Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wrap-up: Seattle Restaurant Week - Fall '12

After a long Sound+Bites hiatus, I'm back to blogging! I don't have much an excuse. This is it. It's a nice diversion, but I've missed food blogging, so here we are.

Look who's back?
Ann and I finished up another Seattle Restaurant Week bonanza last Tuesday; our 5th together (slow-clap). We make five reservations at restaurants that we haven't been to yet (or haven't been to in a long time) and then invite our friends to join us, binge-eat, and meet new people.

This season, we hit up new restaurants Belle Clementine (Ballard) and Rione XIII (Cap Hill), the not-as-new Cicchetti (Eastlake) and Art of the Table (Fremont), and perennial standby Poppy (Cap Hill). 

And a programming note: I'm over doing the full-on review of each dish at each restaurant. It's nit-picky and meandering, and isn't fun to write. So we're going to change things up. 

The Out of the Gate Award (best starter course): Tie! Art of the Table and Poppy.
Poppy's Thali
This one was pretty close, so we'll cheat a bit and award it to both restaurants. Art of the Table (AotT) served up a really smoky and savory salad featuring treviso. Treviso was the de rigueur ingredient this fall: a winter radicchio named after a town in Northern Italy. It's a more mellow salad base, especially when grilled, and you should definitely look for it this winter. 

Poppy featured a delicate salad of oil-poached albacore with avocado and fennel that didn't overwhelm the palate while being totally satisfying, which can be difficult with starter salads.

False Start Award (worst starter course): Rione XIII 
Rione XIII's starter
A pretty uninspired charcuterie plate for two? Olives, some tuna, carrots, romanesco, a rabbit & pork terrine and prosciutto. I understand that they're going for Roman street food, but I have an Ethan Stowell cookbook, and there's plenty of starter recipes that would have been superior for a restaurant that just opened two months ago and is looking to establish some new regulars. 

My Main Man Award (best main course): Art of the Table
I seriously enjoyed the grilled pork loin with smoked bok choy, pepper jam, and pickled ramp vinagrette. AotT really impressed, going from a northern Italian starter to an Asian-inspired main without it being awkward or ham-handed. 

Why You Do Me Like That Award (worst main course): Cicchetti
That sauce tastes familiar..
A potato ravioli in tomato cinnamon ragu. It tasted like SpaghettiO's sauce. I'm not one for hyperbole, but it seriously was like SpaghettiOs. Just really underwhelming.

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Award (best ending course): Poppy
Really great desserts for both Ann and myself. Chocolate truffle torte with jasmine sauce and sesame brittle for me. Hot date cake with banana ice cream and butterscotch. Poppy never fails, so if you visit, save room for dessert. I will say Belle Clementine's buttermilk cake with homemade preserves was also very good, but didn't beat out Jerry Traunfeld's genius. 
Belle Clementine's cake

That'll Do Pig Award (worst ending course): Cicchetti
Marcona almond brownies were pretty much standard fare for a church bake sale. They can, and should, do better than that.

Sotally Tober Award (best drink): Art of the Table
The "Winter is Coming" -Woodinvile rye, fernet, Cocchi di Torino, lemon and chili bitters, with lemon twist. Holy crap, I would have ordered seven of these if I didn't have to drive. Make this drink, now.

Is the Chicken Local? Award (best service): Belle Clementine
Belle Clementine's uber local salad
Really accommodating service that was willing to work with dietary restrictions while doing a family-style serving. The chef even came out and talked to all of us about the meal, describing how he walked 1 block to the Ballard market to purchase most of the ingredients we'd be eating that night.

Best Dished (overall best restaurant): Art of the Table over Poppy in a close one!
Besides an awkward seating arrangement at their large table, not one problem with the meal. Friendly staff, delicious food and drink, and intimate setting. We highly recommend AotT to anyone looking for a cozy late evening date night. In a close second, Poppy still delivers a premium dining experience that I'd rate in the top 10 in all of Seattle. We also think Belle Clementine made a nice rookie appearance, if you enjoy family-style, communal table dining experiences.

Worst Dished (overall worst restaurant): Cicchetti narrowly over (or under) Rione XIII
Surprising failures, considering their pedigree. It's even more disappointing considering we had wonderful company at both restaurants. Cicchetti's starter of Moroccan-spiced chicken wings and Rione's dessert of maple panna cotta with hazelnut brittle were the only saving graces for each. Rione's cacio e peppe, a simple Roman street dish, was way too heavy and over-portioned. But the potato ravioli at Cicchetti was arguable the worst pasta I've had this side of the Spaghetti Factory. The dessert was boring too. Complete faceplant by Cicchetti.

Great company, so-so nosh joint

Rione's tasty Maple Panna Cotta

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Vietnamese Soup for the Soul

We were on a warm weather streak in Seattle and it's been one of the sunniest and loveliest autumns in recent memory. However, there is a little chill in the brisk autumn air and the rain has started as the leaves slowly change to a vibrant hue - and what better to warm you up than some soup?

I had blogged about the mystery behind phở, the most well-known Vietnamese soup. But wait - there's more! Vietnam is renowned for a vast variety of tasty and tummy-warming soups that are perfect for crisp fall days.

Bún bò Huế

Home cooked bún bò Huế
Variety is the spice of life and this earthy soup is spicy, tangy and all-around amazing. This is probably the second most well-known Vietnamese soup for good reason. This dish originates from Vietnam's former imperial capital in the centrally located Huế where finicky kings used to demand elaborate multiple course meals where they could demonstrate their wealth, power and sophistication through tons of fancy food. This central region is also known for using more chili paste and featuring spicier foods than the north or the south. A lot of the most well-known Huế food is complicated imperial court food and are gastronomical works of art that are difficult for most cooks to replicate - except perhaps bún bò Huế.

This soup contains a thicker, rounder rice noodle that's about the girth of spaghetti and prepared with beef broth. The spice from the soup comes from lots of lemongrass, spicy chili paste or oils. It may traditionally be prepared with shrimp paste, oxtail, beef shank, pig knuckles and pig blood although not many people prepare it with pig blood anymore. Some people swear by adding pineapple to the broth to tenderize the beef and all a little sweetness and acid to the stock. As is common with Vietnamese soups, it's served with lime wedges and plenty of herbs and veggies like cilantro, green onions, raw sliced white onions, red cabbage, sprouts, etc.

The depth and complexity of this broth gives it an amazing earthy and well-rounded flavor and Vietnamese people tend to closely guard their recipes for this soup but if you'd like to make it at home, try this recipe out. This soup won't be available at your neighborhood phở joint, but is popular enough to be featured at most Vietnamese restaurants with large menus including Tamarind Tree in Seattle. Here's a recipe & video.

Bún riêu

This soup is one of my favorite soups but made for those who like a little bit of sour in their soup since it features a tomato broth. While there are a few different varieties of this soup depending on the protein that is featured, the most popular is bún riêu cua or the crab version. This dish would normally use a whole ground up crab - shell and all- but most people and restaurants don't do this anymore. The soup features sort of a loose crab cake with pork and ground shrimp, tomatoes, tofu in a tart broth with rice vermicelli noodles and plenty of fresh herbs and veggies. I've seen this on restaurant menus infrequently so here is a recipe to check out if your local Vietnamese joint doesn't have this delicious dish hailing from Northern Vietnam.

Bún thang

I have never seen this on a menu in a restaurant and have no idea why since this is a lovely delicate noodle soup that phở lovers would enjoy. Some recipes online call it "Hanoi Chicken Soup" which seems a bit like a misnomer but it's awesome regardless. This northern dish is a milder, lighter chicken and ham/pork soup with shredded egg crepe and is really easy to make. Recipe here.

Canh chua

This is a Vietnamese style hot and sour soup which is tangier than the Chinese version, with a clear, tamarind broth and most often served with rice. It's similar to a Thai tom yum soup and is from the Mekong River Delta region of Southern Vietnam where sweeter flavors are more abundant as well as swampier vegetables (like okra). This is a refreshing soup that is really easy to make and has a lot of variations depending on what protein you'd like included but it most commonly has tomatoes, pineapple, sprouts and okra. Here is a recipe


Feeling a little sick? Vietnamese people don't serve you chicken soup; we serve you a congee or rice porridge since it's simple to make and easy to eat when it's hard keeping anything down. This doesn't need to be completely flavorless or boring however; it can be a comforting and flavorful dish when paired with a good protein or veggies as our fave spot Revel often does. When my mom senses that my brother and I are getting sick, she whips up a batch with tons of ginger.

If you're staying in on a Sunday to watch some football and curl up in a blanket on the couch, consider making a pot of Vietnamese soup instead of the usual pot of chili or chowder. Enjoy autumn snuggling weather!