Food

THE FULL BODY EXPERIENCE

The Full Body Experiece: Essay Cover
 
When I found out that Molly Moon’s Ice Cream was opening another shop, my first thought was: in this weather?
 
November seemed a strange time of year to install a sixth store. I was compelled to find out if Seattle really wanted or needed another gourmet ice cream shop.
 
I made my visit on a boring Wednesday night, a week or so after the grand opening. The space itself was luminous: the white tiles, the spotless counter, the polished chairs, even the sign glowed in its brand newness. I was dazzled, and I wasn’t the only one. Walking down the newly unveiled south wing of the Village, the streets were empty except for a line of people extending out the door of Molly Moon’s.
 
Unlike the other locations, Molly Moon’s new opening was constructed to feel less like a traditional ice cream bar—where you can go right up to the counter, press your nose against the glass, and order the one that looks the most tempting—and more like a café, where the menu is handwritten in chalk on a large blackboard above the counter, with no visual help in sight other than the recommendations from the ice cream baristas. With its small tables and stools set up to the side, the U Village location invites its customers to enjoy their cold treats in the comfort of a warm store.
 
Too bad so many people wanted ice cream. I was already freezing and had to queue up outside. Waiting in line sucks. Waiting in line in the cold? Even worse. My fingers were already numb. How was I going to carry the cone? As I shivered in my jacket and scarf, I tried to stop obsessing over the weather, and its debilitating aspects, and decide on a flavor.
 
They had their everyday selections, including my two favorites: Lavender Honey, where the lavender is grown in Sequim, Washington, and Stumptown Coffee, using the roasted beans from the Oregon-based company. However, Thanksgiving was just a week away and I was in a festive mood so when it was finally my turn at the counter, I requested a sample of all four of their seasonal flavors: Pumpkin Clove, Pear Elderflower Sorbet, Cinnamon, and Vegan Coconut Chunk.
 
First, I took up a little spoonful of Pumpkin Clove, then of Cinnamon. If the pumpkin flavor had not come in a beautiful burnt orange color, I could have easily gotten the two confused when it came to taste. The flavor of the pumpkin was present, though not at all powerful, and the cinnamon also presented my palate with more cream than the aromatic spice itself. These might be good to have as a double-scoop since the flavors melded well, but singularly, neither had enough intensity to truly entice or surprise my taste buds.
 
The Vegan Coconut, however, was surprisingly good. The idea of anything being vegan usually sends me into a this-would-be-so-much-better-with-real-dairy-or-meat-mindset, but I was pleasantly surprised at how creamy it was and how every bite had real coconut flakes with a hint of Theo’s chocolate scattered throughout.
 
Next, I was given a sample of the Pear Elderflower Sorbet. Because it was a sorbet, and therefore not made with cream and eggs, it was much lighter than the other three, and naturally-sweet tasting. At the first encounter of sorbet to lips, the flavor of the pear shined, then left with a faint floral aftertaste. This became my new favorite. The juiciness of the pear, the exotic taste of elderflower, all scooped onto a freshly made waffle cone, was exactly what I was hoping to experience at Molly Moon’s: a new perspective of flavor on an old dessert.
 
I left the store with a smile at my delicious discovery and forgot about complaining, forgot how cold it was, even forgot how numb my fingers were. All I felt was delight and childlike excitement at having found a favorite new flavor. As I passed another patron, also happily licking away at her Molly Moon treat, I asked how she felt about eating ice cream in cold weather.
 
She replied, “Oh it’s the best. My dad always said that ice cream in the cold was a full-body-experience. I swear, it tastes better that way.”
 
After this visit to Molly Moon’s, I have to say I agree.
 
And ice cream in the snow? That must be positively thrilling.

HOLY HAIRY MEATBALL!

hairy-meatball
 
Being broke and being a foodie may seem paradoxical, but I assure you, it is merely extremely difficult and involves long, willful gazing at food photography and heart-breakingly buying boxed grocery sushi, knowing it just won’t be the same.
 
Having saved up enough for a nice meal, I couldn’t wait to try out Cuoco, a Tom Douglas restaurant located in Seattle’s South Lake Union. Be it another one of his restaurants downtown or through an enterprise like his partnership with Starbucks (where he helped create a coffee blend that pairs with Thanksgiving dinner), Mr. Douglas’s name is constantly in the Pacific Northwest air. Yet of his fifteen restaurants, until last week, I had yet to try a single one.
 
When I sat down for lunch last Wednesday, I was pleased with Cuoco’s ambience –nostalgic with its brick and green-bordered windows lining the walls like an old-timey train station, but with touches of modernity in its large-scale paintings and trendy bar/lounge. I had heard good things about the place – it featured organic produce, hand-made pasta, and highly touted drinks.
 
With the unlikely appearance of the sun that cool October afternoon, I opted to splurge on a glass of 2009 Cabernet-Merlot along with pork meatballs over spaghetti. 
 
My noodles were cooked perfectly – they had that wondrous toothsome texture, and the tomato-garlic sauce had just enough heat to brighten an otherwise simple meal. It wasn’t until most of my plate was clean that I finally slowed down.
 
I had a few strands of spaghetti left and a whole meatball. I speared the ball with my fork and eyed it with conviction – I had saved for this meal and I was going to savor all of it.
 
But then I saw a dark clump on the side of the otherwise smoothly textured, lightly sauced pork. What is that? I thought. A burn? Some sauce? I poked it. No, it’s coming off, and as a piece of fuzz clung to my nail…oh wait, it’s hair! At first, I thought it must just be a part of the pork, but after a closer examination, I saw clearly that it wasn’t just a few bristles. It wasn’t a freshly fallen strand that had innocently found itself laying atop a forkful of spaghetti, no. It was a mingling of follicles and lint nestled in a clump
 
No doubt about it, I was looking at a hairy meatball!
 
As someone who goes out to eat fairly often, it is almost impossible to avoid such an incident; in fact, finding a stray hair in food is somewhat de rigueur. But a clump! A small mass? A dust bunny of cilia? My thoughts raced with possible explanations, anything to excuse the rising sense of disgust and disappointment building in my belly. Perhaps it fell from the ceiling or from a dirty exhaust vent… These scenarios did not make me feel better. And I hated thinking about it, but disturbing questions kept popping up: Who’s hair was it? Was it even human? Could it be the hair of, say, a cat? Of an opossum?
 
Faced with the dilemma of either telling my very friendly server about the fibrous gob or keeping it to myself and risking another customer finding their own, I decided to give notice.My waiter apologized profusely, and when my check was dropped off, all that was on the bill was wine.
 
I had not expected my meal to be comped, which not only saved me my hard-earned pennies but had the happy side effect of quieting my stomach and generally increasing the enjoyment of  my experience at Cuoco.
 
Now I’ll be able to afford my next Tom Douglas meal.
 
Maybe if I’m lucky, history will repeat itself thirteen more times. Then I can get a taste for all that each of Mr. Douglas’s establishments has to offer. 

essay #6

Tour d'Argent-8  
CONVERSATIONS WITH L: LA TOUR D’ARGENT
 
“You must get the Champagne,” L. told me. He hadn’t aged a minute since I’d last seen him. A dashing gentleman in an impeccable gray linen suit. Clean shaven. A new look. “They serve the best. Not too cold. Deliciously French.”
            We were in the lobby of the Tour d’Argent, if you could call it a lobby. It felt so much like a strange, antiqued little house. Under a glass casement was a what looked like a miniature canon. It took me a moment to realize it was a wine rack in the shape of a canon. Perhaps it would blast the cork. Phenomenal.
            It was August, and I had never before been to the restaurant. L. had been many times. It was one of his favorites. He happened to be in town at the same time I was, happened to have a reservation at the same time I did, and had convinced that maître d’hôtel that we should sit together, ignoring my protestations that we should not—because we were not friends, and though I found him interesting, I rarely enjoyed his company. He was always trying to get something out of me.
            I told him I couldn’t afford the Champagne—even if it was very French Champagne. As if it could somehow be more French than any other Champagne. L. has always had a way of describing things that I find infuriating. He signaled the waiter with his finger and told the man to bring two glasses. And to me he said, “I’ll pay of course. In one manner or another. You simply cannot come here and be cheap. Be cheap every other day. You only have so many chances to be extravagant.”
            When he spoke, I found that he seemed to be singling me out quite apart from himself, his use of the word ‘you’ being specific and not generic, the implication being that he himself was often extravagant and seldom if ever cheap. Quite belittling. Rather rude.
            After downing the lovely drinks, we were whisked upstairs in an elevator and brought out into the most spectacular dining room I’ve seen: windows all around opening onto views of the streets of Paris, of the Seine, and of Notre Dame looking like an enormous, metallic Horned lizard.
 
Since I was a child, I’ve many times heard the story of my mother’s trip to the Tour d’Argent with her parents. She was a teen. Her father was a businessman and gourmand. She spoke beautiful French. He had a thick American accent. They were seated toward the back wall, as far from the windows as the room permitted. Then my mother began to order in French, and the waiter was so impressed that he reseated them on the lowest level, directly before the windows, offering up the best view. This story has always impressed upon me the importance of eloquence, accent, and learning new languages. Sadly, such understanding has done nothing to actually help me with my facility with French (or for that matter, Italian or Spanish). I knew that opening my mouth would do nothing to improve our standing in the eyes of the waiters who oozed class and unapproachable sophistication the way maple trees ooze delicious sap. I let L. do the talking. His French is perfect if also, at least to my ears, syrupy with pride. In the end, I’m not sure the wait staff or sommelier much appreciated him.
            After ordering, L. said to me, “Did you know, in the second world war, that they built a false wall in the wine cellar here to save their best wines from being stolen from the Nazis?”
            “I’d heard something about it.”
            “They even added cobwebs to cheaper bottles to make them look vintage and expensive. Quite ingenious. One of the bottles they saved was a 1921 Chateau Margaux. I had the pleasure of drinking one myself the other year. Supple. Liquid velvet fit for a prince. Really, you must make some money so you can afford to broaden your tastes.”
            I quoted Ian Flemming, saying that the only money worth having was was not quite enough, and we argued over finances and pretentions and the wars while enjoying quenelles de brochet André Terrail (pike dumplings), saumon chaufroité à la Parisienne (cold salmon Parisian style), soupe de poisson au fenouil et à la badiane (fish soup with fennel and star anise), and of course the filet de canette de Vendée, chutney de tomate au citron et wasabi (roasted ducking fillet with a wasabi and lemon flavored tomato chutney). The Tour d’Argent is famous for their ducklings, having served over a million (each diner served gets a postcard that contains the number of his specific duck: mine was in the 1.03 million range). It was, undoubtedly, the best duck I’ve ever tasted. I told L. as much.
            He said, “The best duck I ever tasted was a freshly killed pintail that had been roasting over an open flame in the Adirondacks. I had just tricked a starving man into trading it to me in exchange for a quarter million dollars. Of course, he died of malnutrition before spending the money. I have always enjoyed having my canard and eating it, too.” He smiled wickedly.
            As I have said, the man is unbearable.
            When the bill came, L. was conveniently was in the restroom, taking his time, doing lord knows what. I paid. Our glasses of Champagne had cost 60 euros apiece.
 
– Thomas McCafferty
 
La Tour d’Argent
World-class food. World-class view. Perfectly stuffy service. Bring your French and your appetite, too.
15 Quai de la Tournelle  
75005 Paris, France
www.latourdargent.com
 
 
Tour d'Argent-9
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essay #4

dumplings
 
DUMPLINGS ON THE BRAIN
 
Because of my father, I was exposed to a wider array of cuisines than I had any right to be growing up in Montana in the 1980s and 90s. That was a time when my hometown of Bozeman had a few decent French restaurants, one Chinese restaurant, bars, and sandwich shops. My family rarely ate out, and I don’t think we missed much (for what it’s worth, Bozeman now has a vibrant culinary scene).
           Dad oftentimes made dishes with the game meat from the ducks, deer, elk, or antelope he hunted. A few times we even dined on bighorn sheep and moose. He would grill the loins and tenderloins and serve them with a Béarnaise or whiskey cream sauce. The rumps and other roasts he would stew or turn into burger. One of his favorite cookbooks was Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (it’s an invaluable book). We ate a good amount of Cajun and Creole food made with Montana wildlife. But not until Emeril Lagasse came on the national scene in 1993 with his first cookbook, Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking, did my Dad make us American dumplings. I’d never had them before. They were tremendous.
            A Southern-style American dumpling is essentially white flour, milk, butter, seasonings, and baking powder combined into a gooey ball about the size of a shooter marble then either dropped into boiling liquid or steamed on a rack or colander where, after a minute or two, it puffs up and becomes an airy little cloud that will lovingly absorb all of the flavors of whatever you put it in. These dumplings are usually served with chicken in either a soup or a gravyish roux. I love them so much that I once seriously considered starting a food truck (to be named Bun/Cock) that would serve a sort of inverted Southern chicken and dumplings dish. I wanted to make the dumplings on a huge size so that they would act as the bun into which I would slop my chicken and gravy roux. I experimented around with proportions and ingredients (pig fat, eggs, yeast, minced onions, green onions, mushrooms, more baking powder) and eventually pulled off a good, fluffy, bun-like prototype. I even priced out ingredient and equipment costs before deciding that putting every ounce of my energy and every dime of my savings into a food truck was perhaps a misguided venture when I had a baby on the way. But for a minute there I thought, This will be my contribution to world cuisine. The tiny Southern dumpling turned into a sandwich.
 
Din Tai Fung-3
 
THE OTHER DUMPLINGS
 
Back in 2001 when I left Montana to go to college on the East Coast, I got a bit confused about dumplings. I knew what I meant when I talked about dumplings, but anyone else who told me, “Oh, I love dumplings, too,” turned out to be talking about a different food entirely, which was usually though not always Chinese dumplings.
            Chinese dumplings are commonly made by rolling out a flour and water-based pasta, cutting it into squares or rounds, dolloping on a mash of pork and/or other ingredients and seasonings, closing each one up, and either steaming them or steaming then frying them. To me, these were less dumplings than ravioli variants. I was a young man and, you might say, pigheaded—but I wasn’t so pigheaded as to not want to try them.
             Turns out, I love Chinese dumplings (especially the steamed kind), and I’ve been fortunate to get a very good fill of them lately. Specifically, I’ve been making the pilgrimage across Lake Washington to eat at Din Tai Fung in Bellevue. For those who may not know, Din Tai Fung is a Taiwan-based chain/foodie sensation that specializes in pork dumplings (see above; they also serve many other dumplings and dishes such hot and sour pork soup, shrimp and pork shao mai, and shaved ice: see below). Eating at Din Tai Fung is essentially a way to consume Taiwanese street food in an upscale setting. You can even peek in on the dumpling-making process through a window (at least in Bellevue you can). My mother-in-law, who was born in Taiwan, tells me that the street dumplings in Taipei are superior. Nevertheless, she loves Din Tai Fung. And how could you not? The food is sensational (and with a new location opening at University Village here in Seattle this fall/winter, what reason will I ever have to eat at home? Other Din Tai Fung locations: Los Angeles, Australia, South Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and of course Taiwan).
             A plethora of other dumplings exist, too (from Italian gnocchi to German knödel to Nepalese momos to Jewish matzha balls and many, many more. For a list, see the Wikipedia dumpling entry). It would be an interesting endeavor, I think, to sample all of them. And since I don’t have the money to travel on a whim, I guess I better get cooking. Will this mean that I eat dumplings in one form or another for the rest of my life? Or at least the remainder of the year? Perhaps. And would a dumpling binge be so bad? Definitely not.
 
-Thomas McCafferty
 
Din Tai Fung-2Din Tai Fung-4Din Tai Fung
 
 

essay #3

Hot Foie Gras
 
ON TERRIBLE FOOD & ART
 
“Make it terrible or make it great.”
            That is what my professor Stanley Whitney told me when I was a
a twenty-one-year-old whippersnapper studying painting in Rome, and he specifically meant that I couldn’t settle for painting something merely mediocre. He wanted paintings good enough for the best galleries and museums in the world, and to hell with what would merely go up in a coffee shop with a $500 sticker. That was in 2003, the year I also began to really cook.
            I was reminded of his words last night when I was preparing a Marco Pierre White recipe (from White Heat) for “Hot foie gras, lentilles du pays, sherry vinegar sauce.” I had no troubles with searing the foie, but the lentils and sauce presented problems: 1) I had only a quarter cup of lentils and needed three-quarters more; 2) the sauce called for Madeira and sherry vinegar, and I had neither. Add to that a time crunch (when isn’t there a time crunch when dinner is at stake?), and I was feeling a bit of stress.
           The final stressor was Joyce Liu, a friend of mine and a former roommate of my wife’s, who’d been staying at our house. She’s a fantastic chef who’s been moving up the culinary ladder mostly under the tutelage of April Bloomfield for the last five years, since graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. My own time on the line has been less glamorous and my knowledge and skillset are infantile comparatively. She’d cooked for us the previous three nights, and now I was making food for her.
             I decided to par cook the lentils ahead of time (adding jasmine rice for volume) but screwed up and boiled them into a mush. Bland but edible. At that point, I had three options: Keep it as is, knowing it will never be that good; toss it and cook new; or try to make it great and risk making it truly terrible. And I couldn’t toss it. I had no time and no more lentils and making my guest eat foie gras on rice or perhaps couscous instead wouldn’t at all be in the spirit of the dish. I’d been simmering a mirepoix of carrots, shallots, and celery in butter in a pan on the side. I turned the flame high, added a scoop of pumpkin seeds, dumped in the mush, and did my best to fry the hell out of it. The result was an oily, soggy, heap. The texture was still poor, the taste somewhat better. I strained it to get rid of the extra oil and set it aside, hoping for an idea later.
            It was after my chicken finished roasting and I was looking at the delicious drippings that it occurred to me to strain about a quarter cup of that golden juicy fat into the heap—making it even soggier, pushing it toward a savory, bastardized congee with a French flavor profile. I cooked it into oblivion and when I was done it looked sort of like purple mashed potatoes. But! The texture was that of a good mash, and the taste was quite rich.
            Regards the sherry sauce, I managed to foul it by trying to reduce dry sherry with a drop of white wine vinegar, the result being far too bitter. This was an easy fix: red wine, tawny port, and foie gras drippings brought it together into a sweet and savory syrup.
           The end result was very tasty and I was excited to eat it with our guest. Was it as good as what Mr. White’s recipe called for? I think he would say definitely not (or something more profane). And wasn’t I lucky to have chicken drippings and foie gras drippings on hand? Certainly. But when you cook (or write or paint), you sometimes manufacture your own luck, and I never had the time or ingredients to make the right thing to begin with. I needed some luck and I needed to be willing to screw everything up.
 
– Thomas McCafferty

essay #2

Food 1
 
A MAIALINO LINE COOK DISHES IT UP…
 
I was recently reminded of a well-known diner in Montreal called Wilensky’s. It’s a simple and straight-shooting institution that serves and has always served most notably the Wilensky Special, a pressed all-beef fried salami and bologna sandwich on a locally baked Kaiser roll. Its notoriety derives from its old mustard policy—if you DON’T want mustard on your sandwich, it’ll run you an extra 10 cents (previously 5 cents). Nowadays, mustard is compulsory. 
            This modest eatery could not be further away from the celebrity chef constellation of New York. And yet, next to Maialino, where I work, it raises an interesting distinction. What is the uneasy foxtrot between the curated vision of the chef and the wants and desires of its guests? In many ways, this question enters the oldest dialogue in history. In Plato’s The Republic, he asked why we would let ordinary people run society when we have philosophers. He reasoned that would be akin to passengers on a boat navigating the ship instead of the experienced captain. If we compare chefs to rock stars (as it has often been done), would you ask Mumford and Sons to change the lyrics or key to suit your whims? Rather, isn’t it the other way around where you gravitate to a song because it profoundly delights your palate, perhaps even surprises you?
            A condemnation this is not. Obviously, with a magnanimous willingness to accommodate a majority of requests, Maialino has a legion of regulars the likes I have never seen before. They include not only admirers from the neighborhood but also those who seek a place of comfort whilst going about their daily lives – whether it be business meetings, breakfast bites or special dinners. Standing alongside the unwavering excellence and accessibility of the dishes going out of the kitchen is the unobtrusively deft service that is always there when you need it and not so much when you do not. It is about your enjoyment and that alone. The food and its delivery is thus subsumed under the larger orbit of one’s dining experience rather than demanding a stage for its own vanity (though it has much to boast about).
            So, Wilensky’s is undoubtedly a cool place, with its old world appeal and quirky fascism. And perhaps truth be told, a fried salami sandwich just isn’t the same without mustard. But chances are, and if given the option, you would return to Maialino again and again because no matter what the words on the menu say, you can get that delicious mushroom and goat cheese frittata to go, just like your mom used to make. 
 
– Anon
 
 
 

restaurant review #1

Shanik-2 Shanik-3 Shanik-4 Shanik-5 Shanik-6 Shanik-7 Shanik-8 Shanik

SHANIK

Big joints often break up space with mashed clusters of tables and false walls in order to be cozy. Small restaurants (in terms of square footage) usually feel like hampers. Shanik, however, with fifteen-foot raised ceilings, dangling bulbs, and an open dining room that peeks over a wide pass to the kitchen, maintains a lively atmosphere while feeling almost grand. The bar at the back is separated by a lattice and even it is luxurious.
            What this means is that the host and waiters have a relatively small and manageable space and a limited number of guests to navigate.
Service was excellent from the first: cold water and steaming chai (homemade and truly standout, see the recipe here) arrived at the table as soon as I did. Piping mouthfuls of vegetable tempura soon followed. Complimentary delicacies are always a treat, and when they arrive at the beginnings of meals are especially welcome. I was never in doubt that I would leave hungry or feel that I had overpaid. Shanik shines in this area, especially compared to less ambitious Indian restaurants: dishes that should come with rice or na’an do, no need to order separately or worry about extra costs. My server was good enough to let me know this fact up front so I had no need to bother as I scanned the menu.
            Meeru Dhalwala and Oguz Istif brought quite a reputation and a lot of buzz with them from Vancouver when they opened Shanik here. Unfortunately, I am not sure the hype has been deserved. The best I can say for the food itself is that it tasted good, sometimes very good, and that two appetizers, one vegetable entrée, and one meat dish quite handily stuffed three people. The worst thing I can say is that the flavors and textures were much the same throughout
            I had my first forebodings when the samosas arrived. They were lightly breaded and nicely crunchy (though they could have been flakier) and stuffed with potatoes and bell peppers. The problem was that the curried chickpeas that accompanied them were remarkably similar in terms of texture and taste to the stuffing—only the curry was spicier and tastier. I could have done without the samosas altogether. I would have been happy as a bumble bee on a marigold. Instead I was left wondering why the samosas were made to compete with the curry at all.
           The Brussels sprouts with bell peppers, cashews, and paneer? Spicy, yummy, and missing any quality that wows. The entrée of roasted eggplant and butternut squash with black chickpeas? Much the same, and because of the chickpeas, too similar to the samosa app. Only not quite as good.
            Finally, the spice-encrusted lamb popsicles: I had high expectations for this dish. I love lamb. I love mutton. I was excited about the split pea and spinach mash. I was intrigued by the sound of coconut curry. But I found all of it just so similar to the sauces, vegetables, and curries in the dishes I had just finished. The lamb itself was blackened and cooked between medium rare and medium on all three cuts of the rack. The spicing was excellent. The meat was yummy. But the coconut curry should have popped and it did not. And the spinach and peas should have tasted green and they did not. Too much butter and oil was at play, which was apparent from the first: the sauce was breaking in the dish, oil rising and gleaming at the top. This is an especially bad move with rack of lamb that is quite naturally oily and fatty already.
             I will add that the cocktails were topnotch, which is no surprise in Seattle. The Bollywood 411 was particularly fine. And the English-style Machine House Gold ale on tap was superb. I found myself in the confused state of being happily sated and slightly disappointed when I left. The food just could not live up to the promise of that first cup of chai and crunchy morsel of vegetable tempura—too much the same note. I have noticed the problem of food that declines over the course of a meal many times, and that was not exactly the case here. But the food did not get better and it should have. If a restaurant serves entrées, the entrées should be the stars if only by virtue of cost. Here they were not—for more on this topic, read My Entrée is Cursed—and so my recommendation for Shanik is this: expect tasty food, but go for the ambience and service.
 
– Thomas McCafferty
 
 
Shanik
www.shanikrestaurant.com
500 Terry Ave. North
Seattle, WA 98109
206-486-6884
 
Upscale/casual
No reservations
 
 

criticism #1

Cursed Entrees
 
MY ENTRÉE IS CURSED
 
When I moved from New York City to Seattle in 2009, I vaguely felt that I had abandoned a concrete wasteland in favor of verdant, vital greenness. The Emerald City. A city that celebrates life. And Seattle has not let me down: from hiking and hunting in the mountains, fishing in the Sound, and imbibing the excellent local spirits, brews, and wines, I have come to adore Seattle. And of course I love the fresh fish, local produce, and mushrooms here, too. But on the subject of cuisine, I have found a caveat: I have come to dread entrées in Seattle restaurants. So often they disappoint. Specifically, I am referring to those restaurants in which appetizers, cocktails, ambience, and service are all good to great, but the main courses fail to deliver.[1]
            Why and how is this?
Shouldn’t a chef who is able to concoct a great one-bite appetizer likewise succeed with a filet of fish or slab of meat? Is it just easier to work on a small scale? To create one moment of contrast and interest that pops? Are Seattle chefs more willing to take risks with appetizers, or more willing to tinker? Are entrées harder somehow? Is the traditional inclusion of protein, starch, and vegetable all on the same plate too limiting or imposing?
Answers vary by the establishment, but let’s put this problem in context. An entrée should highlight the meal. I’m paying more for it than anything else, aren’t I? Shouldn’t it be better than the ceviche I had to start? A good entrée, as a general rule, consists of multiple food elements on a plate with each element succulent in its own right as well as succulent and interesting when mixed with the elements around it. This can be as simple as steak, sauce, potatoes, and spinach, or as bizarre as noisettes of lamb with calf brains on a bed of carrot and zucchini fettuccine. But any way you look at it, the seasoning should be judicious and the taste should leave the diner wanting more even if the portion is filling. Is this really asking too much?[2]
            I believe two interconnected problems are largely at work:
            First, self-awareness, criticism, and feedback within the establishments must be inadequate. Whether in the conception of the entrée or its execution, someone should be saying, “Hey, this just isn’t that good.” Now, I was a sous chef for the last three years and I know how hard it is to say Let’s redo it. But if the problem is only in the execution, that has to be said. If, however, the problem is in the conception, addressing it can be next to impossible for line cooks and wait staff. Too much ego is at play. Then it’s up to the owner and executive chef. This leads to the second problem:
            Diners and critics are way too easy on restaurants here. The Seattle Times and Seattle Magazine give rave reviews and hand out best of this and best of that for mind-boggling no-better-than-decent food. I am just amazed by this. Are some of these so-called critics going out stoned and starving? Or walking in wearing signs that read, “Food Critic: Go Get the Head Chef Now”?
And as for diners, well my friends, raise your standards. Otherwise, you won’t get better food. Laughing, smiling, and saying, “That hit the spot,” when all it did was fill you isn’t doing your taste buds any favors. And certainly don’t come back again tomorrow. Don’t reinforce mediocrity. Restaurants are businesses foremost, food is always secondary, so it is your spending that really runs the show. Amen to Yelp! but Yelp! is not enough—you actually have to not go.
            Okay. Glad that’s out. The next time an entrée leaves me glum, I’ll let you know about it.
 
-Thomas McCafferty
 

[1] Now, this is not a problem exclusive to Seattle and it is not a problem that is ubiquitous in Seattle, either, but it is prevalent enough that I feel it worth mention. Offhand, I can think of fifteen restaurants that fit the bill (It would be wrong to name them all with one sweeping stroke, but going forward I will write them up in reviews). I can also think of a handful that are stellar beginning to end, the exceptions that prove the rule.
[2] This article is going to be a rant now. I wish it didn’t’ have to be, but my hand is forced. If you don’t want to read a rant, stop.