Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rumblings #3: Meatless in Seattle at Carmelita

Carmelita is a staple on the Seattle vegetarian scene proving that you don't need to eat meat in order to have a satisfying meal. Carmelita added a bar to the restaurant within the last year and seemed to have refreshed the decor a little bit which added a warmth and earthiness to the restaurant. It also has a lovely intimate garden patio that is a rare and perfect Seattle spot for some dining al fresco.

I hadn't been to Carmelita since Carlos Caula brought his "farm-to-table" eat local philosophy and I had been interested in seeing how this was reflected in the menu. It was a great excuse for my brother and I to take our newly vegetarian mother out on a mom-date. Everything on the menu is incredibly fresh, local, foraged and northwest sounding; while the english peas, asparagus and foraged mushrooms are springy staples, there was an abundance of nettles on just about everything. I wonder who thought to eat the irriating nettle.... They sting and irritate me in the woods but maybe if I cooked them a bit and ate them, they could either sting the inside of my throat or be a wonderfully delicious addition to a parpadelle? I digress.

The first course featured two soups and a salad. I opted for the asparagus soup which was served tepid. I don't recall the exact description of the temperature as described on the menu but it wasn't hot, it wasn't chilled, it was lukewarm. It was garnished with some blood orange oil and wildflowers. I found the soup to be a subtle but delicious way to show off the fresh asparagus with a bit of citrusy zest. My mother and brother ordered the broccoli cheddar soup which was very flavorful but refined. Thumbs up on the first course.

For the second course, we had a choice between a mushroom risotto, an open-faced vegan, sauteed pea vines and mushroom lasagna with nettle pesto or a pizza which of course, featured foraged mushrooms and nettles and other such roughage. My lasagna was fresh and understated but I prefer a more in-your-face flavorful type of lasagna. I missed the saltiness and zest of cheese and a more substantial filling. The sauteed pea vines were lovely but I longed for more mushrooms which were the savory, earthy bits that tied the dish together but were sadly lacking. My mother and brother ordered the risotto which was really delicious with a great mix of textures with the soft and cheesy risotto, chewiness from the mushrooms and the slight crunch of the greens and flowers. It reminded me a bit of the risotto from Sunlight Cafe in Roosevelt. It was much more satisfying and I finished my mom's risotto for her... I tend to eat like a teenage boy afterall.

I had a lemon-infused goat cheese creme brulee for dessert which was great finish. It didn't have a goat cheese flavor at all but had the perfectly soft and sumptuous texture, perfect crisp top and a not-too-warm and not-too-chilled temperature.

All in all, Carmelita really showcases fresh, local, northwest cuisine. It feels really vegetarian if that can be a good description. The menu is a litttle hippie with a bit of northwest refinement; there are flowers and nettles everywhere!  However, I have to compare it to the classic Seattle vegetarian institution: Cafe Flora. The key difference is that Cafe Flora uses creative ingredients to put together more comprehensive entrees that make you forget you're not eating meat. Carmelita's dishes were earthy and delicious but felt as if they would be great sides or pieces to a whole meal but not the total package.  It was if I had a really great date with a vegan Seattlite who is intelligent, likes music, is sensitive but who wore socks with sandals.  We kissed but we lacked that spark. I think I made a nice friend but was left a little unsatisfied.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rumblings #2: The Last Supper (at Blueacre anyway)

Blueacre: What better way to experience a new restaurant than to get a three course meal from a fixed sampler menu during restaurant week with three of your best friends? There is none! This is going to be so much fun!

That's what we thought.

We should have prepared for a marathon of a dining experience with unforeseen hurdles in the way. And they should have clarified for us that the planned running course would be more than 26 miles and 385 yards and may be altered towards the finish. I hate distance running.

We arrived promptly according to our reservations and the hostess was a bit flighty - she didn't seem to know how to handle people who actually had reservations and what to do when there seemingly weren't any tables available so she ran off with barely an excuse to fetch a manager. A manager came back and warmly greeted us, explained that they were running behind and that the wait wouldn't be long and handed us drink and food menus to peruse. After 15 minutes of waiting or so, the manager returned and apologized for the wait again, explained that it would take more time than expected and offered to buy us drinks for our wait. None of us had been expecting to drink much that evening but we happily ordered a few cocktails since they were offered. A few minutes later, we were seated and the manager let us know that those drinks would be sent to our table.

The drinks came 15 minutes after we had been seated which at this point was now probably 25 minutes since they had been ordered; this set the tone for the rest of the evening which became a marathon at a snail's pace.
We had ordered our first and second courses and the service was pleasant and jovial. We munched on some good bread and the boys ordered another round of beers. Closing in at 8pm, after a few rounds of drinks with nothing to eat but bread, we asked for more bread. And more bread. The server grew a little nervous and assured us that food was on its way.

The Good:
For the first course, three of us ordered a salmon collar with green papaya salad which is a Vietnamese staple. It was served with a ginger sauce and we were provided chopsticks. Granted, if you are not used to eating salmon collar and eating with chopsticks, this course may not be for you, even with a fork since it became rather messy and hard to ascertain the meaty parts.

Still the flavors were Asian inspired, well seasoned and well cooked. The dish was ballsy: fun and unrefined, familiar and yet unexpected so we enjoyed it immensely. Well, three of us anyways. One of us (Beth) had ordered a bisque which is basically soup so you would think that spooning up a bowl of creamy soup and garnishing wouldn't take very long. However, this soup didn't arrive for our poor hungry friend to eat until two of the boys had finished their salmon and I was determinedly foraging for the last little bits of fish.
The Bad:
Waiting for the second course was agonizing and it was as if the Jeopardy song was playing in our heads. We had more drinks and grew restless. We clapped when the dishes finally came and took pictures. When I looked at my piece of halibut (which must have been the fish of restaurant week), I already knew something was wrong. Beth took a bite first and immediately set her fork down, bringing her hand to her mouth with a surprised little gasp.

"What?" I asked incredulously, "Is it overcooked?" I didn't even allow her to answer and took my own bite. Halibut is a wonderful versatile, firm, mild-flavored piece of fish that in my humble opinion, should melt like butter and flake in big chunks when cut into. It should not resemble the texture of overdone dorm chicken strips but alas! The fish gods or the deadliest catch dude or whomever I should have sacrificed a goat to did not will it so! The halibut was like an overdone stringy, dry piece of chicken. We asked the boys if their chicken was ok and they said it was good and piping hot. We surmised that our fish was overdone to begin with but poor expediting or management in the back of the house left that halibut to bake under a heating lamp while the chicken was being cooked.
The Ugly:

Wait- there's more? There is ugly? How can a few ruined halibut steaks be less worse than something? The last leg of our marathon dining experience became a confusing and irritating mess.

The server returned with the menus for dessert so we could assess our choices: whoopie pie, angel food cake and ice cream/sorbet. A few moments later he returned to let us know that two of the three options were now no longer available and so we could order any dessert on the menu to substibute instead. He had jetted before we could ask which of the options were now sold out but we assumed that it was the pie and the cake that had sold out since economics would dictate that restaurants rarely sell out of the least involved and expensive choice (ice cream). I settled on the lemon meringue pie since it sounded gorgeous. The waiter came back and apologized again stating that there was a communication error and all of the desserts were actually available but mentioned that they would honor any dessert we ordered as part of the selection due to the confusion. I asked the waiter what his favorite dessert was and without hesitation, he answered that the lemon meringue pie was amazing. "Then I'll take it!" I exclaimed. Beth ordered the rhubarb angel food cake and the boys got the whoopie pie.

A few minutes later, a different server came by and asked who ordered the lemon meringue pie. I nervously raised my hand and rolled my eyes. "I'm sorry," the server said, "But unfortunately Tom Douglas is dining with us tonight in the back there and he just ordered lemon meringue pies as well so we're going to give him the last two pieces. I'm sorry but you'll have to order something else." WHAT? You gave Tom Douglas my freaking pie? The one I had my heart set on? The one I would not have even wanted had you not had a communication error to begin with? I scoured the menu but nothing sounded good. Both servers returned to look at me with pity and shake their heads as I stared and stared at the godforsaken menu. I asked them what they would recommend.

"Oh the lemon meringue pie is my favorite. It is so good, " they both agreed. AGHHHHHHHHHHHH! ASDFJKL:!!!!! DON'T MAKE ME ANGRY!

"I mean, one that isn't the one that you gave to Tom Douglas! What else is good? Nothing else is calling to me!" I exclaimed exasperatedly. They thought for a while and the pause was disconcerting. I started to walk through the rest of the options one by one - going over the whoopie pie (eh, not that great) and the other options when finally one of them says, "Well the chocolate pudding is good. But you know, it's pudding." With a little shrug at the end.

The rhubarb angel food cake was good except that the sauce looked like something had melted on the plate in a not-so-attractive manner. And my chocolate pudding really was good although not exactly novel.

Now the funniest part and the real 'ugly' was the boys' dessert order. Take note of the description:

Chocolate cake, chocolate cream filling and coco jacks. What are coco jacks? Apparently the pastry chef is cuckoo for Coco Puffs because that's what they were. An older gentleman at a table next to ours sent his dessert back perhaps because he wasn't amused with children's cereal and chocolate cream smeared on his plate. Either that or he assumed that the kitchen had some sort of rodent issue since the coco jacks resembled rabbit or rat turds.

Was this a joke or did the genius pastry chef think that this was actually clever and delicious? Nevertheless the whoopie pie did not live up to its description as chocolate cake with cream filling but two flat-tasting chocolate cookies with chocolate cream, sprinkled with rat droppings, ahem cereal.

By the time we had finished dinner, it was after 10pm; it was now over three hours after we had arrived and we were utterly unsatisfied. At last we had a nice laugh over the whoopie pie turds. I had an itch to hit up a Tom Douglas restaurant later that evening. That dude owes me a decent dessert.

Rumblings #1: Avila

Avila is recent addition to the Wallingford neighborhood, tucked in amongst the other quaint storefronts of 45th St. The restaurant itself is sectioned oddly. As you enter, the bar is immediately to your left, followed by an open swath of tables. You then ascend a short staircase onto the kitchen level, which itself divides two other seating areas. It also features a small patio separated by a bay of tall glass, that might have been very appealing in warmer weather. The kitchen is small and very open, with all stations visible to patrons walking past. Chef Alex Pitts leads a quiet, focused, ragtag-looking crew, who kept their heads down and their knives moving as we passed. The sectioning of the restaurant gave the impression of intimacy, but Avila is bigger than it appears. 

Our service at Avila was some of the worst we encountered during Seattle Restaurant Week (SRW from here on). Our server seemed out of it. We asked for water, and were brought silverware. We stared longingly at bread plates on other tables, but never received our own and thought that perhaps the bread was part of a cheese plate that we hadn't ordered. She had little to no feedback on the menu or the wine list. Our appetizers came agonizingly slow. Nothing gets off on the wrong foot like a delayed appetizer. And with that, let's get to the food:

Mussels in vermouth w/ grilled bread (her)
Grilled prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears (him)

Ann enjoyed her mussels, citing the broth as one of the more flavorful she had encountered.  However, they provided a giant piece of (slightly burnt) grilled bread to mop up the broth with but there disappointingly wasn't enough broth in the bowl.  My asparagus was average & uninspired. Apps don't have to be "inspired" but they do set a tone for the rest of the meal. They say "expect more of this." And with SRW in full swing, your opportunity to delight and surprise diners as well as establish new repeat customers is at an all time high. This was an opportunity lost.

Halibut (her)
Roasted Lamb (him)

The halibut, pictured right, was not cooked evenly. Overcooking any fish is a crime, but the sear job on this fillet left areas of the halibut translucent and some areas overdone. To be *somewhat* fair, the night before Ann had probably the best piece of halibut ever at Rover's. It was like going on Ed Sullivan after the Beatles. My lamb was slightly lukewarm, probably left to rest 3-4 minutes too long, or waiting on sides. It was decent though, and the conical tower of pureed and baked parsnip was really tasty.

Rhubarb champagne soup (her)
Chocolate souffle (him)

Ann's take: "Unexpected, flavorful, set the tone of rhubarb dessert week but a) presentation wasn't appetizing and made it hard to eat b) bowl was too shallow c) soup was good but would have made a better cocktail sans cream and biscuit.  If I were to present it, I would have put the soup in a square bowl on another plate and added the cream and biscuit separately on the base plate so people could have bites dipped in the soup or spooned/sipped the soup and the other elements to their liking and so the shortcake doesn't get too soggy.

As for my chocolate souffle, it was dry and one-note. Like burnt chocolate bread. Easily the most unsatisfying dessert we had all week.

Last Rumble: Avila is new. It showed it's youth with an underwhelming and inconsistent service.There's potential there, but like a teenage whose feet have grown too fast, Avila has stumbled awkwardly onto the Seattle restaurant scene.

But don't take our word for it. Here's Unsatisfied Tony Bourdain to expound further:

"This meal was the sticky, backseat fumblings of my youth. Writhing in front of me was the pink cotton panties of promise. But like every post-pubescent sexual encounter, the climax was quickly ushered away by shame and quiet acceptance of my, um, shortcomings."

Unsatisfied Tony needs you to not tell anyone in class about this.


Seattle Restaurant Week: Rumblings

After an action-packed, rally-proof, Japadog-avoiding, eyeball-biting weekend in Vancouver, we're back in Seattle for a short week. Because on Friday we are jetting off to cosmopolitan George, WA for Sasquatch Music Festival...hurray!! We'll be devoting a lot of blog space that weekend and the following week to recapping Sasquatch, with a variety of guest posts.

This week, however, we'll revisit our escapades of Seattle Restaurant Week. Over ten days, we ate at six restaurants:
Our restaurant choices were fairly random; in most cases it came down to what we were intrigued by on their menu. Some are brand new (Blueacre, Avila). Some have been around awhile (Union, Stumbling Goat). All are important fixtures in their respective neighborhoods. In the end, we'll rank them because...people like rankings? And statistics! 87.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot, so we're doing lots of statistics too!

First up will be Avila. You're new; we'll be gentle...ish...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Mission

We met at a bar in the Fremont neighborhood. It's called the Ballroom. Most young Seattleites that read that last sentence will let out a loud guffaw. It's not the type of place you find a girlfriend. It's the type of place you find someone to rub up on. Maybe even take home for a night.

But I guess we bucked that trend.

About a month ago, we both looked at each other across a table at Rover's and realized something. Two of our shared passions, music and food, were being woefully unexamined. Ann exclaimed "We need to start a blog!" I agreed. We lived in this city, this Eden, with an established reputation for both innovative cuisine and fiercely independent music. To not explore them in tandem would be a travesty.

That is our mission.