July 8, 2020

Brave Horse Tavern

Have you ever wandered into a new part of town, and suddenly felt as though you’d been transported to an entirely different and unfamiliar city? I had that very experience this week, navigating my way through what seems to be the pop-up neighborhood of South Lake Union. In truth, there have been all sorts of businesses there for years, but with the recent arrivals of PATH, Microsoft, and Amazon, not to mention all of the condos and apartments, there is now a critical mass of diners and shoppers ready and willing to support businesses in the area.

This feeling of geographic dislocation might have been part of the reason that I felt a little out of sorts on my first visit to Brave Horse Tavern, one of the trifecta of restaurants newly opened in South Lake Union by Tom Douglas. Although just blocks from other parts of Seattle that are quite familiar to me, once inside BHT it felt as though I had made a very quick trip to Las Vegas, or somewhere else equally tourist-friendly. The interior is a very well-conceived, slick version of the wild west, what you might call upscale rustic. Lots of exposed brick, beam, and wood of all varieties, and distressed leather stools at the bar and multiple tall tables.

Though I shouldn’t fault Brave Horse Tavern for having a very clear identity, and instead should celebrate that they make no bones about what they do. The front of the menu, really, tells the whole story: “Twenty-Four Taps, Housemade Pretzels, Shuffleboard.” Nothing on here about Tom Douglas and the promise of great cuisine, just a space where you could happily tip back a few beers and enjoy some food somewhere along the way.

My fault for not coming to this conclusion earlier in the experience, as it would have greatly improved the evening. Instead, I hear Tom Douglas and immediately think that the food will be fantastic. And there is the promise of some of that at BHT, borrowing some from his other restaurants (naturally), in menu items that I didn’t happen to sample this week: Dahlia Bakery bread for the “Egg in a Hole;” the Seatown Smoked Trout; and beef tartare, spring onion, and anchovy chili on the “Cannibal Crostinis.” What we had, however, mostly missed the mark for me.

The malt-boiled Brick Oven Pretzels were soft, salty, and delicious, and two of the accompanying spreads were tasty (cheddar-pimento, and sour cream and crispy onion), but the smoked peanut butter and bacon was terrible. Somehow sharp and overly salty, all at once. The Fried Cheese Curds with grain mustard mayo were of the greasy fried variety, and many of the puffs were empty of cheese entirely. Mom’s Dungeness Crab Dip definitely felt like a throwback in its super-creamy texture, and the Ritz were indeed just the right cracker for the job. (No wonder this was such a popular combo of cocktail parties past…) The Smoky BBQ Brisket Dip was my least favorite dish of the night; even the spicy ancho chili sauce couldn’t save this rather spartan sandwich.

Without a doubt every restaurant deserves a second visit, and when I make my next trip to Brave Horse Tavern I’ll go in with a different mindset. I’ll know that I’m not headed for the kind of meal I might expect at Serious Pie or Palace Kitchen. Instead, I’ll look forward to the big, salty pretzel and happy hour boilermaker of Jim Beam and Olympia that will be waiting for me — just as soon as I finish my game of shuffleboard.

Brave Horse Tavern on Urbanspoon

The Injera Connection

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately – for the last year, in fact – at the Eastlake home of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Luckily, I’m not the patient, but not so luckily, my mom is. My mother and sisters and I all marvel at what good care she’s receiving; if you have to have cancer, SCCA is one of the best places in the world to be treated. And I use the word “care” very intentionally, because it’s not just top-notch medicine happening here, though the doctors and nurses and nursing assistants are clearly highly skilled. It’s also the waiting area with the extraordinary view of Lake Union that makes you forget for a while why you’re there, and the volunteers who come around offering bottles of water and hand massages, and the cashier in the café who quite happily handed me a free latte when he made the wrong kind by mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that we’re extraordinarily lucky to have access to this care. I know that not every facility has the resources to provide the kinds of things that SCCA does. I also know that I’m lucky to work for myself, and that my reasonably flexible schedule means that I can take my turn among the daughters spending time with Mom at SCCA. On the days I’m able to be with her, Mom and I fall into a bit of a routine: I’ll sit in the chair next to her and tap away on my laptop getting work done while she plugs in with an audio book on her iPod.

The nursing staff there is wonderful – chatty when you want to be and perfectly un-chatty when you don’t. When it’s the former we’ll fall into conversation about one thing or another, and on one occasion we got to talking with one of the staff about Ethiopian food and where to find the best in Seattle. (Meskel on East Cherry, in case you’re wondering.)  But things got especially interesting when she said who we really should talk to was her friend, Miheret, who works with her at SCCA. Next thing I know Miheret has stopped by to say hello, and the conversation turns to the making of injera, that wonderfully spongy bread that accompanies Ethiopian food and serves as the utensil with which one picks said food. When they first came to the Pacific Northwest, she said, the only way to make injera was with self-rising flour and it was making her family sick as anything. It was the teff that she was missing – a tiny tiny grain that wasn’t available here until relatively recently when they began cultivating it in Idaho. (This last bit was of particular interest to Mom and me, with our family’s Idaho origins.)

So 14 years ago Miheret embarked on a mission to perfect the recipe for her own injera, one made with teff that would be healthy for her family to eat. She makes hers with brown and ivory teff, as well as the starter, water, fenugreek, and a little thyme, and not self-rising flour and barley, as with other injera. Magically, we happened into Miheret’s life just as she was putting the finishing touches on the recipe, and starting to share the fruits of her labor with friends and family. Ever so graciously, she offered to bring some to me, all I had to do was call her a couple of days in advance so she could prepare the injera for me and we could settle on a time to meet. I also came away that day with a small sticky note of ingredients and directions for making two dishes to go with the injera, one with cabbage, carrots, onion, and pepper, and one with lentils and more onion. When the day came early this week that I picked up the injera from Miheret she had also included a bit of the berbere spice mix, something I’d read about in my quest to find a lamb recipe to go along with my vegetables. Quite thoughtful of her, because when I’d looked at various recipes for the mix they all seemed dauntingly complicated for my weeknight meal.

But the thing of it is, the meal I assembled from Miheret’s injera and berbere spice mix, and a Sunday night of cooking with Aran, and a Wednesday afternoon of cooking with Mom, was less about the food and more about the connections that food represented. The fact that we were able to share this meal with family and friends was what I loved about the experience. I am grateful that Miheret and her colleagues at SCCA take such good care of my mother, care that has extended beyond the building and right into my kitchen. That connection continues, too, because when she handed me the injera Miheret also invited me into her kitchen to learn a bit more about cooking Ethiopian food. I can’t wait – and I’m already thinking about what food tradition I can share with her.

Hunger

Hunger had been recommended to me by a similarly foodie-minded colleague of mine, so I knew that it was worth a look. And then I heard more and more about this relatively new addition to upper Fremont (in the vicinity of Via Tribunali, Caffe Vita, and the Fremont Abbey), so clearly a visit was in order.

It just so happened that friends and I went at the very tail end of the most recent Dine Around Seattle, that twice-yearly dining-out promo that hits Seattle every March and November. Though allow me a brief digression… Was anyone else completely caught by surprise this time around? I consider myself a reasonably food-aware person, reading my share of blogs, websites, and tweets as I do, but I heard nary a word about this month’s food fest until a co-worker scheduled a lunch out for us. (It was at Shuckers, by the way, and the most noteworthy thing about it was the simple syrup offered along with the iced tea. So civilized!) So when I mentioned this over dinner my two friends demurred slightly, one saying that she had seen mention as a banner ad on a Seattle Times webpage. Duly noted, but STILL, it felt like the promotion was a bit lackluster this time around. Harumph.

Diatribe aside, I was pleased with my experience at Hunger. It seems a bit off the beaten path, even in the midst of those well-known neighbors mentioned above. Once I found my way inside I noted immediately that it had a distinctly neighborhood vibe, a small space with red- and orange-hued walls and an eclectic assortment of art. The tile-topped counter that fronts the street mirrors the curved bar, and was our first stop for a happy hour drink before dinner. The 4-6pm happy hour offers a decent menu of food and drink, with $3 Red Stripe tall boys as well as a good selection of nibbles for $5 each. The Cucumber Martini, one of the $5 specialty cocktails, was particularly tasty: an concotion of their well vodka, macerated cucumber, and simple syrup. A little sweet, but not too much so. Mostly just delicious!

In the yellow-hued room just beyond the small front room and bar, there is a big communal table and it’s there that we sampled Hunger’s offerings for Dine Around Seattle. Being the good food buddies that they are, they participated in my favorite activity for promotions like these: ordering one of everything (or very nearly) and sharing bites of all. We started with the Roasted Beet Salad with spicy toasted nuts, chevre, organic herb greens, and aged balsamic vinaigrette, a solid if not revolutionary beet salad. The Curried Mussels, given the accompaniment list of coconut milk, green curry broth, fresh lime, and basil sounded absolutely delicious, and it came through in spades. The Moroccan Lentil Soup with Northern beans, Flageolet beans, tomato, truffle oil, and fresh herbs was just a touch spicy, with tremendous flavor.

I’d say that was the theme of the meal for the most part, in fact. “Tremendous flavor” definitely described the Andouille Gnocchi, one pasta I’m always hesitant to order because it can so easily come off as bland. There wasn’t a chance of that in Hunger’s version, with andouille, caramelized red onion, plum tomato, arugula, and balsamic reduction. The same could be said for the Wild Mushroom Risotto, another dish that can sometimes fall flat, but apparently not when you’re Hunger and working with wild mushrooms, plum tomato, marjoram, black truffles, and shaved reggiano cheese. I wasn’t as much a fan of the Steak Frites. The truffle shoestring potatoes were deliciously thin and crispy, but the beef seemed swamped by the demiglace of red wine, mushroom, and onion. Perhaps a bit more demi, next time around?

It feels as though the desserts – a cheese plate, Empire ice cream, and Ginger & Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta – weren’t as stellar as the savory dishes that preceded them, so maybe it’s the Small Bites and Big Bites for which one comes to Hunger. I’d be OK with that, with items on the menu like Wild Boar Sliders, Harissa Smoked Lamb, Curried Cauliflower Gratin, and One Seriously Gouda Burger. I think that it’s tough to judge a restaurant on a Dine Around Seattle or Seattle Restaurant Week experience, so count me in for another visit. Starting with one of those delicious cucumber martinis, if you don’t mind.

Hunger on Urbanspoon

Golden Beetle

Maria Hines has a good thing going at Tilth. Her lovely little spot in a converted house in Wallingford is foodie organic heaven, and a destination restaurant for people who know and enjoy intentionally sourced and carefully prepared food. I came to Tilth a bit late, having heard much about it but not had the chance to visit until last fall. Though once sampled, forever devoted.

So it was with much enthusiasm that I welcomed the news of a new Maria Hines venture in Ballard. I am not a restaurateur and don’t aspire to be one, but I imagine that it would be a great challenge to launch one’s sophomore effort. To build on the success of that first restaurant, while bringing something fresh and new to the scene. I’ve now made two visits to Golden Beetle in a week, and I think that her food does just that.

It’s not much like Tilth at all, really, unless you think about it from a quality of ingredients standpoint, with a considerable dose of the same excellent service at both restaurants. Golden Beetle is right on Market, with big street-front windows that will let in a nice breeze once the weather gets a bit warmer. Once you get inside it’s strikingly blue, lighter tones in some places and brighter tones in others. The bar stools are one of my favorite parts of the interior, black upholstered on top and bowed light wooden legs that echo the curve of the low wall and the bar itself.

The food is Mediterranean small plates, and everything I sampled shows evidence of that same care in preparation. On the first visit for dinner we started with this beautifully bright creamy carrot soup, with pita croutons served in a little pile alongside the bowl. With the surfeit of pita and flat bread on the menu, we had to try at least one item that prominently featured either. The wood fired flat bread pizza came heavy with fraga farm goat cheese, muhammara (a Lebanese dip of sorts), and goat confit that came on quite strong the more one had of the flat bread. Another bowl of goodness arrived shortly after, the basil fed snails in broth, whose prominent taste was the licorice root and anise seed noted in the menu description.

Continuing in the grand tradition of being prodded to try things I wouldn’t necessarily sample on my own, next to come was the wood fired rabbit kidney, a skewer that also included roasted apple and pistachio, with a black olive dressing. Given the richness of this bit of bunny, you didn’t need a whole lot to get a good sense of the dish. The Bloomsdale spinach cigars were visually my favorite of the meal, in this Lincoln log-like stack with a fresh cucumber sauce the perfect clean accent. We finished with a dessert of fig-supported ice cream, and deliciously dense cardamom donuts served with this little dish of acacia honey.

Returning for happy hour this week only affirmed my appreciation for Golden Beetle. Happily ensconced on one of the bar stools that I’d admired from afar the week before, we sampled an entirely new selection of things and each was just as delicious as the last: wood fired pita bread and hummus; za’atar spiced french fries (with beef fat – take that, vegetarians!); the most flavorful chicken wings I’ve had in ages – must have been the ginger paste; spicy falafel, which I usually find uninterestingly bland but here was fantastic; and the perfectly cooked Skagit River Ranch ground beef skewers with a tamarind glaze. Nicely done, Ms. Hines, and I’m already excited to see what restaurant #3 might bring…

Golden Beetle on Urbanspoon

Staple & Fancy Mercantile

As a professed fan of Ethan Stowell’s restaurants (and now cookbook as well), it’s no surprise that I would be excited for his newest venture to open its doors. Though Staple & Fancy Mercantile was on the foodie radar for a while, as opening the restaurant also involved rehabbing the entire Kolstrand Building, a beautiful piece of Ballard’s industrial history. I had seen the interior of the space from the sidewalk, and through the large window from its neighbor, The Walrus and the Carpenter, but somehow hadn’t managed to dine there until recently.

The entire building has an industrial-chic sort of vibe – just make the long trek to the restrooms and you’ll see what I mean – and Staple & Fancy follows that design scheme with an abundance of exposed brick. It’s a single large space, with big doors that open to the sidewalk at the front of the restaurant, the tiny bar and open kitchen along one wall, and a gray painted wood bench running the entire length of the room. The metal-edged wood tables and what looked to be the original plank flooring complement the brick, and make for a particularly warm and inviting space.

Staple & Fancy had been of particular interest to me, as Ethan Stowell had said that he planned to do much of the cooking here unlike other restaurants Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf, and Anchovies & Olives. Given this, and the fact that I’d finally made it there after several previous attempts, this seemed like the right occasion for the family style supper. It’s the perfect thing to do if you have a table of adventurous eaters interested in experiencing what Stowell and Staple & Fancy really have to offer. So we gave ourselves up to the whim of the kitchen and sat back as dish after dish began to arrive.

We started with a demitasse cup of butternut squash soup, with a lovely slick of olive oil on the top. Next to arrive was a small crock of fennel, green bean, and cauliflower served with bagna cauda (an Italian dipping sauce) that was the perfect salty counterpoint to the vegetables. Then a duo of crostini, one with seriously smoky smoked tuna, and the other with white bean puree topped with white anchovy. Next came the escolar crudo with avocado purée, one of my favorite dishes of the evening. I’ve said it before and this makes me say it again – ALWAYS order the escolar crudo when presented with this option at any Ethan Stowell establishment. You will thank me, I promise!

Midway through we had the romiolo, a blend of cow, goat, and sheep’s cheese served alongside very lightly dressed arugula. Then steamed mussels and chorizo in a deliciously salty broth, as well as fried oysters with a Calabria chili aioli. I tend to like my oysters raw (hence the multiple visits to neighboring Walrus and Carpenter) but these were delicious and perfectly accented by the aioli. The wild hedgehog mushrooms were the best part of the gnocchi, though the duck egg that topped the dish added a wonderful creaminess. These same mushrooms reappeared alongside leeks in the beef culotte, with the meat cooked to perfection. I am not necessarily the biggest fan of swordfish, but this piece was well-prepared, and again paired with a delicious side, this time couscous and tagliasca olives. As if we hadn’t already been presented with a substantial amount of delicious, beautifully prepared food, the evening ended with a nicely un-sweet ricotta cheesecake, and decidedly sophisticated chocolate pudding with a truffle cookie.

Staple & Fancy has terrific food and pitch-perfect interior, without question. Dinner that night would have been perfect, if not for the service experience. I can imagine that it’s a challenge to fill a restaurant when you don’t know before the guests sit down whether they’ll be having a drink and a small bite, or are settling in for the family style supper. But for us, each dish of the supper came out so quickly we barely had time to finish the one before it. And I suppose it’s because there are so very many physical plates involved in this kind of service, but everyone in the restaurant – from the hostess to the bartender to several other servers – brought us plates at one time or another. It’s not that I want my assigned server to be my best friend, but I also don’t want to feel abandoned once we’d made our choice of family style supper and (finally) received starting cocktails. The service at How to Cook a Wolf is one of my favorite things about that restaurant; perhaps there could be a little ESR internal coaching and this hands-on style could make its way across the bridge to Ballard.

Staple & Fancy Mercantile on Urbanspoon