Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fall Rumblings #4: Mistral Kitchen

Hamachi crudo art
This blog will by far be the prettiest post to date thanks to our food photographer, Vincent Chu.  All the lavish praise on how lovely the photos look should be heaped on him - although I take credit for reminding him to bring his camera to capture the evening.  Vince happened to be one of our friends dining with us that evening along with our friend Tiffany, who is a notoriously picky eater and had chosen to dine at Mistral Kitchen since its menu was Tiff-friendly.

I had such high hopes for Mistral, which is a re-opened Seattle favorite with a wonderfully lovely and French sounding name. Mistral used to be in Belltown sort of where the new Buckley's is today and I had heard it was a hidden jewel of poised elegance in Belltown and heard nothing but rave reviews about it. Lo and behold, the chef, William Belickis decided that Seattlites aren't into fancy food and fancy atmospheres so he closed it up and opened Mistral Kitchen on Westlake between South Lake Union and the Downtown area thereafter with a casual experience in mind.

The reviews mentioned that there would be foam. I was excited. Foam used to remind me of - well, disgusting and dirty frat parties and while it is apparently overused in the culinary world, is fairly absent in Seattle where we are pretentious but pretentious against the pretentious.  Re:public had some delicious foam on a pasta dish and I was hoping Mistral Kitchen would feature some molecular gastronomy and some sous vide for me.

The Service

I had to mention it. We were feeling slightly obnoxious and definitely friendly so we told our waiter that we blogged out food and would be blogging about him should his behavior not be up to par. He said his name was Blair, nevermind Sergio to which I promptly joking that I was done with him since he treats me like a rag doll.  But Blair/Sergio was delightful - he had great recommendations, explained things really well, including the branzino that wasn't your typical branzino.  He joked, he laughed, he asked if we were ok and when we brought up pretty personal questions about ourselves, he doled out advice and made fun of us (in a sweet and humorous  manner). Also, all throughout the night, our water glasses were always filled, tables were cleared in between courses of everything down to the silverware (as it should be) and dishes were always served together.  Excellent service.


Most of us ordered the hamachi crudo which I had to go for since the crudo at the Ethan Stowell joints are among my favorite dishes.  The presentation was lovely - like art with a single piece adorned with a bunch of delicate micro-greens, julienned grapefruit and other pretty things.  It tasted delicate but it was a little difficult getting all of that pretty, teensy stuff on one forkful in order to get a flavorful bite.  While it had a nice balance of acid and fat, I prefer the Stowell servings of crudo which are a blend of chic, flavor and functionality - especially the hamachi crudo with chiles, lime, oil and salt. Perhaps comparing isn't fair but the How To Cook a Wolf reference in my taste memory made me slightly disappointed with this offering. I tried Tiff's parsnip soup with vanilla oil and found the texture to be a bit off and the flavors boring.


Uninspired. That's all I can say about what was served to us. No foams, no creativity, no something creamed that never is, or something spicy that usually isn't, or French plus a Northwest twist like wasabi or yuzu or nettle.  Not to say that the meal was bad because it wasn't.  It just wasn't exciting and nothing to get your panties in a bunch over.  I had the branzino which wasn't the whole fish but rather a fillet. It was well cooked although the dish was a little underseasoned for my taste and was served with heirloom Romanesco cauliflower which is a light green type of cauliflower that tastes like normal cauliflower but looks like a Pokemon.  It was just cooked - no roasting or tossing in garlic or whatnot.  Overall the dish was lemony and herby but that’s pretty much how a very classic piece of fish is served.  Everyone else had the beef which I thought may have a twist. While cooked nicely, it was also a blend of lovely but mundane served on parsnip puree with some kale. Nothing scintillating there.


This was the least disappointing course of the evening!  Props to Pastry Chef Neil Robertson for doing interesting stuff. Most of us had a chocolate coffee pudding which featured a boozy bourbon cream. I loved it; it wasn't boring pudding, had some texture and had a surprise with the bourbon whipped cream on top. Tiff had an apple cream puff which was also magically delicious.  Perhaps not their most inspired desserts compared to their website menu but the flavors were solid.
I wished and hope and clasped my hands and clicked my heels together but Mistral was a bit of a letdown.  I think instead of featuring a smattering of unique and festive dishes that would punch diners in the face and tell them about the restaurant, the courses were well-cooked and presented in lovely ways but were pedestrian. Instead of showcasing their talent, I felt as if Chef Belickis were talking down to us as if the cheap jerks who go to Restaurant Week wouldn't understand fancy food.  Well, Mistral Kitchen, I don't pay fancy prices for the prosaic.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fall Rumbings #3: Joule

Ready for our Physics lesson. Get it!? Joule!? *crickets*

Last night, we had the pleasure of dining at Joule, a Korean/French/American fusion joint in the Wallingford neighborhood. Joining us were my old friends from college, Grant and Melissa Williams, and our new friends Steve and Michelle Strub. Grant and Melissa are no stranger to my feable attempts at culinary greatness, and were brave enough to join me for the very first Sunday Supper Club.

I've passed Joule numerous times, and always found myself beelining it to the posted menu. They have carved out a very specific niche of cuisine that combines the tradition and rich flavors of French cooking with bold sweetness and spice found in Korean food. I was exposed to Korean food very early on in my life, and grew up on staples like bibimbop and bulgogi. And French cuisine has lately been my north star; I've found myself using those foundational flavors and takes on the mother sauces much more. So really, this stuff should be right in my wheelhouse.


Roasted Asian Pear Bisque
w/ Brussel Sprouts and Smoked Chili

By far my favorite course of the night. I had roasted asian pear bisque with brussel sprout and smoked chili (A) Warm and elegant, it not overwhelm with sweetness or heat from the chili. The brussel sprout leaves added a nice earthy element, as well as some texture. Full marks for creating something true to form, creative, and seasonally relevant. Ann had sardines over crostini that was solid but somewhat unspectacular. Grant, again braver than the rest of the table, had the beef tongue with thai basil and hot mustard, which to our surprise wasn't chewy/gummy as tongue tends to be, and had a nice pot roast-like texture.


Hawaiian Prawns with Jasmine Grits & Walnut Piccata
For me, the main dish was probably the least inspired course of the night. I had grilled Hawaiian prawns over jasmine rice "grits" and walnut piccata (C+). The prawns were nicely cooked, and pulled apart easily, but the grits and walnut piccata were very one-note. Perhaps there needed to be more piccata in my dish, but I did not get the variety of flavors that I was expecting. It wasn't bad by any means, but it didn't blow wind up my skirt either. I was just...whelmed. My partner in crime had grilled matsutakes on sticky rice with pine nut agrodolce which she promptly devoured, but wasn't terribly excited about. Rounding out the entrees was a kalbi with parsnip puree and pickled chantrelles, which I think had the best plate appearance of anything we saw that night. The kalbi was very tender, but a little fatty for our collective tastes. 

Kalbi with Parnsip Puree & Pickled Chantrelles

Fusion desserts, I imagine, can be tricky. You have a lot of creative license to push boundaries and experiment. In this case, the more aggressive desserts proved out, while a traditional offering fell flat on it's face. I quickly inhaled my bittersweet chocolate bread pudding with chili marshmallow (B+), which was more like a molten chocolate cake than bread pudding. Really, only the bottom third of the dish would I consider to be the consistency of a bread pudding as I understand it. And the chili marshmallow didn't stand out in the dish as much as I wanted. I was hoping for some heat, the same type you get when you bite into a Theo Spicy Chili chocolate bar. But never-the-less, I was a Hungry Hungry Hippo and that dessert was a small white plastic ball. Ann polished off her baked apple with ginger crumble with five spice cream, which was tasty and quite potent. The five spice stood out against the tartness of the apple and earthy sweetness of ginger. As for Grant (poor Grant), he had what we all agreed was the worst dish of the night. A very simple blue cheese with roasted dates and chestnut honey . It's a simple type of dessert that restauranteurs like Ethan Stowell champion, but this was just too powerful. The cheese was disporportionately pungent, and the chestnut honey left a burnt nutty coating in your mouth that was highly obnoxious. It was like an unwanted house guest, on our tongue, overstaying its welcome.

Chocolate Bread Pudding w/
Chili Marshmallow

Overall, Joule offers a lot to casual restaurant-goers that are looking for something outside the box. I wish there were more restaurants like Joule that push conventional cuisine aside for aggressive flavors. And even though the occasional cheese dessert may rear its ugly head, I have a strong suspicion there are some wonderfully exciting dishes yet to emerge from this Wallingford hotspot.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Rumblings #2: Poppy

We're happy to say that we didn't have the Wizard of Oz result and fall asleep due to Poppy - or poppies.  Instead, we had happy and full tummies and were awash in a happy opiate-like stupor after dinner.

I'm sometimes wary of Eastern-inspired restaurants; they tend to be expensive, small-portioned versions of their authentic counterparts with weird fusion ideas that lack the soul and spice that makes ethnic food wonderful.  For example, I'm not a fan of the overpriced Wild Ginger.  Fancy Asian food made upscale by being served on a square plate?  I'd rather go to the local international district, spend $10 bucks and have an amazing meal.

I was surprised and delighted that Jerry Traunfeld's Cap Hill restaurant was not directly Indian inspired but rather was inspired by the "thali" which is a platter served to diners holding a bunch of small dishes that comprise of a main entrée. It reminded me of when you go to a Korean restaurant and get a bunch of small bowls and plates with delicious sides to go with your main dish. Traunfeld is a Top Chef Master alum, James Beard award winner of "Best American Chef: Northwest and Hawaii"  and former exec chef at the Herbfarm so we knew he had pedigree but more importantly, would know how to embrace seasonal and local ingredients.

Apparently we had a bit of a reservation time snafoo and more time means cocktail time!  We started out with unique cocktails; the ladies had a shiso-cucumber-gin cocktail that was refreshing and crisp while the men had tasty, classic Boston sours - frothed egg whites included.  Kudos to the bartender!


How can you choose with all of these options?
Poppy has one of the more ambitious restaurant week menus, offering plenty of choices for our dining group of 6. All of the appetizers sounded wonderful and delicate so we asked our server for some advice.  I had the batada wada, which were round, spiced potato fritters with an aromatic and light dipping sauce.  They were delicious, delicate and echoing of Indian; crisp on the outside, spiced and creamy on the inside with that hint of cumin.  I wanted more than just the three small pieces.  Nick had the blue cheese, cherry and sage tart which was almost too delicate to be a tart and seemed more like a cocktail party appetizer than a first course.  Steve had the poached oysters which he gobbled up quickly while everyone else had the fritters.

The cod thalis
The scallop and pork belly thali
There were so many thali options, we were staring at the bright red menus for a very long time.  We adored the lovely presentation of the thalis when they came - they were on these heavy round platters with an overwhelming abundance of small dishes  some of which were: picked burdock root, either a pumpkin soup or a tomato cinnamon soup, celery walnut salad, a gratin, roasted fingerling potatoes , roasted brussel sprouts,  radicchio and pumpkin seed salad and a small piece of flaky buttery naan for all.  Sara and Angela weren't fans of the radicchio salad or the burdock root but my palate is probably a little more used to pickled things and I thought that burdock root was crisp and delicious.  Nick loved his roasted brussel sprouts.  The pumpkin soup was silky instead of a chunky bisque and was flavorful and delicious - especially when you dunked a piece of naan bread into it.  Onto to main entrée now...

The risotto thali
I had the black cod with beet-wasabi vinaigrette which was visually stunning; white fish against a contrast of bright fuchsia liquid.  It was a feast for the eye as well as the palate; the cod was perfectly cooked so each layer of fish was silky and soft.  It was lightly seasoned and the vinaigrette added subtle flavor - not overwhelming.  Nick had an autumn risotto which was a little too watery and slightly undercooked and under-seasoned for his taste. Steve opted for scallops and pork belly; the scallops had a nice sear and texture.


Again, the menu options were a bit overwhelming. I asked the server for his favorite dessert and my compadres joked that he recited whatever desserts were selling poorly rather than his favorites; he exclaimed that the goat cheese pudding was unusual but was his favorite and that he also loved the licorice chip ice cream which had herbal, anise notes instead of licorice candy.  Most of the dinner party opted for a malted chocolate sundae while Steve had a chocolate terrine and I took the server's suggestion and had the goat cheese pudding.   The sundae was pretty and served in a martini glass but wasn't anything extraordinary. Steve's chocolate terrine however was a knockout; it was small but featured rich layers of chocolate and served with candied ginger to add some spice.  While the presentation of my goat cheese pudding with mint and figs was a little boring (see photo), the flavors were really good. The texture of the pudding was creamy and rich with a hint of honey; the figs and mint added some zest and texture that worked well with the creaminess of the pudding.   It was different and I enjoyed it immensely.

 Poppy surprised me! All of the servers were extremely knowledgeable and the flavors of the food were fresh, seasonal and spiced.  We didn't travel to Oz or the exotic spice markets of India; we had some great autumnal food and wonderful company in our own backyard.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fall Rumblings #1: Anchovies & Olives

That's's Seattle Restaurant Week again! *Happy Dance* *Joy Shimmy* For those new to the blog, Ann and I did a series of posts last spring, critiquing five restaurants. We intend on doing the same this fall, with another five restaurants:
  1. Anchovies & Olives
  2. Poppy
  3. Joule
  4. Mistral Kitchen
  5. The Georgian
First up is Anchovies & Olives, Ethan Stowell's Capitol Hill haunt that specializes in...wait for it...Italian seafood dishes. Bet you didn't see that coming. But it's not your typical Seattle seafood restaurant. You won't find pan-seared salmon with {insert green vegetable} and {insert yellow-white starch}. These are off-the-beaten-path entrees that take advantage of the bountiful seasonal options of the Pacific Northwest. Hamachi. Mackerel. Geoduck. This is comfort food that's outside your comfort zone.


Escolar Crudo

Both of us: Escolar Crudo w/ Fennel, Lime and Avocado. Named by GQ magazine as one of the 5 best dishes in America. Great starter. Stowell's starters are always enjoyable (my favorite is Hamachi with lime, avocado and serrano), and this is no exception. The escolar has just a hint of fishy odor, is soft and buttery, and goes very well with the smooth avocado puree and freshness of lime and fennel. A-



Ann: Risotto w/ Uni Butter and Geoduck. Risotto was creamy and cooked to a perfect consistency but the important parts were a) the Uni butter sauce and b) geoduck (which I hope you're pronouncing 'gooey-duck' in your head and not 'gee-oh duck', you amateur). What was this magical uni stuff? As I expected an uni sauce to taste like, it was sharp, pungent and slightly seafood fishy - in a good way. Oh and the b) chewy pieces of geoduck scattered throughout added some texture and balance but wasn't too obnoxious since risotto is about the rice and sauce. It was oh so fatty and delicious. B+


Nick: Gnocchetti w/ Bacon, Chantrellles & Cabbage. Love gnocchetti! It's my new favorite pasta. Little, open gnocchi that resemble grubs. I know that's not an appetizing analogy, but this is my blog, so DEAL WITH IT. Savory bacon lardons and chewy chantrelles bring it all together. If there was one thing I would change, it would be slightly more cabbage. It needed slightly more ruffage, and maybe a touch of earthy pecarino shaved on top. B

Ann: Chocolate cake with caramel sauce. Deep and dense, and overwhelming. Food coma-inducing. Decadent cake like this is always amazing, but I really made a mistake of going with back-to-back rich dishes (risotto then cake). Be forewarned: ending a rich fall meal with a heavyweight dessert can be hazardous to your waistline. Your pants will find themselves magically becoming unbuttoned when you finally settle in on the couch (where I am as I write this). B

Nick: Vanilla Panna Cotta w/ Huckleberries. Huckleberries are one of my favorites. I first discovered them in an ice cream on the way to Smith Rock for some rock climbing, about 15 years ago. Anyway you can infuse them in a dessert, I'm there. Light and fluffy panna cotta is a perfect delivery vehicle after a rich and savory entree. B+

On a lighter (and what ultimately was an intensely dense) note, Chris went with ice cream with almond cookie for desert. We each sunk our spoons into the mounds. It was like digging into room temperature butter. It looked like vanilla bean ice cream, but felt like the creamiest gelato ever. We put it our mouths. Oh mama. It was creamier, thicker, and richer than we imagined. Our eyes bugged. We stared at each other in astonishment. Had we just had the most creamalicious gelato ever designed by man? No sooner had we began opining on what we had just experienced, our waitress ran over with another bowl of ice cream with cookie. We looked at her and pointed at the first bowl. She nodded, and simply said "yeah, we're sorry...we gave you marscarpone." Whoa...What?! Yes, vanilla bean marscarpone cheese. Not much more to say than, holy shit, that is a gut-bomb. We occasionally snuck in bites of it, just to remind our taste buds, and stomachs, of what not to have on a regular, or even a rare, basis.

The Aftermath (The offending marscarpone in the center) 

Restaurant Week!

F*ck Yeah!