Thursday, March 3, 2011

Closin' Down

The original project has proven too ambitious and I don't do enough food writing to justify maintaining a separate blog on the topic, so I'm officially closing down this here site. Future food-writing-related-program-activities will take place at Shiny Ideas.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Couple Of Places You Might Not Have Been

Several weekends ago the wife and I visited a couple of restaurants which we'd never heard of before, both of which turned out to be worthy of some positive press.

Creole Cafe

Our first stop was the Creole Cafe; if anybody needs some positive press it's these guys. While we were dining we overheard the (presumed) proprietress talking with some other customers about how slow business had been and I really wanted to tell her that she'd get more traffic if she'd put a little time into her web page. I found the place via Urban Spoon solely because I was looking for cajun/creole in the area. So yeah, these guys need to work on their PR.

The food was pretty good; it's certainly comparable to creole fare I've had elsewhere. And it's definitely the best I've found in the Tacoma area. The red beans and rice are well executed: good seasoning, the right amount of spice, good sausage. My wife got some sort of chicken (the exact name of the dish eludes me) which was OK but not great; though the topping was flavorful the chicken was a little on the tough side.

However, neither the chicken nor the beans and rice were what made our visit memorable. What really captured my attention were the hushpuppies and the crawfish boil. The hushpuppies were tiny little bits of fried delight possessed of a crispy, but not too oily, shell which breaks away to reveal a core of perfectly cooked dough. They've clearly taken some time to get their batter recipe right; it's not overly mealy or heavy and you can actually taste the onion and herbs.

The real highlight of the evening, however, was the crawfish boil. I do believe that, in all the traveling I've done hither and yon, this is the only place I've ever encountered a crawfish boil outside of Louisiana. This by itself merits a trip if you're the adventurous type.

Jake's Bar and Bistro

After the Creole Cafe we met some friends at Jake's Bar and Bistro for drinks and trivia. It has a bunch of beers on tap, which isn't the least bit unusual given that this is the Pacific Northwest and all. What makes Jake's stand out from the crowd is that it has beers I've never seen on any other menu. I had a glass of Lost Abbey Angel's Share and it was like drinking a tiny little slice of heaven. The only downside was that, at 12.5%, I had to limit myself to one glass 'cause I was the one driving home.

The food was fine, the ambiance on trivia night (every Monday!) was entertain, but go there for the beer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

St. Cloud's Restaurant

I had dinner with my wife at St. Cloud's in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood this weekend. We'd never heard of it before but went on a friend's recommendation and found it to be a generally worthwhile experience. So I figured I'd give it a little bit of press.

When we arrived for an early dinner the place was full of thirty-something hipsters and their kids; add another item to the list of good, family friendly restaurants in the area. They were a bit understaffed and it looked like everyone was having to wait a bit to get their food. But apart from that both the food and the service were pretty good. The wifey got the curried, roasted yam and sweet potatoes with chickpea cakes, which was pretty very good. I got the steak special, a top sirloin (I believe, but don't quote me) with blue cheese butter accompanied by polenta and green beans. They could have improved the execution of my dinner; the butter garnish was ice cold and they hit the steak with way too much black pepper. Picky picky, I know, but if you're charging $27 for an entreé these things matter.

They redeemed themselves, however, by having a pinotage on their wine list. I'd never had this varietal, a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut, and so gravitated to it immediately. Their particular offering was the 2004 Backsberg Estate Cellars Pinotage, which had a rich mouth feel with pronounced fruit and a mild finish and was definitely worth the $8.50/glass they were charging.

Overall I think I'd visit again. Complaints about the execution of my steak aside the food was good, the waitstaff was friendly, and its about the nicest restaurant I've been to where a well-behaved one-year-old wouldn't be the least bit out of place. I put a lot of stock in all of the above these days.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Cook's Illustrated Beef Stew

Beef stew is one of those things which I never seem to be able to get right on my own. It seems that no matter how much time and effort I expend to create something lovely the end result is usually ok, but not great. The meat's a little dry, the gravy is neither as thick nor as flavorful as I'd expect, and so on.

Cook's Illustrated to the rescue. They just published an excellent beef stew recipe which I was able to try out a little while ago. It was fantastic and took little more time than I would normally spend making stew on my own.

They've done a couple interesting things with the recipe, which I'll get to in a moment, but it seems like the real magic is their emphasis on using a good cut of meat. In the past I've always used "stew meat" which, according to the good folks at Cook's, is a bad idea. The scraps that go into the typical package of supermarket stew meat lack fat and are difficult to cook evenly, leading to tough chunks of meat in the final product. Rather, Cook's recommends going with a largish cut of something well marbled. Their recipe calls for boneless chuck-eye roast but I ended up using boneless short ribs instead since I had some on hand. In any case the meat in the stew ended up fork-tender rather than tough and had excellent flavor, supporting Cook's contention about the importance of meat selection.

Apart from picking the right cut of meat they also front-load the broth/gravy with high-glutamate ingredients including tomato paste and anchovies. Lacing anchovies I substituted fish sauce instead, which worked well. I've used tomato paste in stew before but never any fish product; the broth seems to have been much improved by the addition.

One of the things which I like about Cook's is that they're not purists. They're perfectly happy to use shortcuts when appropriate, in this case adding gelatin to the stew at the last minute to thicken it up. As they point out this is essentially the same effect that you get by preparing a real stock but takes no time at all. The gelatin thickened the gravy without any apparent ill effects, so no complaints there.

It's also a testament to the quality of the recipe that I could fumble the execution (too much meat in the pan so I couldn't properly brown the tomato paste and flour) and still get a quality product in the end. I think if I were to do this again I might use homemade stock rather than chicken base, but apart from that I've nothing but praise for this particular interpretation of beef stew.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Booze on Parade: Rogue Dead Guy Whiskey

I've been waiting to get my hands on a bottle of Rogue's Dead Guy Whiskey since having the opportunity to sample their gin. Lucky for me the state has set up a temporary liquor store in Pacific Place Mall for the holidays which is carrying a respectable selection of local spirits. So off to the races, shall we?

The first thing you notice is that the copy on the bottle says that it's "Ocean Aged in Oak Barrels for 1 Month". This raises the following two questions:

  1. What, pray tell, is "ocean aging"?
  2. Is a single month sufficient to pick up a decent amount of character from the barrel?

As far as I can tell "ocean aging" is a bit of verbiage that Rogue has cooked up. Their distillery in Newport, OR is located on the coast; spirits aged near salt water have a distinctive character (see, for example, Islay scotch) so they're not wholly making shit up. However, the spirit is only aged for a month, so I suspect that any coastal influences will be negligible. Which brings us to question 2, which can only be answered by application of mouth to glass. Here's the rundown:

  • Color: Lighter than most of the aged spirits in my collection and, since Rogue claims that they don't use any additives, is presumably the result of either the base wort or time spent in the barrel. I don't know that color means all that much, at least in this case, because it looks an awful lot like a bottle of Clynelish 14 yr.
  • Boquet: Has that "good whiskey/bourbon" smell with a hint of woody-ness. Maybe a little bit of vanilla, a shade of butterscotch. It smells smooth; there's only a minor undertone of alcohol/heat.
  • Taste: Eh... not so much. A little bit sweet, a little alcohol. There's really not a whole lot of character.

Yeah, I feel bad saying this, but it doesn't taste like much of anything. So there's your answer: 1 month in the barrel isn't enough time for Dead Guy Whiskey to develop. Though, given my previous experience with whiskey's that have known the barrel for but a brief time, it's not surprising. At least it's not bad; at this stage of the game it still pretty close to a neutral spirit. My advice to Rogue is to let it age for awhile longer and see how it develops.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Visit To The Herb Farm

For those of you who might not have heard of it before, The Herb Farm is probably best characterized as Seattle's version of The French Laundry. It's one of the best restaurants in the area, perhaps the best, and specializes in high-end seasonal/regional cuisine. My better half and I went there this weekend for their "Makin' Bacon" dinner and I feel that a pilgrimage to such a culinary temple merits reflection. In gathering my thoughts, however, I've found it difficult to come up with a simple narrative on which to string my observations. An event at The Herb Farm is far more than just a meal; it crystallizes the essence of what it means to be a foodie in the Pacific Northwest at this particular moment in time. That's a lot of ground to cover, so bear with me if the following meanders a little bit.

Let's start off with some administrivia for anyone who might consider making a reservation. The dinner was a multi-course behemoth that lasted for about 4.5 hours. We went on Friday evening, so I was tired from work and not in an optimal mood for dining. I was also the designated driver which meant, que lastima, that I had to take it easy on the paired wines. We're I to attend to another such event I'd a) get a room at The Willows Lodge, the inn across the street and b) go on a Saturday when I'd be less wrung out. On the upside we chose to be seated at a communal table, which worked out very well. I don't know if it was diligence on the part of the restaurant staff or just sheer chance, but we ended up sitting with people who were close to us in age and general social milieu, which made for easy, if not particularly cerebral, conversation. One final note, which should also provide some context for the discussion which follows, is that The Herb Farm isn't cheap. All said and done I think we ended up paying ~$400 for the two of us after taxes and service charges.

Turning to the meal itself, there's immediately a question about the ground rules for evaluation. Under normal circumstances (e.g. a winemaker's dinner at some nice restaurant) I would simply write about the food, wine, and service: was the food good?, was it as good as I expected given the price of the meal?, etc. But these aren't ordinary circumstances; The Herb Farm has a flock of professionally-trained chefs working behind the scenes1. These are not amateur actors stumbling through their lines; you can be assured that every dish which leaves the kitchen is exactly how they intend it to be. So if I find cause to question a particular it's not because they executed it poorly, but rather because I have a disagreement with the house over what constitutes "good food".

Who am I to be questioning what they deign to put in front of me? I should just shut up and be grateful that I'm in the presence of genius, right? Well... no. I eat out an awful lot, low-brow to high-brow, and if the conversation at my table was representative then the same is true for the rest of the attendees. This is what I mean when I say that The Herb Farm captures the zeitgeist of the moment. The people who go there are foodies, people for whom eating is serious business, and doubtless the staff is well aware of this. At this level dinner is a performance and the staff are no more immune from criticism than any other group of performers; surely no one would balk at opera-goers critiquing a new performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen merely because the director is very talented? The same principle holds true here. The ground rules are clear then: the food must not only be good, but it must be interesting as well; superior execution is taken for granted.

Now that we have an understanding I'll proceed with the food porn and analysis thereof. The menu was impressive, even a little bit daunting: 9 pig-themed courses with paired wines. I certainly wondered whether, come course 8 or 9, I would really be able to appreciate what I was being served. Which brings me to my first observation: if you're going to do 9 courses you better make all of them memorable. As will become clear I believe they fell down in that regard to some degree; a few of the courses felt pretty perfunctory.

Clockwise from top left: croque madam, chawan mushi, pork consommé jelly

They got the meal off to a fine start with a first course consisting of three amuse-bouche. The croque madam was tasty and featured a quail egg and some kind of pork product (ham I believe). The consommé, presented with wasabi cream and smoked salmon roe, was also good; serving it cold as a jelly was a creative presentation. The most interesting of the trio was the chawan mushi, which Chef de Cuisine Lisa Nakamura described as a "creamless custard". This was flavored with Mangalitsa cracklings and topped with roe and crispy pig skin. All of the above were both good and interesting.

Prosciutto bone soup and crostini

The second course was uneven. The soup was utterly unremarkable; some chard and beans in a mild, pork-flavored broth, definitely nothing to get excited about. The crostini, on the other hand, was excellent, spread with pork lardo (essentially whipped pig lard) and topped with some salt, a few brandy-soaked currants, and shreds of cooked pork. Whipped lard sounds kind of disgusting at first blush, but most closely resembles salty, pork-y butter. Pork-flavored butter... how can you possibly argue with that?

Head-and-leek terrine

Things really started to pick up during the third course. I had gone into the meal expecting some kind of charcuterie; you could hardly have a pig dinner without it. But rather than do paté or a sausage, either of which would have been classic presentations, they decided to get adventuresome. Yes, that's a slab of homemade head cheese and yes, it was good. If you've never had head cheese before it's really just braised pork in aspic. While I was tucking into this course I wondered why one would make head cheese to begin with rather than paté; the Wikipedia entry suggests to me that the form probably originated as a convenient way to deal with the flesh on the skull of the pig.

The Herb Farm's rendition was garnished with a slice of kohlrabi and a couple of pickled chantrelles; pickled mushrooms don't sound all that appealing, but they were actually pretty good. The dish could have done without the horseradish-mustard velouté; the sauce wasn't that interesting and was pretty much the same as the wasabi cream that had been used during the first course. But all in all this is an example of the type of food that I think The Herb Farm should be serving; it's something that you simply won't see anywhere else.

Hampshire pork belly

Compare with the course that followed, Hampshire pork belly served on a a bed of saffron-infused mussels and clams. This dish was disappointing for a number of reasons. You can do wonderful things with pork belly; I recently had some at Lark that was fork tender with a wonderfully unctuous layer of fat that dissolved in your mouth. None of that here; it was a little on the tough side. And really, what were they thinking to serve it with clams and mussels? Clams and mussels? Good. Clams and mussels with saffron? Even better. Served as a garnish for pork... huh? It could have been worse; at least the seafood didn't clash with the pork. But there wasn't any synergy either; it was like eating two separate entrees.

Mangalitsa Pig Loin

Moving on... course number 5. This was the highlight of the dinner, a lovely piece of woolly pig loin with spaetzle and roast veg in a red cabbage sauce. Mangalitsa is substantively different from typical pork. The flavor is much more pronounced, much more pork-y, and the flesh is marbled with fat. Mmmm... fat marbling... there's really something to be said for heritage breeds. And, to gild the lily, they finished it off with a few black truffle shavings.

Ham and cheese crêpe

And then the menu just lost steam.

A cheese course followed the pork loin which, like the pork belly, didn't quite work. They stuffed a couple of different kinds of ripened cheese into a crêpe with bits of pork and biscotti crumbs, resulting in a taste that was... odd. One of the people at my table remarked that it was strongly reminiscent of baked beans, which I think was a fair assessment. This course wasn't particularly inspired and certainly didn't showcase any of the ingredients well. So why'd they do it? Did they feel compelled to do something avant garde with cheese because all fancy meals have cheese courses?

Creme fraîche and coriander sorbet

The same holds true for the "Barbeque Intermezzo", a creme fraîche and coriander sorbet with smoked tomato chutney and smoked bourbon-caramel pig tails. Some questions for The Herb Farm staff:

  • Why include an intermezzo to being with?
  • Why make it so heavy? Palette cleanser my ass.
  • Has anyone ever told you that sorbet is, by definition, non dairy?
Really, as I was eating this course the thought that went through my head was that the smoked tomato chutney would have served as a dandy garnish for a bona fide cheese course.

Clockwise from the top: bacon-oatmeal ice cream, quince tarte tatin, house quince paste on zucchini bread, wild chanterelle tapioca pudding

At least the desserts weren't a flop. The bacon-oatmeal ice cream was genuinely interesting in its own right and was garnished with a wafer-thin piece of crispy, delicious bacon. "Bacon" was all over the menu, but it wasn't until dessert that it actually appeared in a recognizable form. I don't think it would have been at all out of place to feature it in one of the entrees... bacon, a little phylo, some ripe cheese... much better than that crêpe concoction.

I'm not at all fond of tapioca but found their version to be very good, though I couldn't for the life of me detect even a hint of wild chanterelle. The various quince confections, housemade membrillo and tarte tatin, were fine but undistinguished. Nothing made me jump out of my chair and say "Oh my god I've died and gone to heaven!". I consider that a lapse on their part; a place like The Herb Farm could certainly produce a superlative dessert were they to turn their minds to it.

left to right: bacon-pumpkin seed toffee, chocolate-pork-cherry cordials, pig's ears, pear jellies, shiso truffles

The plate of sweets that were served as the final course was much the same, a couple of interesting items but nothing extraordinary. The bacon-pumpkin toffee was good as was, in my opinion, the shiso truffles, though some of my dining companions didn't much care for the latter. I'm a sucker for herbs and chocolate, what can I say?

So that's the blow-by-blow as seen through the "Is this good?" lens. However, this was a theme dinner, so it's a worthwhile exercise to stop and consider how well they lived up to their promises in that regard. Specifically:

Makin' Bacon

Go whole hog! Join us as we explore the pig as he once was: proud, marbled, and flavorful. You’ll forget "the other white meat," as you taste a range of pork, both fresh and cured, from hand-tended Heritage breeds including the legendary Mangalitsa, or "Woolly Pig," which we raise on our own farm. Makin’ Bacon is a delightful nose to tail experience.

Given that description I expect that the pig, in some form or another, will be the centerpiece of each course. I don't want each dish to be a whopping great slab of pork, but they should highlight some preparation or aspect of the noble beast. The Herb Farm failed to live up to my expectations in this regard. It seems to me that they approached the dinner as though it were an episode of "Iron Chef" and their job was to work some pig into each dish one way or another.

Seen from this perspective the first five courses were a success and the final four were just pointless. Each member of the former let me sample and really appreciate the heritage pig; even the pork belly, while a little tough, had good flavor. As for the latter the use of pork was perfunctory and sometimes couldn't even be detected.

There's a natural division that falls out of the application of these two criteria, "Is it good?" and "Is it pig?", to the dinner as a whole. The first five courses met both of these goals for the most part while the final four courses didn't fare as well. Why that was the case, who knows? Maybe its an artifact of the way that they divided up the planning and execution amongst the kitchen staff. But I gladly would have traded the final four courses for one or two with better execution.

At this point I've said enough, and perhaps even too much, about the food... let's talk about the paired wines for a little bit. One of the reasons that The Herb Farm has achieved the fame it has is due to its epic wine cellar. I felt that they did a fine job with the wine, especially since this wasn't a wine-centric dinner. Here are the pairings:

  • First Course: Capitello Oregon Brut with flavor shot.
  • Second Course: 2007 Pacific Rim Riesling, Wallua Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Washington.
  • Third Course: 2008 Barnard-Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese, Yakima Valley, Washington.
  • Fourth Course: 2006 Boedecker Cellars Pinot Noir, Stewart, Willamette Valley, Oregon.
  • Fifth Course: 2006 Gramercy Cellars Tempranillo, Walla Walla, Washington.
  • Ninth Course: 2008 RoxyAnn "Night Harvest" Viognier, Rogue Valley, Oregon.

The brut was mostly just a stunt; I had mine with the "bourbon bacon" shot, but had a hard time detecting even a hint of bacon about it. Again, I think this speaks to the "Iron Chef" syndrome I mentioned earlier; there's little sense adding pork to something if it really doesn't contribute to the final product. The Riesling was fine, but doesn't really stand out in my mind as being particularly meritorious. I like the rosé; I'm not much of a rosé drinker but this one was nice and tart, not overly sweet, and had a sufficient does of "red" character to appeal to me. The Pinot was good, and the Tempranillo even better, though I don't think the latter merited the $99/bottle they were charging. Note that they didn't bother with wines for courses six through eight; I think this bolsters my thesis that these courses were something of an afterthought.

The real gem of the evening was the Viognier. It had all of the salutary characteristics that I would expect from what was essentially an ice wine without being the least bit syrupy. It may be the best dessert wine I've ever had; during the dinner I tried to recall where I might have had better and came up empty handed. The story they gave us is that it hasn't been released to the general public yet; they sampled it pre-relase during a tasting visit to RoxyAnn and like it so much that they pestered the vintner until ey relented and shipped them a couple of cases.

Before we leave the world of wine I'd like to meditate for a moment on one of the wines they were promoting for purchase during the meal. They have a small number of bottles of 1795 Madeira, available for the low, low price of $150 for a third of an ounce. Though, if you wanted to be cost conscious, they'd sell you a 5 oz. carafe for only $1795. Before dinner I had the chance to ask Ron Zimmerman how much such a bottle would cost and what it would taste like. The answers to those questions were, respectively, $10,000 and so good that people have been known to cry over the experience.

You wonder how much the crying is due to the quality of the wine and how much of it is just because of the mystique. I have to admit that I was torn during dinner; I was almost ready to pony up $150 for my taste. Not because I expected it to be a transcendent experience, mind you, but mostly just because I wanted to be able to say that I've had a 200-year-old wine.

Which leads me to reflect, finally, on the overall significance of The Herb Farm. What does it mean that this place exists, that people will shell out $200 a head (or more) to eat dinner there, and that they find it worthwhile to advertise wines that go for $450/oz.? The bulk of the conversation at our table revolved around food in one way or another: eating in Seattle, destination restaurants we've visited, the meal itself. I think its safe to assume our group was typical, representative of a class for whom the pursuit of eating experiences has become a central source of... not entertainment exactly, but something a little deeper than that. Perhaps "meaning", but that seems both overly dramatic and a little bit worn. Let's just say that it's important to them.

Where do you go to get your next fix after you've eaten at The Herb Farm? The Fat Duck? El Bulli? On some level the entire project seems a little bit dissolute. The constant search for novelty, for ever-more-refined fare, is symptomatic of something. Too much money, perhaps, coupled with too much free time and nothing more important to do with it. Maybe I'm being too hard, but in the end I came away feeling vaguely disappointed. Unless I make it to Europe it may be the best restaurant I'll ever eat it, but it wasn't the transcendent experience I'd hoped for.

1 Really, the amount of talent they had executing the dinner was remarkable. The proprietor, Ron Zimmerman, introduced them all briefly after the first course. The most junior staff member was an intern from the CIA; most of the kitchen staff had graduated from one or another of the well-known cooking schools. IIRC Ron said that Lisa Nakamura, the Chef de Cuisine, had spent a decade at either Chez Panisse or The French Laundry. These guys absolutely know what they're doing.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Booze On Parade: "G" Sake

Some number of days ago I got into a discussion with an acquaintance of mine about Waji's practice of keeping all the good sake under lock and key that went something like this:

"Most of what they have out in the open is domestic. It's too much effort to track down one of their sales people and have them open up the cabinet and so on." he says.

"Yeah... you know", I counter, "I found a really good domestic there the other day. Wish I could remember what it was called. It was in this squared-off, black ceramic bottle".

"Oh yeah... "G" or something like that. It's Momokawa too."

"Orly? I felt like kind of a douche buying it... the bottle screams `I'm so hip I can't see my feet'."

"Yeah. But it really is pretty good."


So there you have it... two out of two individuals polled in our extremely scientific lunchtime survey agreed that:

  • Tracking down Waji's staff is a pain in the butt.
  • It sucks that you can't find shochu anywhere convenient in downtown Seattle.
  • "G" is pretty good, but buying it makes you look like a dick.

"G" sake (aka Joy) is pretty fricking awesome; I'd go so far as to say it's the best domestic genshu I've had to date. It has a complex flavor that's way ahead of what other domestic breweries (Gekkeikan comes to mind) are offering these days. And, at 18% ABV, it's got a nice kick to it without being too crazy. That said, just look at their marketing and tell me that you wouldn't feel a little dirty buying a bottle.