shiro’s

•November 28, 2008 • 1 Comment

the little clay pot was hand formed, its top painted with multi-colored stripes.  with the top removed, a rush of warm, bacony breath is emitted, and the custard jiggles just slightly.

but the magic of the little pot doesn’t really reveal itself until you get an eggy spoonful to your mouth.  the custard sits on your tongue for just a moment, velvety and so much more than soft, then melts into liquid so easily its actual existence seems questionable.  the flavor is exquisitely mild, vaguely smoky (though bacon-free) and a touch sweet.  the steamed egg, mostly whites, is almost fluid in its softness and rivers of delicate broth run through it.  a shrimp is suspended here, a piece of chicken or shiitake there.  the whole dish has a gentleness to it, as though your body will hardly have to make an effort to digest it.

this is the chawan-mushi, just one of the wonders in a meal at shiro’s, the namesake restaurant of the man who opened seattle’s first sushi bar in 1967.

though we’d have been willing to wait, two seats happened to be open at the sushi bar upon arrival.  not only that, but shiro himself was eating at the bar.  the chefs, jolly and chatty behind the low wall of silver or pink filets, joked about how nervous they were with the boss there.

shiros

as making selections from the menu was clearly going to be a brutal game of elimination (how do you choose between monkfish liver paté and a baked giant clam?), we opted for the $60 set menu.

the adventure began with a football shaped plate with a three distinct fish arrangements.  jellyfish and cucumber were tossed with a mildly creamy, mildly sesame sauce.  it was a pleasant surprise to find that this jellyfish was far less gummy than some i’d had just down the street recently.  in fact, it had a near-crunch and was approximately the same texture as the cucumber.

squid and tobiko were in the middle, while a broiled shishamo (smelt), its top half laid upon its lower, took the right side of the plate.  it was smoky and had almost a jerky quality, though far more tender.

a sashimi plate contained the high quality versions of expected sushi bar standards.  each fish was subtly accompanied by an accent piece; the salmon got a mini lemon lemon slice, the tuna a leaf of shiso, the mackerel miniature radish sprouts, each flavor contrasting with its fish in just the right way.

the sushi bar is animated, the thumping heart of the restaurant.  two firefighters from california next to us banter with the sushi chefs, insisting they can’t eat (or afford) any more, then quickly, weakly, relent with the appearance of another fish they’ve never heard of.  with each arrival, the words “soy sauce” or “no soy sauce” are exchanged, the chefs’ way of making clear which fish are enhanced by salt, and which are obscured by it.

shiros2

and yet, with the first bite of black cod kasuzuke, i may as well have been alone, my attention was so diverted.  this is shiro’s signature dish, whose recipe was once published in the new york times, the dish that is on every tasting menu the restaurant offers, the one that nearly caused me physical pain it made me so happy.

the fish had a gentle sweet soy marinade, yet the cooking is the enchanted part.  it’s officially called merely “broiled” but it’s hard to comprehend that there’s not something far more complicated that makes the skin a bit crisp while the flesh is creamy, buttery, and butter flavored, and seems to liquefy in your mouth.  if i loose my teeth in old age, this is what i will want to eat.

in a blind tasting, i don’t know that i’d recognize this as fish.  its texture is too silken, utterly lacking in fibrous bits, and void of all fishiness.  and just down the bar was the creator, laughing over sake, chopsticks in hand, eyebrows so animated they were nearly vertical, completely unaware of the joy his food was causing me.

it’s nearly the end of the meal and i am fully to capacity, when sushi begins to fly over the bar.  spanish mackerel from japan.  geoduck.  hawaiian fish.  puget sound fish.  a slice of smoky, bonito topped salmon that had seen an instant of hot pan was so crimson i half expected it to dye my fingers pink.  i eventually gave up, and i think it was only because the chefs could see the sushi building up on my plate that they ended the frenzy.  it is hard to imagine anyone consuming the 80 or 100 dollar menus.

dessert, thankfully, was a bowl of fruit.

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skate wing

•November 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

it’s been almost a month now, but i still consistently think about my birthday lunch at ten 01 in portland. it might have been the afternoon light streaming through big open windows in a restaurant that contained only us. it might have been the two martinis or the fact that three luxurious courses were only $15. but i think it was the skate.

there was nothing wacky about it, just sweet corn and bordelaise to adorn, but gentle cooking had left it infinitely moist, with crispy brown bits clinging to its outside.

skate

skate is a bottom-feeder and a ray (thus the wings) and (best of all) cartilaginous. it can be a challenging and time-consuming thing for kitchens to deal with, and thus is often passed over. the fish is covered with connective tissue rather than scales. silvery, with a fine goo and hidden thorns, this must be carefully pared off.

i had two skate encounters in one nyc week recently. one simple and elegant at balthazar, with beurre noir and peppers, the perfect accompaniment to a cloudy afternoon and a carafe of wine.  the other was at tailor, in the form of skate frites.  the skate was placed in steak form rather than splayed out in the usual invasive fan, and purple potato tater-tots with sweet ketchup were its best friends.

though skate is a worldly fish, that eaten in seattle is generally from the pacific ocean, as it’s found from northern mexico to alaska.  lark served it the other night in it’s traditional coating of brown butter, lemon and capers, and a lark twist of hearts of palm and the babiest of all spinach.

underused, underappreciated, and reminiscent of an irobot vacuum, give skate a chance.

beast

•November 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

it was sunny,  but not warm.  really, about the best you can hope for at the end of october in the northwest.  it was a bit early for me to eat a full meal, but since i’d gotten up at some ungodly hour to take the train here – portland – it felt later than it really was (one pm).  i was at beast, for the second brunch seating, one of the better places to be on a cold october morning.

it’s only a room, but it feels like more.  the far wall is painted in blackboard paint, covered in quotes, pictures, and culinary conversions, and recently served as the backdrop to chefowner naomi pomeroy’s tough full page shot in gourmet magazine.  there are just two tables, but they’re long.  most of the space is consumed by the corner that is the kitchen.

the presence of the kitchen lingers with you throughout the meal, even as your back is turned and your attention is on the perfectly poached egg in front of you.  with the offer of coffee and juice, it’s hard to avoid the impression of your parents’ kitchen (albeit an upscale version; i never got my juice in a wine glass or my coffee in a personal press).

beast

the rules are strict at beast, but there are rewards for those who chose to abide by them.  in fact, they’re not rules so much as guidelines in place to help you have a good time.  for both brunch and dinner, there are two seatings offered.  the menu is multi-coursed, and set.  this means no substitutions, period.  it is what it is and it may or may not be for you.

the meal started sweet.  brown butter crepes, delicate, edged in brown, bathed in maple bourbon hard sauce.  before the sugar can get overwhelming, gently acidic apple butter makes its way from the inside of the crepes.  a lazy piece of candied bacon provides the necessary salt, hazenuts the crunch.  spreading the dalop of mild whipped cream evenly over the crepes was the way to go, imparting a lovely creaminess to it all.

wine pairings were optional but more than worth it.  not only was each wine a flawless match for it’s accompanying dish, but they were intriguing, unique, and left you feeling like you’d learned something.  beautifully acidic, flowery and rich barth riesling rebgarten came with the creapes, an amazing palate cleanser and contrast to the food.

i would have been content with a second plate of crepes, but instead we got duck breast.  this was okay, too.  seared with a rosy center, the meat was simple yet rich, and demonstrated pomeroy’s significant beast cooking skills.  basque peppers were mild in heat, potent in flavor, while simple potato hash acted as the quiet backbone of the dish.  the fun part came in the toppings – hollandaise and an egg who’s yolk spilled out like water from a balloon.

with this dish we were given les vins contes “poivre et sel”, a light, funky loire red from gamay and pineau d’aunis.  it was oddly cloudy in a way that made you skeptical, but upon tongue contact revealed itself to be tart and floral, earthy in a way that made it duck’s best friend.

it seems that most portland cheese courses are from steve’s cheese, a local specialty cheese shop focused on small producers and farms.  at beast, we had three simple cheeses with a vanilla flecked poached apricot and lightly vinaigrette-ed mache.  as lovely and conclusive as the cheese was, it wasn’t the end.

a slender piece of chocolate truffle cake was triumphant in making us eat one more thing just when we were sure we couldn’t.  it was sleek and cool in the mouth, it’s sweetness restrained and tempered by the vanilla bean whipped cream.  as if this wasn’t enough, it came with my favorite wine of the meal, a dessert mourvèdre (olivares monastrell dulce).  rich and out-and-out sweet, it wasn’t cloying, and did magical things when sloshed around with a mouthful of chocolate.

four courses of (excellent) food was $28.  i felt i’d gotten a deal while also knowing the restaurant had made a profit. and isn’t that the ideal economic exchange?

Beast on Urbanspoon

four portland restaurant trends

•October 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

i spent my  birthday weekend in portland.  i was inebriated and uncomfortably full the whole time.  it was glorious.  

though both west coast cities with happening food scenes, seattle and portland’s different personalities and politics are plainly articulated through restaurants.  these are four things i saw significantly more of in portland than seattle, for better or worse (mostly better).  

substitutions politely declined

as a server, this is about the most glorious sentence that could be printed on a menu (perhaps with the exception of “we politely request that you bus your own table”).  it means you’ll no longer have to crawl back to the kitchen and ask, so respectfully, as if the request was your own, “is it possible to substitute steak for clams in the clam chowder?  um, and they’re also allergic to salt…”

if you’re “allergic” or vegetarian, simply order something without your allergen or meat. and don’t go to beast, where the website clearly states, “beast has a lot of meat all over the menu.  we (somewhat) politely decline substitutions.”  

when buying a painting, you don’t get to ask the artist to please take out that tree because you’re allergic to it.  a chef is an artist, their dish is the way it is as a result of much thought about how each flavor plays against the next.  removing the tree upsets the balance of the art – so does removing the chives.  i can only hope this trend spreads to seattle, and quickly.  

communal dining

i know there is communal dining in seattle, and it’s gradually becoming less of a novelty, but in portland it’s more rampant and less scary.  one long table is inherently a risk to its sitters.  perhaps  your neighbor can teach you something, can entertain you, works in your field and can get you a job.  but the steak knife wielding stranger at your elbow might also ask you after every bite, “what do you think of the soup?  what do you think of the fish?  i think it’s a little salty.  is that tarragon?  i’m pretty sure there’s tarragon in there.  i’m sure there is!  i love tarragon!”  

I don’t want to be prodded at and i don’t want to hear anyone else dissect the food (as much as i like to do it myself).  in portland, people overwhelmingly were able to sense when others at their table just wanted to have dinner with the person they came to dinner with.  

half bottles 

(for reasons i can’t understand) half bottles are an unusual find in seattle.  in portland, they’re as common as absinthe.  if we’re all eating small plates, why aren’t we drinking from small bottles?  i often loose interest in a bottle of wine once halfway through, the same way i do when faced with a mountain of entrée. 

generally more interesting wines than glass pours, half bottles are ideal for lunch, or the hour you need to waste before you catch the train.  

if it’s an economic concern for restaurants, i can attest that though spending $80 on a bottle of wine isn’t something i’ll do often, spending $40 on a half bottle of bubbles and then $40 on a bottle of red at meat time hardly fazes.  it’s not that i’m that deficient math, but rather that trying two different wines, and having my wine correspond more precisely with my food, makes it worth it to me.  

open kitchens

part of the motivation, to be sure, is that diners these days are interested in what happens in the kitchen, and not just to make sure the chefs wash their hands.  it’s the communal table idea, again – we’re all here to share an experience, whether eating or cooking it, so why not be in the same room?  diners think it’s cool to have a chef hand them a plate of food at the bar and chefs, rather than waiters, get to hear the appreciation.  

at sel gris, the kitchen is immaculate and chefs wear real chef jackets (a pdx rarity).  at le pigeon, plastic quart containers full of various sauces were dipped into just inches from our heads.  one of the chefs wore a clyde common t-shirt.  i don’t have a preference between jackets and t-shirts (though i like to see tattoos), if they’re carried off professionally.  

comments?
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kushibar

•October 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

from across the street, kushibar could be some kind of animal pen.  maybe one holding an especially dangerous animal, as there are large panes of glass just behind the horizontal wooden slats.  

it’s not a pen, though, but the sizable (and actually very stylish and modern looking) sort-of-outside dining area of kushibar, filled with wooden tables.  finally, a chance to feel like you’re eating outside without actually being outside.  

the deck has mildly successful heat lamps, so it’s best when it’s crowded.  you can peer out at the street through the slats if you like to watch second avenue happenings (drug deals, real change sales men, someone from uw getting sick after too much fun at amber), or can just appreciate the cozy sauna-ness (sans heat) of where you’re sitting.  

 

 

 

there is less character inside kushibar, a new project from the gentlemen who brought us umi sake house.  it’s tavolata with a touch of momofuku, a long room with high ceilings, pale wood, and an open kitchen.  it’s sleek though not unique.  

three menus were on our table when we began considering food.  a traditional folded version in plastic sleeves, a half-piece of paper with daily specials, and a cube of wood with food listed up and down the sides.  fortunately we located the cocktails with the help of our server, and i was able to have an intriguing mix of lychee infused vodka and sake clutched in my fist as i navigated the food situation.  the drink was a touch sweet, but also extremely floral and aromatic as well as surprisingly successful with the salt and occasional spice of the food.  

“kushi” refers to a stick or skewer in japanese and here you can get anything you want impaled upon one; any part of a chicken (livers, kidneys, gizzards, and so on), different mushrooms, all kinds of fish and vegetables.  

the skewers are cheap, a couple to a few bucks.  the eel was moist and had a sweet tang and a smattering of sesame seeds, the mushrooms were nearly unadorned and cooked to a moist and robust perfection.  i washed my scallop wrapped tomato down with huge glug of lychee cocktail to erase the scallop version of fishy the big bite left on my tongue.  the eggplant, however, was meaty rather than slimy, enhanced by bonito flakes and a delicate heat.  

a light fried skin clung to tofu that disappeared on your tongue.  more bonito flakes were piled on top and the cubes of tofu swam in a pond of dainty, well-salted broth.  a little of the jelly fish went a long way, but i can hardly complain about the fact that it was gummy.  what i can say is that chef billy beach knew to add the crunch of vegetable to it, and sesame for flavor.  

in nyc, it seems a new ramen restaurant has been birthed about once a week since momofuku blazed the noodle trail.  i miss the large noisy dining rooms full of clattering chopsticks, slurps, japanese beer, and cheap meals.  particularly when i’m in ten-months-of-ramen-weather-seattle.  

but kushi bar has ramen (and udon and soba and miso)!  the house ramen ($11) is chicken or pork broth with pork, corn, egg, sprouts, and scallions and you could fit a decent sized watermelon in one of the bowls.  the broth (i tried pork) was powerfully porky – if that doesn’t sound delicious…well, it was.  there was a good heft to it, the kind where you knew that if you left it in the fridge a solid fat seal would form.  it did not, however, feel overly oily and didn’t overwhelm the noodles.  

these noodles (house-made) were just as they should be.  soft but not over-cooked, they barely required chewing.  the noodle to broth ration, however, was an unfortunate situation.  as much as i love sipping broth, particularly when it’s well made, five cups is a little much.  my noodles were gone before i’d made a dent in the broth and i barely had a memory of consuming any full-on pork pieces.  

i worry that this could come across as a negative experience.  my occasional complaints, however, did not a bad meal make.  our check was gloriously low and i left feeling full and content and slightly buzzed.  i can’t wait to return for an early happy hour, when i can sit on the deck in the daylight, or for an after-work cocktail and a bowl of the curry popcorn or the tofu. if kushibar were open for lunch, i’d be eating the ramen once a week.

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veil

•October 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

i really wanted to love veil.  i thought the cool, white decor was beautiful, though i felt a bit uncomfortable sitting in it.  lobster and mac and cheese are some of my favorite foods, and i wanted them to be extraordinary together.  they were just expensive together.  

yet i was still oddly sad when i heard veil was closing this week, though i haven’t been there in well over a year.  maybe it’s that i’m being forced to consider the economy, when i’ve tried so hard to ignore it…i’m hoping this isn’t one of the first reflections of the stock market (etc) we will see in the restaurant industry.

then again, there aren’t many people i know who have been to veil in the past couple years.  it’s unfortunate, because i can’t help but think that a consistently full restaurant would have given them the confidence to keep their food daring, as it was first reputed to be.  i also feel confident that if veil had been born in belltown, it’s life would have been very different.  

veil’s open the rest of this week and having a good-bye party saturday night.

Veil on Urbanspoon

dish of the summer

•October 8, 2008 • Leave a Comment

thinking back on our instant of summer, the dish i ate most (at a restaurant, that is – pagliacci pizza and oatmeal don’t count) was surely chipolatas maison grilles et ses choux-fleurs rôtis at le pichet (unless it was the oeufs plats…)

i ate it outside, while sitting on a hard chair, while the sun struggles to make it through the first avenue foliage and onto my blinding white shoulders.  i ate them at an inside table as a part of a long sunday afternoon brunch, while a little band played in the corner of the restaurant.  and (at least ten times) i ate them late night at the bar with a martini, after a long friday or saturday night shift.  


chipolata sausages originate in italy (or was it mexico?  the internet isn’t sure).  what is known is that they’re loved at france, often fried and glazed in madeira.  they’re generally on the smaller side, pork, and well-spiced.  i can’t help but picture ruddy vineyard workers going after a plate of them after a chilly, gray day spent among the pinot noir. i can say with certainty that they do a good job of helping me forget a night of taking care of people who are “allergic to salt”.  

i’m always particularly drawn to cauliflower when i see it on the menu.  i find a natural sweet and butteriness to it that suits me very well.  it just so happens that roasted cauliflower (choux-fleurs rôties) is exactly what is needed to both handle some of the fat in the chipolatas and provide some fibrous crunch.  its caramel tinged edges don’t hurt, either.  

like much of jim drohman’s food, the dish is largely composed of shades of brown, with no superficial sprig of green or drizzle of colored oil.  what does create some contrast in this dish – and also acts as a glorious bridge between all the other flavors – is the saffron aioli.  not only is it pale goldfish, but it’s exotic flavor and eggy richness are enough to make you want to just dip bread in it.  

i’m not sure if the chipolatas are still on the menu.  it’s october, the weather couldn’t be more un-summerlike, and now i’m turning to cream based soups and paté.

Le Pichet on Urbanspoon

 
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