September 21, 2014

Joule

It’s rather trendy of me and not particularly novel given all of the hype, but I have more than a little food crush on Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi and all of the innovative and utterly delicious food this pair has brought to Seattle. I first sampled Joule at the original Wallingford location, then waited with breathless anticipation for the opening of sibling restaurant Revel in Fremont. I was hooked on the Korean comfort food from the start, then really fell head over heels in love when they rolled out the summer grill shack. Make full use of a single animal, in all different cuts and preparations, until there isn’t a serving left to be had? Sign me up! In fact, we loved the meat/Revel combo so much that we jumped on the chance to take a butchering class at the restaurant when it came up for offer. The chicken I had (inexpertly) butchered was made delicious by the TLC of Revel’s talented griller, but it was the enormous pig that was (expertly) butchered in front of us that yielded, without a doubt, the best pork loin I’ve ever had. Ever.

So when I drove down 45th one day and saw the “closed” sign on the Joule space I was momentarily crushed, only to discover that Chefs Yang and Chirchi would be reopening elsewhere soon. Of course it wasn’t soon enough for any of us keeping tabs, but well worth the wait considering that they were opening in a renovated space in Fremont and teaming up with uber cool retailer evo and even uber cooler Seattle restaurant maven Renee Erickson. The space shared by Joule and Erickson’s new restaurant, The Whale Wins, is akin to her joint space venture in Ballard with Walrus & Carpenter and Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy. As if each restaurant wasn’t dining destination enough on its own, the chance to sample both on a single visit – if only visually – is a double draw.

The new Joule is a big departure from its previous location in terms of capacity, with a sizable bar area up front whose double height windows and tall ceiling will do beautifully capturing the light of a sunny summer day. Long, grey, tall-back benches wrap around the dining room and into the back nook, whose lower ceiling makes it feel just that much cozier. The room could be in danger of appearing too industrial, what with the requisite exposed beams, but the blonde wood, joule/jewel patterned wallpaper, and pools of light from the sconces that run the length of the wall bring considerable warmth into the space. They’ve brought the open kitchen and eating counter over from Revel, or maybe it’s a hybrid of the current Revel and former Joule. Narrow counter like the latter – not like that lovely big prep slab at Revel – but the wall that separates diners from chefs is lower than before to give you a better view into the action.

Pre-opening I read that Joule’s new menu would feature steak, and surely there was a solid number of offerings from the cow. In fact, we had a delicious short rib steak sweet with kalbi, perfectly pink in the center and accented by grilled kimchi.

I’m a meat eater from way back, so it surprised me that several of the other dishes, many straight-up Korean or Korean-influenced, were my favorites of the night. The smoked tofu with honshimeji  mushroom confit and soy truffle vinaigrette was the big standout, in fact. For the most part creamy in flavor and texture, until you get to the slight crispness of the green onions. Incredible flavors, with a subtle texture contrast. There was that same texture contrast in another surprise favorite, the white stuffed kimchi. A bit sweeter and more mild than other versions you might have tried, this one enclosed a center of currants, carrot slivers, and pine nuts, a combination I wouldn’t have thought to choose but was the perfect complement to the kimchi.

Also from the cow, though starter rather than main, was the delicious beef tartare. Done in confit form with Asian pear, and spicy cod roe aioli, it was both spicy and sweet, a flavor combination I was coming to expect from Rachel Yang’s food that evening. The pork belly ham threw me for a loop in that regard, as with salted shrimp and chili aioli it was spicy and salty, rather than sweet. And if you think the pork belly looks a bit like uncooked bacon, you’d be right. It continues to amaze me all of the forms in which pork belly appears on my plate!

Vegetables made additional appearances in another two of the best dishes of my night, the wide rice noodles with shitake mushrooms and broccoli rabe. Sometimes I find that the noodles at Revel get a bit gummy but these were perfectly singular and the ideal foil for the slightly bitter rabe. The creamed swiss chard lived up to its name, brightly green with another texture contrast from the crisp celery.

Though I’m not often a fan of whole fish preparation, the mackerel might make me reconsider that position. It was less crispy than I expected, and absolutely stunning graced with a green curry cilantro crust, black currants, and broad slices of pickled carrot for contrast.

Dessert was just the right exclamation point on a dinner that was as beautiful in presentation as it was delicious. We sampled the chocolate sesame cake, a tall stack of multi-layered chocolate cake accented with a think crisp of toffee brittle. The ube cheesecake – or purple yam, as I discovered – was slightly grainy in its yam-ness and not overly sweet. The cheesecake’s almond ginger crust was so good I nearly separated it from its cake and ate it on its own, but in the end gave in and forked them together. Maybe more than my fair share, truth be told.

Joule (and its especially accessible chef, Rachel Yang) is the sort of place that you want to succeed, and succeed mightily. If Revel and the attendant press is any indication, this new venture will be given a deservedly warm reception and that long queue of hungry diners that we passed on our way out won’t diminish any time soon.

Blind Pig Bistro

There is something just a little magical about this Eastlake mini-strip mall location. I suspect that it’s the juxtaposition between the gritty parking lot approach, and the warm interior and beautifully crafted food. Whatever it is, Blind Pig Bistro has in common with its predecessors in the space, Sitka & Spruce and Nettletown, the ability to transcend less than perfect curb appeal and wow you with a wonderful experience once inside.

Blind Pig Bistro makes the most of its square footage, fitting something like ten tables into the diminutive space. The warm orange-red walls, multiple chandeliers, and small pottery-feeling plates are exceedingly un-fussy, and the rough-edged menu chalk boards hold just enough items to make you feel like you have options but aren’t overwhelmed by the possibilities.

 A first perusal of the menu turned up the requisite pork belly – so popular in Seattle these days – and a pig head terrine, so I knew immediately that we were in for a dinner more on the foodie end of the spectrum. What I didn’t expect was that each dish we tried, one after the other all the way through dessert, was a complete composition of flavor and texture. It was as though each plate could stand entirely on its own, while at the same time complementing the dishes served before and after.

Take that pork belly, for example, wonderfully fatty and flavorful and served alongside a slightly crunchy cauliflower and treviso bitter enough to balance the pork. Or the hamachi crudo, with its tiny dice of green apple, creamy swath of avocado, and zing of chilis. The crispy capers were the texture counterpoint in the roasted kale and quinoa salad, the poached egg served atop the salad making everything deliciously creamy once we smashed the yolk about. My favorite savory of the night was the perfectly cooked, brightly pink duck breast, the rice beans nicely firm against the softness of the dates.

I say my favorite savory, because the dessert was among the best I’ve had in a long while. Maybe it’s because birthday boy Aran is a huge chocolate fan so this was right up his alley. The chocolate cremeux with Moroccan sea salt arrived in two large dollops, something like a fudge-y version of chocolate mousse that went down way too quickly.

I’d return for that dessert in a heartbeat, or for another round of whatever Blind Pig Bistro has on the menu that day. When we were first seated our server said that if we were really ambitious and stuck to the smaller versions of things we could work our way through the entire menu. That didn’t happen this time around, but I won’t say it’s an impossibility for our next visit.

Blind Pig Bistro on Urbanspoon

Row House Cafe

It’s rare when someone suggests a restaurant that I’ve never heard of, not the slightest inkling from a mention in a blog post or tweet or passing conversation. A recent foray to the Row House Café was the result of just such a suggestion from my sister, and the site of a late dinner with our mom. We’re spending quite a bit of time in the Eastlake and South Lake Union neighborhoods these days. Serafina is our usual haunt – and bartender Julianne deserves a special shout-out for the good care she takes of us – but it’s fun to throw a different location into the mix now and then.

I’m shocked that I haven’t ever noticed the café in my drives through the neighborhood because it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the new office buildings of South Lake Union. I use that phrase with much appreciation, as I haven’t yet fully embraced the slickness of SLU and love that they’ve successfully bucked the new design aesthetic of the neighborhood. In the outside spaces front and back, and throughout the various rooms inside, it’s a mish mash of kitchen tables and chairs, standing lamps, reading lamps, armchairs, benches, and then a neon sign thrown in for good measure.

All of us agreed, from the moment we stepped in the door, that it was a warm and inviting spot and somewhere we felt welcome right from the start. The comfort food-leaning menu was just what we needed, and I was pleased as punch with my Acropolis grilled sandwich. Gooey with sharp cheddar, fontina, ementhaler, and fresh mozzarella, and smeared with olive tapenade, it gives any other grilled cheese sandwich a run for its money.

I’ve only been there in the evening, but I imagine that this would be a particularly nice place to visit for breakfast or brunch. Especially if you happen to live down the street and could saunter in for a cup of coffee and the 100 Layer French Toast (picture the usual French bread replaced with a croissant) or the Prosciutto Benedict.

There is a lot to love about the Row House Café, though I can’t help but think it’s suffering a bit of an identity crisis. The front of the menu references “Euro Caffe,” and I’m not sure exactly what that means except perhaps the presence of wine and cocktails in addition to coffee. That presumption is reinforced by another phrase in that list, “Top Shelf Liquor,” but what good is top shelf liquor when there is no apparent cocktail list and a server who had to rustle up olives left over from a catering gig? The menu is geographically all over the place, and even knowing it’s intentional given sandwich names like Kremlin, Vatican, and Louvre, the whole still feels a bit disjointed.

I still like that the Row House Café doesn’t fit with all of the shiny office facades of South Lake Union, and for that I will surely return. Maybe not for cocktails, but definitely for brunch.

Row House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Mezcalaria Oaxaca

It’s not often that the perfect opportunity for comparison drops in my lap… Such thing occurred last week when I met one friend for lunch at la Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard, and then that very same evening other friends suggested Queen Anne’s Mezcalaria Oaxaca for dinner that night. Now, being the clever readers you are you’ll already have noticed the similarity in those two names, even before learning that they are indeed sibling restaurants. I didn’t even spill the beans about my lunch location to Aran because I was sure that he’d have suggested another locale – to spare me an overdose of Oaxacan fare – because I was looking forward to this perfect chance to compare the two.

In fact, we had tried to eat at Mezcalaria Oaxaca one other time, when it had been open just a few months, but as luck would have it we chose Halloween night and although the wait for a table was the same (about 45 minutes), the cacophony of the bar area and the subsequent challenge presented by shouting one’s drink over the bar to its tender, prompted us to go elsewhere that evening. This time we got there a little earlier, so we were able to get four spots at the stand-up counter in the front bar area. With this big space up front, wall-affixed two-seaters, and a long bar ringed with fixed stools, it almost seems as though this location is making up for the tiny bar area at the Ballard sibling.

It’s the dining room that almost seems to play second fiddle, all the way in the back and with something less than 35 seats total in a very cozy space. This room, like the one out front and echoing the Ballard location, is ringed with beautiful photographs of different sizes, several mounted in dramatic lightbox fashion. Numbered curiosity cabinets, some filled and some not, are also a big part of the décor here. Overall I’d describe it as boisterous and happy-noisy, everything and everyone moving at quite a clip.

Despite the crowd this night, both food and drink arrived with surprising speed. It seemed that not five minutes after placing our big order, plate after plate streamed out of the kitchen. An important tidbit of information to file away, we decided: The kitchen at Mezcalaria Oaxaca, just like LCDO though I’d clearly forgotten, is not about pacing a meal. It’s not like at Lark, say, when you order ten small plates and the kitchen artfully decides that the sunchoke salad is best eaten with the carpaccio of yellowtail, and gives you time to do just that. Here, you order and it comes right out. Something to be said for immediate gratification, sort of like making your sushi selection as the conveyor belt rolls by your table, but not somewhere you’re encouraged to linger over your dinner.

A mere six hours before, I had been happily downing a plate of one of favorites from the LCDO menu, the mole with pork, rice, and small rounds of tortilla. I’m not qualified to say that this is the most authentic mole in the land, but for me it is the perfect combination of dark and sweet, with the hintiest hint of spice. That same mole is on the menu at Mezcalaria Oaxaca, this time as Enchiladas con Mole. I wished for steak that was a little less on the tough side and mole that was more pronounced, probably the least of my favorites that night. The Ceviche de Pescado and Tacos de Pescado were similarly flavored – both distinctly pineapple-y, interestingly – but different enough so that I didn’t feel that I was eating the same dish twice. The Gringas Oaxaquenas, combining barbequed pork and quesillo in just the right proportions, was the tastiest dish of my night. 

Enchiladas con Mole

Gringas Oaxaquenas

I daresay that the food at Mezcalaria Oaxaca is much the same as the food at la Carta de Oaxaca, with a few twists on the original. Though to me the two experiences feel quite distinct – different neighborhoods, different interiors, different vibes. Both a raucous good time, though pick MO on Queen Anne if you want a slightly quieter back room dining experience…

Belle Clementine

I always get a little flutter in my stomach when I hear about a new restaurant. I wonder who’s opening it – a chef I know from another venue, or maybe someone totally new on the scene? – what kind of food will be on offer, and what fabulous interior awaits. And it’s especially interest-piquing if there is something unique about this particular venture, something a little out of the ordinary.

That’s the case with Belle Clementine, a newcomer to Ballard open just one week. It’s not even really accurate to say “open,” in fact, as they’re serving just a few meals at the moment: five dinners in this latter half of December, and brunch and dinner a few days a week through January. The idea is to give diners a taste of the experience at Belle Clementine before launching a Community Supported Agriculture-style dinner series. Much like buying a season of whatever bounty the farm chooses to bring to you, the series will include a number of meals for a fixed price for the entire shebang. And the farm connection doesn’t stop with the analogy, as chef/owner David Sanford has close ties to local purveyors and intends to make good use of their ingredients in his meal offerings.

Four of us said an emphatic “yes, please” to the invitation to sample a dinner at Belle Clementine in advance of the dinner series launch. We were there on the second night open, and this celebratory air helped the experience feel more like a big dinner party than a restaurant. The warm greeting by Sanford certainly helped, and hearing that folks from Local Roots Farm – providers of some of the ingredients for the meal – were there as well. Though it’s the single room and three big communal tables seating a total of about 30, along with the open kitchen, that really make you feel as though you’re dining with a big group of friends. This is the kind of ambience that Sanford wanted from the start, reading Nancy Leson’s excellent write-up on the venture. Not that this is necessarily comfortable for traditionally stranger-averse Seattleites, we who tend to stick with our own crowd. (It’s good for us to talk to people we don’t know – really!)

In the same spirit as the planned series, dinner this night was $35 per person and included the pre-set meal; glass of wine, beer, or non-alcoholic beverage; and gratuity. Once seated we had pre-meal dishes of warm olives with a snappy orange zest, and a delicious little mixture of sunflower seeds, toasted Rice Krispies, and dried fruit. The meal started in earnest with a salad of Treviso Radicchio, golden beets, and radish with a champagne vinaigrette. This might have been my favorite course, tangy and delicious throughout. Next came roasted chicken from Stokesberry Farms, served alongside rice rich with a chop of leeks and chard. Last in the savory category was an enormous platter of carrots from the aforementioned Local Roots Farm. They were roasted with honey and hazelnuts, prepared rustically in an unpeeled fashion, and absolutely delicious.

Did I say that the salad was my favorite? It was, for sure, until the Mexican wedding cookies arrived. The hand-rolled chocolate truffles were quite good, but the cookies were absolutely to-die for. I might have had more than one, in fact.

 I loved that we got to be a part of the evolution of Belle Clementine, and I’m excited to see what’s next. What else will David Sanford do with that Leary Ave space when he’s not serving food? One of the servers I queried suggested maybe art or music, which I think sounds like a fabulous idea.

More importantly, how will he and his team translate their experience with the one-off dinners into the seasonal meal series? Although the four of us loved the concept of $35 all-inclusive, when we got the final bill with our additional bottle of wine – not such an unusual occurrence with this crew – the value equation didn’t add up. Especially when several of us discovered that we were still hungry, quite soon after dinner. Or is this a function of a standard of oversized portions at other establishments, and the cost of stellar local ingredients served at this one? Good questions, and I can’t wait to see Belle Clementine navigate Seattle’s finicky restaurant climate and figure out the answers.

Belle Clementine on Urbanspoon

Advent in Calendar Form

It’s the holiday season, that magical time of year when strings of white lights ring trees, tinsel in all colors of the rainbow experiences its annual heyday, and everyone seems to be just a little bit nicer.

The “holiday” in my holiday season is Christmas, and I find that I go through phases of the degree to which I embrace the season. Some years I dive headlong into celebrating, and some years I quite happily let everyone else’s festiveness carry me forward to January 1. This time around it’s decidedly the former, likely because Aran and I have a new abode in our near future, and a wedding to plan for some months after that. (What? I didn’t tell you about our engagement??) There is some serious nesting happening, and embracing the tree decorating, treat baking, and drink imbibing all seems to be required activity.

In preparation for the acquisition of a Christmas tree and the official launch of my holiday season, I pulled out the plastic bins of ornaments, lights, holiday cards, wrapping paper, ribbon, more pairs of Christmas socks than one person should own, and an odd assortment of red candles. It’s at this very moment every year, the one when I start to rifle through the bins, that I come upon my Advent Bell. Much like the traditional Advent calendar, the bell has a treat for each day of the month leading up to the 25th and Christmas. (As an aside, the timing of this discovery can be slightly problematic. Stumbling upon it early in December = more happy, treat-filled days. Conversely, finding it late in the month = more sad, treat-less days.) Though traditional in function my bell is unique in construction, having been made by my grandmother many moons ago. The bell is definitely showing its age – the paper of the typewritten message at the top is beginning to crack and the yarn is headed to a fatal fray – but I prize it all the same. You’ll note that I use Hershey’s Kisses for my countdown, which are slippery little buggers and difficult to tie on to the bell. Gram was no fool: In my time with her she always used the much-easier-to-affix hard candies. Either way, I love that I’m carrying on her Advent tradition.

Beyond just the bell, I’ve always been a fan of Advent calendars. Each day a window to open, something behind it designed to surprise and delight. Interesting (though not terribly surprising) that we have retained the general concept of Advent – a period of time leading up to the celebration of a Major Occasion (aka the birth of Jesus) – while disconnecting the secular activity from its religious roots. No doubt there are many who cringe at the variety of Advent calendars that stray further and further from the religious tradition, but I’m more of a mind to embrace the diversity. There are a couple of examples from this year’s crop of Advent calendars that I found particularly compelling, and you probably won’t be shocked to hear that they’re food and drink-centered.

The first came by way of my friend, Darlin. At one point I must have rattled on about the aforementioned Advent Bell – or maybe even shared a Kiss – that now “Advent calendar” and “Alix” are irrevocably connected in her mind. This year that connection manifested itself in the sharing of this fantastic electronic Cookie Advent Calendar from Saveur. It is exactly what it sounds like: a new cookie recipe for each day, including December 25th. Spectacular! Not that I’m going to bake a new batch of cookies each day, but how fun to click on the numbered square each morning and see what new delight awaits. I am tempted, however, to try the December 7 offering: Caramel Crumb Bars. Double topping of caramel and crumbly butter streusel? Sign me up.

After a hard day of baking, what could be better than a holiday-appropriate beverage? The drinky team at Belltown’s Rob Roy and bartender (and all around clever guy, if you’re a fan of his blog and tweets, as I am) teamed up to create the Cocktail Advent Calendar. In concept it’s much the same as other Advent countdowns, but because the medium is liquor I’m even more of a fan than usual. The idea is that for each day of the month, bartenders at Rob Roy will be pouring a different concoction, giving us license to drink terribly sweet cocktails like The Godson, with absolutely no dirty looks from anyone behind the bar. Drink up, my friends!

LloydMartin

Who doesn’t like a fantastic neighborhood spot? Be it bar, restaurant, or ice cream shop, there is something wonderful about knowing that place is just a few blocks away, ready and waiting for you to drop in. The sort of establishment that you want to visit with some regularity, until eventually they know your name and you know theirs, and you get the “NORM!” treatment whenever you walk in the door. I’m lucky enough to live in one of those neighborhoods with a whole bunch of commerce, and just in the restaurant category, everything from casual to upscale.

In the frequent tide of restaurant comings and goings – more so as a result of our current economic schlump, I know – one recent swap has me coming back around to a location I’d written off for the last while. Queen Anne’s Bricco was a just-fine wine bar, but something about it never quite made me want to come in and stay a while. The newest occupant of that space, however, is a different story. I had been walking by the space on the top of the hill, wondering and wondering what would move in, when one day a sign appeared: LloydMartin. And then a menu, and then finally one night when Aran and I were headed elsewhere for dinner we saw that it was open for business, screeched to a stop, and told pals to meet us there instead.

It was one of those blustery, rainy, nearly-winter nights, and the dark wood, candle-lit interior of LloydMartin seemed to be just the right fit for the evening. It’s a small space, with just a few distressed wood dining tables, and a stretch of bench along one wall. There is a good length of bar, though, which looked to be equally good for boozing and for eating. Maybe that’s it: This is somewhere I could picture dropping in for a drink or dinner, alone or with friends, knowing that it would be good on all fronts. Or maybe it’s the people: The night we were there we chatted a bit with owner Sam Crannell and asked what was up with the name of the restaurant. Turns out that Lloyd and Martin are the names of his two grandfathers. How could you not love that? I like to think that the vintage china used as serving plates was a nod to family, too. It seems that family has served Sam well, in fact, as wife Tracey Stoner Crannell is the chef at Portalis Wines in Ballard, and Portalis’ Gina Gregory created the wine list for LloydMartin. And wine is key here, as they’re a wine-and-beer-only establishment, like their predecessor in this space.

We sampled a wide variety of the menu offerings, and on balance, I would say that the food was very good. We started with the cavatelli pasta, a cheesy raclette topped with big curls of (undoubtedly house made) pork rinds; then wonderfully hearty elk meatballs with sour cream, marionberry, and pickled huckleberry. The perfectly runny 64 degree c farm egg came atop a potentially over-crispy potato in pommes anna style, along with a slice of chorizo, jalapeno, and pickled mustard seeds. The Italian beef was a substantial (though somewhat bland) mound of shaved beef and giardiniera piled on French bread; and in sharp contrast, the pot roast with potato and cheddar, onion, and mushrooms was a petite plate that didn’t match the $16 price tag. The risotto with pumpkin and grana padano had great flavor, but was more soupy than the risotto title would suggest. I was a particular fan of the pork belly with cipollini onions, cider, and those same pickled mustard seeds, as well as the plate of greens with pear, hazelnut, Oregon bleu cheese, and a sherry vinaigrette.

The petite pot roast, with an especially good jus

 

Half greens, half pear deliciousness

Interestingly, the “sweets” section accounted for two-thirds of the menu that night, so of course we had to sample a couple from the list. The pound cake with vanilla ice cream and blueberry compote was perfect lovely, but entirely overshadowed by the foie gras hot chocolate if just in concept alone. As the name implies, it’s foie gras blended into a high-end hot chocolate. Totally rich, totally decadent, and something I probably only need to try once in my life.

One-two punch of foie gras and chocolate

Overall, we had a good experience at LloydMartin. It was a little hit and miss in preparation and value, but given that they’ve only been open a month or so, I imagine that Sam and team are still working out the kinks. I’m looking forward to dropping in again, maybe for the quail with rapini, pine nuts, chili, apple, and maple jus. Though if they expanded beyond wine and beer, and added cocktails to the bar menu, I’d be even quicker to return…

[Photos courtesy of David Franzen]

LloydMartin on Urbanspoon