely missed the piece about Delancey just two months ago in the NYT travel section. As Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan explains,

On a quiet street in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle sits a cozy little restaurant on the verge of being thrust into a rather public life.

Delancey, a chic yet unassuming pizzeria whose décor makes you feel as if you’ve walked into your hipster neighbor’s dining room midmeal, is the love child of Brandon Pettit, a former New York music student, and his wife, Molly Wizenberg, one of the Internet’s most widely read food bloggers. Ms. Wizenberg has been detailing the daily rhythms of her kitchen and life on her blog Orangette since 2004, so it’s not surprising that this restaurant will soon be part of her material. In April she signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster to write “Delancey,” a memoir about the trials and tribulations of opening the restaurant with Mr. Pettit, scheduled for publication in spring 2013.

[snip]

The idea for the restaurant grew out of Mr. Pettit’s longing for the pizzas he grew up with in New York and New Jersey. (Ms. Wizenberg said he spent two years working to replicate New York-style doughs to his satisfaction. This included chatting up the makers of Di Fara Pizza in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, whose pies he missed the most.)

Four weeks ago, we were at a party at our friend Paul’s house and got to talking with Brooke and Robin about never getting to Ballard because driving there is such a pain, agreeing that as a result we never get to try restaurants such as Delancey. A pact was made. We would go to Delancey together. Last night was the night we agreed on.

Now that I’ve managed to explain what brought us there, the rest will be anti-climactic, as I don’t have a lot more to say. We were anxious about being able to get a table. Reservations are taken for parties of six or more. It would be crowded on a Saturday evening. But we got lucky. A four-top opened up when Brooke and Robin arrived. We drove up just after them, parked, and as we reached the front door where they were waiting, we were seated. Which was a good thing. There’s no bar or other area to wait in. One simply stands outside, amongst the diners availing themselves of the outdoor seating. Had there been a long wait, we might have moved on in search of one of the other Ballard restaurants we had never tried.

The menu is limited. The NYT article notes that the “appetizers change seasonally but a constant is a mound of shaved cabbage and romaine modeled after the chopped salads Mr. Pettit loved in New Jersey pizzerias.” That’s called the Jersey salad, described on the menu as having Romaine, red cabbage, Grana, housemade “Italian” dressing. The other two options were heirloom tomatoes with feta cheese and a meat plate with prosciutto and salami. As we studied these, we ordered a bottle of Austrian rosé, with Robin and Brooke’s recent trip to Austria in mind. Ultimately, we chose to share the Jersey salad and the tomatoes. Not being a feta fan, I can’t say much about the tomatoes, but the salad was first rate, a great way to start the meal.

When it came to the pizzas, we decided to share one Margherita (Tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, basil) and one Sausage (tomato sauce, fresh and aged mozzarella, grana, housemade sausage). The one special for the night was the availability of Padrón chiles as a topping or side dish. We ordered them on the side.

Everyone makes a Margherita, of course. How does this compare? I don’t really know what to say. Driving home, I mentioned to Gail that it was very close in taste and texture to Cafe Lago’s. In a blind taste testing, I might not know the difference. But that’s a good thing, since I don’t think there’s a better Margherita pizza in the city than Cafe Lago’s. The crust is thin, burnt at the edges (also a good thing, though perhaps not in the mind of one of last night’s diners); the cheese, tomato, and basil each was distinctive and excellent. I couldn’t have been happier. The Sausage was a good contrast. The housemade sausage was fabulous, making the pizza itself fabulous as well. And those Padrón peppers were pretty darn hot. They went well with everything.

We still had a little room for dessert. There were three: a plum galette, figs with a honey mousse, and a chocolate chip cookie. Gail and I had the galette. Brooke and Robin shared a galette and the figs. The galette had a crust that was just right. Gail loves Italian plums and wasn’t disappointed. (Neither was I. It was excellent.) As far as I could tell, the fig dessert was pretty good too.

I would have liked to try one of those chocolate chip cookies. For that matter, I’d like to try several of the other pizzas. I know — reason to go back. But next time we get over to Ballard for dinner, we should try another of the exciting restaurants over there. Staple & Fancy Mercantile perhaps.

Categories: Restaurants

Another Rover’s Lunch

September 23, 2011 1 comment

Rover's

[From their website]

Perhaps I’ve written enough about Rover’s, but it’s hard to pass up a short note about today’s marvelous lunch. As I have explained many times, Rover’s is the French restaurant not far from our house that is among the best restaurants in Seattle. For too many years, despite its convenient location, within walking distance, we eschewed it. But then they opened for Friday lunches, and two summers ago we ate their regularly.

Unfortunately, we’ve eaten at Rover’s only a handful of times since, partly because I have a habit of working on Fridays. But summer is more flexible, which is why we made it a point to start the summer with lunch there. Today, in effect, was the end of summer and my last day of flexibility for months to come. So when our friend Russ suggested last Friday that we join him at Rover’s today for a belated celebration of his milestone birthday, we wasted no time saying yes.

The menu currently posted online appears to be a faithful representation of today’s in-person menu. That makes it easy for me to tell you what we ordered. We had three different appetizers. For me, the Polenta, Summer Squash Succotash, Arugula; for Gail, the Dungeness Crab, Haricot Vert, Mango, Citrus Vinaigrette; for Russ, Seared Scallop, Peas, Mushrooms, Seafood Nage. My polenta, prepared with goat cheese, was superb. Gail’s crab, mixed with mango, was shaped into a disk that sat atop a disk of finely cut haricot vert, with a small arugula salad on the side. The presentation was beautiful.

We all settled on the same main course: Wagyu Beef, Lentil, Wild Mushrooms, Thyme Sauce. The beef was thinly cut and delicious. The lentil and mushroom mix was lovely both visually and in the mouth. We also all had the same dessert: Chocolate Bavarian, Cherry, Pistachio. It was light, fluffy, and perfect. Oh, I didn’t mention the toasted hazelnuts on the polenta. They added just the right crunchiness.

We began the meal with sparkling wines. Gail and I had glasses of a French rosé. Russ had a glass of champagne. I don’t remember what any of us had specifically. Russ chose the wine for dinner, DeLille Cellars2003 Syrah. According to the website, it “is blended with two percent Viognier which gives its floral, orange blossom notes. Deep black purple color. Concentrated chocolate, raspberries and pomegranates are combined with espresso, white pepper and a floral nose. It is dense and dark with a wonderful plush mouth-feel and expressive balance.”

Just so. Well, what do I know? And anyway, I only tasted it. But it was wonderful, and it did have an expressive balance. Russ chose well.

Maybe we can squeeze in a Rover’s lunch in December. And there’s always dinner. That might be something to think about.

By the way — thank you, Russ!

Categories: Restaurants