August 2007 Archives

The Flavor of Ubuntu

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Starbucks, give 'em credit, is able to do more than one thing at a time. Mark of maturity, that. The papers are full of its plans to expand into every corner of the globe; this week it's Russia. On the domestic front, meantime, they're promoting a slogan to follow up on last year's "Geography is a Flavor." The new catchphrase: "Coffee is Culinary."

Half a step back to the very American notion, articulated by New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson and practiced on the Western Frontier, of individuality, independence and self-reliance. (To this day, the red half the country admires the swagger of its true believer and über-practitioner in the White House.) One could argue that the way much of America does business, including striving to create new markets for Starbucks, is an outgrowth of this philosophy.

But much of this country, and indeed most of the world, would be followers of ubuntu, the Bantu way of saying "We're all in this together." Starbucks seems to recognize this as well. And what better way to showcase the concept of ubuntu than by involving 36-year-old Marcus Samuelsson in a new promotion.

Samuelsson was born (as Kassahun Tsegie) in an Ethiopean village, placed in an orphanage after his mother died of tuberculosis and raised by foster parents in Sweden. Sweden! He became a chef (at a Scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit, in New York) even as he embraced his African heritage. Not the negatives (poverty, war, famine, AIDS, corruption) but the vast continent of great beauty, teeming life, shared community and generous humanity: ubuntu.

For the Coffee is Culinary concept, Starbucks repackaged Samuelsson's award-winning The Soul of a New Cuisine (James Beard Foundation's Best International Cookbook in 2007) as Discovery of a Continent. (Coffee beans replaced plantains on the cover, for example.) One of the high priests of coffee at Starbucks, Master Blender Andrew Linneman, then collaborated with him to create two new coffee blends: Joya del dia (using Latin-American beans) and Ubora (African beans). In east Africa, they point out, people are as knowledgeable and fussy about coffee beans as American shoppers might be about tomatoes or corn. And they went way beyond "coffee cake" recipes.

In Seattle this week for the third stop in a 22-day, 10-city culinary tour, Samuelsson cooked up a Pan-African plate of spicy Ethiopean beef and aromatic Moroccan couscous while Linneman brewed some Ukora in a French press. The combination was astonishingly smooth and flavorful, with the coffee's floral notes providing a counterpoint to the fragrance and heat of the berbere chilies in the meat. Around the room (the Starbucks in Madison Park), nips and sips and sighs of shared contentment. Ubuntu at work.

Who knew coffee could be so complex and enriching? Starbucks knew.

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News item: Salmonella finding prompts spinach recall

U feedz us grain. Better dan cheezburger but we wantz grass, not grain cuz grain makes us sick. U feedz us meds but meds put more ecoli in our poop. All dat poop! Ecoli poop everywhere! In da spinach again. Plz feedz us grass so we dont poop nasty poop in ur spinach.

Venik, vidik,!

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So, yeah, there's been this Russian-Turkish style "urban spa" called Banya5 on Ninth for, like, three years now. It's kind of a giant community sauna, with a central oven providing both wet and dry heat, surrounded by a bunch of fresh- and salt-water pools. The guy who built it, Seattle-born real estate developer John Goodfellow, isn't even Russian; he got hooked on the concept in New Yawk City. You have to know where it is, because it's hard to see along the northbound artierial through the no-man's land connecting Lake Union with downtown.

Now we grant you, there's a fair amount of new-age righteousness to the banya experience, extolling everything from its health benefits to its chess tournament. But even skeptics can enjoy the latest banya-related venture, a brand new lounge, just two doors down, called Venik. (The botanical venik, a bough of birch and oak leaves used to massage bathers, is a central element in the banya.)

Venik's menu is a tad over-the-top preachy, too, especially about infusions (vodka, not tea). Still, how can you not love a garlic & pepper "health" vodka that promises to replenish lost vigor, whether from the intense heat of the sauna or just everyday hotness in our oh-so-stressful lives? (Especially since it's served with the cutest little pickle from Bubbies.) The melon infusion is served Italian-style, with a slice of prosciutto on the side. And so on. The mixed drinks (Seattle SLU is a margarita, Borscht Manhattan is Wild Turkey with, yup, borscht) try a bit harder than necessary to justify their $10 tab and their health-giving properties.

The eats are no less healthy: eggplant pizza, a Niçoise sandwich with seared rare tuna, even a spinach bratwurst from Uli's. We're fans of the European tradition, though, so the black bread, cheese and fish eggs are just what the doctor ordered.


Until the architectural firm that currently leases the space between Banya5 and Venik moves out, you won't be able to wander from hot tub to bar in your bathrobe. But that's the least of Venik's problems. As we see it, the real drawback here is its teensy footprint: only 700 square feet. That means no more than 10 at the bar, another dozen in the lounge, and a line out the door. Holy shit, the grand opening's this week! Message to Goodfellow: quick, time to google "velvet ropes seattle."

Venik, 227 9th Ave N. Seattle 98109, 206-223-3734 Venik on Urbanspoon

Variety: the stuff of life

It's a website called, and yes, they sell wine. But it's a terrifically entertaining site as well, full of useful wine-related information and a full page of hilarious characterizations of over 150 grape varieties. Are you anything like what you drink?

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Grape varieties regal cabernet sauvignon, sultry viognier, naked sauvignon blanc, snooty pinot noir.

Where do critics go when they die?


Substitute restaurant reviewer Leslie Kelly has reached the end of her stint at the Post-Intelligencer and Managine Editor David McCumber (among many, many others) is breathing a huge sigh of relief. How'd this kid from Spokane end up in a big-city newsroom, anyway? Hsaio-Ching Chou, who signed off on the deal for Kelly to cover Rebekah Denn's "family leave," ain't around to answer, having gone off to PR-land. But Kelly's six-month tenure leaves a mound of unhappiness.

Much did she make of her credentials in markets of minor sophistication. Occasionally did she strain to be positive and fair. But rube will out. Unaware, perhaps, that reviewers (in Philadelphia, Dallas, Belfast) actually get sued for bogus comments, spraying stars from a misfiring Uzi, Ms. Kelly finds little to like in Seattle, starting with the décor at Flying Fish and the service at Hunt Club. But wait, there's lots more:

  • Opal: "Lack of focus." Two stars.
  • Café Presse, subject of an admiring "Best Bites" column when it opened: "Subsequent visits have gone downhill." Two stars.
  • Marjorie: "Serving staff distracted or simply clueless." Still, two and a half stars.
  • At Place Pigalle she's bummed to find her lamb chop medium rather than medium rare, the chunks of pork chewy, the halibut surpisingly bad, the desserts disappointing. Still, two and a half stars.
  • At Sorrentino, where McCumber eats regularly, she orders for four, then complains about the $150 tab, the pacing of the service, and that she's ignored by the proprietor. Uh-oh, kiss of death, one and a half stars. Take that!
  • Apparently no fan of Italian food more sophisticated than, say, Olive Garden, she avoids reviewing white-hot Tavolata herself. Instead, she complains that Osteria La Spiga's pastas "suffered dramatically between birth and bowl." Yet she awards three stars. Huh?

Welcome back, Rebekah! Did they remember to tell you? The pieces you wrote about Veil and Sitka & Spruce? Well, while you were away, you won the James Beard Award for the best restaurant reviews in the whole damn country.

For her part, Ms. Kelly seems to be facing the future (as a cranky freelance) with jaded aplomb: a blog appropriately titled Whining and Dining. No hard feelings, Les. Where do critics go when their time is up? To the Blogosphere, of course. Welcome to the neighborhood!

Update #1 to correct the spelling of Rebekah Denn's first name. Mes excuses, Madame.
Update #2: Go to Leslie's blog for a hilarious swipe at Cornichon. She calls me, gulp, "a PR twit trying to pass himself off as a legit journalist" and "chump." (That could have been a typo, however.) Have been called worse, back in my own days as a legit journalist (KING TV, Seattle Weekly). She also wants to "compare passports." I'll show you mine if you show me yours, sweetie.

A year ago, under the headline "Eatin' Good Outside the Hood," we wrote about dinner at Union Bay Café in Laurelhurst. Couple of months later, owner-chef Mark Manley announced he's closing down: "After 21 years, it's time to move on." Gulp.


Fortunately, the concept of an enlightened yet unpretentious neighborhood restaurant is alive and well in other nabes and hoods. In Fremont, that self-described Center of the Universe, for example, we have a perfect example: the 35th Street Bistro.

How's this for an ideal Seattle evening: Bellinis (prosecco and peach purée) on the sidewalk patio, an appetizer of sweetbreads on a bed of frisée or crab croquettes with an arugula orange salad; then Alaska king salmon on a bed of lentils or a plate of seared ahi tuna, perhaps some artisan cheese to follow, then a tatin of fresh plums. You may be sitting in the shadow of Lenin's statue but you're far from Soviet-style penury; this is no longer your uncle's funky Fremont. We're in the world of educated European travelers now, of international visitors, of Slow Food.

Like many novice restaurateurs, owners Bob and Phoebe Day (who bought the place five years ago) wanted something that resembled the comfortable eateries they remembered from their European travels. To that end, the Days turned away from the fashionable, chef-driven restaurant concept while maintaining a focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The current chef, Frank Wielgosiek, on hand in a supporting role since 2005, stepped into the top spot when Steve Smrstik moved to the Pink Door earlier this year. His food seems just a shade self-conscious and striving; there's no need, really, to offset the perfectly seared tuna with a half-plate of tuna tartare. We're supposed to be in the southern European countryside, remember, where they know instinctively that simpler would be better.

While the high-ceilinged, pale-walled dining room feels a bit mismatched (some tables draped in white, some bare), it's certainly a lively spot. The international wine list is impressive, and prices, for food and drink, are well below what you'd pay at similar places in the high-rent district. The Days are clearly doing a lot of things right; they just doesn't need to try quite so hard.

35th Street Bistro, 709 N. 35th St., 206-547-9850 35th Street Bistro in Seattle

Blessings of Purity

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Our land, this inlet on the western coast of the North American continent, is a fortunate one, endowed with natural riches and settled by people who do not confuse prosperity with moral superiority. Modesty becomes us; we do not flaunt our advantages.

With pleasure, then, we open Kurt Dammeier's new book, Pure Flavor, which celebrates our region's bounty and offers some suggestions for simple preparations that enhance the pleasure this fare brings to our senses. He highlights the usual suspects (salmon, crab, mushrooms, cheese, berries, the Pike Place Market, even coffee) and turns the spotlight on a handful of local food pioneers (Gwen Bassetti of Grand Central Bakery, Marcella Rosene of Pasta & Co., sausage man Frank Isernio, cheese woman Sally Jackson, fisherman Bruce Gore, Paul Shipman of Red Hook, wine grower Veronique Drouhin, chef Tom Douglas). Had someone else written the book, Dammeier himself would be on that list; he's the creator of the extraordinarily popular Beecher's Handmade Cheese in the Market and Bennett's Pure Food Bistro on Mercer Island. His "Flagship Program" teaches Middle Schoolers about good food. He is inordinately generous to his competitors in the world of artisanal cheese. In turn, he reaps a string of honors, most recently for Beecher's Flagship Cheese, named the best cheddar in the country by the American Cheese Society. Dammeier is quick to credit cheesemaker Brad Sinko; Tom Douglas, for his part, calls Dammeier a modern-day Renaissance man.

The book itself is extraordinarily handsome, a hefty 256 pages with 125 recipes developed in collaboration with chef Lura Smith and freelance editor Laura Holmes Haddad (aka Gourmet Grrl), photography by Maren Caruso and Scott Mansfield. Bravo to publishers Clarkson Potter, who will be happy to sell you a copy for $32.50, roughly the price of a couple of Bennett's mouthwatering cheeseburgers and a side of Beecher's "World's Best" Mac & Cheese.

Nasty, Brutish...and Fat?

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The food news may seem depressing, but there's hope. Bear with us.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes, not known for his optimism, wrote that the life of man was doomed to be nasty, brutish, and short.

Couple hundred years later, the even less-cheery Thomas Malthus predicted that the Industrial Revolution would cause worldwide famine.

Yet humans survive, even prosper. Oh, sure, we waste resources fighting one another. Granted, too, that political systems everywhere seem to encourage government corruption, the taxing of our labors and the looting of our savings. And yet, we're pretty well off, compared to cave-dwellers. How come?

A new book by UC Davis prof Gregory Clark argues that it was the social structure of Great Britain in the 1800s (what we'd call English "politeness") that made possible the Industrial Revolution and our modern economy. But ten years ago, UCLA's Jared Diamond attributed that shift to something even more basic: better food. Western Europe's cultural leadership, Diamond argues, has less to do with social conventions than an accident of geography: communication along east-west latitudes allowed for easier migration, with similar crops. Surplus food supplies allowed for the specialization of labor and creative thinking.

Now lo and behold: extra food, stored as fat, enhances brain functions. (Links to NYTimes articles may require free registration.) Score another point for Nina Planck, Cornichon's favorite nutritionist and author of Real Food who's been saying that politically incorrect food like cholesterol-rich animal fat is good for you. Raw milk, too, according to this morning's NYTimes. Gutsy, that Nina, standing up to the Food Nazis at the FDA and the Nutrition Taliban at CSPI (Center for Science in the [Supposed] Public Interest). Pass the butter!

Crumbs & Dregs

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Where to begin? Morning news & inbox full of depressing stuff.

  • Wall Street Journal reports on a study showing convenience foods don't really save time. Maybe not, but they'll turn you and your family into fat, lazy slobs.
  • Stanford study shows that kids will eat anything if they think it comes from McDonald's, even carrot sticks. Conclusion: Mickey D does a fantastic job! Wanna sell more carrots? Hire Ronald McDonald.
  • Associated Press finally get around to reporting on those new standards for chocolate (you read it here two months ago). Chocolatiers are divided; weaker standards could make their jobs easier, their products less delicious, more fattening but cheaper.
  • Trader Joe sells shrink-wrapped produce (longer shelf life, one assumes) and gloats that its intermittently decent Two-Buck Chuck came out on top at the California State Fair. Attempts to duplicate the results failed, however. If you live too far from a Trader Joe, buy Franzia's boxed white at your local Rite-Aid, pretty much the same stuff inside.
Hoping for more cheerful news by lunchtime.

Dutchman flies high, then sputters

Greer Grimsley on the deck of his red-sailed ghost ship. Seattle Opera photos © by Rosarii Lynch

On a weekend when Blue Angels were literally drenching Seattle skies with violent peals of thunder, Seattle Opera's new production of Flying Dutchman saturated McCaw Hall with vibrant voices and reverberant horns.

Dutchman is Wagner's first major work, with roots squarely in the tradition of German romanticism (Beethoven musically, Heine philosophically). He was still years away from composing his interminable, mystical Ring (which, like Seafair, has become a touchstone of Seattle's civic religion). In Dutchman, Wagner just gets on with it: an accursed sea captain (Greer Grimsley) is doomed to sail forever unless redeemed by the love of a good woman. Senta (Jane Eaglen) volunteers, but when her former boyfriend shows up, the Dutchman sets sail. Wait! she cries, jumps into the sea, and, in the opera's closing moments of transfiguration, reunites with the Dutchman in the afterlife.

Handsomely designed, the production benefits from Asher Fisch in the pit; no one else manages to coax such depth of music from the orchestra. Fluently sung, its principals are supported by a rich, lively, 78-voice chorus.

And yet the production doesn't quite soar. Though Eaglen sings like a righteous angel, she's badly served by a potato-sack of a costume that only draws attention to her girth. The vaunted "ghost crew" never appears, and what was supposed to be never-before-seen stagecraft at the climactic scene fizzles like an electric short-circuit.

What a shame, because there's a reassuring message for all of us in this timeless tale of damnation (through youthful arrogance) and redemption (through true love): a vision of the natural world as dangerous and of the human spirit as divine.

The Flying Dutchman at McCaw Hall through Aug. 25. Tickets online or 206-389-7676

Jane Eaglen sings "Senta's Ballad" to the women of her remote fishing village.

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Ratatouille promotion at Bite of Seattle; in the movie, ratatouille is served to the top restaurant critic in Paris.

Ratatouille has grossed a quarter billion simoleons since its release last month, but the biggest kick might be that it's getting kids interested in French food. Daisley Gordon, the chef at Seattle's Campagne, is even giving Saturday morning ratatouille cooking classes.

In the film, the plot turns on a remarkably tasty, multi-layer eggplant ratatouille (actually devised by über-chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se). "I just loved the movie, which captured the texture of a French restaurant kitchen perfectly, and the floor plan reminded me of La Tour d'Argent," Gordon said. "I went to the show on opening night, and it was packed. I knew I had to do something."

As it happens, Gordon is allergic to eggplant, so his version uses onions, garlic, yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes and olives, topped with house-made fennel sausage and baked in the oven. His young charges diced, sliced. chopped and sautéed their own vegetables, and helped sous-chef Nikki Schiebel stuff the sausage casings.

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Kids make ratatouille with fennel sausage in the kitchen at Campagne.

The kids banter. Eight-year-old Robert opens with a gross-out question: "Do you like snails?" Eleven-year-old Danielle doesn't bat an eye. "I eat them in France, where they don't overcook them," she says. A smile from Robert. "Yeah, that makes them taste like rubber." "Yuk."

Eventually, they taste the ratatouille. They agree it's delicious.

The next ratatouille class at Campagne is on August 11th.

Campagne, 86 Pine St., 206-728-2800 Campagne on Urbanspoon

Maximum interest in miniburgers

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"Sliders" in Chicago, miniburgers at Cascadia

The Windy City has awakened to the news that Americans love miniburgers. We're glad the food writers at the Chicago Tribune finally noticed.

"We like small things," [restaurant owner Jonathan] Segal says. "People, especially females, like the portion size. And burgers pretty much are the all-American sandwich."

Especially females? Thank heavens, in Seattle, Cascadia's miniburgers are a unisex treat, even if the price has gone up to $2 per each.

Those with fond memories of the original White Castle "slyders" (as they're now called), you can get 'em frozen by the bagful at QFC and Safeway, but the closest actual White Castle restaurant would be Minneapolis, just off the I-35 freeway. Oops.

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