Tuesday, June 19, 2007

High and Lola

Restaurant Lola, Belltown

Typically, if there is one food phenomenon I positively DESPISE, it is consistent textures. This started as a child when I would literally fling spoonfulls of pureed squash, carrots, and, the ULTIMATE offender, applesauce onward and upward and away from my salivating smackers. Applesauce...fruit AND smooth! BLECH! This replusion has carried over into my adult years where I typically swear off anything smooth, creamy, and consistent: yogurts, soups, ice creams, you name it. If its predictable and uniform, it may as well be broken glass 'cause homie dont play dat.

However, as is often the case in life, there are always expections to the rule. Enter Lola, a Belltown mediterranean fusion house with, unfortunately, a totally stock modern aesthetic (read: cold sharp lines, steel, scandinavianesque light fixtures, heavy hanging entrance curtain, minimalist neon signage,hardwood...you know the drill) that's thankfully cut through by top shelf cookery that garnered the first impressive dining experience Ive had in my new town to date. I was thankful to say the least.

The shared plates shine (i found the right side of the menu to be entirely unambitious especially considering the price point of $25-32 for mostly whole roasted fish with the cursory fennel lemon stuffing, lamb burgers with mint rub, etc....again, the word "stock" came to mind) and we dove head first into them.

The spread sampler $17 (I cringed at the unfortunate word choice of "spread" both for its slightly down-market connotations and my previously mentioned repulsion, but took the leap of faith nonetheless) was simply divine: A sampling of all six spreads that tenderly walked the tightrope between pretentious ambition and monotonous predictability and safety arrived in thick green glass terrines atop a rustic wooden plank that stretched perfectly across our table. We lunged forward, with crisp glasses of a rather nice Sauv Blanc to clean and sweeten the palate, into red roasted red pepper and siracha chutney, cave aged minted feta, chopped kalamata olives with fig, cows milk tzasiki, cauilflower and anchovy puree so perfectly subtle on the overwhelming forwardness often associated with that dear ill-fated fish that I was ready to hang up my chef's knife forever, and lastly in the spirit of the aforementioned subtlty a simple roasted garlic spread salted to absolute perfection to curb out the prevailing sweetness of those dear dear bulbs. To sop up all this goodness a rather generous portion of damn-near flawless quartered miniature whole wheat pitas arrived, and to ensure that they didnt feel left out and taken for granted, we found them lovingly dressed with a drizzle of nice extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of crunchy coarse sea salt. Long pauses to "mmmm" and "ahhhh" and insert venerting editorial where tough to insert but we managed. . .this food demanded commentary, and lots and lots of wine.

Equally impressive were their grill chops (pardon the pun. . .chops as in skills not chops as in the cut of meat). We elected to go with the curry muscat glazed prawns that were served hot on a plancha tableside atop grilled sweet onions that i SWARE were carmelized fennel and paper thin meyer wedges all deglazed live with a little thimble of Ouzo. The shrimp, grilled just to the point wherein their opaqueness breaks but not a moment longer were tender and springy to the bite with not a HINT of stringy toughness....a RARE sight indeed. The sweet "onions" ( i stand by my fennel theory despite being told that I was most indefinately wrong) and the tart sweet balance of the meyer lemon married with and tempered the curry to produce a salmon pink blend of what can only be called shrimpy goodness. At $13 for three jumbo prawns I found this dish a bit on the spendy side but then again one cant put a pricetag on a combination like muscat and curry so i resigned my fate to my debit card because, hell, you only live once, and I for one choose to live the high life at Lola.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Paradise Lost on the Home-front

2200 Block of 2nd Avenue, Belltown (home).

It can become dangerously easy to keep life purely academic when held at arms length....this little factoid is particularly true for the home chef, especially those recently transplanted and wayward.

After a barrage of, I'm terribly sorry to say it Seattle, disappointing out-dining voyages, this armchair culinary cookoo bird opted for some good old fashioned bohemian market pillaging and home cookery. Modesty aside, I was convinced I could give this town a good gastro-rogering.

With my prevailing Maryland blood screaming out for crab, and my new-found love of fruit front of mind (the season being ripe for the picking on both fronts), I prepared a simplistically and seasonally appropriate menu that would have done Alice Waters proud: crab cakes (with, naturally, a little spin, and a classic little prosciutto antipasti). So to market I went.

Antipasti went off without a hitch. Paper thin slices of prosciutto de parma crowned sheets of washington state apples finished off with a light drizzle of wildflower honey, extra virgin olive oil, course salt, ground pepper, and for kicks a little kiss of truffle oil. Pop these in your gullet with a glass of Sauv Blanc and stick a fork in your keester. Done deal.

My crab cakes (ideally) were geared to celebrate all that can go right with them: jumbo lump crab meat (no pulling apart of the sweetwater chunks), a dab of mayo, red bell pepper, egg yolk, grated ginger and jalapeno (for kicks), salt, pep, and some breadcrumbs to bind. However...in my (IPA be-buzzed) market reverie I neglected to procure the latter but SOMEHOW dear Tressa (my dinner guest and tamer of all things neurotic) managed to whip up(much to my chagrin) rather lovely bindage from a completely fresh sourdough baguette....how she managed to do this the world may never know and she frankly refuses to disclose (see action shot photo).

To hang out with our little bundles of crustacean goodness I concocted a little asian-inspired cold slaw of julienned cucs, red bells, jalapenos, cilantro, all dressed with a healthy drizzle of sesame seed oil and champagne vinegar. This turned out solid, if not, self admittedly, stock.

Disaster thwarted, and an apparent nice base for cakes and accoutrement secured, things were looking up. However, once seared and plated and tried, we both glanced up from our respective plates puckered up from salt as if we'd just wiped out on our boogie boards and swallowed a fist full of venice beach sand. Was it the lime juice? The over salting (which Tressa assumes responsibility for and still exhibits feelings of guilt)? Was champagne vinegar too much? Did I need to introduce the cursory aioli to curb all this acid and salt? What went wrong with such solid ingredients god damnit?!

The world may never know. But the good news is that crab is crab even when it's shitty and coupled with a nice bottle of white wine, a crunchy baguette with butter, solid jazz courtesy of Horace Silver, and no inflated tab dropped in our laps for the imperfections Ive experienced OUT, we had nobody to blame but ourselves....for better, or for worse.

And life is all about learning...in and out of the kitchen anyway, so it all comes out in the wash in the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mead Me in the Marketplace

White Horse Trading Co., The Waterfront

There's a phenomenal SNL skit of yesteryear set in the Middle Ages wherein a still funny and less dramatically inclined Bill Murry exclaims with his left arm hanging off: " I had too much Mead and darted out in front of an Ox Cart.....help me!" Up until this week, when I stumbled upon the rather unassuming White Horse Trading Co while schlepping home bags packed to the brim with delicious marketplace food stuffs, this yelp was my sole association with the notorious libation of choice in our darkest of ages.

White Horse, nestled away in Post Alley on the Waterfront is as easy to miss as a poorly marked freeway offramp with its modest hanging wood sign boasting simply, and gloriously, "Books, Ale, Wine". Books. Ale. Wine. Hmmmmm....yeah, I think I'll give it a chance.

The place looks like the study that Alice falls down through in the rabbit hole: antique polished wood paneled walls adorned with oil burning lamps, dusty tomes of classic lit, and tattered things of nautical descent. All of this dim study aesthetic is brightened by the front wall of french doors and large paneled glass from floor to ceiling. Dark in the back, light up front. The spot itself is not much bigger than a studio apartment and about as cramped, though for White Horse it lends it the sort of comforting quality that one finds from an old photograph or a pair of broken in leather shoes. Belly up to the L-shaped creaky wooden bar space, or elect, as I did, for a wrinkly red leather sitting chair by a lamp to curl up in with a book (bring your own though, for after browing WH's selection I was disappointed to see NO Proust!!!)

The vibe was as if David Lynch had dreams rather than nightmares and owned a boat: serene yet surreal, dark and cozy, yet with a sense of pending shadyness. A total mishmosh of heads as usual in this hood: investment banker types, market drunks, hipsters, and me. I must say that my bike, with its uber modern quasi hipsterness looked a tad silly juxtapozed against the Tom Waitsian ruggedness of this spot but hey Seattle, DEAL WITH IT.

To drink? Simplicity is the mantra here. Three selections of artisan ales (all of english origin and all from a single maker), two wines (one red, one white but solid and ambitious selections- on my trip a barbera and a sancerre were featured), and, of course, the MEAD. What the fuck is Mead, anyway? Well, essentially its a honey beer and tastes as such I discovered after bravely turning down my beloved Sammy Smith's Oatmeal Stout for a pint of the sticky, sweet, just-begging-to- wreck-me-on-my-bike-on-the-way-home, goodness. I choked it down but it was not for me frankly, HOWEVER I can now add that notch to my belt and I didnt even need to get an arm torn off to do it!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Hops and Heartbreak in Queen Anne

Hilltop Ale House, Upper Queen Anne

Those of you who know me know that I love beer so it should come as no surprise that I popped into the Hilltop Ale House on the top of Queen Anne one afternoon for a little hoppy libation. Just UPtown and slightly DOWN market from what I'm slowly learning are my swanky Belltown digs, lies this little local pub that feels upon first impact more divey diner than microbrew factory. As it turns out my suspicious nose WAS right....Hilltop does NOT in fact brew on premises but does however boast an impressive list of suds both local and non. The staff were both welcoming and knowledgeable further bolstering the small town, "howdy can I help ya", swinging saloon door feel. Could truly good beer be had at, I'm sorry to say it, such a hokey place?

The fog, the unfamiliarity of it all, and my general waning energy level propelled me straight into a pint of "Double Knot Industrial IPA" brewed locally in the town of Mukiltieo, WA (I of course have no fucking idea where this is). Smooth clover honey sweetness and a static hop finish abounded and shook off all mounting malaise upon impact and had me ordering a second only halfway through my first. Though this stuff packed the kind of dank beer uppercut I look for and demand, the "industrial" was a bit overboard relative to other IPA's I've been fortunate enough to drink off tap (ie, Blind Pig and Damnation) and could and should be more appropriately revised to "agricultural" given the brewers strict organic guidelines.

A quick glance at the grub showed traditional pub fare with ambitious little spins. I opted for the Reuben sandwich despite the fact that ordering a Reuben, from where I come from, ANYWHERE outside of a proper jewish delicatessen is a cardinal sin. The sandwich was all bark and no bite, pardon the pun, sounding glorious in theory and flat footed on the palate. Boars Head corned beef was braised in Blackthorn English Cider, then topped with house made pickled red cabbage (this i loved), the standards of swiss and thousand island, and was then grilled and baked to warm through. When it showed it looked more like SON of Reuben...this thing was puny....so puny that i finished the ENTIRE THING. This, from a deli-centric POV is NOT a good thing considering the central idea of deli is to over-deliver and my tendency is to pick at food like a bird. However, as mentioned, the cabbage was phenomenal....next visit I'll just ask for a bowl of IT.

It's dangerous to make my Seattle ventures a game of relative judgement against my tried and true San Francisco spots but this early into my stay its impossible not to. Hilltop, though charming to the bone with its total lack of pretense and local love, simply cannot hold a candle to the pub mastery of Magnolia in the Upper Haight.....if only they had their red cabbage.