Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cafe Presse

Café Presse
1117 12th Ave
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 709-7674

Café Presse on UrbanspoonAt Café Presse the tables are so damn close together, it is hard to squeeze between them to get to your seat. Peering over the shoulder of your immediate neighbors and ogling their food just happens - whether intentional or not. It is bustling and loud. Soccer games are screened here regularly. The menu is written in French. It is fancy-ass in an understated Euro way. usual, I resolve to spend under $25, try other people's food, and interact. This time around, I met up with my writer friend,Wendy (see above: sassy yellow shirt and her comments to follow in
grape), for lunch-time nibbles. She had already secured the strategic corner table in the front room, when I arrived, and we ordered two lovely Betons, (a cocktail made with tonic and Becherovka, a Czech of these digestive bitters with 32 or more herbs...). Becherovka isn't as bitter as Campari (the electric red Italian one) or Cynar (the artichoke one, also Italian). Bitters are the hip genre at Cafe Presse. Try to tell the waitstaff that you're too cool for bitters and see them sneer down their nose rings at you. We were a little concerned when the waitress informed us that today was the bartender's first day of duty, but luckily Betons are a snap and we were able to instruct him. Wendy and I were ecstatically engaged in conversation, not having seen each other for a while (and having the sorts of complicated lives that require frequent updating of friends as well as libations). The server, unusually forgiving (some waitstaff at Presse are snarky and impatient) having given up on the possibility of us actually ordering food, I think, told us about the desserts. She described the strawberry pot de crème as heavenly, and to support this claim, mentioned that the couple at the next table had just ordered it.

BUT, we decided on something savory instead of sweet and ordered the gateau au foie de volaille ("Smooth chicken liver terrine, dried cherry compote" - see image below), and continued to ponder drinks, round two. You may suspect it was all about the drinks for us, and truly for me, that's part of the appeal of sassy food. I'm not rich. Roxanne and I wanted two drinks apiece and we wanted to try more than the chicken liver. Can you fault us? I have to admit, I was hesitant about the whole thing. I admire Roxanne's finesse, but I am not nearly as bold. I love reading about her sassy adventures, but how would it go over for a more reserved sort, like me? I worried it would be awkward. Maybe "our prey" would say no. Maybe they would begrudgingly say yes , and we would sample in uncomfortable silence. Maybe they would insist the server toss us out of the restaurant (and I might add, Roxanne says if it comes to that, which it never has, she's okay with it...). Could we get away with Betons on the sidewalk? And what's the difference between pulling a sassy on the sidewalk and being a bum? Anyhow, then...

The neighbors' pot de crème arrived and I asked them if it was good (I steeled myself, here it comes...). They replied that it was BETTER than good. That it was perfect and beautiful, far surpassing the mousse. (Oh! Here it comes! Now! No!) My cue to sassy them......... "Can I try some?" The man had ordered this bowl of creamy white stuff and he said (.....after possibly the slightest flicker of hestitation or register of surprise), "Sure."

Immediately, his gorgeous friend, who had ordered the mousse au chocolat with whipped cream, offered up a bite of hers, not to be outdone, I suppose.

The strawberry pot de crème, was fine. It was firm and set. It was delicious, as cream tends to be. It was smooth, sweet, creamy, luscious. Cream is cream, after all. Faint strawberry flavor and glumps of strawberry in there too. OK. It was worth a bite or two, but I'm not going to unabashedly recommend it.

The chocolate mousse, had no depth of flavor, no soul. It was just a no-nonsense, rather sad fluffy sweet blob of whipped chocolate stuff on the plate, next to the blob of perfectly fine whipped cream. We all four came to that agreement, I think. Pot de creme - good enough (for some of us, really good, opinions varied). Chocolate Mousse - nothing special.

Once, a long time ago, say a year, at Cafe Presse, I had a chocolate cake along side a couple of these blobs of whipped cream. I've never forgotten that cake. I loved that cake. That cake killed me. I continue to think about that cake quite often. I've never seen it there again. I'm suspicious that it was made with whipped egg whites instead of the standard baking powder rising agent, because it was smooth, delicious, spongy, rich, and yet simple. Cafe Presse can certainly get dessert right, but today, neither of these did diddly squat for me. But...what was lacking in our bites, we made up for by way of social interaction with our fellow eaters - our tastees. And this is when I converted to sassiness. I had gotten over the ease in which samples were offered up, but what really astonished me was how the act of food sharing allowed for further (non-forced) intimacies between us. We laughed together about the very act of asking a fellow diner for food. The woman confided she has a friend who successfully asks strangers for sips of drinks and told us about her own concoction, a drink we will merely call p.j. Her companion advised us on our next drink choices. Our waitress, rather than bristling at this unusual food-sharing intimacy seemed completely approving, ready to sit down with us if given the cue. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt other diners were taking note and actually feeling a little left out. They were certainly watching us with interest. Perhaps we were just having a slightly better time than one generally has there.

You can see from the above picture, how well acquainted we all were by the end of the lunch hour(s). You can see us displaying the aforementioned desserts. Immediately following the snapping of the pic, Wendy and I shared our chicken liver terrine with our new friends. The terrine is lovely. Smooth, full, creamy - that savory fat satisfies the palate. I think the French nutritionist, Besnard, who theorizes a 6th type of taste bud, the fat responder, is right. ( There is nothing quite like the feel of sweet or salty fat in the mouth (think potato chips, chicken skin, ice cream, cookie dough)...fundamentally (dare I say), gratifying. The fatty rich melds with and complements the strong sharp mustard. Skip the cherries. They don't work.

A little mustard, a little smooth terrine, and a little bit of bread. Mmmm. Winter fat stores. And I was glad that Roxanne neglected the cornichons, all the more for me and such a nice foil for the creamy richness of the liver.
(Image of the chicken liver terrine taken at Cafe Presse's sister restaurant, Le Pichet, courtesy of

Over the course of sharing the chicken liver, we got to know a little more about our new friends. The chocolate mousse eater owns a daycare off Eastlake, and has developed a nice, wine-drinking community surrounding it. The pot de creme-er works for Monsieur Tom Douglas at Dahlia Lounge. His cocktail expertise helped make up for the bartender's lack thereof. She throws spectacular parties with creative naughty cocktails (as does Roxanne!), and so we traded recipes.

Our server was infinitely accommodating as we perused the drink menu and dilly-dallied deciding what drinks to order for round two. Finally, though tempted by Strega, a sweet Italian digestif composed of 70 different herbs and yellow from its saffron, but uncertain as to how to guide the bartender into making a satisfactory cocktail out of it, I chose the bitter old standby, Campari and soda . I wanted to try a St. Germain cocktail (St. Germain is a French liqueur made with elderflower, in a fancy bottle -

The recommendation all around, including from our neighbors, was to douse some champagne with the St. Germain, but to me, dumbing-down champagne with anything at all, lesser or equal, is a disappointment. I know others disagree. I don't like nuts or crunchy things ruining the texture of my smooth ice cream either. Mixing only works with some things. So....after asking the bartender for his advice, too, and after he had none to give, I settled on a shot of St. Germain over ice. It was sweeter than what I wanted, but I love that spunky almost grape-ish floral essence. The St. Germain website calls its flavor "captivating" and "hard to pin down". I think it tastes like a watered down version of muscatel wine.

We didn't have it this time, but my favorite dish at Cafe Presse is the Oeufs plats, with jambon, and fromage (“Two eggs broiled with ham and Gruyere”). These beauties come broiled under melted cheese, over salty ham, in a hot French gratin dish. All the egg items are phenomenal here, as are the pommes-frites (french fries). The main entrees are a bit disappointing overall. Oregon Natural Beef hanger steak, for example, is nothing special, and you would be better off having steak at one of Seattle's excellent steak houses for a few dollars more. But Café Presse is always great for its lighter fare, cocktails, liveliness and potential for socializing.

Case in point, the first time I ever went to Café Presse, my daughter ordered the pain au chocolat à l’ancienne (“Bittersweet chocolate melted on baguette”). By the end of breakfast, after dunking her bread into warm milk, licking and pawing the drippy goopy chocolate, our neighbors, some nice, heavy-set dressed-in black 40 somethings had taken pictures of her chocolate covered face and promised to send them to my email address. And they did.

But back to the story at hand...
...after a half hour into our new sassy-based friendship, I finally worked up the guts and asked "Uh, can I try some too?" Everyone looked a bit shocked that I even felt the need to ask. "Of course!" they responded. I honestly couldn't assess the pot de creme, so taken was I by the whole endeavor. Wow! Kind of thrilling. I'm now all for Presse's absurdly tight table arrangements as well. I can't wait to go somewhere with Roxanne where she'll have to get up and venture over to another table to get sassy. Then I will really see how it's done! Truly, though, as she says, it really isn't hard. Almost everyone who partakes in food-sharing is secretly or not so secretly delighted to be doing this.