When a new restaurant advertises with a slogan like “Your search for a perfect burger ends here,” that’s a lot to live up to.
This is how Relish Burger Bistro, a growing chain in Starwood properties, advertises. Its newest branch opened this week in Seattle’s Westin Hotel, gleaming and glossy in the space that previously held Roy’s and the Coldwater Bar and Grill.
I was invited to a complimentary menu tasting as part of the grand opening celebration. While technically it’s too early for a true verdict, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for perfection. There were problems with everything I tasted, like a fried pickle with simply bad batter, and a burger with terribly under-seasoned and flavorless beef.
The “sweetest” part of the party and the only “burger” that brought a real smile to my face was this macaron-like dessert (pictured above)—though this was based on looks rather than flavor.
Luckily, I was leaving the party to be part of a panel judging the final four combatants in Seattle Weekly’s Burger Battle. On the Voracious blog, the public whittled the original 64 restaurants to these four: Blue Moon Burgers, Li’l Woody’s, Lunchbox Laboratory, and Skillet. A panel of food writers worked to pick the champion.
Westin guests can take a healthy, 15-minute walk to Li’l Woody’s to taste the winner of the Burger Battle. At just $4.50 for the basic burger, I’m betting it’s far less expensive than Relish’s. (The website for the Seattle branch doesn’t yet have a menu posted.) Recall that Li’l Woody’s serves my favorite local burger—one that’s well-seasoned, with excellent texture, and on the right kind of bun. In the overall burger battle, I continue to call for a ban on brioche.
Dish: Khao Boon Bha
Place: Savatdee, University District
In the bowl and on the plate: From the menu: “Traditional Lao fish soup. Slow cooked catfish in coconut milk, galangal, lemon grass and kaffir leaves. Served with noodles and topped with shredded carrots, cabbage and bean sprouts.” What the description doesn’t tell you is that while the soup is naturally in a bowl, the noodles and veggies come on a separate plate, along with some Thai basil and mint.
Supporting cast/What to do: Add the noodles to the coconut-based broth, along with the vegetables and the herbs as desired.
Noodling around: It’s nice to see Lao food on the north side of Seattle, as the south side has it at Viengthong (and had it at Thai Palms in the past). As at Viengthong, the Lao menu will likely introduce you to more unusual dishes than the larger Thai menu.
Kao Boon Bha was new to me. I was surprised to see the dish arrive in two parts. The noodles are rice vermicelli, cooked soft and seemingly cut short in length. As a fan of the interactivity of Asian noodle bowls, I actually enjoy playing with the ingredients in my meal, experimenting with flavors, even though these noodles are low on my list of favorites due to their blandness and texture.
The soup is interesting, almost orange in color. The coconut flavor is pervasive, though the southeast Asian flavors are ever-present. Not as present as I hoped, though, was the fish. Instead of chunks of catfish, there were flakes of fish scattered throughout the bowl, with the result far from oceanic flavor. (Or should I say freshwater flavor?) While I suppose that kao boon bha is technically a fish soup, don’t expect anything as alive as bouillabaisse, for example.
If you want more: This may not be elaborate in preparation, but I ordered lychee on ice ($3), as I was in the mood for something light and cool. Clearly the kitchen simply emptied a can of lychees, syrup and all, onto a bowl of ice. You can do this at home. I will, as it’s an easy and refreshing end to a meal.
For something more substantial, try the lab mou sai keungnai ($11). This meat salad consists of charbroiled pork tossed in a mixture of liver, tripe and pork rinds. It’s seasoned with galangal, kaffir leaves, and toasted rice, and served with cabbage. The good parts (liver, tripe, and pork rinds) are cut very small, so they’re almost indiscernible, though they do lend texture to the dish. You might also consider the chicken version (lab gai sai keungnai) which contains gizzards and hearts.
Be aware/beware: Savatdee frequently runs Groupon specials, but requires you to make a reservation when cashing in the coupon. The dining room is small and the servers (at least the night I ate there recently) are young and a bit shy. As always, I ordered my food to be extra spicy (5 on a 1 to 4 scale), but it was way too weak. “Maybe next time,” the server said, softly.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on March 14, 2013.
Tags: Laotian · noodles
Today, Serious Eats posted my “Sugar Rush” article about the desserts at The Coterie Room in Seattle. An excerpt:
The Coterie Room’s desserts, though, do have their delicate elements. They don’t tend to be as molecular as Spur’s with their espumas, crystalized zests, and other self-described “playful accompaniments,” but they do tend to be playful in their own right—and downright delicious. And a regular customer will quickly come to the realization that many are marked by a classy quenelle of ice cream…
With an abundance of pears in Washington state, the Pear Galette ($9) is a perfect dessert that enjoys a long life at The Coterie Room. This dessert features warm pears in a flaky crust, with a generous scattering of candied almonds offering a nutty, honey-like crunch. Crowning the galette is a quenelle of star anise ice cream. This aromatic Eastern spice infuses the ice cream with a little licorice flavor, though it’s more fragrant with slightly tangy and bitter notes, and a pretty terrific pairing with the sweetness of the pears.
For more information about the desserts and the restaurant, check out the Serious Eats story, here.
This week, Serious Eats posted my “First Look” article about My Sweet Little Cakes in Seattle. An excerpt:
She’s passionate about food and proud of her Puerto Rican lineage. He’s passionate about people and a former concierge at some of Seattle’s finest hotels. Together, Sheena Lee Fuson and Jesse Lee Marshall make a cute couple, dressing as soda jerks and selling sweet (and savory) pancakes on sticks out of a tangerine-colored mobile kitchen….
The pancakes are cooked to order, taking about five minutes to appear and starting at five dollars apiece. Many have matching sauces for dipping, making them an interactive eating experience. Flavor combinations are interesting, ranging from a savory Cornbread, Cheddar, Jalapeno & Cilantro to a sweet Green Apple & Caramel with Pecans.
These pancakes are a snack or meal to go, albeit a little challenging to eat, as you can’t easily slide the food along the stick. Sheena and Jesse say that’s alright, as you can eat it like it’s corn on the cob. Their positive and playful attitude makes My Sweet Lil Cakes a carnival of fun and a funhouse of friendliness.
For more information about this food truck, check out the Serious Eats story, here.
Seems like bacon hasn’t gone out of style yet. In fact, Local 360 is featuring it in a special Bacon Happy Hour on Friday, March 8 from 3-6pm.
When Robin Leventhal (formerly of Crave) and Brian Cartenuto (back in town, formerly of Cantinetta) are cooking up creations in the kitchen, it’s hard to know what crazy things will come up on the menu. But we do know what will appear in this week’s bacon extravaganza. Look for items like bacon-wrapped dates, bacon and cod fritters, and a BKE slider (something described as bacon cheese, ketchup leather, and a sunny egg) on the main menu.
The love of pork doesn’t stop in that section, though. Dessert will include bacon root beer cookies, PB&J bonbons, and apple-bacon fritters with ice cream. You’ll even find a few bacon-infused cocktails, such as a bacon bloody Mary and the B-Cubed Old Fashioned: Burnside bacon?infused bourbon, maple, and Scrappy’s orange bitters.
While this looks to be a fun event on its own (reservations recommended), consider it a warm-up for the big Cochon 555 following in its footsteps. For now, here’s a sneak peek at a few of the bacon-filled dishes to look forward to at Local 360:
Bacon mac and cheese
Apple bacon fritters
Growing up in New York, I knew that Sabrett hot dogs, for me, were the best of the bunch, boiled right at the pushcart until they reached that tell-tale snap at first bite. Then again, at home we ate Hebrew Nationals, delicious when grilled. The great thing about hot dogs, though, is that in addition to boiling (in water, beer, and even soup) or grilling them, you can broil them in an oven, steam them, microwave them, deep-fry them, and even eat them raw. (Yes, a childhood confession!)
With the ongoing rise of food trucks in Seattle, let’s not forget the humble hot dog stands that have fed hungry folks for so many hours of so many days. But even hot dogs are haute, evolving over time; for example, I enjoy the Japadog knock-offs with their fancy Asian ingredients. Before those Japanese-flavored hot dogs, though, Dante’s Inferno Dogs was elevating this fast food into something even more fun.
So what does Dante’s Inferno Dogs teach us about sex?
It’s all about the variable joy of wieners.
Dante’s applies two cooking techniques in preparing the hot dogs. They’re first boiled, then grilled, adding smoky flavor.
And then there are the variety of toppings, some hot and some cold, some smooth and some crunchy. Of course there’s mustard and ketchup, but to go Seattle-style, ask the vendor to get out the cream cheese gun. Dante’s can suggest some standard dogs, or you can customize yours with toppings like grilled onions and peppers, sauerkraut, pickled jalapenos, sweet chili sauce, and much more.
Now, temperatures and textures also come into play with wieners in the bedroom.
Big Teaze Toys recently released a sex toy for men called the VerSpanken, which they describe as “a new kind of home entertainment system.” The VerSpanken is a piece of molded plastic that unclasps to allow access to two insertable “Wieners.” It comes with a pair of FoamWieners already installed. These soft inserts are available smooth, bumpy, and wavy to provide different textural sensations.
In addition to purchasing extra FoamWieners, you can also buy WaterWieners with the same texture options. The WaterWieners, though, can be chilled in the refrigerator or warmed in hot water. What’s fun is that you can mix and match the Wieners according to your whimsy before or during your sexual play, perhaps trying hot and cold together, as well as varying the textures.
Once you’ve done your Wiener selection and installed them, close the snap and note that the inserts squeeze together quite tight. Therefore, you’ll want to be sure to lube up the VerSpanken’s two Wieners as well as your own. You can hold and move the VerSpanken yourself in a variety of positions, have your partner do it, or place it somewhere like on a desk or under the mattress so that you can go more hands-free. Clean-up is simple: Just wash the Wieners with soap and water. You don’t even have to remove them from their holder.
Check out this playful video about the VerSpanken system, which is home entertainment, indeed. As with Dante’s Inferno Dogs, VerSpanken is all about wieners you’ll want to relish.
Tags: American · Sexy Feast
The Internet, and its readers, love lists. Restaurant lists are especially popular. I get it: These posts generate a lot of hits, a lot of discussion, and a lot of debate. “They liked what?” and “How did my favorite place not make the list?” are among the typical outcries.
Read some lists, and you’ll wonder if the authors were local, visited all of the contenders, or even ate at the restaurants she or he are recommending. I’m sometimes asked to compile such lists, and it’s admittedly hard to get everywhere to make sure I’ve done exhaustive research. Heck, it’s hard enough to eat a good representation of food within even one restaurant.
In 2010, USA Today asked me to choose one great burger joint in Washington state for a national list. “Great” can mean a lot of things, so evaluating overall burger experiences, I selected Fife’s Pick-Quick Drive In for its iconic feel and overall quality of food. Pick-Quick is not necessarily the number one burger in the state, but a fun place for a burger, fries, and shake.
Last week, Zagat listed its choice of best burgers in 25 cities. Strangely enough, the Zagat slideshow only pictures three actual burgers, and its pick for Seattle is actually in Bellevue: Broiler Bay. Displaying only an interior shot, I shot over to Serious Eats’ coverage of the Zagat list, where you can click through to see more of those “best” burgers, including Broiler Bay’s.
Both sites have comments full of strong criticism for the picks, and I couldn’t agree more, especially for the Seattle area. Check out Broiler Bay’s burger at Serious Eats, and it’s immediately evident that the patty is pre-formed, frozen and looking far from delicious.
Still, I’m a sucker, so I went to try out a cheeseburger myself this past weekend. At the counter, I could see the cook working with pre-formed patties separated by paper dividers. Besides being thin, they were too dense—a cardinal sin for burgers. Patties should be loosely packed, creating more surface area which enables browning and crisping of the meat. This also allows the cheese to ooze into the nooks and crannies of the patty.
Broiler Bay’s patty gets good grill marks, but by default is cooked longer than I prefer, more like a medium-well. The cheese is simple but thrown on late, so it takes time to melt. There’s lots of shredded iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomato, but no sign of the promised onions. The burger is also said to come with ketchup and mayonnaise, but wanting more flavor, I found myself dipping it in fry sauce, which has a slight tanginess that I’d guess comes from sour cream.
Broiler Bay uses a Franz Bakery sesame seed hamburger bun. It’s fairly non-obtrusive, and a far better choice than the dreaded brioche bun, which is often dry and unable to hold up when the beef juices run. But given that the Franz bun is broader than the thin patty, the burger suffers from the same bad bread-to-meat ratio that a brioche bun creates.
I’m shocked that Zagat would choose Broiler Bay as one of the best burgers in 25 cities. While it might make a decent showing in Bellevue, I wouldn’t even place it in the top 25 of the Seattle area.
If you like lists and want to have your say on Seattle’s best burgers, head over to Seattle Weekly’s Voracious blog. There you’ll find 64 truly Seattle burgers, from Dick’s to Metropolitan Grill, competing in a burger bracket. The public will whittle down the bracket to a final four, and then the Weekly’s food writers (myself included) will have a taste-off to anoint a winner. My personal favorite is currently Li’l Woody’s, and I’ll be interested to see how it fares with the competitors.
Today, Serious Eats posted my “Sugar Rush” article about the Flourless Chocolate Cake at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami. (Hedy Goldsmith, the pastry chef, has again been nominated for a James Beard award as best pastry chef.) An excerpt:
I decided to go with the Flourless Chocolate Cake ($10). On the surface, this sounds like a throwback to the 1980s, but what sold me was the server’s description of the olive oil sorbet topping and salted caramel drizzle, both of which I knew would elevate the dessert.
The extras weren’t entirely necessary, as the cake itself was moist and rich and packed with chocolate punch. The intensity of the chocolate, though, provided the perfect platform for the slightly nutty, slightly savory flavor of the scoop of olive oil sorbet. As for the drizzle of salted caramel? It was actually a pool of caramel at the bottom of the bowl, irresistible in its twofer offering of savory and sweet, with the saltiness spiking up the chocolate in the cake. Three basic components, so seemingly simple, but a fun dessert with big flavor—and reasonably called a classic.
For more information about the dessert and Goldsmith, check out the Serious Eats story, here.
For a look at my overall experience at Michael’s Genuine, and what I hope was a genuinely off-night, check out my report, here.
Tags: beyond Seattle · sweets
Note: I file this report (about what I hope was just an off-night at this popular restaurant) to show that being a food writer doesn’t always mean special benefits. As a “VIP,” I didn’t expect extra service, but I was surprised that the restaurant didn’t do its best to avoid sub-par service. And even when I’m hosted (which was NOT the case here), I try to be objective in my reports…
As someone who critiques a fair number of restaurant (I was co-editor and co-author of the Fearless Critic Seattle Restaurant Guide, for example), I’m often asked about objectivity as a non-anonymous reviewer.
To give Japanese restaurant examples, a ramen chef won’t suddenly whip me up a better bowl of broth. A sushi chef might give me a slightly nicer cut of fish for my order of nigiri, but he (or she) would also do that for a regular. And a good sushi chef, or any chef, will treat me the same as anyone else, as any diner can be a potential reviewer or future regular. (Given the wide number of restaurants I visit, I’m really not a regular anywhere, anyway.)
Here’s an even better example…
Last month, I flew to Florida to visit my father in Boca Raton, which afforded me the chance to eat one meal in Miami. I get this opportunity about once per year, so I research obsessively, selecting my restaurant like I’m choosing a life partner. Past choices have included Naoe for one of the best sushi meals of my life, and Yardbird for a southern-style meal unlike anything I can find in Seattle.
At last year’s Feast Portland festival, I was wowed by Hedy Goldsmith‘s desserts, so my recent Miami pick was Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, where she’s the pastry chef. I gave Hedy a heads-up that I would be coming for dinner. Unfortunately, she was scheduled to be at the restaurant’s Cayman Islands location, but she agreed to set up a reservation for me. (Not to be hosted, but to pay.) I carefully calculated my flight arrival and car pick-up and travel times, and looked forward to my reservation for two to sit at the chef’s counter at 8:30.
We arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes early and I checked see if seating was possible, as we were hungry and tired from flying. The hostess advised that both parties at the counter were likely running just a little late, still working on entrees. We turned down the offer for another table (wanting to enjoy the kitchen action from the counter seats) and the referral to the bar (it was crowded and noisy, and we weren’t planning to drink alcohol after the long flights), so we left to take a short walk.
We returned at 8:45. The two couples were still at the counter, one apparently now ordering a second round of desserts. We stood, reading the menu and chatting. At 9:15, a manager finally came over to offer complimentary drinks, which we declined. She then invited us to sit on a ledge close to the street, where she’d bring us water and bar snacks (chicken liver on crostini, and potato chips with onion dip) to sate our thirst and appetite a bit. A smoke-filled scenario, but we got something in our stomachs. She provided updates and about 9:30–one hour late–told us our seats were finally ready.
(The couples at the counter stayed three hours and longer. Should a restaurant give them a heads-up that there are others with reservations for those seats?)
A more senior manager came over to apologize and offered complimentary wine. We repeated that we weren’t drinking, so she instead offered us additional bar snacks or small plates, recommending the roasted farm egg, which we accepted, thinking it was on the house for the inconvenience. This item would later appear on our bill.
Service was scattered. Our waiter never refilled our water, only once checked in on how our food was, and was otherwise hard to find in the dining room. First dishes came quickly, but the next came far too slowly. I watched as our Brussels sprouts sat, fired too early, while the two meat dishes took too long to catch up. Maybe sitting at the counter is giving me too much information, I thought, as I ate lukewarm, soggy sprouts.
Meanwhile, menu items were getting 86ed. When we went to place our initial order, for example, the romanesco we craved was suddenly sold out. And we almost missed the last serving of a desired dessert when it took almost fifteen minutes from getting dessert menus to placing an order.
Our dinner took over two hours, but could have been considerably shorter with more efficient service. Maybe this is why the parties at the counter stayed so long?
Normally, I’d have commented about things like the Brussels sprouts and the billing issue on the spot, but the evening had already started with such frustration, annoyance, and disappointment that I wanted to try to have as positive experience as possible, without further heavy discussions. Sadly, the anticipation of landing in Miami and having a great meal at a carefully picked restaurant turned into extremely delayed seating, slack service, and a far-too-late finish after a long day.
All of this to a person labeled as a VIP in the reservation book.
I sent much of this report to Hedy (who this week landed on the semifinalist list for a James Beard Foundation pastry chef award), who felt terribly embarrassed and apologized, forwarding my message to management. I soon heard from the director of operations for the Genuine Hospitality Group, who sent “profuse apologies” and asked for “another opportunity to show the true ‘genuine’ hospitality that we are known for,” offering: “If you will please contact me on your next visit to Miami I will be more than happy to make dinner or lunch arrangements for you.”
I appreciated the response, but since I’m not often in Miami, I’m not likely to take up the offer of a do-over. I’d rather return to restaurants where I’ve had better food, or continue to explore new places.
In addition to reinforcing my beliefs about non-anonymous reviewing, this whole experience has given me further appreciation of Seattle’s own Tom Douglas. Shortly after my arrival to Seattle in 1999, well before I was food writing, I had an unsatisfactory meal at the Dahlia Lounge. I wrote to “Dahlia” about the experience (mostly poor food quality), and exactly two days later (which meant that Douglas had received my mail and sent a return the same day–I’m talking old-fashioned snail mail here!), Douglas expressed his deep disappointment at my treatment as a guest. He mentioned staff and menu changes, and said that feedback like mine was valuable for fine-tuning.
Enclosing a check for $100 to cover the cost of my meal, plus a gift certificate for $150 to spend on my next meal, he requested that “you send me your review of your next experience at Dahlia Lounge.” That next meal was much better, and I’ve held Douglas in high regard for his integrity since the incident. Anyone who’s heard the story has called him a “true professional.” Douglas did the right thing, standing fully behind his name, which is part of what makes him a genuine Seattle treasure.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on February 21, 2013.
Tags: beyond Seattle
Last week, I stumbled into Dallas in the midst of seven flights in four days. After being in Bowling Green (OH) and Johnson City (TN), I was ready for finer dining. Remembering that Top Chef: Seattle (given the feeble coverage of our city, I call it Top Chef: Supposedly in Seattle) had three contestants from Dallas, I first decided to go to the restaurant where Josh Valentine, one of the three finalists, was cooking: FT33.
I got a seat at the four-person chef’s table, overlooking the open kitchen. On the other side of my table, head chef Matt McCallister was at the counter expediting. And on the other side of that counter, I could see Valentine and his tell-tale mustache working with the rest of the kitchen crew.
Valentine is officially the pastry chef at FT33, joining McCallister after recently leaving his Divine Swine restaurant in Oklahoma City. But, on this night at least, he was wiping down a lot of dishes pre-plating, then assisting with the starters and mains instead of the desserts. As I was eating during the time that Top Chef: Seattle was airing, I tried to get a read on his mood, but there was no “tell” to my eyes. I’d later learn that he was eliminated that night in both the regular competition and the “Last Chance Kitchen.”
When Valentine was working with food, he was mostly “accessorizing” plates with proteins already on them. Such accessorizing is indicative of the type of restaurant FT33 is: modern-American cuisine with interesting ingredient combinations and gorgeous design—often via use of tweezers. Some might say that the attention to detail is a little too fussy and that the food is more for the eyes than the taste buds, but I found it all interesting and thoughtful. And a bit expensive for the portion sizes. (I found myself partaking of the bread basket far more than usual; fortunately, everything in there was delicious.)
My buckwheat alla chitarra starter was my favorite course, appearing rather miraculously seconds within ordering it, and bursting with earthy flavors. My snowy grouper entrée was less successful. The fish was perfectly sautéed, but its accompanying “exotic fruits” didn’t quite work for me. I finished with an olive oil financier that was ginned up with celery and more. Check out the photos below for more details about the meal, and check my Serious Eats post for more about the dessert.
The next day, I ventured to Tei-An for lunch. Chef Teiichi Sakurai has been a James Beard nominee (in fact, he just became a 2013 semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest), and while Tei-An is really a soba house, many diners seem to see it as a sushi restaurant—and a gorgeous one at that.
Wanting to see what Sakurai would serve an experienced Japanese food eater, I went omakase. There would be seven courses: an oyster, snapper, a fish eyeball in seaweed dashi, fresh bamboo and bamboo tempura, langoustine pieces in uni cream sauce with shaved black truffle (I was so excited to eat this that I failed to take a photo!), soba, and daifuku dessert. Again, photos and more details are in the photos below.
Service was attentive without being intrusive, though I was surprised that the servers mumbled the descriptions of the dishes, making it hard for me to hear and remember all of the elements. The food was very refined, prepared perfectly (the tempura, for example, had batter that was delicately lacy and delicious, especially dipped in the choice of salts) and with good flavor. And, yeah, I got to eat an eyeball.
Having just sampled Mutsuko Soma’s soba and more at Miyabi 45th (also an omakase meal culminating with soba), I’m inevitably comparing the experiences. Tei-An is more elegant, but there’s something soulful that makes me prefer my meal at Miyabi just a little bit more. Maybe part of it was feeling hungry two hours after leaving Tei-An, which shouldn’t be the case with a $65 lunch. As at FT33, I saw Texas-sized prices but got far from Texas-sized portions. (True, much of Tei-An’s fish is flown in from Tokyo, and many are happy pay a premium to have good Japanese food in Texas.) Granted, the quality was good at both restaurants, but as I drove to the car rental facility at DFW airport, I found myself saying “What?” as I made an uncharacteristic stop at Whataburger for fast food filler.
Photos from the meals…
Chef Josh Valentine preparing food at FT33 as Top Chef: Seattle airs
Buckwheat alla chitarra with chicken liver, sage, cippolini, and black butter bread crumbs – my favorite dish of the night at FT33
Snowy grouper, served with exotic citrus, mint, carrots, daikon, and Vadouvan yogurt at FT33
FT33′s “olive oil financier, juniper, apple-celery sorbet, yogurt” – interesting flavors, along with crispy texture from the celery macerated with simple syrup and Junipero gin (the financier has layers of juniper-milk chocolate filling)
Oyster starter at Tei-An
Tei-An’s golden eye snapper
Fresh bamboo with yuzu miso, along with bamboo shoot tempura at Tei-An
Kinmedai eyeball in seaweed dashi at Tei-An – fascinating textures!
Tei-An’s soba with mekabu seaweed, served cold – delicate, slimy, and delicious
Daifuku at Tei-An: mochi with strawberry and red bean paste
Tags: American · beyond Seattle · Japanese