February 2009 Archives

Polishing Bellevue's Pearl

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Chef%20Bradley%20Dickinson.JPG Plating%20up.JPG Mikel%20Rogers.JPG

In the beginning, there was Trader Vic's. For a couple of years, anyway (except on the internet, where nothing ever dies). When the Westin Bellevue opened, across from Bellevue Square, with its block-long driveway down 6th Avenue NE, the hotel's porte-cochère was on the right, and Trader Vic's on the left, but--awkwardly--you couldn't drop off your car with the hotel valet if you just wanted a Mai Tai and pupus. There's no street presence; Palomino has the corner location, all shimmering white tablecloths, opposite Bel Square's mid-market Red Robin.

Virginica%20Oyster%20at%20Pearl.JPGInto this foggy swamp came two fearless refugees from Schwartz Brothers: one of the chain's executive chefs, Bradley Dickinson, and its regional manager, Mikel Rogers. The two had crossed paths at various Schwartz properties (Daniel's Broiler, Chandler's Crab House, Spazzo's) and were looking for a space of their own. So Trader Vic became Bellevue's glitziest new restaurant, Pearl.

Shiny on the outside, with a giant fixture like a bug lamp, dark and glossy on the inside, with plenty of slate and chrome, polished stone and gauzy room dividers. (Like being on the inside of a pearl, you see.) A hundred seats in the bar, even more on the restaurant side, including a U-shaped chef's table for 10 overlooking the passe where Rogers or Dickinson (and sometimes both) inspect every plate before it's served.

Alaska%20king%20salmon.JPGTwo big hits, two misses. The "World's Best Oyster" was a single Totten Inlet virginica, chilled within an inch of its life by multiple layers of ice, accompanied a black pepper mignonette.And a wild mushroom risotto with porcini broth and truffle oil that was extremely satisfying. But a salad of heirloom beets was unsalted, its vinaigrette no match for the bitter watercress. An almost-perfect, moist and tender filet of Alaskan king salmon, served with rich, ivory-colored corona beans, included wilted but overly bitter greens.

Did actually anyone taste the beets? Did anyone check the flavor of the greens before sending out the salmon? Pearl ain't no diner, not at $39 for filet mignon. It's great that Pearl's two pros are making sure every plate looks terrific; they just need to tweak the flavors a bit.

Customers still have to know where to look, because Pearl's Bellevue Way signage is modest, to say the least, but at least they've solved the parking problem: the restaurant now validates the Westin's valet service. Bellevue should be happy: not only does Pearl offer decent food, a buzzing bar and a warm welcome, it has the thing Eastsiders seem to prize above all: free parking!

Pearl Bar & Dining, 700 Bellevue Way NE (at but not in the Westin Hotel), Bellevue, 425-455-0181. Pearl Bar & Dining on Urbanspoon

Breathable%20Glass.JPGBaconnaise: As we wrote last month, we live in a bacon nation, it seems, with only a few voices (Cornichon's, for one) raised in protest. Until last night. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (about 5:15 into this clip). "We actually invented this," said Stewart, putting a jar of the stuff on his desk. "Baconnaise, for people who want to get heart disease but, you know, too lazy to actually make bacon."

Breathable Glass: was it almost two years ago? We wrote a snarky post about "breathable crystal" by a German manufacturer called Eisch. They say it improves wine in two minutes; we said not-so-much. Well, turns out Eisch Glaskultur was just named the "Glass Producer of the Year" by the German Retailers Association. For the eleventh year in a row, mind you. That's a relief; we can all breath easy now.

The Cab Not Taken, 2009 Edition: Last June, we almost jumped into a Yellow Cab (with its rooftop ad for flights to Heathrow) just to escape the gloomy weather. That was then--the climate has changed. Last night, emerging well-fed but late from Pearl in Bellevue, we found we'd missed our ride back to Seattle. We'd taken Sound Transit over, but now the prospect of a bus ride seemed overwhelming. Three taxis stood in line outside the Westin. Normally it's a $35 fare but we had exactly one $20 bill in our wallet. "Belltown for twenty bucks?" we asked. The first cabbie, understandably, refused. Second one glowered briefly and muttered, "Twenty-five." Third one reflected a moment, then said, "Get in." Twenty minutes later we were home. A parable for getting along in today's economy, perhaps?

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Assorted paczki, consumed by Cathy Doherty (Proctor) and winners Johnny Edge & Jeff Baskett (Queen Anne)

Paczki are Polish donuts. Bomboloni in Italy, Berliner in Germany, Krapfen in Austria (and Sicily, of all places). And in the Midwest, they're the food of Mardi Gras, a time to raid the larder and get rid of all things sugary and delicious. (Mo Rocca filed this report on the phenomenon last year for CBS.) Pronounced poonch-key, they come in plain, raspberry, and cream-filled. Metropolitan Markets, the chain of six local grocery stores, is baking them in-house this month and selling them for about $1.50 apiece.

To promote the product, they staged an in-house paczki-eating contest today at the Admiral Way store. The original plan was to include a sort of pancake race around the building, but that was called off because of weather. What was left? A traditional stuff-your-face eat-off between assorted beefy guys, which yielded no clear-cut winner. The judges conferred, then announced a runoff: an eat-off between store and bakery managers. Surprisingly, no contestant could eat more than five. Amateurs!

Photo courtesy John Spady, Dick's Drive Ins

There's something touching about this photo, and it's not just the lovey-dovey fries-and-milkshake. There's that copper-colored wrapper around the Dick's burger, the twinkle of autumn light on the leaves outside, the loving, respectful way the two figures look at each other, mid-bite.

In case you haven't heard, the dude is Gary Locke, former governor, and gal is his wife, Mona, and it looks like he'll be joining the Obama administration as Secretary of Commerce. No freaking French dinners on the DC party circuit for the Lockes, merci beaucoup, we're in the hands of a guy who knows the value of a 19-cent burger. Okay, it's more than that now, but that's what it cost 55 years ago, when Dick Spady started the biz in Wallingford. Bodes well, in our opinion, for the future of international trade and the virtures of moderate consumption.

Bluebeard.jpg"Don't Go There" could well be the subtitle of this production by Seattle Opera of Bela Bartok's one-act opera, composed in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the first days of a new, post-Wagnerian musical order. Onstage, the proscenium is surrounded by a Klimt-like gilt frame; in the pit, an orchestra of 100 musicians play harsh, unfamiliar tones without melody.

Bluebeard (John Relyea) and his new bride Judith (Malgorzata Walewska) explore his dark castle and its seven locked rooms. Each door is opened in a different key and musical mode, so there's no tune to hum as you leave the theater. The lyrics are sung in Hungarian, not the most melodious of languages, and Bartok's music is clearly beyond the familiarity of most opera-goers, so you might expect the audience to bristle. But the production, created for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, has been around for nearly 20 years, and--though new to Seattle--it no longer seems shocking.

What's surprising, though, is now easily you can plug in the black boxes of modern politics into the locked rooms of Bartok's imagination. A torture chamber? Guantanamo. An armory? Blackwater. A treasure-chamber, filled with unimaginable riches but drenched in blood? Wall Street. A garden? The promise of green energy. Bluebeard's vast lands, covered in blood? Global warming. The Lake of Tears? Our current depression.

When Judith finally reaches the final door and finds Bluebeard's former wives, dressed in red and not really dead, she joins them with wordless resignation. Bluebeard's line closes the opera: "Now there will be eternal darkness." A note of pessimism, to be sure, but of soul-cleansing catharsis, too.

And this, ultimately, is why we must pay attention. Art isn't just entertainment, it's a mental and emotional obstacle course that challenges our comfort zone. The rewards are immensely satisfying.

Mustn't forget: there's a second part to this Seattle Opera program, a short opera by Arnold Schoenberg called Erwartung ("Expectation" or "Anticipation"). A distraught woman, sung by Susan Marie Pierson), searches for her lover in a forest. She finds him in flagrante with his mistress and kills him. At least, that's what she thinks. But...she's in a straight-jacket and singing to her psychiatrist. Is she imagining the whole thing? Dude really is nekkid, though. All very Freudian, at any rate.

Seattle Opera presents Bluebeard's Castle (and Erwartung) at McCaw Hall through March 7th. Tickets $25 and up, 206-389-7676 or online. Seattle Opera photo © Rosarii Lynch.

Thank God We Don't Live In France

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Lunch%20at%20Veuve%20Clicquot.JPGNew rules promulgated by the French Health Ministry, so help us, read: "The consumption of alcohol, and especially wine, is discouraged."

This on the heels of a study by French national cancer institute, which says the consumption of even a small amount of alcohol can increase the risk of mouth and throat cancer by 168%. "Small daily doses of alcohol are the most harmful," the study's chief scientist told the press."There is no amount, however small, which is good for you."

How strange. This temperance movement from the government of right-wing, non-drinking Nicolas Sarkozy, who nonetheless campaigned on a promise to reduce the previous administration's harrassment of wine producers...and of editors who print stories that cast wine in a favorable light. Le Parisien was actually fined for running an article about Champagne without a health warning. Moët & Chandon was fined for an ad campaign for its pink Champagne. A lunch like this, hosted by Veuve Clicquot to promote its range of Champagnes, to showcase French joie-de-vivre? Don't even ask.

French winemakers are up in arms. The foxes are running the henhouse; the world is upside down. French paradox indeed.

Capitol Hill Roundup

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Lots going on atop Cap Hill, not the least of which is Ethan Stowell's latest, Anchovies & Olives, opening tonight. We'll get there soon enough. It's the most recent example of awkward timing: restaurants opening in the teeth of the downturn. (Barrio's another.) Chew well.


A few other observations about changing times. Cascina Spinasse has modified the draconian policy that permitted à la carte dining only at the bar, a shift that's (sort of) reflected online.

At Tidbit, all main courses are now under $20, and there's a 3-course, $25 special this week to celebrate Carnevale. That ends on Mardi Gras, masks not required. They're also offering grappa flights throughout February for $15.

Olivar, for its part, will start serving brunch on weekends, a $15 prix fixe deal. Not a bad idea for Broadway, which needs alternative to the Deluxe. Look for chef Philippe Thomelin's signature pasty, an ensaimada, a coil-shaped bun known as the brioche of Majorca.

Finally, a farewell of sorts to Artemis, which announces it will close for "remodeling and expansion." In the current economic climate, the owners say, "the fine & casual dinning model is unfortunately not sustainable." they write in a news release. "So as good evolutionists, we will change to adapt to our environment." The intention is to focus on the bar, with more affordable food. The interior space will be reconfigured to create a more casual atmosphere, and will include seating in the back garden patio, which has a great view. Reopening (keep fingers crossed) in a couple of months.

Photo: Bitter End cocktail at Artemis.

Starbucks Reinvents Instant Coffee

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VIA%20packets.jpgIn the beginning, the Lord divided the bean from the water and created Nescafé. For generations, it was the standard of instant coffee, until Prince Howard of the Dark Brew tasted the Nescafé and said it should be made better. His flavor engineers labored mightily for many years, until they perfected a system of microgrinding beans of pure arabica (taking care to buy them only from farmers using sustainable agricultural practices and humane conditions for the workers, because the Dark Prince was highly image-conscious), so that a mere tenth of an ounce of extract would produce a full cup of coffee no less flavorful than the coffee brewed throughout his kingdom of Starbucks.

Which is how VIA Ready Brew came into being, ready for its rollout next week in Seattle and Chicago. Instant coffee has long had a poor image in the US and a paltry $700 million in sales, but it's a $17 billion market in the rest of the world, thus a tempting target for Starbucks. The initial flavors--a robust Italian Roast and a smooth Columbia--stand up surprisingly well to their fresh-brewed counterparts.

Will consumers pay a buck for a shot of instant? Hard to say, but 10 or 15 years ago the whole notion of $5 coffee was absurd. The "affordable luxury" of a latte seems less affordable today, but the desire for instant gratification remains.

UPDATE: Howard Schultz's essay on Huffington Post: "Staying Real in an Instant."

Seattle Gets Corkscrewed

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Camuto%20at%20tasting.JPG Corkscrewed%20Cover.jpg At%20TLV%20book%20signing.JPG

For the past couple of days, at bottle shops and bookstores around town (12th and Olive, Elliott Bay Books, The Local Vine), Seattle wine lovers had the opportunity to meet the new icon of American curiosity (and irreverence) about wine, Robert Camuto, author of the smash bestseller, Corkscrewed. There's a reason for the fuss: Camuto, a serious journalist, has written a heartfelt, perceptive analysis of the modern French wine industry and concludes, not surprisingly, that it's fallen victim to technology, banalization, and an unfortunate public indifference to quality. In that sense, Camuto is a sort of reverse Bernard-Henri Lévy, the outsider who dares critique an entrenched society.

The model for Camuto's book is the "wine-road" genre, pioneered by the granddaddy memoir, Frederick Wildman's A Wine Tour of France, in the early 1970s. A generation later came the now-classic Adventures on the Wine Route, published by wine merchant Kermit Lynch, a hymn to small-scale, artisanal wine producers. Today, of course, any blogger with a laptop churns out culinary adventure posts, Cornichon being one of hundreds, if not thousands of wine-&-food sites. What distinguishes Corkscrewed from the pack of self-absorbed cud-chewers is the quality of its detailed reporting.

Not without humor or self-awareness, Camuto sets out to discover the soul of French winemaking. A political reporter, Columbia journalism grad and founder of the Fort Worth Weekly, he has lived in the south of France with his French wife for the past decade and has been writing for Washington Post and Wine Spectator. Now, even as he sits at elaborate banquets in the great châteaux of Bordeaux, tasting legendary wines in the company of owners and cellarmasters, Camuto is uneasy.

He appreciates the great and powerful bottlings but his heart is with the neglected and misunderstood. He follows the fortunes of an iconclastic insider, François des Ligneris, who challenges the new order of estates owned by banks and insurance companies. Ironically, des Ligneris eventually sells the family property, Château Soutard (his sisters are majority owners), and starts all over in the Languedoc. Camuto goes to Alsace and picks grapes (hard work!); in the Loire he tastes actor Gérard Dépardieu's wines ("bombastic," "showbiz"). In the northern Rhone he disdains the six-million-bottle producer Guigal in favor of the artisanal Jean-Michel Stephan. He finds his Holy Grail, the symbol of the return to a more artisanal style of wimekaing, in the Ardèche, where a young winemaker named Christophe Reynouard has made his mission in life the return of a grape variety called chatus. Neglected and misunderstood on its home soil, the ugly duckling that is chatus turns into a swan on the other side of the Alps, in Piedmont, where it's known as nebbiolo, the very pinnacle of Italian grape hierarchy.

At the tastings in Seattle, Camuto presented not only wines from his favorites in the Languedoc and Provence, but two bottlings from Nicolas Joly in the Loire, whose family property, La Coulée de Serrant represents the epitome of biodynamic viticulture. One hundred percent chenin blanc, yet unlike anything you've ever had in your mouth, a single taste of Joly's wines will force you to rethink the very meaning of wine. You may not "like" it, may not "understand" what it is or where it's coming from, but you stand in awe of its uniqueness, its lush, indescribable perfection. It is art, it is religion, it is revelation.

Reviewing Corkscrewed for the New YorkTimes, wine editor Eric Asimov of the New York Times called it "my favorite new book." Gourmand's World Cookbook Awards named it the "Best Book of the Year on French Wines." Even Le Figaro likes it, and welcomes the publication of a French edition later this year. High praise indeed.

If I have a quibble, it would be that Camuto almost reflexively dismisses large-scale producers. Yet, that production capacity of six million bottles requires Guigal to buy tons and tons of grapes from growers large and small. So what if Jean-Michel Stephan says he keeps the best for himself; he's got an outlet for the rest. Were it not for négociants, smaller growers would have to sell every drop, every bottle themselves, an invitation to catastrophe. The tension between artisan-grower and négociant-marketer is part of what makes the wine world turn. My experience is that both parties benefit, and so does the consumer, who has a real choice: well-made if predictable "supermarket" wines, and even better, if occasionally quirky, "artisan" wines Standardization versus originality: you pays your money, you takes your choice. And you don't get screwed.

Duck! The Foie Gras Battle Rages On

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foiegras.jpgLook, we've been through this before, though not on Capitol Hill. If I hadn't just written an ode to organ meats, a sonnet to spleen, I probably wouldn't care. But over at Slog, Stranger managing editor (and foodie) Bethany Jean Clement has written a couple of posts about the furor surrounding foie gras. Specifically that John Sundstrom at Lark refuses to cave in to a nutball lunatic fringe called the Northwest Animal Rights Network, NARN for short, unhappy about his menu to the point of picketing the restaurant once a week. The subject of the outrage: Lark serves foie gras. No different than thousands of restaurants around the country, and in the mainstream of European culinary tradition that recognizes foie gras as a delicacy.

This post isn't about the debate itself. Instead, it's a suggestion to read the comments on the two posts, close to 200 on the first one, last Saturday, 160 and climbing on today's update. Clear to me that civil discourse--never a strong suit on the internet--has disappeared entirely from the columns of Slog. Name-calling and nastiness abound when there's anonymity for trolls.

Is foie gras a product of deliberate animal cruelty? A hamburger, for crying out loud, is infinitely worse. Not to mention bacon, fried chicken or lamb chops. But Seattle's self-satisfied arbiters of (other people's) morality have no long-range vision past their own navels, it would seem, and little tolerance for the notion that someone, somewhere, might actually enjoy what they eat, quack protestors be damned.

Palermo Postcards: Street Food

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Milse%20at%20Vucciria%20market.JPG Milse%20being%20fried.JPG

There is street food and there is street food. Americans prefer not to know what goes into their hot dogs; Sicilians have no such compunctions.

The capital city, Palermo, stands at the intersection of culinary traditions: Phoenician, Greek, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Spanish, Angenvine and Bourbon French, not to mention those other foreigners from the north, the Piedmontese and the Austrians. All have left their marks on Sicily's multicultural cuisine, so it stands to reason that some of the most delicious meals, and most varied offerings, are in the streets, in the markets of Ballarò, Vucciria and Capo.

Take, for example, a sesame roll stuffed with a mixture of pan-fried calf innards called pani c'a mieusa in Sicilian, milza in Italian, spleen in English. Full of healthy, good-natured red blood cells, accompanied by bits of lung and windpipe, topped with generous sprinkles of salt, two euros. Schietta (nubile) on its own, maritata when topped with ricotta.

Other vendors fill a rolled up cone of newspaper with octopus or fish (tiny blue fish or mullion) or leftover bits of boiled beef fat. Names vary, depending on which entrail dominates: quarume, stigghioli, frittola. Vegetable fritters, too: panelle of chick-pea flour, quagghie of eggplant or cardoons.

Mad Cow put a temporary damper on the festivities, but the demand for this traditional fare pushed the government to a program of rigorous inspection for selected animals. A dozen or so street vendors remain, with fixed hours and relatively fixed stations; a few traditional restaurants also participate and set up colorful carts on their own doorsteps.

All in all, a treat not to be missed.

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UnitedColors.jpgIf national character can be defined by shopping habits, Americans are in denial, the French are (as always) indirect, and the Italians (with cheerful optimism) straightforward: the sky is falling, it's the end of the world.

No one's immune, except perhaps the Sephora cosmetics store. Sale posters in the windows of every designer along the Via Maqueda and the Via Roma, from Armani to Zara. Most are holding the line at 40 or 50 percent, but Benetton's out there with 70 percent discounts.

Fashion-conscious Italians, and that's virtually the entire population, spend heavily on designer clothing, but the weather's been icky the past month (northern Europe's been snowed under; southern Europe's just wet and windy) and the shoppers just aren't buying. Restaurants and smaller shopkeepers haven't followed suit; they don't have the sophisticated systems to predict how bad that sinking feeling's going to get. You can almost hear the retailers crying out, as did Rigoletto, La maledizzione!

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It's a waterfront trattoria on the coast of Sicily, just outside Palermo, called Temptation. The name has no meaning but looks exotic to an italian eye, in the same way that "Tavolata" might to a diner in Seattle. What it offers is a non-stop, 90-minute orgy of fresh Mediterranean seafood with only one choice (the secondo, which doesn't signify "main course" but the dish that follows the pasta).

The interior is plain, the kitchen tiled, the service dizzyingly rapid. One wine, a white grecanico, though several tables drink orange soda. At 8 :30 PM, the place is still empty; at 9, every seat is taken. Appetizers arrive faster than the plates can be passed and shared: a fish pâté a carpaccio of swordfish dressed with olive oil, fried stuffed baby squid, fried baby fish called maccheronelli, rolled up herring, shrimp in a pink sauce, a salad of marinated octopus, steamed mussels.

grilled%20bream.jpgPasta next: penne with shrimp and calamari in a sauce perfumed with wild mountain fennel, a tasty risotto with pistacchio and shrimp, and a plate of spaghetti dressed only with neonata, a jelly-like mass of newborn fish.

Time for the secondo: grilled red mullet or sea bream or calamari; so many choices, we lost track. When you think you can't eat another bite, the plates are cleared and they bring an oversize shot glass of intense lemon sorbet. You will never eat another meal this close to the sea. Nor such value: all inclusive, about $30 per head.


Davvero, it's true: English is still the language of international commerce, and nothing, not even the collapse of the financial system, stands in the way of ambition. The largest of the language schools, the Wall Street Institutes franchise, boasts over two million graduates. It operates 400 centers in 28 countries (91 here in Italy alone, where the whole thing started 36 years ago). Obama's salary caps be damned, there's a long line of takers. Every day, tens of thousands of would-be executives are drilled in "Wall Street English." Can you say Prada? Gucci?

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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