Sound’s Search for a Fruitful Meal
Ready or not here I come
Gee that used to be such fun
Apples peaches pumpkin pie…
Following a “Rock ‘n’ Roll” theme to end last year’s Dish-Off competitions, here I come with more music themes in 2009. Each month, I’ll challenge restaurants to create a multi-course meal based on a food-related song title; the chefs are free to interpret the title as they wish. With Jay and the Techniques’ Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie as this month’s song, I’m anticipating home-style meals filled with fruit, perhaps ending in pie, making me comfortable and content.
But hang on a sec. One of my restaurant resolutions is to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself, and what better time to start than now? Last January, I pegged Madison Park/Valley restaurants as pretentious, so I make a return visit. Besides having the area’s best Chinese food, I’ve long booed Bellevue, so I see what else is edible there. And while I’m not a typical meat-and-potatoes guy, I can be Bourdain-like in exalting bacon and animal fat. Noting the theme, I decide to try not one, but two vegetarian restaurants for this Dish-Off.
Pumpkin cornbread pudding at Cafe Flora makes me immediately forget about meat. Chef Janine Doran’s creation is luscious; Cinderella pumpkin lends creaminess to the pudding, and a great cast of characters enhances it. Crispy onions, roasted vegetables, foraged chanterelles, fig-sage cream sauce, and Meyer lemon-cranberry chutney all combine for an explosion of flavors. The pudding will substitute for turkey at Cafe Flora’s Thanksgiving dinner, and I can see the appeal. It’s a Cinderella story—the item that leaves the most enduring impression of any I eat during this month’s Dish-Off.
Meaty chanterelles also warm up an arugula salad, though the apples feel like a bit of an afterthought. And there’s more pumpkin, mixed with white chocolate in ice cream that comes with cranberry reduction and a chocolate mesquite shortbread cookie. A girl stares at me while I eat it; she then screams for ice cream—and other kids scream, too. It’s sounding pretty primal for a vegetarian place—but the people are happy, and understandably so, given the quality of the food.
Carmelita is more sedate. The name sounds both alluring and nurturing; as at Cafe Flora, the chef is female, as are a majority of the servers and diners. A trio of apple dishes draws me in, especially the starter: grilled apple and leek beignets with Dijon aioli. I’ve had beignets for breakfast in New Orleans, and I’m seeing them more around here for dessert, but these are a delightful, savory appetizer. Fun, and while the fritters aren’t oily, the accompanying apple and leek slaw offers clean and refreshing flavor reinforcement. I applaud Chef Nicole Burrows’ innovative attempt of apples in the entrée; they’re smoked and mixed with ricotta as filling for agnolotti. The apple chips on top are a nice touch, but I’m just not quite sure about the garlic cream sauce. And for dessert, who can argue with salted caramel and cinnamon whip with apple-quince galette?
The chefs gave me some grief in calling for peaches out of season. But creativity counts in the Dish-Off! Carmelita scores for its smart use of peaches in the salad course. They’re pickled, and a perfect counterpoint to the slightly bitter arugula; I try to get both along with some goat cheese and pecans in every ideal forkful.
Also rising to the peach challenge is Seastar. Chef John Howie prepares peach chutney, which he pours over pecan-crusted brie along with balsamic reduction and honey drizzle. The brie is tasty but filling—though I furiously finish all the chutney, which is a welcome taste of summer out of season. Apple-pomegranate slaw brightens up some fresh-shucked oysters, and then the rest of the menu showcases pumpkin. White chocolate overpowers the pumpkin pie flavoring in a NY-style cheesecake, but that’s okay, as it follows perhaps the best pork chop I’ve ever eaten. Kurobuta pork means quality, but even better, Seastar roasts the chop on a cedar plank to maintain moisture. I love the coriander-mustard seed crust with dried orange peel, and apple cider reduction adds a further fruit note. As if the pork doesn’t provide enough pleasure, it’s plated with perfectly cooked risotto that has sweet pumpkin puree and bits of butternut squash.
Pumpkin and squash also shine in Seastar’s soup, and lest I seem too prejudiced by the pork, it’s the soup that tilts this month’s decision Seastar’s way. I should say I like all three restaurants’ soups. Cafe Flora’s sunchoke bisque features rosemary-scented cider reduction, and comes with a pumpkin seed parmesan crisp that earns extra theme points. I also enjoy Carmelita’s pumpkin soup, with crème fraiche adding a sour tinge that tickles my fancy. But while that version is graceful, Seastar’s sweet pumpkin butternut squash soup is rich and robust. I wonder if there’s chicken stock in it, but Chef Howie assures me it’s all vegetables. The soup’s fantastic; I like the hint of anise from bee pollen—and the finishing touch of pumpkin seeds.
It’s a fine showing for all three restaurants in this fruit-based Dish-Off. Cafe Flora proves that Madison Valley’s not always pretentious; along with Carmelita, they show me that vegetarian food can be creative, comforting, and even compelling. But it’s Bellevue that wins this month’s battle. Chef Howie serves up the best overall Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie menu.
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.
Chanterelle Apple Salad
Cinderella Pumpkin Cornbread Pudding