Thursday, June 10, 2010

Coming of Age at Dahlia, and Aging

Dahlia Lounge
2001 4th Ave, Seattle   206.682.4142
Below my sassy assistant recounts the sassying experience at Dahlia Lounge.
[What follows in the next couple of paragraphs is a brief pre-sassy disclaimer, explaining the gooey sentimentality I hold for Dahlia. Just skip it and scroll down if you can't handle it and want to get straight to the "sassy"]:
I had a formative experience at the old Dahlia back when it was located at 1904 4th Avenue. A former boss took me there for dinner as a gift before I shipped off for college in New York City. I had my first sit-down bottle of champagne chilled in an ice bucket (as opposed to chugged from a warm bottle in the back of a car). I had my first beef carpaccio - and was blown away. I had my first four-hour dinner. Dahlia was my first real dining experience that was my own. It was not with parents, and it was not an awkward and nervous pre-highschool dance dinner with mandatory non-alcoholic drinks. Dahlia provided me a transformative experience at a transformative time of my life. 
Needless to say, that summer evening dining experience left me hungering for more of the same - food and dining at the center of ritual, sharing, celebration and social connection. As a result, I have a squishy soft spot in my heart for Tom Douglas and that initial Dahlia experience. So you see, I want to love Dahlia, but after many repeat visits to the current Dahlia, I hazard to state that Dahlia NOW is not what it once WAS. I'm perfectly willing to concede that my naïvité bonded me to Dahlia in much the way that a little chick imprints to the first being it sees upon hatching, and that as a seasoned eater, 20+ years later (gasp), I am simply more discriminating. In any case, I'll now get to the heart of the matter, to present and to the recent sassying at Dahlia.
Sassy Report: It was a rainy spring day in Dahlia Lounge a few weeks ago. The Seattle Restaurant deal (3 lunch courses for $15 dollars) was still on, and there was nary a seat to be found, except at the bar. I was feeling rather shy, all smashed up against people - more "sissy" than "sassy". I had the last seat in the house.

The man on my right had ordered the pork off the tasting menu. He complained repeatedly, to me, that it was the fattiest and most undercooked pork he had ever eaten. So, ordering off of the tasting menu myself, I skipped the pork, and opted for the seared tuna. As a starter, though, I chose the grilled asparagus, which was smoky and just a little lemon-y and lightly salted. It was just right. The shaved Parmesan added a little zing.
As for the seared tuna: yawn. It was fine. Maybe I'm just bored with seared tuna. Should I have ordered the grilled cheese on house made potato bread? Perhaps. Here's the thing with the tuna. It came with a citrus, greens and olive salad that was simply odd. It seemed that someone had just roughed it up, torn things apart and cared very little for how it looked. Has someone  been gnawing on my olives? Well, luckily it tasted alright. Here's how it looked close up, before I touched it. I'm all for rustic, but this presentation was incongruous with the precision-cut tuna. The white you see is mashed potatoes. Somehow these flavors and textures just didn't work together.
On to dessert. I've tried Tom Douglas' signature coconut cream pie in the past. He's famous for it. People go ga-ga over it. I thought I'd give it a second go, to see if I had missed something the last time. Before I even tried it, I offered the woman to my left a bite of the pie. She had ordered a single crab cake off of the regular menu (also something Tom is known for). I considered asking for a bite of her crab, but I felt bad about taking away her precious morsel of crab meat. See, sassy isn't mean. Sassy isn't inconsiderate. Sassy can be a relaxed and respectful affair.
So Gina (below), was done with her crab cake, and I said,

"Would you like to try the Coconut Cream pie?" 

She said, "oh, really? Well, if you don't mind...oh, that's's light." 

 Well, I'm glad she liked it. Then I tried. But, I still don't get it. It's a piece of pie, mostly a big blob of whipped cream, with a little vanilla custard below and some overly chewy coconut shavings on top. It's, I'd say, 75% whipped cream and not a lot of flavor.  I expressed my opinion to Gina. She seemed unwilling to be as critical. Gina was in town for the day on business. She used to live in Seattle, but moved back to her native Kansas City to start a family. She loves crab and dining out. It was nice to sit next to her and chat.
By this time, the gentleman next to me, who had ordered the pork, had complained to his server about the disgusting raw and fatty meat dish and as a result, his lunch was paid for by the house. Fair enough. Tom Douglas restaurants always accommodate dissatisfied diners. 

Well, as for me, my espresso was great, but I was loud and vocal at the bar about my disappointment with the Coconut Cream pie. By now, the wine had kicked in, and I was feeling a little more sassy. I just have to give a little shout out to the daytime bartender, whom I adore. He had given me a generous pour of wine. On a previous occasion at Dahlia, he told me that I look like a certain celebrity. Always good for a big tip, but also, he's just nice. Several seats down were a couple of guys. One had the Coconut Cream pie (his opinion was neutral...not crazy about it, not disappointed either), and the other gentleman said he had just  
ordered the Creme Caramel (above). When it arrived, he took a bite, then boldly slid his plate down to me without a word.  I asked,

"Is this for me to taste?" 

"Yes, see if that does the trick," he replied. 

I was elated. I quickly grabbed a clean fork and tasted. This turned out to be the highlight of the meal, and to think I almost walked out without tasting something truly titillating. James was happy that I was happy. He was in town on business from San Francisco, selling wireless for personal cars and vehicles. He didn't want his picture taken, but he was generous, letting me work through what remained of his dessert. The creme caramel was accompanied by a crunchy rice crispy treat - a wonderful innovation based on the classic version. This one lacked the chewy marshmallow effect and seemed heavier on the butter and the crunch. 

Although the meal was not mind boggling or transformative, the service was great, the company very pleasant. The final sassied dessert made the lunch worth my while. I'll probably opt for Lola or Etta's on my next Tom Douglas eating adventure. I think I'll retire from Dahlia for a while. 

Dahlia Lounge on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Whatever Lola Wants: Succulent Quail and Earl Grey Flan

2000 4th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121 (At the corner of 4th and Virginia           
(206) 441-1430    

Lola is sexier than all the other Tom Douglas restaurants. The menu is a little bit raw, a little bit rugged, a little bit dangerous. I'm completely seduced by the menu's intriguing and unusual offerings: slow roasted suckling pig with nettles, young goat with rosemary, and spiced quail with preserved lemons. And the desserts, well, I think dessert is what Tom does consistently well.  At Lola, the sweet and sour of dessert are juxtaposed in exciting and complex ways.  Take, for example: saffron custard with pistachios and rose or goat cheese turnovers, with pistachio, mint, and honey. Above is an image of the fig and apricot tart from last spring. After polishing off the first one, I ordered another. It was that good. 

I lunched recently with friends at Lola. More of the same complex but complimentary flavors permeate the Lola's Mediterranean inspired menu. With the except for the condescending and sour (perhaps just bored or tired?) front person, our lunch experience was almost perfect.
The lamb kebabs with caramelized garlic and red wine glaze were tender and flavorful. Here they are (above) with the Greek salad, and in the foreground we have the luscious Greek Martini with barrel aged feta stuffed olives.
Every weekday Lola features a different lunch special. Thursdays is harissa spiced quail, and so I ordered it (above). Succulent, tender, juicy, and a little spicy, the elegant fowl was a delight. I picked up the delicate leg bones with my fingers, and sucked off every last bit of meat. I was a bit reluctant to try the "couscous." Having lived in Morocco for several  years, I have been spoiled by the traditional fluffing and steaming of the real deal, and have even experienced the hand made, hand rolled and hand cut variety.  I'm fairly certain that most any Moroccan expecting home-cooked couscous would be horrified to see chopped onion, red pepper and preserved lemon in the mix. Usually, meat and vegetables are painstakingly arranged atop beautifully fluffed couscous, which is flavored only by the vapors of  meat or chicken broth.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by this hybrid couscous experience. Although far from traditional, the couscous was actually delicious, not too soggy, and punctuated with just the right amount of preserved lemon to keep me interested. As a complement to the quail, it worked well. 
Then there was dessert. The flavor of the goat cheese turnovers with mint was lovely, but the dough was too greasy. Maybe they had been deep fried too long, or perhaps over-fried. Regardless, we complained to our server that these little goat cheese critters were too oily.

To our shock and amazement, our server only recommended that we try the Earl Grey Flan next time we came in (we had been trying to decide between the turnovers and the flan initially)! As you can see, my dining companion was frustrated.
So was I. We explained, on a comment card that came with the bill, that it was odd that our server declined to offer us a different dessert. She must have read the card immediately, because within a moment, she brought out the Earl Grey Flan.Wheee!
We were thrilled to have sassed our way into new dessert territory. I am and was moved by the fig and apricot flavors mingling (you can even see how they create a little crossroads above). The bergamot flavor was rather muted but we detected tannins from the tea which left my tongue slightly prickled.  I like the idea of the tea flavored custard, but we both agreed that we would have liked a stronger Earl Grey flavor.  But the smooth flan was a nice vehicle for the fig and apricot. Here we are, happy again.
I take this opportunity to draw your attention back to my last Lola fig and apricot experience in the tart that I still yearn for. Tom, if you can hear me, my birthday is coming up. Please bring back the tart.

The Queen of Tarts
Lola on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Toulouse Petit: Little Bite of your Alligator and your Beignets too.

Toulouse Petit Kitchen and Lounge
601 Queen Anne Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98119  (206) 432-9069       Daily: 9 A.M. - 1:30 A.M.
I confess. I often crave hot pastry.  I was thinking beignet and coffee, and so headed to Cajun inspired Toulouse Petit to see what I could taste. Right away I found a neighboring table with a plate of those deep-fried sugared dough triangles.
Oh yes! I sassied me some of that fried dough. Here I am (above) with the beignet-eaters in the midst of a successful sassy mission.  Actually, they made it painlessly easy for me. I waltzed over, peered at their plate and asked, "are those the beignets?" After only a short pause, they countered with,"yeah, would you like to try one?"...and I reached and tasted - first their beignets, then later, their fried alligator. Yes, ALLIGATOR. Toulouse Petit serves it up deep fried in true southern redneck tradition.

From left to right meet Brandon, Jesse and Kasey (and then there's me, looking as though the vodka drink and sassy madness has gone to my head).
So, I sat with my new friends for a spell, sampling the fried gator vittles (see plate above and below). These morsels were thickly breaded and spicy hot, so it wasn't so easy to eek out the underlying gator flavor.  I'd reckon a cross between swordfish and chicken - both in taste and texture. 
I also sipped sweet Kasey's cocktail.  Turns out these friendly folks all work at Via Tibunali, the famed Seattle pizzeria.

We must have created a commotion with the sips and tastes, because Joe, the day manager came over to see what was going on with us. He followed me back to my table, and instead of chiding me for wandering off to eat food from strangers, Joe, to my great glee, procured my own private plate of soft, warm, plump, dough-y sugar sprinkled buns.
Thoughout my foray into sassy territory, Wendy, my dining companion, patiently sipped her mint julep. Maybe she was also enjoying the view of Jason tending bar.  We shared the fresh buttermilk beignets. The little side of chicory anglaise dipping sauce added just enough sweetness and depth to help them go down easy. But Wendy doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, so I sucked down most of these babies myself with the help of a nice hot pot of coffee-press coffee. Instead of beignets, Wendy swallowed a half dozen oysters on the half shell for dessert. She captured me and generous manager Joe (below), discussing the beignets, the restaurant, the art of love and divorce, and sassying, of course.
The cocktails at Toulouse alone are worth a trip. Jason, the seems-like-a-celebrity bartender, is generous with his pours and kindly accommodated Wendy's request for ice cubes, rather than shaved slushy ice in her Mint Julep. It came just as she requested, and was filled with copious fresh mint and bourbon. She loved it so much that she pet-named it Jason's Julep. My drink, the Katie Mae, a beautiful combination of vodka, St. Germain, prosecco and grapefruit juice, was only half empty here, but I was fully happy.
You certainly to get your bang for your buck with Jason. He took a few minutes away from his busy bar to canoodle and sample my beignets (well, pose for a pic).
Of course we ordered some savory classics too: 'Barbecued' Shrimp New Orleans over Creamy Corn Grits and a Blackened Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwich doused in french fries.  Everything tasted good. Wendy was passionate about the food. On previous visits to Toulouse, she had already sampled the blue crab remoulade and fried oyster po' boy, both of which she loved. I can't say that I was necessarily awed (or as she suggested, "transported out of Seattle") by the culinary experience at Toulouse, but I have only tried a few items on the menu (and none of those that Wendy had already sampled).  
However, the affordable prices, plus the accommodating, gracious staff, plus the superb, strong cocktails, plus the aesthetics of the space itself (light, wrought iron, tile, woodwork), plus the compelling and unusual menu items (Louisiana blue crab with fried green tomatoes, escargots, steak tartar, crispy pork cheeks, spicy alligator, 'Bananas Foster' pancakes, beignets, etc.), plus the excellent dining compatriots, added up to a sublime experience, overall.   

Maya, our beautiful server was diligent in her service and earnestly gave us wise advice...not only on what to order, but how to proceed, one step at a time, towards bodily and spiritual fulfillment (I think we were all still discussing romance).
Toulouse serves their expansive breakfast menu until 2:30 P.M., but if you get there before 11:00 A.M., Monday-Friday, every item is discounted down to six bucks. Toulouse Petit is the perfect venue to meet up with friends for brunch or happy hour. Lastly, I'm happy to report that there is a khamsa (a hand amulet popular in Muslim and Jewish culture) hanging over the doorway to ward off the evil eye. Toulouse is protected.

Toulouse Petit on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An Eva Restaurant Interpretive Dance

Eva Restaurant and Wine Bar
2227 North 56th St
Seattle, WA 98103
206 633-3538

Eva is a festive, cozy, pretty little restaurant in the Greenlake area. We took advantage of the November Dine Around Seattle deal (3 courses for $30); this included a salad, an entree and a dessert.

 The prawn salad went down fairly easily. Some flavorful Thai-inspired twists kept it interesting: a little lemon grass, basil, and onion.

The beef short rib and chanterelle pot pie (puffy pastry crust with chanterelles, beef short ribs, and vegetables in a broth) looked so pretty as other diners were receiving theirs.  The sight of these little fluffy, pot pies delivered steaming to neighboring tables seduced all three of us. We all ordered one. Here is a fork's eye view of the pie.

I added a little salt and pepper to mine, and that short rib meat morphed into some downright delectable bites. Here's a view of the chantrelles, meat and vegetables on the inside.

So, let's get to the sassy part of this adventure. I was with my two girl friends, let's just call one H (for Hestitant) and the other W (for Whatever). It's not that H doesn't approve of my sassy food activities, it's just that she is hesitant about being around when they take place. H didn't think she wanted to be seen with a sassy-er. So, I promised not to sassy anyone on this particular outing.  W didn't care one way or another.

Well, the sassy just happened. I didn't even try. After finishing the main course, I made a little trip to the restrooms, and on the way, I passed a jovial table of five. They were all enjoying their desserts and it just slipped out of my mouth:

"Is that the chocolate torte?"

"Yes," was the response.  "Would you like to try it?"
(it never ceases to amaze and delight me how readily people offer me their food!)

"Sure!" I said, with enthusiasm. And it was all over at that point. I was sassying.

I borrowed a clean fork off their table cloth, and dug right in.  I tasted. And I tasted...the dark chocolate cassis torte with plum caramel... again and again. I tried more than I wanted to try, because Andrea kept offering. So, I kept taking those little bites. It was fine - good, in fact, but I couldn't detect anything in the way of plum caramel or cassis. Sure, that sauce was plum-y. But the cake was the standard, dense, flourless, variety. Nothing I hadn't tasted I didn't get too excited. However, it was nice wedge of chocolate, don't get me wrong.   

"Would you like to sit down?" said the slightly touseled man to her right.

"OK." I said.

So I shared a seat with Rainier (above). He poured me some red wine from their communal bottle, and I drank. 

Two of the men at the table, including Rainier, had accents. I asked where they were from. Playful group that they were, they made me guess. So I played along and hazarded a few - "Denmark," I blurted out first.

"Nope...close," someone said.

Finally, I guessed Germany. Yes, Eckhart was from Germany.

"But Rainier, you have an accent too," I said, as he filled the glass again.

"But I'm from Brooklyn. I'm the Baryshnykov from Brooklyn. I'm an interpretive dancer, " said Rainier. I think he had had already had a few glasses. For all I know he could be an etymologist, or a deep sea diver, or an obstetrician, and just messing with me.

Soon thereafter, a plate of apple cobbler made its way in front of me.

"Here. Try this too. The cinnamon ice cream is amazing!" said Brent, the husband of kind Andrea, who had given me the initial chocolate bite (both above). The two were visiting Seattle from California, and everyone at the table somehow knew Rainier the "dancer."

Well, warm apple crisp is usually pretty good. This one had lots of crumbly brown crunchy topping. The apples were delicate. The ice cream? Yes. It was also good, as Brent said, although I have a cinnamon problem.  I am really not a fan, and it sometimes makes me feel a little queezy, so I'm not the best judge of anything cinnamon flavored.

Rainier kept pouring the red wine.

Finally, they started settling up, so I ambled back to my table and shamefully greeted H and W. H seemed to forgive me, and realized that, at least this time around, my sassying was welcomed and encouraged by strangers at other tables, rather than shunned.She realized that I wasn't harassing people, but rather, the exchange was mutual, and mostly social.

Thanks Rainier, for the wine! Perhaps one day I'll run into you on the L train.
Eva Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Joy of Octopus and Memories of Pudding at the Bastille

Bastille Cafe and Bar
5307 Ballard Avenue NW
phone: 206.453.5014

I didn't actually sassy anyone at Bastille. I almost did. The timing wasn't right. I didn't want a bite of the neighbor table's food.

I just didn't.  I was perfectly happy with my octopus.

Grilled octopus with argan oil marinated chickpeas, preserved lemon and harissa
Having sampled a mere three dishes at Bastille, I have no place giving an overall assessment of the food, but I can say unequivocally, the grilled octopus is incredible.  My little companion is more adventurous than most.  Here she is...examining and enjoying an octopus.

A Nod to Jewish and Muslim Foodways in Paris
Interestingly, and, in a rather ethnically inclusive gesture, this menu includes Parisian specialties that are not necessarily "French" in origin. Included are foods that have become native to Paris via Jewish and Muslim immigrant populations. For example, the Jewish section of the Marais in Paris is famous for its falafel and this is reflected in Bastille's tempting falafel with goat's milk yogurt (which I'd like to try on my next visit).

And we see a generous nod to Moroccan cuisine in the dish I am still dreaming about, the grilled octopus. Argan oil is produced in small batches, as far as I know, only in the southwest of Morocco. Of course, chickpeas, preserved lemon and harissa are ubiquitous in Moroccan cuisine.

Argan Oil Goats
I have personally seen the goats climbing argan trees just outside of Tafroute, Morocco. I never would have believed that goats climb trees unless I had seen it with my own eyes. Kitty Morse has a nice article in Saudi Aramco World that includes photos of argan trees and the goats that climb them, here. Traditional argan nut collection methods are rather shocking: precious nuts are collected from the goat-expelled waste on the ground (yes!). But apparently, such traditional methods have since been replaced by direct-from-tree picking rather than from the goat waste. A bit of a relief for those of you who want to RUN to Bastille for a bite of the amazing grilled octopus.

The Atmosphere at Bastille
Yes, as so many reviews say, Bastille is cacophonous, but it is also bustling. It's alive! The owners envisioned a neighborhood hang-out, Parisian style, and have succeeded. Adorning this beautiful space are fixtures and  objets d'arte gathered locally and from France. The bar was packed. The tables in the dining section were almost all occupied on a brisk autumn Wednesday evening.  Indeed, this was a neighborhood nexus of activity.

The non-Sassy
I did strike up a lovely discussion the neighboring table.  We discussed my food. We discussed their food. They took our pictures with my camera. We also discussed non-food related topics, such as public and private education in Seattle, and we even found friends we had in common.

The mother's silver sequins tank top hung seductively off her shoulders as she fingering her pink phone. I couldn't tell of those were false eyelashes or just really effective mascara. The father was wearing a nice suit, and looked neat, lithe and smart. They ordered a sweet bread stew and a flat iron steak with marrow butter. Reports all good. I just didn't feel like sampling their food.

Duck and Greens
We also tried the Duck leg confit with French lentils, bacon and Jerez sherry vinegar. It was rich and hearty. The sauteed greens with garlic (kale, chard, and mustard greens) was intensely lemony. It was good but overpowering. I prefer a taste bitter along side sour, in my greens.

My little companion wanted to try a dessert. We ordered a house-made ice cream and the special of the day: chocolate cognac trifle (chocolate cognac cake layered between whipped cream in a glass).

Both were pretty wonderful, but the trifle brought back a flood of childhood memories. I hate to admit it (and I mean no disrespect to the trifle or its creator), but its flavor was reminiscent of a jello chocolate pudding and whipped cream trifle that my mom used to make back in the 1970's. She layered whipped cream and chocolate jello pudding in tall wine glasses, then stocked them in the fridge.  I used to savor every little bite while watching cartoons. The Bastille trifle threw me right back to age four. 

Instant Jello Pudding Trifle
I couldn't stop thinking of this sensory bliss, so I had to make some jello pudding trifle at home.

First I whipped the whipping cream and added a little vanilla and sugar.

I wasn't sure if I should use the super instant Jell-O pudding (just add cold milk), or the Cook & Serve Jell-O (just boil a little with milk) variety, so I tried both.

The instant Jell-O flavor was what I remembered. It was much more chocolate-y. Both are a little too sweet, and not nearly as rich and delicious as Bastille's rendition.

I ditched the Cook & Serve version (I burned the bottom anyway) and layered the cold instant pudding alternately with the whipped cream. I used glass drinking glasses because I have only two pretty wine glasses and one of them was in use.

Be forewarned, the chocolate pudding contains red dye. After a day in the fridge, the whipped cream was tinged red.  But it all tasted wonderful, nonetheless.  Now, go to Bastille and have some octopus and trifle.

Bastille Café & Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sassy Polish Gnocchi and Sri Lankan Martinis

Last night I sassied Carolina!  This, on the fork above, is her last gnocchi. She wouldn't take no for an answer. She was more generous with her food and drink than any other stranger I have sassied. She offered to share everything with me - her wine, her very very last gnocchi, and even her chair.

 Carolina and her husband invited me to join them at Polish house that weekend for drinks and sausage. I never made it to Polish House, but I hope to run into these two on another occasion. Maybe at Art again!?

Later that evening, at Long (same ownership as Seattle's iconic Tamarind Tree),  A Sri Lankan gentleman with dyed pink hair and his partner offered me pork in coconut milk, bites of banana dessert and sips of a Manhattan cocktail. We chatted about restaurants, photography, iPhone apps, the Droid, and of course, food.

The waitress looked a little like younger and healthier Lara Flynn Boyle. She was very patient and accommodating as we swapped food with our neighbors. I gave her my card (below). It looks as if she isn't sure whether to tear it up and give it back to me, or keep politely considering it....