Feasting like a Princess in Queens

“But where in New York can one find a woman with grace, elegance, taste and culture? A woman suitable for a king?”

“Queens!”

If anyone else grew up in a household with two brothers and only basic cable, you too have probably seen Coming to America over a thousand times and when the New York City borough of Queens is mentioned, this line is all that you can think of. No? Just me? Again? Alright, this is enough already.

Seriously though, we did a food excavation of Queens on our most recent trip to New York. We had overlooked the boroughs on our last trip, and it was a hole in my eating repertoire that I was ready to fill. Fill I did, with Liberian stew, Egyptian offal and three separate trips to Flushing Chinatown. For regular readers of my blog this will not be surprising. I am a little late with this post, but I wanted to report back the best of my findings.

Kabab Cafe (Astoria)

Spices on a Plate As has already been discussed in numerous places on this blog, I’m a bit of a sucker for Anthony Bourdain. I am a wee bit embarrassed by it, however it has also lead me to more than one good meal. This is one of those good meals.

As has already been discussed in numerous places in the blogosphere, there are downsides to Kabab Cafe. It can be expensive. There is no menu. The dude is crazy. It’s small. They serve weird food. All of these are right. If these are things that will turn you away from a restaurant, I do not recommend Kabab Cafe.

If you’re like me, though, and bit parts of big animals served by a mad scientist from a kitchen the size of a gas station bathroom turns you on, this is the place for you.

A big portion of my enjoyment of the place was watching the owner/chef, Ali work. Not the part when he laid into his poor assistant (a thankless job, it appeared). Rather his flicking of spices this way and that, the clatter of pans and disorganized tossing of ingredients which all made their way to my plate, turning out as great dishes.

I was taken aback upon walking in, where I was gruffly asked, nay, barked at, what I wanted to eat. I didn’t know, so I was given the option of meat or veg. I caught up to the moment and mentioned I was here for dead animal–the good parts. We were seated and given plates (shown above) of spice along with bread and hummus for dipping. Then the good stuff started coming out. First was a rich sauce of braised cheeks and hearts over lightly scrambled eggs. I use ‘over’ loosely as it was sort of an un-pretty pile of reddish lump on my plate. That said, it tasted great. None of the dishes were overly photogenic, and in fact the next three looked so alike it took in depth analysis to remember which was what. Second up, though was sweetbreads. This was the most traditional of the dishes, followed by the brains, which were a favorite of mine–these pan-fried ones were significantly better than the steamed version I’d had in Laos. Finally we had to cry uncle after a plate of kidneys–we were too full to see what the mad scientist would bring us next. The total for this,  4 smallish plates with bread and snacks plus a few drinks was around $80 in the end. Not cheap. Be prepared for this if you go. But do go if you love great meat in interesting preparations. I thought the food was delicious and the setting unique and that it was worth every penny.

Kabab Café on Urbanspoon

Maima’s Liberian Bistro

Liberian Seafood Soup at Maima's

When I first read about Maima’s it was about Liberian food and that it seemed similar to Ghanaian, a favorite of mine. I stored it in the back of my head. Then it popped up again–winning an award for being one of the spiciest foods in NYC. Again, a favorite food of mine (anything spicy). It had to be done.

Had to, despite being a little out of the way and in a neighborhood that us two were so out of place in that we got asked twice in the block between the car and the restaurant if we were lost. By the cops. We were impressed-taking preventative measures or being helpful? Unclear. Once in the restaurant we would have been out of place, had there been anyone else there. We ordered seafood soup (pictured) and chicken stew.

Aside from containing nearly an entire crab, multiple prawns, clams and a good chunk of fish, the soup had tripe, chicken feet and a pork…knuckle? I was impressed at the array of stuff in it, as a sopped it up with fufu, the thick starch it was served with. It was spicy in the best kind of way, a slow burn that works its way into every part of your mouth, including the outside, leaving you with fruit punch lips akin to that kid in elementary school. The chicken was less spicy, but possibly even more flavorful–the underlying richness in these foods, the warmth and flavor that is cooked into them really sets them apart. A pair of gentleman in cable company uniforms sat at one of the other tables. They held their giggles at our tears of pain and joy regarding the spice level and asked us if we were enjoying it. We were. They were from Liberia, they told us, and loved the food at Maima’s. It was just like what their mama would make in Africa. If that is not what an immigrant cuisine restaurant can strive for, I’m not sure what is. All I know is that I’d like to borrow a Liberian mama (Maima?) to start a restaurant in Seattle.

Maima's Liberian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Fine Foods

Xi'an Fine Foods Noodles Xi’an Fine Foods is no news to people in New York. I’d like to hope that anyone who truly loves great food wouldn’t find it news either. The shop we went to is in the basement of the Flushing Mall (Mall being a loosely used term). Zigging and zagging through a maze of deliciousness, we got distracted by a dumpling here, a soup there, before we got to this stand. Lamb hand pulled noodles were the only thing on my mind. Until I looked at the menu, then I wanted everything. But I was there for the noodles, and I’d found to many distractions on my way in to afford more stomach room.

Those noodles? the most friendly little texture a noodle ever did have. Filling my mouth with big thick noodle, then chewing apart with the lightest of toothy touches. The flavor stood up to the texture, spicy, savory, that combination of middle-eastern cumin edge with bright, popping Chinese cooking techniques. This is the noodle dish that (my) dreams are made of.

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

We actually ended up going here twice by accident. That was a very happy accident. Disappointed that New Yeah Shanghai House, our favorite soup dumplings, or XLB, seemed to have closed, we had researched what the next best might be and come up with Nan Xiang. We went, just the two of us, and really enjoyed them. I didn’t think they were as good as New Yeah, but I did like it better than those from Joe’s Shanghai and a number of others in New York.

A few days later we were headed back to Flushing Chinatown with my friend T., a Flushing native–in fact, her dad owns a restaurant in the area, which has sadly been closed every time I’ve been in town! I’ve had his food though–me, her fathers lobster sauce and a 5 hour drive. It was not pretty. Right, back to Nan Xiang. T. was excited to bring us to her favorite XLB spot in the hood, which was, of course…Nan Xiang. She felt bad that we had already been, but us, having been already, were not complaining. The food was again great, this time we were able to branch out and try a few more things. I wasn’t a fan of their other dumplings, but the noodles and the rice cake dishes were both excellent.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao Soup Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

And then…

We found a giant pile of frozen awesome

It was almost 100 degrees out and this was mango flavored frozen awesome from a basement of a mall behind Nan Xiang.

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Aura at Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler

Whistler is like a second home for me, I grew up flying down its slopes and was raised on the what little great food was available there in 1989. Not to sound too much like an old-timer, but when people ask me for a restaurant recommendation in Whistler, both the places I suggest have been open since the mid-80s, Sushi Village and the Rimrock. Now I have a third suggestion. Though I’ve been there a tiny fraction (okay, the once) of the times I’ve been to the others, I’m inspired and hopeful about the ambitious, innovative and yet totally fitting menu that Aura, at the new and already under new management restaurant at the Nita Lake Lodge.

Like so many restaurants, Aura had an off-season prix-fixe menu that was a great value. We ended up there because my father had been previously for cocktails and snacks on the porch and was impressed, meanwhile the Rimrock was closed for a private party and the Bearfoot Bistro (another place I’d heard good things about and is not affordable in-season) couldn’t be bothered to answer their phone. I mentioned on Twitter that we would be checking out Aura, and the restaurant wrote back, excited. I mention this only because some of the treatment we got is (most likely) not normal. After talking with the manager I learned that he and the chef had previously worked together at the famed Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. It made sense that the adventurous yet locally focused food had a history in Tofino, as between the Wick Inn and Sooke Harbour House, that’s what the town is building a name around.

You can see for yourself that the menu is ambitious and creative. While I was sad that they didn’t have the chicken oysters in savory oatmeal while I was there, I enjoyed my appetizer which was the a duck confit agnolotti afloat in a mushroom broth so rich that  Robin Hood would have been eying it. The pasta on the agnolotti was rolled thicker than ideal, but it held up to the broth because of this, and once opened, the soup was further enhanced by the meat. My dad had a seafood ceviche trio that was fresh and bright, accompanied by angostura bitters foam (mandatory eye roll for foam), compressed watermelon (hitting food trend nail on head) and my favorite part, the granulated local honey. The sweet of the honey and fruit matched up well with the seafood, but it was the texture of the granulated honey that I thought made the dish, that little bit of crunchy sweetness with the soft seafood.

After our appetizers and our ridiculously cheaply priced and good cocktails, the chef came out to say hello. He mentioned that he was doing all his charcuterie in house. I know that my face lit up. I love cured meat like a fat kid loves…well, cured meat. He very kindly brought us a charcuterie sampler which was accompanied by a lovely fruit beer (not my usual style, but it paired perfectly). My favorite from the platter was the veal cheek pastrami, though the pickled tongue was also delicious.

As part of the off-season, prix-fixe, $41, 3 course menu (in season, the chef told us, there would be more options, but it would be more expensive), we got the previously mentioned appetizers, as well as mains and a dessert. The amuse bouche was a nice touch, though not overly memorable. For our mains, my dad’s tongue twister of a dish was charred arctic char with swiss chard (hardy har har). A perfectly cooked piece of fish with lovely accompaniments but my braised veal with buttermilk spaetzle was unbelievably good. My dad refused to believe that such flavor came from simply grilled and braised meat could be so good and was asking for what spices were used. I just continued to fork off pieces of meat. Did I mention the amount of meat on this dish could have fed a family of four? We finished up with dessert–or in my case a cheese plate of local varieties, which was nice, as I had never tried any of them before.

Overall, the meal was an incredible deal and while I will definitely be back for the prix-fixe menu for as long as it remains such a good value (three courses including an entree big enough for leftovers for $41). Most of all, though, the $7-10 cocktails and the charcuterie plate really stood out for me, which means I think I know where I’m going drinking next time I’m up in Whistler. As is often the case with ambitious chefs, I worry that the crowd willing to put down the cash for the food will be too stodgy for the creativity it offers and that by the time I return in the next off-season for a second helping, the chef will have been stifled. All I can do for now is keep my fingers crossed and plan my next meal.

Eating in Washington D.C.: Ben’s and Amys’

Somehow, in my entire life, I had somehow neglected to ever get to our nation’s capitol. This little situation was rectified recently when I landed for the wedding of friends of mine. Tracey, another college friend of mine, was excited to take this moment to show me the food of the area. So, I have to admit, I walked by the White House on the way to a sandwich shop. I did see the Washington Monument from the deck of a bar serving me drinks. My trip was not entirely void of culture, history and that thing, housed in the city, oh, yeah, our government?

That said, time was limited and the food was delicious. Ben’s is a Washington tradition, but chili poured over a hot dog is not really my type of food. Hesitantly, I agreed to go, since she was the guide. I regretted ever having doubted Tracey’s excellent taste. That is a woman who knows her food.And Ben’s? It is a place that knows their ‘half-smoke’ aka what the rest of us call a chili dog. The meat itself was what I felt really made the combination work. The whole thing was a messy proposition, with the chili soaking into the vaguely sweet, yet bland bread, transforming it into a spice-spiked but disintegrating partner of the meat. The meat held up though, like a circus strongman lifting balloon dumbbells of bun. That little snap of skin that’s required of meat in tube form was present, as was the requisite grill flavor. Sitting at the counter, we soaked in the atmosphere of Ben’s, like the bread soaked in the chili. Bustling, hustling, the staff were hard-working, but clearly proud of their handi-work and pleased with the grins and groans of enjoyment coming from us–and everyone chowing down in the restaurant.
Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

Later that day we trekked out to a different part of town, weathering high heat and humidity to walk a mile from the nearest subway station. Again, I silently questioned the worth of this trip. Both Tracey and a number of my Twitter buddies had suggested it. But pizza? I can get good pizza anywhere. And it’s hot. And I’m sweaty. Are we there yet? Then we were there, and when I took my seat at the bar and these showed up next to me:
Two Amy's Anchovies

Right there, by my left elbow, were hundreds of anchovies, silently curing in zippy, fragrant olive oil. Clearly there was one order that I was going to make before I got any further.

 

Two Amys' Pepper and AnchoviesThe anchovies, the very same ones I was snuggling up to at the bar, were presented to me like fishy stripes amongst the rainbow of soft grilled peppers. Olive oil was in no short supply in this dish, nor in any dish at Two Amys’. Lucky for us eaters, they use a good kind, adding a light zing to everything. But next up for us was a totally different kind of fat. Possibly my favorite for eating straight up. The kind that comes from a certain adorably dirty, four legged animal. That makes an oink. Lardo! Sliced in to long ribbons, like handmade papardelle noodles at an Italian restaurant. Noodles these weren’t, though. Thin slips of meat would disappear within a mere instant of landing on your tongue, leaving only a porky memory of what once was. Lardo, cured pieces of fat back, is light in texture and rich in taste. The whole plate that came as a starter barely had a dent in it by the time our pizza arrived.

Clam Pizza at Two Amys'Yeah, it was as good as it looks. Somehow I remained un-bothered by the shell on clams that had to be picked apart before we could eat. The juices were immediately diluted amongst the other juices in which the herbs were afloat, from the cheese and of course the ever present olive oil.

The meal was overall incredibly good. We were a little squished in against the bar, but the advent of air-conditioning after our walk was such a relief that our own comfort was plenty mollified. The service was a little harried and flaked out–we had to wait for a knife to slice our pizza, for example. That said, as you can tell from the post, the food quality was high enough to over come any misgivings about the service.

2 Amys on Urbanspoon

Beijing Part 5: Regional Chinese Food

As I finish my summary of eating in Beijing, China for eleven days last fall, I contemplate the irony of the fact that an 11 day trip took me 11 months to finish writing up. Yet, the impact that the food of Beijing made on me is fully worth the patience of my readers and time I’ve spent thinking about what was so amazing about it.

While I’ve already written about the foods from two regions, Sichuan and Xinjiang, as well as Beijing’s Street Food and own cuisine, the thing that truly floored me, amazed me and made me feel as though I knew just so little about the cuisine of such a vast country was all the regional dishes. I knew the basics, Peking duck is from Beijing, Sichuanese food is common in Seattle, I knew Cantonese, but with the guidance of my amazing friends, Nick and Even, we took a tour of the foods of so very many different foods.

In summarizing the foods of these various cultures, it is hard to get beyond broad generalizations. The foods of Sichuan were hot with spice and cool with Sichuan peppercorns. The foods of Western China, aka Xinjiang, were closer to Indian or Afghani or even Turkish food than anything else I’d had. Those I at least had known something about before the trip. Then Nick led us down a whole new path. I’ll be summarizing a few of those ‘new path’ meals here.

With a group of six people–assorted ex-pat friends of theirs joined us–at a Shaanxi restaurant, we were able to order a good amount of food. The restaurant was a great little spot, just off of a main road, where I never would have thought to look. I took a card to remember the name of the place, so I could recommend it in the future–I can still remember the frustration when I opened a coat pocket, months later to see the washed, shredded, card. Fear not, the powers of Google returned it to me! (Yeah, I just spent 20 minutes Google-ing it so you can get to it. Thank me later). This was probably the first recommendation I’d give for a traveler to Beijing, as it was totally different from anything you get at home, yet totally identifiable. And totally, completely and utterly delicious.

From the top left corner, you can learn that I have no idea what that first dish is. But it involved noodles and spicy sauce. Next to it was the century egg, my first experience with them, which I enjoyed, despite their reputation for stinkitude. In the bottom right is longevity noodle, which is all one noodle. Yeah, that was hard to share between all of us (especially since it was topped with an egg). The fourth dish shown here is a wasabi buckwheat noodle, which reminded more of Japanese food than anything else. I always find experiences like that refreshing, to remember that no culture is in isolation–authenticity is such a relative term. But before we dwell further….the rest of the dishes (not all of them. I spared you photos of the more boring looking, but no less tasty dishes, such as bitter melon).

Okay, now we’re at the good stuff. In the bottom left, you see Brett and I looking extremely apprehensive at the amount of food that has just arrived and continues to arrive. By the minute! Next to that is a mutton and dumpling soup. That is, mutton, in dumplings, in soup. On the top right is one of my favorites from a meal that was full of amazing food, the green noodles (okay, them being green helped them in that favoritism) which you pulled out, dunked in to the murky, chile-spiked sauce next to it, then ate. The real winner, though, overall, was the lamb-burgeresque thing pictured on the top left. Like a soft, buttery English muffin, filled with tender, savory, roast lamb, topped with cilantro. Oh, damn, I just drooled on the keyboard remembering that dish. Unrelated: I think we’re planning a return to China soon. Oh, wait, that was totally related.

At this point we took it upon ourselves to continue exploring regional foods and ended up at the rather upscale, highly recommended, Three Guizhou men. I knew basically nothing about Guizhou food, so it was a learning experience, for sure. What I found so interesting as I traveled the various culinary regions, was, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. For example, that dish in the upper left? For all the description I could give you, it was basically a sweet corn tamale. A damn good one. Lower right? That’s a potato pancake. I’ll hesitate to say ‘latke’ and give away my own heritage, but the similarities were there. Note to self: this Chanukah, add spicy chili peppers to latke plate. The other two pictures are a dish that, as it arrived we slowly realized was basically hashbrowns and bacon. And chilis, of course. Okay, conclusion? American breakfast+chili peppers=Guizhou food. Overall the food was good and quite spicy, but I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you were specifically seeking out Guizhou food and a nice meal. Also–it was hard to find, hidden in an alley behind an Olympic venue.

After having ventured on our own, we decided to return to the wisdom of Nick and Even for a little weekend lunch. Even had lived in Yunnan province prior to finishing school and moving to Beijing, so she offered to be our tour guide through the food.

This food was slightly more towards Thai or even Vietnamese food, I thought, especially ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’, not shown, which are the signature dish of the region. Basically a big bowl of noodle soup with stuff in it, but I agreed with Even when she said she didn’t think it was really the highlight of the cuisine. We did learn some really great things at the meal, and I enjoyed the food that was further from what I’d had before. We started with a salad of Chrysanthemum greens (bottom right), which were lightly dressed and slightly spiced. The texture was surprising, not at all reminiscent of the frisee which it resembles, but lighter, friendlier. We had a few other, non-pictured dishes (the noodles, a purple fried rice in a pineapple), but the chicken in the bottom left was one that stood out as being exceptionally perfectly cooked and spiced. The whole fried fish (served with spices) on the top left was a favorite of mine–though whole fish always will be–and it taught us a great fact: in China, you don’t flip the fish. You have to pick the meat on the bottom from the top, because if you flip it over to get to that meat, you flip the boat that we are all in. Makes sense to me, I sure as hell haven’t flipped a fish since then. Lastly, in the upper right, you’ll find Yunnan Fried Cheese. Somewhere between doughnut and mozzarella stick, lies these. Crunchy on the outside, stretchy on the inside and dusted with what I think is a combination of sugar and MSG, I secretly loved them. Though we all know I have a mozzarella stick issue.

What, you’re still reading? You’re either bored, hungry, or planning a trip to Beijing. Okay, here it is though, the final meal to go up on the blog, the final meal we ate on the trip. Before leaving, Nick insisted on taking us to one more stop, lunch on the way to the airport, at a Hunan restaurant. There are a million restaurants in the U.S. that use the word Hunan in them. Very few of them serve Hunanese food. I’m eternally thankful that I had the chance to experience real Hunan food though, because I now understand a tiny fragment of this wild, mysterious cuisine.

What do I mean by wild and mysterious? Well, on the upper right, you’ll see a dish that I am told is “wild Hunan vegetable”. No other info and no English name, because, well, why give an English name to something that only grows in Hunan Province? It was sort of halfway between a mushroom and a green, which only belabors the point that in addition to having no English name, it is very difficult to describe. So I won’t. Below that, you’ll find stir-fried donkey meat, which was far better than I would have guessed. Donkey seems to do very well at absorbing the flavors around it, so the meat was fragrant with the peppers that surrounded it. Cold tendon, bottom left, is fast becoming my go-to dish on any Chinese menu that has it, and this Hunan version was up to par. Above that is a classic Hunan dish, a special, Hunanese type of bacon, with a deep, rich, smokey flavor. I believe here we had it over tofu, which soaked up additional smokiness from being cooked with the bacon. Imagine the best bacon you’ve ever had? Now imagine better: Hunan Bacon.

And with that, we hopped in the cab and headed to the airport. Arriving back in Seattle, we made our next meal the same as the one before we left for China: Sichuanese Hot Pot. Yeah, we’re incorrigible.

L’Shana Tovah and Happy Shakshouka Season

A glass of wine, thick, crunchy bread and a pot full of shakshouka is all a girl needs to get through fall. I hadn’t timed my serving of this Israeli (breakfast) stew to match with the Jewish new year, the holiday of Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps it was all on my mind, so I’ll embrace the timing as I tell you the story of this delectable stew.

Shakshouka is a soul warming dish, a centerpiece to a table around which strangers or family can gather and dip their bread together. One of those dishes that can call people to dine with aroma alone, as it wafts from the kitchen. The weather was decidedly fall like and B’s mom was in town, our vegetables from the garden were going gangbusters. It is shakshouka season.

I make no claim on the authenticity of my shakshouka, I simply know how I make it and my own love for this recipe. I learned it from a pair of Israeli girls in a beach town in southern Ecuador during the national holiday there. I had taken a mini-break from my job and traveled to the beach, planning to spend a few nights in Puerto Lopez, then move south to Montanitas. In Puerto Lopez I was told I’d be crazy to think I could get a hotel room in Montanitas, so I traveled south a day early to make arrangements for the next night. Truly, there was not a room in the town, but this pair of Israeli ladies heard me bargaining with the hotel owner (he was trying to charge me an obscene price to sleep on the couch in the lobby, with nowhere to lock my stuff). They had an extra bed in their room, I could stay there. Arrangements were made with the hotel owner and I left, to return the next day to my room.

It was a different town the following night. For months in Ecuador I had seen no sign of wealth, Americanization or western fashion, suddenly the town was filled with Ecuadorians in Prada, Gucci, driving BMWs, it was a surreal world. Restaurants were packed, offering dinners at five times the normal cost. The Israeli girls and I were joined by a Canadian gal and we wandered the street in search of a reasonably priced dinner. None was to be had. Passing a random, somewhat sorry, vegetable stand, the girls declared that they would cook for us. We picked up a few ingredients and within 15 minutes, these ladies had turned about a dollar’s worth of ingredients into one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.

At its absolute simplest, Shakshouka involves this:

5 medium sized tomatoes, in chunks
1 Onion, sliced
Olive oil
Garlic
Salt and Pepper
2 Eggs
Bread

(Serves 2)
You simply saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil, season with salt and pepper (lots of pepper–its the main flavoring here), add the tomatoes, stirring until soft, simmering for a few minutes, then break the eggs over the top, allowing them to poach in the liquid. When the whites are no longer translucent, pull the dish off the stove and serve with crusty bread, breaking the bread off and picking up stew and eggs with it.

That was the version (I think we may have added a few bell peppers) that I ate that night in Ecuador. I have made a grand variety of versions since then, for large groups of hungry college students, for picky eating children, for anyone, and it is always a hit. Last night was the most extravagant version I’ve ever made.

(Serves 4)

4 medium sized tomatoes, in chunks
1 zucchini or summer squash
2 carrots
6 cloves of garlic
1 pound ground lamb
a handful of various types of hot and sweet peppers
1 teaspoon of cumin seed
1 small can of tomato paste
1 Onion, sliced
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper
4 Eggs
Bread

This version is made in much the same way as the basic version. Saute the peppers, onions, garlic, tomato paste and cumin seed in olive oil, add the tomatoes, lamb, carrots and squash, season with salt and a lot of pepper, let the whole thing simmer for about ten minutes, then add the eggs to poach, serving with crusty bread.

Locanda Verde and Staple and Fancy: On Restaurant Design

The other day, as I sat in Staple and Fancy Mercantile and tried to pin point exactly what was so pleasant about where I was, it suddenly hit me: Like Locanda Verde in Manhattan, it seemed to be perfectly designed as a restaurant. Staple and Fancy is the latest addition to Ethan Stowell’s restaurant empire in Seattle, while Locanda Verde is my favorite stop from an epic eating adventure I recently had in New York

Locanda Verde Interior

Locanda Verde, New York City

From the moment I stepped into Locanda Verde, I felt like it was the best designed restaurant into which I had ever stepped. Each design element (like, say, the random silver champagne bucket in the picture above) seemed to be so beautiful in its own right, yet so purposeful. B thought there was too much stuff on the walls, but to me, keeping the wine bottles, cookbooks, glasses and spices displayed showed off what they have to offer while impressing with the perfection and organization. Then there was the perfect lighting. Bright, as it was day, yet warm and soft, giving an intimate feel. The division of the large room into various sections by way of tall leather seating helped that feeling. Yet the smooth floor and open kitchen indicated the casual feel expected from diners.

Locanda Verde Ricotta

Sheep's Milk Ricotta at Locanda Verde

At Locanda Verde we enjoyed their signature dish, the ricotta shown above, and one of the most perfect renditions of steak tartare I’ve ever seen, alongside a few beverages. This was one of the few moments on an eating tour I’ve desired nothing more than to sink into a chair and order everything else on the menu. To spend my day awash in the perfect lighting, exploring the restaurant and its menu. But alas, we moved on to other places–more to come on those in a future post.

When I first arrived at Staple and Fancy it immediately struck me as being, like Locanda, perfectly lit. Also a large space, the booths that divided the room from the kitchen were designed well to both be a part of the room and break it into smaller spaces. The exposed brick along the opposing wall could be a cold element, but when paired with glass walls on both ends–one facing Ballard Avenue, one towards Renee Erickson’s Walrus and Carpenter Bar, it was quite fitting with the rest of the room. The orientation of the chairs, the booths and the open kitchen allow each table to view either the kitchen or one of the two windows, so despite the odd room shape and solid walls, it felt both spacious and comfortable to have a long, leisurely meal. Which is just what we did on a recent Friday night.

I don’t remember what each part of the four course ‘Fancy Menu’ included–other than the fact that it was more than four courses. There were tiny plates of tartines, treats of all types and nibbles coming from every direction. We had the sommelier pair up half glasses of wine for us, which were all incredibly good, including one which I had to write down so I could find it again. From the small plates we moved on to a pasta course (an example of Stowell’s incredible gnocchi), a meat course (an enormous chunk of wonderfully grilled pork) and a dessert course, all of which were excellent. Let me pause on the dessert, as B and I are not normally sweets people (I’d trade most desserts for a second pasta course in a heartbeat). There were choices for dessert (the rest of the Fancy menu is Chef’s choice), though for both of us the Ricotta Cheesecake was the easy option. It was so light, so savory, and yet so perfectly drizzled with berry sauce, that in an instant we both became dessert people–the kind who fight for the last crumb of crust, licking the final bits of whipped, light, cheesecake from our spoons. I’d like to get back there again, as I am not comfortable passing a strong judgment (like that this may be my new favorite restaurant) on some place I’ve only been once. Given that it would only be stealing the title from one of Stowell’s other restaurants (Anchovies and Olives), I’m only hesitating a little. Unfortunately, it seems word has escaped about Staple and Fancy, as reservations were not as easy to come by as I’d hoped when I tried to return.

Both Locanda Verde and Staple and Fancy dazzled me with their beautiful, comfortable interiors and made me want more of their delicious food. To have had such a wonderful experience in the capitol of dining out (Manhattan) and to come home, and a short while later have just such a meal here in Seattle means that I’ve now got evidence to support my claim of what a great food city we’ve got here in Seattle.

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China Part 4: Beijing Foods, Hot Pot and Miscellany

My Ursine Counterpart: He didn't stop eating the whole time!

Oh, what? I went to China? Oh, yeah, last December! And I’m still within the one year limit of when I returned from the trip to get all the posts up. After this there is just one more! So without further ado: Beijing-style food and other delicious miscellany.

Peking Duck with all the fixings

Peking duck is pretty much the most symbolic dish of Beijing, being as it shares the name with the city. Whole meals of a single roasted protein aren’t normally my thing, but I couldn’t leave without trying it and my wonderful friends directed me towards a new-ish place not far from where we were staying that would do a great job while avoiding the tourist pomp and circumstance of certain other places.

Jing Zun was convenient to the hotel we were at right then and to the subway. We ordered the duck of course, with the bones fried up afterwards. Our waitress notified us when our duck was being cut and it was like a culinary work of art. The chef made each cut with purpose, every piece of duck with its own place.

Chef cutting our duck up

Then the masterpiece was presented to us. Nothing grand mind you, was done. The crisp white uniform should convey the hospital-like cleanliness and efficiency that gave the restaurant a scrubbed feeling. All of that cool exterior halted when one sweet piece of duck was placed in the mouth.

Delicious Peking Duck

As is tradition, the duck was served with thin, crepe-like pancakes, sauce and scallion slices. The skin as like candy: crisp and sweet, yet meltingly rich. The meat itself was what surprised me the most, managing to be intensely flavorful without being overwhelmingly duck-y. It was apparent immediately to me that I had discounted this meal as just another piece of roast meat. This was truly a masterpiece.

Fried Duck Bones

Just in case that got too serious for you: we finished up with fried duck bones, which turned out to be like the best chicken wings ever did a whole bunch of crack and showed up at an Animal House party.

The other dish that we had pretty much planned our trip around was hot pot. We love hot pot. It actually cures everything. Bad days, illness, whatever. It is addicting, fun and delightful. We went to our first hot pot the night we arrived in Beijing at a place called Hai Di Lao. It was a fancy type place with kung fu noodles that are basically hand pulled noodles prepared while a guy dances around. It was a bit of a show, but satisfied a need.

The second time we got hot pot was at the height of me being sick (if you didn’t read the other China posts, or have forgotten, I had pneumonia or something close). As we waited for seats, I was white as a ghost and standing in 15 degree weather in a tank top while dripping sweat. Everyone was looking at me like I was out of my mind. That place was fabulous. No English menu, we were pointing and shooting. Later, we learned that the guy next to us lived in Vancouver and spoke perfect English. Apparently he just didn’t pity us enough to help us order. Thanks, dude.

Hot Pot Pot ready for cooking

If you’re not familiar, hot pot basically involves a steaming pot of spicy broth, into which you dip raw meats and vegetables to cook them. You then dip it into a sauce to cool it off a little.

Beef: It's what's for dinner!

Hot Pot Meat, sliced, ready to go

Cow Tummies!

And just for enduring that ugliness….

Hot Pot Dipping Sauce

Like an artists palette, no? I don’t know the names of these places, but as per usual, if you are interested in going to any of them I can describe the street and location. Just let me know!

And then one more place that served Beijing style food that we really liked: Lao Man Dumpling. We walked in, just B and me, and panicked. It seemed people were taking numbers. We mimed some numbers. We got one. Wait. How will we know when we get called? Yeah, luckily when nobody answers, they all motion to the white kids. We also learned from some friendly English speakers that the place had one elusive English menu. I managed to order some food. Dumplings, in fact.

The most perfect little dumplings I’d had all trip. We ordered a few different kinds, all were great. There was also some pretty good shrimp, a decent cold mixed appetizer and the second biggest food fail of our trip. I thought I ordered some type of noodle. What I got? Mush. Not even tasty mush. Gross, nasty, baby food colored, throw up tasting mush.

You might be curious as to what, then makes the list as the biggest food fail of our trip? Well, if you know me you know I like bacon. So how could I resist the bacon pastry? It looked so perfect!

Oh Sigh. I’m not sure I can put into words just how bad this was. But B took a photo essay of my reactions as I ate this, and it was very telling. However, nobody else gets to see those pictures.