First a declaration. When I visit a city that I probably wont see again for a few years, I try and hit the culinary high spots (almost regardless of costs) the philosophy is Sleep cheap; Dine fine. Of course, I try and hit the local specialities too, so my recent trip to Seattle had the objectives of local fresh ingredients and a hope for two specific ingredients, Copper River Salmon (I know it isnt local but we dont get it in Toronto) and Washington State Lamb (which we used to get fresh in Toronto, but now only frozen its my favourite lamb).
After reviewing the Pacific Northwest board, and other recommendations from various sources, I tried the following, which may help other visitors with their decisions.
First, the transportation really is superb. We stayed a couple of miles outside the downtown area, and the bus system is extensive, easy to use and runs until about 1:00am. We probably saved close to $100 per night which goes a long way. And Alamo made it easier by having a 3 day weekend for the price of 1-day special (not available on their website), which meant we just left the car at the hotel for much of the time.
No reservations for Friday as I wasnt too confident that wed make a connection (68 minutes apart) at Pittsburgh, but US Airlines were early on every flight both ways. Our choice was Wild Ginger, which got many votes as top SE Asian restaurant, but some dissent. We had no problems as walk-ins on Friday night (despite rumours of line-ups) and had a competent, if unexciting meal. Everything was just fine but we got the impression it was food that was prepared for American tastes, rather than more authentic dishes. But they did have the Eroica Riesling on the wine list, which was a welcome discovery and perfect for their food. Best dish was the Seven Flavor Beef, but even here it seemed that they held back on the spicing. The check was surprisingly reasonable theyd forgotten to include the wine but even after I pointed that out it was still a fair price, just not worth a 2500-mile trip. Our alternative choice had been Brasa, but it didnt open until later and the menu seemed somewhat heavier and it was a hot day.
Saturday lunch was to be at the market (of course) and the hands-down recommendation was Matts at the Market. Reminds me of San Francisco 20 years ago. Some attitude, but very friendly (they told Chowspouse she was high maintenance and told me to eat my salad as its good for the colon). We had a window table, the food was simple but fresh, they had REAL cider (from France) on the wine list (great choice for Lunch) and we were enchanted. They even topped up Chowspouses glass of wine (at no extra charge). And they DO take reservations (only 5 tables plus bar) despite some comments here.
Saturday dinner engendered much debate. We considered Cascadia, despite some strong negative reviews particularly concerning the attitude. Also the various Tom Douglas places.
But when we checked the Cascadia menu they had Copper River Salmon so that became the choice with a determination to train the server if necessary. We ate early (our stomachs were still 3 hours ahead), so were the second table there. Excellent tasting menu choices. Two different 7-course choices, one Food From Here the other Coast To Coast (and a vegetarian choice) so we chose both of those (only 1 course duplicated). Unfortunately (?) the Copper River Salmon was off theyd finished it the night before and felt that the quality was now slipping as it was end-of-season. To be fair, even in the market it was advertised as last chance. So our reason for going became non-existent. However, the menus seemed excellent, so we looked over the wine list. Again, reviews had criticized the prices, but they now have a section called 30 under 30 which offers 30 wines under $30 (as well as more expensive stuff). Now came the first problem. A couple were seated adjacent to us who felt that wearing strong colognes/perfume was somehow attractive. This could have destroyed our meal and wines. I discreetly approached the receptionist and explained the problem. We were quietly moved to a corner table and no table settings were transferred i.e. new water glasses, napkins etc. The old ones were removed quietly and the other patrons werent aware of anything. Very well done.
Matching wine with tasting menus is always difficult so we asked if they could arrange for different wine tastes with each course (nothing on the menu suggested it could). But, no problem! We explained what we would have ordered otherwise (a white (Alsace) from the under 30 list, plus a couple of relatively expensive reds by the glass). So the sommelier agreed a price ($80 total for two people) and did a commendable job. With the Smoked Salmon and Prosciutto/Figs/Mascarpone courses we had two Pinot Gris (one Washington, one Oregon). With the shellfish (Oyster/Clam Chowder and Maine Lobster/Alaska Spot Prawns we had a Carneros Chardonnay and an Oregon Chardonnay). The lemon cucumber basil sorbet was common to both menus (no wine). The fish (Spice Rubbed Halibut/Crisp Calamari and Monkfish/Foie Gras) came with Bollinger Champagne and 1991 Argyle (Oregon) Late Disgorged Sparkler. The mains (Fenugreek Crusted Lamb/Black Truffle Jam and Grilled Wild King Salmon) came with a local Tempranillo and Pinot Noir. And the cheese courses had a Leonetti Sangiovese and a sweet German (great contrasts). Dessert was our choice from the menu.
We also finished with a Clear Creek Apple Brandy (imitation Calvados) that was excellent.
All in all an excellent meal and a bargain considering what we were served. No attitude to be seen anywhere. Formal but friendly service all round, and they even printed off a menu for us with each of the wines included so that we would be able to recall them all.
This was a GREAT meal all-round. No attitude, fresh ingredients well prepared, well paced and excellent wines. But, no Copper River Salmon and the lamb turned out to be from Oregon it was excellent though.
Sunday was to be the Herbfarm. My opinion of their reservation policy matches everyone elses. But it is clearly explained, so take it or leave it (if anyone doesnt know youre on the hook for the whole amount including tax and gratuity, even if you (try to) cancel). We visited some wineries (prices at winery generally higher than at retail stores in Seattle) and deliberately missed the 4:00 tour before our 4:30 reservation again we chose the Sunday meal to suit our 3-hour ahead stomachs, instead of the 7:00 single seating on other nights. They tried hard to switch us to Saturday (so Im guessing that wasnt full), but I explained the 2500 mile thing as we were coming from Toronto, so that there was a 3 hour difference and they squeezed us in. Again, if you dont know, much of the seating is communal you share a table. They do have some private tables, but not many. Its part of the Herbfarm experience and you cant avoid it. And the menu is also fixed (although they do and did accommodate special needs). And, despite their Wine Spectator Award Winning Wine List, all wines are pre-selected by them you dont get a choice! And if you do order off menu, you still pay full-price for the standard meal. And if you take people below drinking age you still pay the same (unlimited pop/juice etc). And you have to sit through their Show, which describes the philosophy, history, menu (and where every ingredient comes from) and every kitchen helper and every server is introduced individually.
So why do people go? Because everything is absolutely fresh and local and is superbly cooked. Just hope you like your dinner companions ours were superb; from a restaurant on Whidbey Island who had taken the Sunday off to come to the Herbfarm. Id read that the selected wines were often provided by a local winery for promotion purposes and were to be avoided but that didnt seem to be the case when we were there. Id even asked about buying wine when I made my reservation, and they asked what my favourite was (Madeira) and suggested I check their website for the selection then arrive a little early and talk to the Sommelier. Upon reviewing the list, they did have a good selection but prices were high, and their Madeira selection came from a supplier I already use, so I decided to go with the standard choice.
The room holds about 70 people, and I was a little surprised when, after giving our names, we were led immediately to our places (no list was checked), which had place cards showing our names. The greeter must have memorized everybodys names (or we were the last which we werent). Definitely brownie points for that. And adjacent to our table (separating us from the next couple) was a wine trolley with about a half dozen Madeiras displayed (under glass) some more than a century old. Was this coincidence, or just superb service (or an attempt to get us to spend an additional $500 on wine)? The printed menu also included the wines, which were mainly Pacific North West (of course) but the final wine was a 1916 vintage Madeira (hey, its an island off the north west coast of Africa). Everybody got this! Coincidence?
What can I say every course was superb. With the sparkler we got to choose any herb from a growing basket that was brought round and a leaf was plucked and placed in the glass. If you consumed the glass (of most wines not the Madeira) it was usually refilled (partially). Every server seemed to know we had travelled there, and as we left, the owner thanked us for coming and asked us if we knew Michael Stadtlander (a local chef at home), who hed met on Vancouver Island. Again, I emphasize that nobody asked our names after the initial identification.
This service and food were exceptional. Did my initial query about Madeira prompt any of this? I dont know nothing was mentioned. But I do know that 60+ people got to try a 1916 Madeira that is on their wine list at $450.00. And the other wines werent shabby either including the Eroica Id had previously at Wild Ginger. And I had gone there with some trepidation based on the whole experience thing. Its still too cute but I had such a great time that Ill tolerate it.
So, on to Monday evening, which originally was to be sushi. Sushi in Toronto is abysmal, so we relished the opportunity for fresh fish. More research led to several possibilities, but as wed had two relatively formal meals we selected Mashiko (in west Seattle), which seemed less formal, but with excellent food. I called ahead to ask advice so that we could each order separately (probably Omakase, but we wanted different choices to try more things). We were persuaded to go with the Kaiseki dinner (Chefs choice), which would have 12-15 courses instead of the half dozen choices each with Omakase. This gave us a greater variety but note that this ISNT sushi its prepared courses. We ended up with 15 different courses, some fairly substantial (e.g. the salmon had to be a minimum size to prevent drying out during cooking). And also 7 different sakes were included to taste!
First a spinach salad dusted with bonito flakes served with Sake Mu (hint of pineapple). Second, seaweed with dried kelp, lime and black sesame. Third, whitefish with secret salsa (asparagus, onion and a large leaf we couldnt identify). Fourth, fresh oyster (? hamattanu) with cucumber pickle, served with Namahage sake (drier than the first one). Fifth a tofu custard (?egg also) with monkfish liver and salmon eggs this dish is all about texture with the eggs exploding in the mouth. Sixth, baby octopus with a Korean style sauce and pepper this was one of our favourite dishes. Seventh, a tartare of local sardines with capers, onion and quail egg, served with a Kurosawa sake. Eighth, steamed fish (hamachi) with daikon cooked for exactly 3 hours. Ninth, steamed rice with smoked black cod. Tenth grilled King Salmon with Japanese mushrooms with a Nigora sake. Eleventh, a tempura selection including oyster mushroom, mountain potato (yam?) and scallop. Twelfth, BBQ beef tongue with wasabi, served with an unknown sake with hints of cedar. Thirteenth a miso soup with clams. Fourteenth, fresh lychees. Fifteenth, green tea. Also somewhere in there was a sixth sake that was so outstanding I forgot to note exactly where it was served. It was Sato no Homare Pride of the Village Junmai Ginjo Sake from Sudo. This was far and away the greatest sake I have tasted. Complex fruit components, spicy characteristics, great finish was so impressed that Ive tried to track it down it retails for around $40-45 per bottle (wholesale $30-32) but no retail outlet anywhere near me. The service throughout was very enthusiastic, with every attempt made to explain the dishes. The servers told us that the meal had been started that morning and different dishes had been worked on all day. Almost everything was just for us as the chef really enjoyed doing something different. Finally, Hajime came over to thank us and get our opinion. And then served another special sake one that hed been soaking plums in for 6 weeks to give a strong plum flavour.
This was indeed an experience for us although were not Japanese experts it was easy to see the work involved. No, we didnt enjoy every dish, but it was the pacing, textures, and evolution of the meal that was so impressive. And really a bargain ($85 per person) considering everything that was included. We really struggled for the last couple of dishes sheer volume of food over the 4 days. And the constant stream of locals through the evening proves how appreciated this place is. This is where you go for food, not ambience.
And then back home. US Airways no longer serve food, but sell you meals. We didnt need any!