Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rumblings #6: Union

Our final Seattle Restaurant Week stop was Union, a few blocks from Pike Place Market. We wanted to choose an Ethan Stowell restaurant before the end of the week. For me, he's one of the premier chefs in generation's version of Tom Douglas.

Union is, or was, the oldest of his four restaurants, the one that established Stowell's reputation as a Northwest cuisine practitioner that infuses Italian influences into many of the dishes. Little did we know that Stowell would announce that Union would be shuttered in less than a month after our visit. Probably a combination of high downtown rent + difficult parking lead to its closing, or the fact that Stowell restaurants have taken a decidedly neighborhoodie approach.

As for his other restaurants, I had been to Tavolata and gorged myself on gnocchi. I've chowed down on carpaccios and crudos at How To Cook A Wolf. Each experience had been positive, so Union seemed to be a safe and potentially satisfying last stop.

Our party of five was seated on a relatively quiet Thursday, the very last night of Restaurant Week. As we cruised by the kitchen pass, I spotted none other than the man himself, Ethan Stowell cooking on the line. Ethan and his sous were both rockin' their traditional striped headbands. We were highly encouraged by this...that the chef overseeing four restaurants just happened to be manning ours the night we choose to visit. After a round of red wine, we moved on to the first course:

Pea Soup w/ olive tapenade (her)
Pork Terrine w/ salad (him) 

Ann's soup was light and fresh, with distinct Italian flavors. The island of olive tapenade gave the soup a great texture and added a great dimension.

As for my pork terrine...I was a little underwhelmed. It was slightly stringy, like carnitas, but was lukewarm. It definitely had a strong piggy flavor, but I would prefer my terrine to have a distinct layered look and taste.

Seared halibut over spring beans (her)
Gnocchi w/ lamb ragu & mint (him)

Ann had her third piece of halibut in 2 weeks, and while still not up to the level she had at Rover's, Union's halibut was superior to what we saw at Avila. The flaky fish rested on top of a bed of beans, radishes, and other spring herbs and veggies that gave a great fresh texture. As for the halibut, the sear was a little heavy.

My gnocchi was soft and dense but the ragu just hit the wrong note. It was a lamb ragu with mint. Mint is tough. It's best executed in light dishes like a Canlis Salad. In a heavy meat sauce, on top of a heavy pasta, the mint ragu wasn't was distracting. I ended up having terrible indigestion immediately afterwards too. Not fond memories of that course.

Pecan tart w/ coffee ice cream (both)

Highlight of our evening...again. Our desserts, which truthfully is our least favorite course of meals, was generally the strongest offering at the restaurants that we visited. This sugary sweet pecan tart was a southern throwback, and definitely gave us a strong finish to a pretty average meal. The coffee ice cream was deep and sharp, yet mellowed the nutty sugarbomb that was the tart.

Overall, Union stood up to the other restuarants that we visited during the week. But for a variety of reasons, fell short in terms of what I was hoping for. The plating was average, and some of the courses did not have the type of flavor and texture I've come to expect from Stowell's haunts. We look forward to visiting Anchioves & Olives and having one of the five best dishes of 2010, and also Stowell's latest venture: Staple & Fancy Mercantile (which doesn't exactly roll trippingly off the tongue).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fasten Your Seatbelts - the food is going to take you on a bumpy ride

Imagine this: hard, dry whole wheat rolls sprinkled with tough seeds wrapped tightly in plastic wrap; a rectangular container with rounded edges covered in sweating foil encompassing mushy pasta in a gluey, half-congealed cream sauce that has been overbaked to dry crust on the edges; a tiny square cup containing wilting, sad pieces of iceberg lettuce sprinkled with chewy slivers of carrots next to a little plastic container of honey vinaigrette; playhouse-sized plastic cutlery wrapped tightly in a papery napkin and plastic coverings.

Open your eyes. You know what I'm talking about. Airplane food. Mmmm. Nectar of the recycled air-high altitude-don't be Kevin Smith fat or else you need two seats-pay for anything you bring on board even your purse-remember the Airborne-Gods.

Some of you may not recognize this description unless you have taken an overseas flight since the American-based airlines have long ceased to provide full meals to their passengers as part of their ticket price unless the flight involves crossing an ocean (first and business class passengers notwithstanding). However, I was lucky enough to have had my flight from Seattle to Dallas Forth Worth to New Orleans be magically upgraded to first class without having to do anything and I got to experience actual food on real plates and silverware that was maybe not silver but stainless steel at the least and wanted to blog about this subject.

You used to be fed on flights that were over 4-5 hours or so; you may have only gotten nuts and a juice from your flight from PDX to LAX but your SEA to JFK trip would have included the aforementioned gluey pasta. No more. Now, you can pay $5 for a snack pack including various pre-packaged string cheeses, crackers, salami, a granola bar and a package of M&M's. I've been on flights that have sold fast-food type burgers, breakfast burritos, egg and sausage biscuits or sandwiches all for $5. It always surprises me that people actually purchase these sodium-filled bombs when they could have gotten the better version at the airport McDonald's or grab-and-go. I think that some airlines have made an effort to make these meals a little more edible now that people actually have to purchase them but barely. Which brings me to my next point: airline food comes with a stigma but airline food does not have to be bad.

Why does airline food suck so much? It really doesn't need to. A couple of seasons ago on Top Chef, contestants had to put together an airplane food meal for the judges, including Anthony Bourdain. They were limited to ingredients the airline had in their central kitchen, space and height limitations as well as the limitation of heating the food the way airline attendants do: in those airplane ovens. Some people were able to make fantastic food and I would bet that if they had more time to prepare and become accustomed to the food and limitations as well as had some practice, they would have been able to make better dishes.
 Airline food doesn't suck half as much overseas. My experience has found that many international flights, even relatively short ones, provide food. A few months ago, I flew the much-lauded Singapore Airlines in coach and was not only spoiled by the in-flight entertainment system, footrest and internet connection but by the meal. I recall an Indian type meal with basmati rice and curried chickpeas that was actually pretty good and served with a dessert that I happily finished instead of cafeteria-style cake. I've had tomato, pesto and mozzarella sandwiches on the short flight between London and Paris. Air Canada once surprised me with midflight ice cream service instead of another bag of pretzels.

My first class meal in American consisted of the typical bowl of cubed honeydew and cantaloupe but also a warm biscuit that was actually buttery and flaky, an omelet with herbs and chevre inside that soft instead of dried out and potatoes that had been cooked in a broiler or seared at some point for nice browning on the sides. I commend AA's chef for providing a decent meal with nice chevre instead of something cheaper and more traditional like cheddar cheese, albeit limited to first class only. 
The bottom line is we should ask more of our airlines to craft delicious food. Yes, we understand that we may need to pay for food for domestic flights but the items should at least be good. Or else we should really have bought that Wolfgang Puck stop sammie instead of spending $5 on crap. And when we shell out the extra bucks to visit Santorini, Kyoto, Munich, Buenos Aires or Paris, we should strive to ask for something al dente and not loaded with sodium instead of real flavor.

I wish we could boycott airline food or airlines on the basis of food but that is obviously completely moronic. However, the more our food blows, the more I do my best to take that BA flight over Delta. Food has always been an indicator of the downfall of the economy. They say fast-food sales is one economic indicator but it also was the first trend in the sinking airline industry: first they cut meals, then they cut blankets, now they charge for baggage. Can we please restore some faith in our customers and in the airline industry by bringing back the food? Please oh recycled air-high altitude-don't be Kevin Smith fat or else you need two seats-pay for anything you bring on board even your purse-remember the Airborne-Gods? Thanks. Amen.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fresh Fish: Top Chef Season 7 - Episode 1

Ann and I are watching the premier of the Top Chef: Washington D.C.

We're live-blogging our thoughts, feelings, emotions.

9:04- Arnold...effeminate Asian male with flashy clothing. Stereotype check, good to go. Chefs look like they have a nice range of experience and accolades. Watch your feet. Angelo is dropping names...

9:06- Whoa, John...dreads are out of control! And Padma and Tom are getting things off quick. Padma's boobs are out of control...What up now, Gail!? First challenge is a mise en place speed test. For those that don't know, mise en place is every chef's setup...all ingredients they'll need for the evening, prepped and ready at hand. You can't function without it.

9:09- Bruinosse test. Kenny is quick. Destroys the chicken portion too.

9:11- Final four: Kenny, Angelo, Kevin and Timothy. They're taking the ingredients from their mise and making an entree. Kenny's duo of chicken looks promising...

9:18- Get that sponsor plug in, Padma! Angelo wins. Dish looked strong. Easy Kenny...little too early in the game to be a malcontent.

9:19- Final challenge is to cook in groups. Do their regional cuisine. Angelo and Kenny are fighting for who is alpha dog. I like it already.

9:21- 4 hours in Whole Foods.../coma. They enter the home. Gorgeous townhome. are DEFINITELY from New Hampshire.

9:23- Ann: "I like how Angelo did potato noodles...that was inventive. John is funny hippie...I'm interested in what kind of Zen creations he concocts."

9:25- "Cyrus" looks like it could be funny...Ok, we're back and they're raiding Whole Foods. Ann - "I think Jacqueline, who is a caterer and should know how to make food for 300 people, is being set up for the epic fail, based on the way they're editing it."

9:27- Alex doing borscht...bold choice. Is bold the right word? Amanda trying her best to not seem like the "girl who sliced her palm open"...we're not that convinced. Angelo doing a arctic char with a smoked bacon froth. Sign me up. John is from Michigan??!!

9:30 - Kenny doing trout with black bean mole. Tasty. John doing a dessert, which he quickly effs up. Time's up! Quite the space they're catering. Huge hall. Jacqueline's chicken liver terrine looks like shit, and she's freaking. Cover it up, babe!

9:32- Padma's boobs will need a plate too! Holy lord... Ann - "Ooooh, Eric dreamy." Amanda doing a neo-classical California plate of snapper carpaccio...Ann calls it "sea-barf"...pretty accurate. She needs to work on her plating, big time. Kevin's lamb looks solid. Jacqueline's pate gets a thumbs down from Ripert. You're dead, lady.

9:38- Kenny's trout and mole looks like the standout in this group. Alex doing a deconstructed borscht. Guess he did go bold. We both hate beets but that looked good. Tim's fish is too big.

9:41- John...I'm guessing you run naked amongst the maple trees in Michigan too. Winners of the Quickfire are being brought out for the final judges table, aside from Alex. Angelo wins again. Definitely setting the pace. John, Tim, Jacqueline and Stephen are the losers. Our money is on Jacqueline.

9:46- Stephen's ribeye called chicken nuggets by Ripert...ouch. Jacqueline is getting grilled by Tom. John says "bringing mousse to your mouth" and I feel dirty. "I guess I was being stupid"...wrong thing to say. Tim's fish is chewy but is saying the right things. He fell the furthest, which could really hurt them.

9:49- Judges have decided...Ann- "I think it's John. It was...nothing. I would have made a better dessert. It's way too pedestrian. Jacqueline had a good idea, Stephen had a good story, and Tim's mistake with the skin were minor errors. John failed on execution and taste." I agree. John looks like he could get the axe here pretty quick, although from a pure entertainment standpoint, I kind of want to see what insanity he would bring. Jacqueline is my 2nd choice for the cut.

9:52- Loosen up people. "I'm here to cook"...No, you're not. If you're were anywhere to cook, you'd be in your kitchen in your restaurant, making food for your customers. You're here to be on TV, get a better gig from all the restaurateurs that are watching. Don't fake the funk. Ann "And if I was a restaurateur, I wouldn't take anyone that didn't let loose and have fun...if you're not a joyful person, your food probably isn't joyful either." Definitely. Good we're gross, agreeing about everything.

9:56- Ann "Boobies, boobies, boobies..." Clearly, we're both fixated on Padma's chesticles... John is OUT. A Beard award nominee, out the door. John getting emotional. Bummer. Tony Bourdain and Buzz Aldrin, at the same table in the previews...too much awesomeness all at the same table, says Ann.

Final thoughts: Ann - "I think it'll be an interesting year. I like Angelo...he talked a big game, but backed it up. I like go-getters and people who are confident. Angelo and Alex's dishes standout because they were memorable and creative. The deconstructed borscht and Angelo's bacon froth with arctic char were great dishes. Everyone else may have done a well-seasoned and well-cooked steak and vegetables but come on, they were steak and vegetables.  This was an opportunity to be creative and ballsy and many folks played it safe. I don't remember what many of the others made and they had lost their moment to shine early on."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rumblings #5: Stumbling Goat

Our fifth restaurant, Stumbling Goat Bistro, is a Phinney Ridge mainstay known for organic, locally-grown sustainable sustenance. Separated into two distinctly different dining rooms, the Goat has a cloistered neighborhood feel to it, dimly lit with dark maroon drapes and carpet. I had been there previously, and had what I conservatively call the greatest bread pudding I've ever had. But there were questions, the most prescient being whether the cuisine would stand-up to previous meals with new head chef Josh Theilen?

Our friends Jaimie and Jeff joined us on a busy Sunday night at the restaurant. Here's what we ate, and what our tastebuds told our brains:

Mussels in broth (her)
Butter lettuce with sherry vinaigrette (him)

Weakest course all around. Mussels were tasty, but they actually charged us extra for a toasted piece of bread. Really? Maybe it's just an unsaid rule, but when you serve mussels, you should have a starchy sponge to mop up all the lovely broth. That's what we like to call "weaksauce." My salad was simple and straightforward and not newsworthy. Moving on...

Trout with English Peas and Pearl Onions (her; pictured)
Mushroom Ravioli (him; pictured)

Ann went with back to back seafood while I did back to back vegetarian dishes. Her trout was massive, perfectly cooked with a crispy skin. Little on the oily side, but that's pretty standard with trout. The peas were well-cooked as well, not crunchy or mushy or chewy.

At Stumbling Goat, the fare is low key and focused on flavor. None of the dishes featured more than 4-5 main ingredients.

My mushroom ravioli was so savory and deep. I really liked this dish. Again, the focus was flavor. The chanterelle pile was meaty and rich. The handmade ravioli was also packed with the earthy goodness of chanterelles and shittakes. In the last year, I've come to appreciate...and maybe even revere, mushrooms. Especially chanterelles. I think they can offer a very comparable alternative to meats/proteins. And seeing how I seem to date pescatarians, it's a good thing that I've come around on fungi.

How wrong did that last sentence feel, eh? Anywho...

Delicately shaved parmesan topped off this very strong pasta dish that left me smiling and wanting another half serving.

It's a good thing I didn't though. Our dessert was probably the standout of the entire week: The chocolate terrine.

Chocolate Terrine (him & her)

For those unfamiliar with "terrine," it's simply the pressing of 2-4 similar ingredients into a layered block of pate. Traditional terrines are made with fatty proteins, like pork or duck. Our dessert was a chocolate terrine, featuring four layers of so-deep-it's-subterranean decadence. Chocolate shortbread, milk chocolate ganache, pistachio ganache, and bittersweet chocolate ganache, floating amongst a raspberry coulis. Again, Stumbling Goat had finished strong with a memorable dessert that not only made us forget any earlier misfires, but set a high bar for any dessert we had going forward. Here it is in all it's glory...

In the end, Stumbling Goat featured the strongest service we had during Restaurant Week. From beginning to end, flavor was always brought forward, and the food got stronger as we progressed.

But hey, don't take our word for's Blazed Padma Lakshmi to tell you what's what.

"Hey. Heeeeyyyy! Can I get this to go? No, seriously, I totally want more. I have the whole Glad Family of Products in my car. Wait here.

*8 minutes later*

So I totally couldn't find that CD you wanted to burn. Do you have any more of the chocolate layery thing? I can take some home if you don't have any more bags.
Oh, look.

My jeans feel really funny if I rub them like this. But when I rub them the other way, nothing. See. Nothing. Ugh. I'm taking these back to Barney's.

Hey, you're not Tom..."

Last and certainly not least, Union, is up next.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Rumblings #4: In the Barrio... of Bellevue?

I ventured out of Seattle for my restaurant week try #4 to the other side of the lake, trying out Barrio in Bellevue.  Not the barrio but Barrio, another offering from the Heavy Restaurant Group in the same vein as Purple Cafe and Wine Bar.

Like all of the Purples I've been to, my chief complaint is the noise. Barrio shares a bathroom with Purple in Bellevue, joined by a narrow hallway. The designers for the Heavy Restaurant Group must have a penchant for dark wood, dim lighting, medieval-heavy furniture, high ceilings, large spaces and not enough sound dampening.  It is dark but not recommended for a romantic date or first date, unless you are accustomed to yelling at each other. Imagine this:

First date dude: "I like the guacamole here!  I grew up in California and there were fresh avocados all of the time.  I'm a lucky SOB."

First date gal: "What? You grew up in Cali and there were fresh almost hot hos and you have a sucky STD?"

Jenny and I were lucky to be seated in the back of the restaurant which was a little less busy, further away from the raucous groups so we didn't need to shout at each other.  However, we were also seated a little too closely to our neighbors. One couple had ordered the fried hominy which looked delicious and I was incredibly tempted to reach over with my fork and spear a couple of the breaded, fried kernels while they were engaged in conversation. The food was completely within my reach, starting at me with sweet-smelling fried goodness.

Since our reservations were at 7:30pm, we were completely famished after a long day at work and ordered chips and guac on top of our three course restaurant week meal. The chips were fresh and the right balance of light, crispy and not too greasy although in my hungry state, I probably ate like Oliver going at his gruel.  Please sir, some more? 

We both started with a ceviche, served with plaintain chips. I am critical of ceviche which can often taste too flat like a boring salsa, too fishy or too much citrus/lime. In order to get a full, flavorful bite, you really needed to dish it up on the crispy plaintain chip for texture with a loaded bite of mahi mahi, pineapple, red onions, cilantro and chiles. The pineapple was really what balanced out the flavors and lent the right amount of sweetness and acid to balance out the heat of the chiles. A bite without it was too flat.

I will fully admit that I don't always read things thoroughly. Especially menus when I am gabbing with a girlfriend who hadn't yet told me about her vacation in Europe... so I didn't realize that the fish tacos that I ordered were beer battered and fried instead of grilled or otherwise. The pieces of cod were giant and a bit greasy but the tortilla held up to the taco-ful. However, come on - fried fish tacos served with slaw and salsa are a no-brainer and not exactly novel especially when you can get them at Baja Fresh. I should have read the menu a little bit more carefully. On the flipside, Jenny had the pork and thought it was tasty.

Let's just say that I didn't even need to read the dessert options. There was no choice. Fresh churros to dip in Xocatal chocolate?  Let me see, your options are something boring, something boring and fried sugar dough goodness to dip in some exotic sounding chocolate... what would you choose? My sentiments exactly. The churros were warm - bordering on hot so clearly right out of the fryer: soft, chewy with a crisp outside and covered in sugar.  A nice balance of sweet to dip in the bittersweet molten chocolate; not at all the cloyingly sweet, crunchy sugar covered mess that you get by the foot at Disneyland. After having savored Argentinian churros in London last fall, my suggestion for improvement for this would be an option to have the churros either filled with dulce de leche or for there to be dulce de leche on the side. But maybe that would that would be too sinfully good and the restaurant would turn into an Herbal Essences commercial... or something like that. You probably don't people ruining the atmosphere by screaming in ecstacy.

Barrio had some tasty dishes and I thought it was pretty good. However, not to belittle the genre (since I am pretty sure I want to worship at the altar of Rick Bayless) but it was just fancy Mexican. What I ate was solid and delicious but didn't exactly knock my socks off in terms of flavor but perhaps the mediocrity of the fish tacos ruined it for me. I will have to give it another try but I think I would prefer to dine at La Carta de Oaxaca for some authentic un-fancy fare - for less.

And for a bonus, here are my pictures of my Argentinian churro along the river Thames - filled with both chocolate and dulce de leche. Amazing!