So says Kool-Aid Man when he bursts through a brick wall, saving the day. As do I when marveling at the colorful berries and cherries abundant in our area markets. Growing up in New York, home wasn’t a haven for such fruit, so Kool-Aid was sometimes the closest I got to tasting berries and cherries. Confession: with intriguing names like “Incrediberry,” I’d sometimes pour the powder on a plate, then lick to try to discern flavors.
No need to do that here in Seattle. When I told my fellow food writers that this Dish-Off would feature berries and cherries, they threw out names of great pastry chefs in town. But I want those sweets and sours throughout the meal—in soups and salads; with meat and fish. Welcome to the world of demi-glaces and gastriques, and compotes and coulis; Sound found three restaurants eager to cook up a storm for our berry and cherry competition.
Imagine having Pike Place Market as your kitchen pantry. So it is for Matt’s in the Market. Watch the cooking from the counter, or find a table that lets you stare out at the Sound, as I’m doing when two of my favorite foods arrive: pork belly (with raspberry sauce and blackberries), and foie gras (with Bing cherry Banyuls gastrique). These bites happily marry fruity sweetness with meaty richness. I also enjoy salmon with creamy cannellini runner beans and delicate pea vines; the acidity of a Bing cherry and caperberry vinaigrette enhances this dish.
At this point, Chef Chester Gerl discovers he needs to prepare more dishes. No problem. (I like to think he ran downstairs to collect ingredients!) I’m impressed when he whips up what will be my two top picks of the night. The star attraction: grilled rack of lamb. It’s perfectly rare, and slivers of sweet Rainier cherries play off well against Taggiasca olives (nice and briny), fresh tarragon, fennel, and pesto-like puree. Also, a stunning scallop atop sweet onion puree (embellishing the bivalve’s sweetness) serves as a canvas for raspberry coulis and a slightly sour kumquat reduction. This could be dessert, but honey vanilla semifreddo is a refreshing finish—punctuated by my first fresh strawberries of the season.
Outdoor seating entices me as I stroll up to 35th Street Bistro, but through a wonderful front window wall I see an inviting interior—casual yet classy, with some antique tables covered in tablecloths, others not. Greeting me are a Cherry Fizz cocktail and a plate of chevre-and-smoked-salmon gougeres, along with red and black currants that sparkle like jewelry. A fruitful start!
Service is thoughtful, as is Chef Tom Black’s menu for the evening. He betters the scallop and foie gras at Matt’s by serving them together with an Abolut and blueberry compote for a dish that’s divine. A roasted squab breast appetizer features pickled gooseberries (a fun change of pace!), salad comes with gorgeous golden raspberries, and Rainier cherry slivers offer a nice counterpoint to a naturally sweet corn soup with Dungeness crab. But while the first entrée’s blackberry demi-glace goes well with short rib ravioli and chard, it overpowers the skate wing ever-so-slightly.
Are you noticing the variety of berries and cherries? I am. And it all makes sense, such as the Bing cherry gastrique (which reminds me of canned cranberry sauce from family Thanksgivings, only better) that adds brightness to succulent veal loin, watercress and wax beans; I only wish the sweetbreads were a bit creamier. And the desserts are winners: a decadent Bing cherry baked Alaska (including homemade marshmallow) with mousse-filled cherries on the side, and a delightful shortcake of sugar-and-lime macerated strawberries—with basil adding an herbal note I appreciate.
Canlis is an institution—perhaps the place for a special occasion. I take in the great view and the piano player’s renditions of Radiohead and the like. (Radiohead. Really.) Service is exquisite, but food is my focus; Chef Aaron Wright’s focus seems specific to cherries and raspberries, starting with a clean-tasting raspberry mignonette for Kumamoto oysters, and roasted Bing cherries on melt-in-your-mouth braised short ribs. Canlis has a way with salads, and while I like the raspberry salad with baby lettuce and warm goat cheese encroute, even better is watermelon and cherries (both Bings and Rainiers) topped with marinated feta cheese and kohlrabi salad with champagne vinaigrette. The saltiness with the sweet fruit stimulates my taste buds.
Salmon, beluga lentils, and beautiful baby vegetables come with a Bing cherry demi-glace, while Australian lobster tail, atop thin-sliced zucchini, is perfectly roasted—and I’m pleasantly surprised that the tarragon beurre blanc isn’t overpowering. (The raspberries help cut the acidity.) The theme ingredients shine in Canlis’ desserts. The first—cherry and pinot noir compote with sweet corn ice cream and Ceylon cinnamon crust—is pleasing in combination, though the hearty cherries hide the hint of corn. Next are voluptuous raspberries over yuzu ice cream and white chocolate mousse. The raspberry powder decorating the dish brings me back to the Kool-Aid of my childhood. I’m in Canlis, but I can’t resist licking the plate. (It’s far better than Kool-Aid!)
If you’ll pardon my pushing the Kool-Aid lingo, this month’s Dish-Off has been a Blastin’ Berry Cherry experience. All three restaurants dished up good eats, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them for a quality dining experience. But based on variety and versatility, 35th Street Bistro wins the berries and cherries challenge. They were the only ones to serve a fruit-filled drink and soup, they integrated the theme ingredients best, and from the opening currants to the closing desserts, when I think about my meal there, I “get a big wide happy ear-to-ear Kool-Aid smile.”
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.
(Further note: This is my review as it should have appeared in the September issue of Sound magazine. For more information about what went wrong, read here.)