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Pacific Northwest

Seattle Comes Through (A Dining Report)...

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Seattle Comes Through (A Dining Report)...

Touring Eater | Apr 5, 2004 02:41 PM

Having recently gnawed our way through the restaurants of Manhattan, Los Angeles and New Orleans (twice), Mrs. Touring Eater and I at last turned our palates toward the Great Northwest. Some of you Hounds kindly provided me with some recommendations for dining in the Seattle area, and after also consulting with the restaurant section of the Seattle Times website, I cobbled together a short list of destinations for our stay. Here are my impressions...

We arrived a week ago on Saturday, later in the evening, and didn't have reservations for the night. Since we were spending that night at the W, we ventured down to Earth & Ocean, of which we'd heard generally good things. Fun ensued. We took advantage of the 25 for $25 meal deal, sat at the bar and watched the kitchen work (Anyone thinking about getting into the restaurant business should take a peek into the kitchen sometime. You'll be thankful for your cozy cubicle). Among the highlights were a delicious, light water cress salad, plus glowing, crusty-edged strips of hangar steak, lightly singed rockfish and a spectacular little disk of chocolate cake. I will add my voice to the chorus currently singing the praises of E&0's pastry chef. The chef also personally greeted us at the bar and brought us a tasting treat, and service was light and fun in the best way, when light and fun isn't off-putting but instead makes you glad to be sitting in a place.

We then retreated down to the Oregon wine country and to Portland for a few days where we had some rather non-descript meals that are best relegated to that part of the memory that I try to repress (which is where I also store all of the games that my favorite sports teams have lost over the years), but I do want to briefly mention the restaurant at the Salish Lodge, about 40 or so minutes from Seattle on the Snoqualmie Falls, where we spent one night. The restaurant is ridiculously expensive, and I always tend to have my doubts about the food at hotels and inns, particularly at resorts like this, but both Mrs. Touring Eater and I were pleased. A cheese course, with smoke-flavored parmesan and several other selections, was exceptional. The sommelier was a friendly gent who genuinely cared what we thought about his wines, and who was eager to make recommendations based on our likes and dislikes. And thin layers of barely cooked, bright red salmon -- presented as an appetizer -- was some of the best fish we tasted on this seafood-intensive trip. Not everything was perfect, and it's virtually impossible for any restaurant to justify these prices, but the simple fact is this: I'd eat here again. Besides, what a view, huh?

After the Oregon interlude, we returned to the city on Wednesday. Lunch at Etta's Seafood was quite good -- the salmon here is strong, and a Dungeness crab salad encouraged you to scrape the plate clean. We spent that evening at the Flying Fish. As it was the last night of the great $25 celebration, we once again tackled the $25 tasting menu, with mixed results. An appetizer of calamari was pretty standard stuff, but a starter of mussels soaked in chili lime sauce were masterful. I've never had better mussels, in fact. These plump, meaty little monsters were unforgettable. Having heard nothing but great things about the seafood at Flying, I was excited about the entrees, but an order of mahi mahi ended up like a lot of mahi does -- solid, but generally unexciting. So many kitchens seem to have a hard time coaxing flavor out of this particular fish. A plate of wok-blackened albacore tuna seemed familiar -- nothing you hadn't seen before. Desserts were like the fish -- good but not breathtaking. Having opted for the $25 menu, we certainly limited our choices, and I'd be willing to give Flying a try again. The fish wasn't overcooked and the ingredients were good -- the flavor just didn't wow you, at least not on this night. But the mussels were so good that it's hard to quibble.

Thursday, we lunched at Le Pichet. It's a charming spot and I'd like to return for dinner. Crusty, chewy loaves of bread were first-rate. Highlights included dried sausages in a light herb oil and a grilled sardine sandwich with bitter slivers of fennel and thick, crispy bacon. On Thursday night, we took a cab over to Lark. Even though it was 9, we still waited about 20 minutes for a table. And dozens more arrived after we'd started eating, all the way up to closing time. But it's not hard to figure out why. They're doing some very interesting things at Lark. A beginning plate of paper-thin duck prosciutto was phenomenal, enhaced with the flavor of the small lining of fat around the edges of the meat. A grilled artichoke and bread salad was shockingly good, as was a plate of steamy clams. Simply prepared flank steak from Oregon was rich and complex in flavor -- a triumph of ingredients over flashy presentation. Desserts, though, were nothing to write home (or even to e-mail home) about, in what would become a recurring theme on our trip. Other than the chocolate cake at Earth & Ocean, we didn't taste a dessert that won our hearts. What did we miss?

On Friday, we stopped by Salumi for lunch. We got there just as it opened, so we didn't wait (though everyone who came in after us did). The salumi sandwich, with peppers and onions and thick slabs of snow-white mozzarella, plus that incomparable ginger-enhanced meat, is a treasure. So is the grilled lamb sandwich, featuring a huge pepper, a scattering of herbs and the musky, earthy flavor of young sheep flesh. Delicious. Any city in the country would be proud to have this place. We stopped by Cascadia that evening for appetizers and drinks, and sat at the bar watching Young Seattle flirt and mingle. I got conflicting reports on Cascadia from some of you, and I can't comment on the regular menu, but it would truly take a stone-hearted person to not love the mini burgers and the $2 cone of calamari (with a wildly spicy dipping sauce) that you can get at happy hour. If I lived here, I'd do my drinking at Cascadia. After that, we marched on to Elliott's Oyster House, our stomachs wearying under the weight of so much eating. The atmosphere -- as some of you pointed out -- is indeed touristy, and we had a truly strange waiter here who seemed to dislike our vibrant Southern accents, but for all that -- yes, for all that -- you cannot argue with these raw oysters, can you? You can't argue with the briny, full flavor and the odd, salty and tart iced champagne mignonette for dipping them into. The salmon here -- if you can get beyond the restaurant's self-congratulatory essays on how "seriously" they take this Northwestern staple -- is very good indeed, falling apart at the mere touch of a fork and filled with that oily, rich flavor that makes a person keep ordering salmon even though it has by now become the most cliched, worn-out old warhorse on any seafood menu (especially in the Northwest). Desserts? Ho hum. Salads? Nothing special. Still, I'd happily eat here again when in a seafood state of mind.

Saturday, we stopped by Matt's in the Market for lunch, where Matt himself was at the controls in the kitchen (I got the impression that this is unusual). A tuna and wasabi sandwich was solid enough eating, but it was a salmon BLT (yep, salmon again! sorry for the one-note perfomance) that truly shined. The fish had a spicy cornmeal coating and was cooked just long enough to be piled delicately onto the bread, where it wonderfully fell apart. Good rosemary-potato soup, too. That night, we had drinks at the attractive bar at Palace Kitchen, then ate at Dahlia Lounge. Highlights: Yeah, it's the "gimme" on the menu, but the Dungeness crab cakes are praised for a reason. They're crabby and only lightly compacted -- a far cry from what we East Coasters have to put up with (bready patties that contain more filler than crab) -- and golden on the outside, like good hash browns. Sea scallops were moist, huge and note-perfect. A bread salad was nearly as good as the one at Lark. And a seafood sampler had some hits and misses -- chunks of octopus didn't generate much flavor, but just about everything else did. All in all, I was very impressed. I see why Tom Douglas keeps churning out those cookbooks. And the slick, urban atmosphere here is mighty comforting to my tastes.

Thanks again to everyone who helped us have a memorable trip to your fine city. We look forward to returning.

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