I HEART BACON
Thursday, April 14th, 2005

Date Night #6: Sambar and Elemental

After reading Nancy Leson’s review of elemental@GASWORKS, I decided it would make a perfect Date Night restaurant. It sounded tricky to get a table, so I told Zach I’d pick him up right after work and we’d head over early to make cocktail hour and wait for a table. We got there at 5:30pm, but all of the 6 tables were already taken. The woman chef looked up as we walked in and gruffly told us that they were full until 9:30pm. I asked if we could put our name on a list or if we should just come back. She said “No” and then returned to cooking. I looked at Zach wondering why on earth this place got such favorable reviews. The man at the counter quickly explained that “No” meant they didn’t have a waiting list, but “Yes” we should come back. We left upset and hungry.

Once we were in the car, we debated whether or not to come back later for dinner. My vote was no, because I tend to hold a grudge when someone is that rude—especially in the restaurant business. But Zach tends to be more rational and convinced me we should still give it a try. We headed to Sambar for a cocktail and to kill some time.

Sambar always has unusual and fantastic seasonal drinks, so I was excited to try something new. I ordered a mango batida ($9), which was packed with sweet mango flavor—although it was a little hard to suck through the straw. Zach had a tamarind daiquiri ($9), which was tart, tangy and refreshing. It was made with dark rum, tamarind puree, brown sugar, ancho chili and Grand Marnier.

We also ordered a Croque Monsieur ($5) and the Navarin Printanier special ($14.50) because we knew we wouldn’t last until 9pm without a snack. The Croque Monsieur was the perfect example of what a ham and cheese sandwich should be. It was buttery and crisp, but not greasy, with just a thin slice of ham and the perfect amount of gooey, melted cheese. The Navarin Printanier (spring lamb stew) was divine—a rich and silky stew with hunks of tender, tender lamb and spring vegetables. It came in the cutest little cast iron pot, but it only held about a half cup of stew. It was really expensive considering the portion size, but also so amazing and worth it. This is kind of the theme at Sambar. Everything is delicious and of excellent quality but it’s also very pricey, so after our cocktail and snack we decided to head somewhere less expensive for a second cocktail.

We ended up at Jitterbug in Wallingford, where they serve my favorite cocktail: The Pomegranate Splash. It’s made from pomegranate molasses, Ketel One, lemon juice (from 1/2 a lemon) and a splash of simple syrup, then served in a martini glass rimmed with sumac sugar. It’s tart and sweet and delicious. We hung around as long as we could, but by 8pm we were really hungry and decided to head back to elemental.

When we arrived I think the owners were both shocked to see that we came back. There were two seats open in the “lounge” area where we sat and had yet another cocktail while waiting for a table. We asked the owner/bartender/waiter to surprise us with drinks because we were in the mood for something unusual. Zach ended up with a Becherovka and tonic, which was bitter but delicious. It had a strong smell of cinnamon, which I loved. I had a “Jersey Lily“ which was made with Chartreuse, bitters and brandy. It was good, but I have yet to develop a true love for brandy.

A few minutes after we received our drinks we were seated at a table and looking over the menu. You can order from a selection of plates ranging in price from $5 to $16 or for $35 you can order three plates from three different price ranges. Some of the menu titles were a bit cryptic, but we didn’t ask for details because we wanted the surprise.

Our first course was the lamb tongue and salmon mousse. The salmon mousse was light and airy with a great salmon flavor and served with perfectly toasted crostini. I really enjoyed the mousse, but Zach found it to be somewhat tame. The lamb tongue was eyes-rolling-back-into-the-head amazing. It was braised in Madeira and red wine for about 45 minutes until it was tender and succulent. It was served with pistachios and a hunk of buttery brioche.

The second course was a crab cake and mussels with chorizo and pepper. The mussels were plump and sweet with a deliciously hot broth (“pepper” turned out to be jalapeño). I was disappointed in the chorizo because it was more like plain sausage and was lacking the taste and dark red color that comes from ample paprika. The crab “cake” turned out to be a wedge of crab cornbread and it was good. It was slightly sweet and flavored with bits of crab. It was served with a creamy and rich avocado cream that was a perfect match.

Our last course was meatloaf and pig in blankets (guess which one I ordered). The “meatloaf” was made from veal and foie gras. As you can probably assume, it was the best meatloaf that either of us have ever eaten. Or even dreamed about. It had a wonderful, soft texture and was so decadent. My dish paled in comparison, but was still tasty. It was moist, pulled pork tucked into tender crepes and served with a bright red ancho cherry sauce that was slightly sweet and slightly hot.

When we left, it was really, really late and we were stuffed to the point of being uncomfortable, but we were glad we had come back. Or we were just really drunk. I’m not sure which.


Elemental
Elemental on Urbanspoon

Sambar
Sambar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 12th, 2005

Date Night #5: Chez Gaudy

It was Zach’s turn to choose a restaurant for date night and he picked Chez Gaudy—a place near his apartment that we had both seen and were curious about. It’s so dimly lit that from the outside it looks like a closed antique store. We found out it was owned by the same people who run Bleu Bistro, which is a cave-like bar / restaurant on Broadway that has odd and secluded eating cubbies. We heard that Chez Gaudy was similar in style and filled with stuff you’d find in a junk store, and all of it is for sale (we’re not sure if that last bit is true, but that’s what we heard).

The restaurant was very dark and romantic, with lots of cute eating nooks, but the tables were so close together that it was hard to navigate through the restaurant. We started with some fantastic cocktails; I had a lemon drop with tequila and Zach had a Negroni. The 30+ page menu was overwhelming and confusing, so I was frustrated after about page 5. I was also astounded that only 4 pages out of 30 were dedicated to food (this is the place to go for a drink). The clincher was that there were only 3 entrees that weren’t vegetarian. I was sad because I was craving steak in a bad way.

The waitress brought us a complimentary appetizer plate that came with crackers (I was strangely excited and at the same time disappointed that they were Ritz), an olive tapenade, juicy and nicely spiced marinated peppers, a handful of spinach with a miso and wasabi dressing, deli-style sliced gouda cheese, and a great marinated portobello. It was surprisingly good and I noticed that the other tables were forgoing dinner and ordering large snack platters that looked similar to our appetizer plate. I was starting to think that maybe we should have followed suit.

For dinner, I had the Verona, which was a very rich and cheesy chicken pasta dish. It was the kind of meal that gets boring after the third bite, and was so thick with cream that I was dying for a glass of water. Zach had a faux sausage pasta dish, which he enjoyed, but I didn’t care for because it was loaded with cumin. When cumin is cooked and blended with other ingredients, I love it, but when it’s sprinkled on raw, I have a strong aversion to it.

Dinner came to $70 with tip, and we both decided that it wasn’t worth the money at all. We will however be back for some drinks and maybe a plate of nibbles.

Chez Gaudy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 9th, 2005

Date Night #4: I Heart Hot-Pot

To celebrate Chinese new year, I took Zach out for hot-pot. We were both excited because neither of us had ever tried hot-pot before; my family is Cantonese so we don’t eat much Szechuan cooking (and if we do, we don’t tell my grandma).

A friend of mine told me about a place on 12th and Jackson called Szechuan Cuisine and said it has the best hot-pot in town. I decided that this was the perfect time to try it out, but when we arrived, the place was packed and there were ten people ahead of us waiting for a table. I was too hungry to wait an hour, so we walked across the street and ate at 7 Stars Pepper instead.

We started with the scallion pan cake, which was amazing. Zach likened it to eating really delicious sour cream and onion potato chips, but that description doesn’t do it justice. The pan cakes were crispy, flakey, chewy and came with an incredible dipping sauce. I couldn’t figure out what was in the sauce; it was red in color, but instead of being hot, it was slightly sweet and very addictive.

As we were both hot-pot novices, we decided to try the deluxe hot-pot for $11.99 per person. A portable burner was set on our table and turned on high. A large, divided bowl containing two broths, one plain and one very spicy (way too hot for me), was put on the burner to heat. After the broths were simmering, the waitress came out with a seafood platter containing beautiful, tender raw squid, fish, prawns and fish balls. Then came another plate with thick udon noodles, thin glass noodles, tofu and napa cabbage. Finally came a gorgeous platter piled high with paper-thin sliced raw pork, beef and lamb.

We had no clue what the proper procedure was, so the waitress did a little pantomime for us. We started dropping food into the broths and then fished it out with little wire baskets. We then dipped the food into an accompanying peanut sauce, which was less sweet than a thai peanut sauce and very good. I was shocked at how delicious the whole meal was, especially considering its simplicity.

After I ate the last slice of meat, I realized that I had been having a food blackout. I suddenly looked up and realized that there were other people in the restaurant. I had developed tunnel vision and all I could concentrate on was eating and exclaiming how good it was. Over and over again. Luckily, Zach didn’t mind because he was doing the same thing.

Gung Hay Fat Choy!


Seven Stars Pepper Szechuan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 30th, 2005

Date Night #3: Agua Verde / Deep Fry Party

I’ve decided that date night doesn’t necessarily have to involve a new restaurant every time, so I have now expanded it to include restaurants that I haven’t been to in a while. So tonight we went out to Agua Verde.

I really like Agua Verde, especially on sunny days when you can sit outside on the deck and watch the newbie kayakers trying to get into their boats. Agua Verde is a great, casual place that is bright and loud. I don’t always love the food, as it can be hit or miss, but it’s one of those places where I always have a great time. Plus they have really good margaritas.

We started out with chips and salsa. The chips were extra salty (just the way I like them) and Agua Verde has a salsa bar that is fantastic. Zach ordered the carne tacos which are marinated flank steak sautéed with chilies and onions, topped with cotija cheese on flour tortillas. They were really good, but I wanted more of the marinade sauce as the meat seemed just a touch dry.

I had the el antiguo presidente torta: shredded pork with tomato, red onion, lettuce, chipotle mayo and guacamole on a bolillo roll. I had ordered this once before and it was fantastic, so I’ve been dreaming about this sandwich for the past year. Maybe when you fantasize about something for that long you’re bound to be let down, but I think that I may not have received the exact sandwich that I ordered. The torta was loaded down with pork, but it was still in chunks, not shredded. The meat was tender, but not the kind of tender you get when you stew something for an entire day, which is how I remember it being. I actually suspect that they ran out of the usual filling and just threw some leftover pork in there.

All in all, the meal was not as good as I had hoped it would be, but maybe it serves me right for waiting a year between visits and building it up in my head. Or maybe it was just an off night. Either way, I will still go back.

On a side note: I learned about the Shrimposium being hosted at Agua Verde to benefit FORKS (Fields Oceans Ranches Kitchens Stewards). FORKS is a group that exists to work with local food economies and artisan food producers to sustain the long-term health of our food system—always a good thing. The symposium covers the state of shrimp and the shrimp farming industry, which to me actually sounds interesting, so this may be the perfect excuse to return.

After dinner we went to a mah johg / house warming / Chinese new year / deep fry party that a friend of Zach’s was throwing. I need to get on the ball and start planning my parties for the new year, because everyone keeps beating me to the party ideas. Although, it was actually an enlightening experience on how not to host a deep fry party…

The mah johg set never showed up, so I spent my time hanging around the deep fryer and asking way too many questions. Deep frying is a mystical thing to me and I’m amazed that people do it. I’m a little scared of hot oil and I HATE the smell of frying oil and the way it permeates through every fiber of your clothing, hair and skin.

I was glad to see that they were using one of those self-contained deep fryers that looks like a giant crock-pot. The bad thing was that the fryer was set up in a corner behind a door that opened in and the house was packed—probably about eighty people showed up. So you had to wedge yourself between the door and counter and have someone hold the door for you so you didn’t get knocked into the fry pot.

People had brought some weird stuff to fry, like pickles and store bought bags of onion rings that were supposed to be baked. Someone was making catfish that was breaded in cap’n crunch. I was appalled, but of course curious. I tasted it when it came out of the fryer and I have to say, it was freaking delicious. I grilled him about the recipe, which was really simple: just a quick dip in a batter made from beer, flour and baking soda and then rolled in crushed cap’n crunch cereal.

I brought shrimp chips because Zach had never seen them made before and they’re so fun to watch. Most people don’t believe you when you tell them that shrimp chips start out looking like translucent beach glass. When you toss them in the oil nothing happens for the first few seconds, but then they start making a loud crackling noise and look like they’re blooming in the oil. On the first try I put in WAY too many and they were literally coming up and out of the fryer like popcorn in an air popper—except there was no shoot for them to go down and they were covered in hot oil. We quickly adapted to a system of only putting in four or five chips at a time and scooping them out with a slotted spoon (the basket was useless for this, although a pair of tongs might have worked the best), and then laying them on paper towels for a few seconds to drain.

For my party, I am DEFINITELY having at least two fry stations at separate tables and will put them all outside. I think a lot of people have a similar fear and fascination with deep frying, because it was amazing how many wanted to watch the food fry. I will also have the stations fully stocked with paper towels, racks for draining, utensils and food platters. It was creeping me out watching people with greasy hands root around in all the cupboards looking for stuff. The clean up the next day must have been a nightmare, as when we left (quite early), there was already an oil slick on the counter that was heading for the floor.

Agua Verde on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Date Night #2: Takohachi

It’s Zach’s turn to choose a new restaurant for us to try and he picks Takohachi in the International District. Mostly because it has the best sign ever; a bright red octopus wearing a bandana. As we pull up to the restaurant I notice the octopus has a tubular nose that seems oddly familiar. Zach points out that it looks like Q*Bert and it does!

We get inside and it’s a teeny, tiny restaurant that isn’t too clean, but something smells delicious so we sit down. The menu has mostly hot-pot noodles, with a few katsu-type dishes, teriyaki, curries and two types of sushi rolls. In addition to the items listed on the menu they have really cute hand-drawn pictures of the Winter specials.

Zach orders one of the Winter specials, Chiri-Nabe, which is described as a tofu and noodle hot-pot with chili vinegar sauce and your choice of fish or chicken or both. I chose the Tonkatsu with curry.

Zach’s hot pot comes out and it’s beautiful in its blazing hot iron pot. It looks deceptively simple and plain until you taste the broth. The broth is amazing with a slightly sour taste from the vinegar. The noodles seem like they must have been marinated in something or cooked in the broth because they’re so flavorful.

My katsu plate is gigantic. It looks like there might be a pound of beautifully breaded pork. The curry sauce is good as well, not too spicy or interesting on its own, but great with the crisp and juicy pork.

Halfway through our meal I notice a sign advertising homemade furikake (my new favorite condiment), so we order a dish to sprinkle over our rice. Granted, I haven’t had many experiences with furikake, but this one is the best I’ve had. Nice and salty because of something that looks and tastes like salmon jerky. I try and order some to go but then decide to head over to Uwajimaya and see what kind of furikake selection they have.

Our entire bill was under $17 and the lunch prices are even cheaper. They also do take out, so I’m thinking I’ll be frequenting this place.


Saturday, December 18th, 2004

Date Night #1: Pretend Christmas

Zach is going home for the holidays, so we pretended like last night was Christmas. Except there was no family. And we didn’t cook. Okay, maybe I should just say that we went out for a nice evening and exchanged gifts.

We’re trying this new thing where we switch off twice a month and each choose a new place to try out for dinner. It was my turn to pick and I’ve always wanted to check out The Big Picture movie theater in Belltown. So I wanted to find a restaurant in the area where we could grab a quick bite before the 8:30pm showing. I had been hearing buzz about The Apartment Bistro, so decided to try it out.

I was a little worried that it was in Belltown and that it was a Friday night, but I was hoping that maybe the Apartment would be tucked away on a side-street. No such luck. It’s smack dab in the middle of the scene, right next door to Bada Lounge. It was packed—thankfully not with the meat market scene, but an older, after-work type crowd. Unfortunately that didn’t make it any less loud. The space is TINY and there are no carpets or soft things to absorb sound. The kitchen is tucked into the back, but somehow you can hear everything that’s going on and I think they turn up the music to cover the kitchen noise. So I saw a few diners actually screaming at each other to be heard over the noise; not exactly a fine dining environment.

The wait staff was really nice and got us stools at the bar right away. I had a Stoli martini and it was fantastic. Ice cold with just the right ratio of vodka, vermouth and melted ice. For dinner, I ordered the Miso Butterfish (which was actually black cod) and Zach chose the Grilled Rib-Eye with Cabrales Butter. We requested but never received the Caesar salad, which was too bad because it looked really good—the kind with a thick dressing drizzled over whole romaine hearts.

The Miso Butterfish was amazing. The fish was really fresh and absolutely buttery and the sauce was divine. I love miso, but sometimes it can be overpowering. They used it with such restraint that it almost made you wish there was more, until you realized that’s exactly why it’s so delicious. It came with a ball of rice that was sprinkled with a salty, bright green and addictive condiment. The waitress told us it was furikake—I guess I need to make another trip to the ID to pick some up. Underneath the fish was a delicious and pretty radish sprout salad with a light Asian dressing.

Zach’s gigantic rib-eye steak was equally as good. It was flavorful and chewy with wonderfully creamy garlic mashed potatoes. Drinks and dinner were so great that it made me sad that food like this is being served in what is essentially a meat market. But I decided I will have to go back… maybe at 5pm on a Monday it won’t be so crowded.

After dinner we walked down to The Big Picture. I have to say that this place is so cute and comfortable that I wanted to move in. After the experience at dinner, I was surprised that it was almost empty. We had a few cocktails and the ‘champagne popcorn’ (served in a champagne bucket) with cheese sprinkles. Mmmm. Cheese sprinkles.

Before going home, we stopped in for dessert at Il Bistro, again, surprisingly empty. We split a panna cotta garnished with caramel sauce and pomegranate seeds. It tasted like they used crème fraiche because it had a slightly sour taste—in a really good way. We also had two glasses of Strega which is a potent digestive made from a crazy mix of herbs like mint, fennel, and saffron.

When we got home, we plugged in the tree and opened presents. I got Thomas Keller’s new Bouchon cookbook!! It’s breathtakingly beautiful and slightly less complicated than the French Laundry one, so I’m excited to try it out. First up: Duck Confit with Brussels Sprouts.

Zach got an octodog. Long live the Frankfurter Converter™.