Seattle 2014 – A Year In Food
This past year for me has been one of learning about the local food scene here in Seattle. Over the past twelve months, I’ve followed my long-standing passion for food as well as developed my writing skills. I’ve avoided becoming one of those much reviled Yelpers and have refrained from photographing my food in restaurants for the most part. I’ve also followed a dream of becoming a published food writer both here on TheHungryDogBlog.com as well as in other outlets such as Seattle Weekly, Eater Seattle and Modern Farmer.
Some quick stats on my first full year as a part-time writer:
Number of Chefs interviewed – 22
Number of blog posts – 53
Number of days spent making and writing about charcuterie at The Fatted Calf – 10
Number of feature stories published in Seattle Weekly, Eater Seattle and Modern Farmer – 20
Number of daily ‘food news’ posts in Seattle Weekly – 67
Bonus Points: Number of posts on TheThirstyDogBlog.com about Business – 9
Total stories, articles, blog posts, etc. published in 2014 – 149
Now that’s a lot of writing…
The Seattle Food Scene – Hot Topics
A great many things have been talked about in the world of food regarding Seattle this past year. I’ve put together a list of my top six observations about the food scene this past year:
Art: Ever been to a restaurant and noticed that the artwork is screwed into the wall? Don’t you think that’s kind of tacky? Yeah, I do too. But it wouldn’t be necessary if this disturbing trend of people stealing art from restaurant bathrooms wasn’t happening. Come on people, show some respect and have some manners. Don’t be an asshat and smuggle the art that might be very personal to an owner out of their place of business. Seriously.
Feedback: For the love of God people, please give feedback to your servers and/or chefs while you are at the restaurant. If someone asks you if your food is good or if you are enjoying yourself then take that opportunity to tell them the truth. If you don’t like it or something is off-putting then tell them. It’s easy, they will appreciate it, and quite often correct it on the spot. Don’t resort to social media outlets such as Yelp, Urbanspoon or Facebook to passive-aggressively complain to the world about your dining experience after the fact. It doesn’t help anyone. This also goes for ‘food critics’ passively bitching about things like hiccups in service well after the fact. Don’t be that guy (or gal).
Service: I’ve noticed a serious decline in the level of service at higher-end dining establishments over the last year. For a city that is so serious about its food it’s surprising that casual, almost hipster-like service is the norm. I don’t know you, I’m not your buddy – I’m a paying customer expecting excellence. Treat me like one please. And please try your best to not interrupt my conversation and dining experience by asking if everything is ‘OK’ every 5 minutes. Ask once and I’ll find you later if it’s not.
Quality: I’m a big believer in quality both in product and service as noted above. Will I pay for quality? Yes. Will I go out of my way for it? Yes. There are some pretty amazing places in town to go for a specific dish and I am happy to pay as little or as much as they want for them. Prime examples of paying for quality food in Seattle include pasta at Cascina Spinasse or Il Corvo (great value too), pizza at Bar del Corso, everything at Altura, empanadas at La Bodega, the menu at Revel, fried chicken at Ma’Ono, sushi from Tsukushinbo, anything made by Sam Crannell at LloydMartin, Phat ass pork chops from Cochon, anything not salmon or halibut at RockCreek, ‘foie gras tofu’ at Miyabi on 45th and a seat at the counter of Art of the Table. Support restaurant owners producing quality food at prices you can afford and you will never be a sad, lonely, hungry diner.
Music: Much has been written about music selection in Seattle restaurants in 2014 – mostly negative. Here’s the news – if you don’t like the choice of music a restaurant plays then vote with your wallet and go elsewhere. The staff is extending their creative license into the dining room and it will soon be made known to them whether the dining public appreciates their taste in music; by either a full or empty dining room. Give me a good meal and play N.W.A. all day long for all I care. But if I have my kid there we won’t be back. I’m the one that has to explain why someone wants to ‘Fuck tha police’ – not the Chef or server. Though I’d be happy to give them the opportunity to try.
Value: Good value in food does not mean heaping mounds of chewy pasta for $10 at Bucca de Beppo or all you can eat bread sticks at Olive Garden. It means paying a good price for high quality food. Is paying $45 for white truffles to be shaved on your pasta a good value? It is in my humble opinion. And so is paying a fair price for an expertly prepared meal by a Chef and their staff who have worked hard to please you. Only you can define what your own personal value is. But please, don’t believe that restaurant owners are gouging you on prices. It costs a lot to run a good operation (and will even more with minimum wage hikes) and so paying a reasonable price for good food and a nice dining experience is only fair.
Best of 2014 Seattle Food
And of course, no ‘Year in Review’ post would be complete without a best of list. So, here are my picks for the prior year in no particular order:
Most Innovative Thing I Tasted – the ‘Foie Gras Tofu’ at Miyabi on 45th courtesy of Chef Soma. I’ve never tasted anything like it – between the odd appearance of foie shaped like a brick of tofu to the amazing umami flavor combination. Truly mind blowing.
Best ‘new’ Discovery – Chef Dustin Ronspies‘ Art of the Table has been around for over seven years but for some reason I didn’t go until this past June. How did I overlook this neighborhood gem? I have no idea but let me tell you that you cannot have a bad plate of food here. Everything Chef Ronspies makes is creative, well thought out, and delicious. Go. Now.
Most Frequented Restaurant – perhaps it’s because we don’t go out to dinner much or that my wife works two blocks away in City Hall – or maybe it’s just because it’s so fucking good? But Il Corvo tops the list for our family and collectively we dined there 31 times in 2014. The simplicity of the place, the excellent pasta and gracious hosts in both Mike and Victoria Easton keep us coming back for more year after year.
Best Burger from a ‘Burger Place’ – there are many choices for burgers in Seattle and lord knows I’ve eaten at most of them but I have to go with Red Mill. I don’t know what it is but I love the burgers here. Between the heaping mounds of bacon and the American cheese dripping over the side of the bun; it’s hard to beat.
Best Burger from a Restaurant – I was first hooked on the porchetta sandwich at Lecosho many years ago before I moved on to the 1/2 pound Painted Hills beauty covered with bacon and cheddar on a ciabatta bun with spicy aioli that Matt Janke and his crew serves up. When I go to new restaurants I almost always try the burger first. If you can make one right, I’ll be back.
Best Chef Interview – as mentioned earlier, I’ve met a lot of Chefs this year and gotten to know a great many people in the process. I’ve enjoyed every conversation I’ve had and I have to say that my four-hour lunch/interview with Thierry Rautureau was the most enjoyable experience of them all. I went in expecting 30-45 minutes of interrupted time and was surprised by the long, leisurely conversation we had while watching World Cup football, dining at Loulay and listening to his story. Simply a great day.
Best ‘new’ Discovery in Seattle Dining – easily the Dan Dan noodles from Seven Stars Pepper Szechuan which were introduced to me by LloydMartin Chef Sam Crannell. Sweet, chewy, spicy and peanut buttery all in one. Wear a bib and get some now.
Best Food Book I Read – Growing a Feast by Kurt Timmermeister. A beautifully written story about the ‘growing’ of a dinner served by Kurt at Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island. From the birth of a cow to the milk produced by it’s mother that later becomes cheese served at the dinner – it’s a lovely tale about where our food comes from and the care put into every step of the process when done right.
Best Sandwich – how good can a sandwich be? Well, you certainly know when you’ve had a bad one and there are a lot of them around. Though not a traditional sandwich shop, the Meatball Sandwich at Vespolina is to die for. One on occasion my family and I ate there and we all left chanting ‘meatballs, meatballs’ like Walking Dead zombies. Get one when they resume lunch service in the Spring. Or try the version served in the bar with semolina gnocchi and mint.
Best Breakfast – is anything more divine than sitting at The Fat Hen in Ballard, sipping coffee and eating the Best Eggs Benedict I’ve ever had? It takes me back to Provence and it’s simply perfect on a Tuesday morning without the long weekend lines.
Best Mexican Food – it can be found at Fonda la Catrina in Georgetown and it’s terrific. The patio seating is wonderful in the brief summer and the food is authentic and delicious. Easily the best mole I’ve had in this town which lacks many truly good Mexican food options.
Best Dessert – the beignets at Matt Lewis’ Restaurant Roux delighted my little boy all year long. He was dubbed ‘Beignet Boy’ by the family and even appeared on Evening Magazine. Awesome! Honorable mention – the ‘Bag of Doughnuts’ at Dahlia Lounge has been a long time favorite of mine. Hot, covered in cinnamon sugar, and served with seasonal jam and mascarpone. Delicious.
Best Doughnuts – speaking of doughnuts, I’m a veritable connoisseur and I love good, creative confections as well as classics. While most flock to Top Pot I’ve actually begun to shy away from them as they moved into a larger production facility in Kent this year and the quality of their old fashioned’s has dipped. Something happens to places when they hit the big time and are no longer able to create product on a small scale. The old fashioned doughnuts are no longer crunchy on the outside and cake like on the inside and employees at the Wedgwood store have admitted that ‘they just aren’t as good’. But who cares anyway because the best doughnuts in town are actually located in Pike Place Market at the Daily Dozen Doughnut Company. For nearly 25 years Barbara Elza and crew have been serving up brown paper bags full of steaming hot doughnuts covered in either powdered or cinnamon sugar as well as chocolate dipped with sprinkles. At about $6 a dozen it’s worth the wait on the quickly moving line. Classic Seattle.
Best Fried Chicken – admit it – you like fried chicken from gas stations and convenience stores as much as I do. So it’s no surprise that I found the best fried chicken not called ‘Ma’Ono’ in Seattle at the Quik Pack Food Mart in the Central District. Where else can you buy cigarettes, samosas, 5 Hour energy drink and condoms all in one place? Not at Ezell’s.
Most Interesting Person I Met – how many people can you say that you’ve met who have truly inspired you? I’m not talking about business moguls or sports heroes – I’m talking about regular people like you and I? Well I had the good fortune to meet one Joya Iverson of Hillman City’s Tin Umbrella Coffee this year and she is truly inspirational. Go meet her, drink coffee and give yourself a kick in the ass for being lazy and complacent. And smile.
Best Bar – while I think the ‘speakeasy’ concept is a bit played I have to say that I’m in love with Needle & Thread located above Tavern Law. Between the bank vault door, wood-paneled entryway and prohibition era bar – you cannot beat the ambiance. If you haven’t been call a week in advance for a reservation and pray you get one.
Coolest Restaurant Decor – hands down it has to be Josh Henderson and Huxley Wallace’s Westward. The entire place is adorned with aquatic themed trinkets and beautiful lines reminiscent of ships. Even the bar looks like a boat. Lovely and inspiring design. And great food to boot.
Coolest Coffee Shop Interior – the moment I walked into Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe I was impressed by the clean lines, open, well-lit space and cool vibe. Where else can you find wall upon wall of tech and sci-fi books, a ‘hacker’ room, great coffee and mind games?
Best Coffee Experience – if you truly want to get schooled on coffee by one of the best then you must go meet Chelsey Walker-Watson of Slate Coffee in Ballard. Not only will she explain what you are drinking and why you should be doing it – she will also make you one of the best espresso drinks you’ve ever had. Go forth and try the deconstructed espresso.
Most Honest Chef – the honor goes to Chef Sam Crannell of LloydMartin who clearly loves what he does and is realistic about Chef life and owning a restaurant. It’s also clear in his food which is both amazing and creative. What he does in a tiny kitchen without a hood is nothing short of a miracle.
Most Use of ‘f-bombs’ in Interview – believe it or not, the polished, affable Thierry Rautureau of Luc and Loulay talks plainly and like a sailor. I loved meeting him and was happy to see that he was a ‘real’ guy and not some hyped of TV production.
Best Asian dish – without a second thought I have to go with the BBQ pork from Kau Kau BBQ in the International District. Between my daughter’s love of ‘sweet pork’ and my inability to keep my hands away from eating it on the drive home, it’s a winner every time.
Best Meat dish – It has to be Derek Ronspies’ Phat Ass Pork Chop from Cochon. Who can argue with the goodness of a 2 inch chop from Olsen Farms covered with apple butter or plum jam?
Best Pasta dish – I don’t know how many times I’ve eaten the tajarin with butter and sage at Cascina Spinasse but I do know I’ll never get tired of it. Closest thing I’ve had to what I ate in Piemonte so many times.
Best Northwest cuisine – Eric Donnelly’s RockCreek is, to me, what embodies the spirit of seafood in the Pacific Northwest. A great selection of fish not-often seen on many menus and expertly prepared in a hip, beautiful setting.
Best Italian – 3-way tie – Nathan Lockwood’s Altura, Jason Stratton’s Cascina Spinasse and Mike Easton’s Il Corvo. I love Italian food more than any other and I just can’t pick between these three. If I had to rotate eating at these places every day for the rest of my life I would die a happy man.
Best Pizza – hands down the honor goes to Bar del Corso in Beacon Hill. Chef/Owner Jerry Corso outdoes everyone else in this town with his expertly made, chewy, salty crusted Neapolitan-style pizza. If you haven’t been, go now.
Best Bakery – While I love tiny bakeries and selecting from 8-10 beautifully prepared treats, I also dislike waiting in line for them to run out of what I came for – usually with 2 kids in tow. I discovered Bakery Nouveau this year and am kicking myself for not going sooner. The array of choices is dizzying and I have not yet had a thing that I didn’t love.
Chefs I Want to Sing Karaoke With – I’m not sure I can think of a better night on the town with the likes of Michael Robertshaw, Jason Stratton, Eric Donnelly and Heong Soon-Park. It would simple be an awesome evening of song, dance and drink.
Best food writer – there are many out there both good, bad and otherwise, but for me, the tops is the venerable Surly Gourmand. He writes the way I’d like to and says what I want to say. Just better.
Saddest Restaurant Closing – no, it’s not Paseo’s. It’s Dot’s Charcuterie and Bistrot in Fremont. I was dismayed to learn its fate one rainy afternoon after I’d picked up my folks at the airport and headed straight there for lunch. It was no more and I was bummed. Hopefully Chef Miles James will reincarnate this tragic beauty sometime very soon.
The Year of Charcuterie
In addition to all of this fun, I’ve learned more about the art of dry curing and fermenting meat in the various forms of charcuterie and salumi. It’s amazing to think that before this year I only knew how to make bacon and pancetta. Now, after investing a good amount of time, money in equipment, and reading many books – I’ve learned to make about 20 kinds of sausage with my own recipes.
I’ve also learned how to make lonza, culatello, lomo de embuchado, guanciale, bresaola, fioco, coppa, lamb prosciutto and a few types of salami. 2015 will bring new opportunity to hone the skills I’ve developed and to learn new curing techniques and styles. I’m particularly interested in diving deeper into Jeffrey Weiss’ excellent tome Charcuteria and learning more about Spanish curing techniques.
Looking Forward to 2015
Well, this year will be a tough act for me to follow. But with a year of writing and charcuterie under my belt I should be able to build upon my recent success and rise to greater heights in the world of food this year. I’ll be focusing on getting published in a national publication as well as getting closer to our food sources with upcoming pieces on a beef slaughter in Chimacum, more interviews with local Seattle Chefs, and a deep dive into the worlds of Halal, Kashrut and Anglo butchery.
As far as eating goes? Well, I can’t stop and I’m being drawn more and more into Asian cuisine. It’s so complex once you get past the standard Americanized fare and I have realized I know very little about it. Just try walking down the aisles of Viet Wah or Uwajimaya and understand what the myriad of ingredients is actually for. You’ll be stunned.
If I have one overarching food goal in 2015 it is this: to eat more food in the I.D., Little Saigon, Rainier, the CD and ‘further afield’. I want to try more Ethiopian, Vietnamese, regional Chinese, Korean and Japanese food. Oh, and I never want to eat teriyaki again.