When my sister nominated Seattle for our (now annual) family holiday trip the first thing to pop into my mind was the Pike Place Market – as a matter of fact, save for the Space Needle, the EMP, and the rain it was the only thing that immediately came to mind when thinking of The Emerald City and as such it shall also be the first place I will revisit after an eight day gastronomic whirlwind tour that took the four of us from SeaTac to Northern Vancouver and many places in between. Touristy to be certain and not so much a mere “market” as it is a section of the town encompassing multiple city blocks from 1st to Western and Pike to Virginia our travels would see us visit Pikes Place thrice during our stay with stops along the way constituting mostly snacks and breakfasts both sweet and savory.
Beginning our exploration of the market in a slight downpour with my aunt still in a walking boot secondary to her slowly healing Achille’s it was rather quickly that we realized there is rarely a time when Pike’s Place is not crowded – particularly just after noon immediately following a major holiday – but braving the crowds our first stop would be to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, perhaps the most crowded of all the shops save for the Original Starbucks.
Having done my standard (and exhaustive) degree of research before arriving and knowing that we would be sampling the market substantially it would not be long before we entered the queue at Beecher’s and with the wait approximately fifteen minutes we were treated to squeaky cheese curds, house made fennel crackers, and samples of Flagship as we waited. With each sample tasty but weary of stomach capacity at the start of a long day and without any open space to sit on Beecher’s clever milk-jug stools when we finally did arrive at the front of the line we were greeted by a friendly young woman named Sophie who took our order, filled a small cup of macaroni and cheese, and told us it would be approximately ten more minutes before our sandwich would be ready.
With the “world’s best” Mac & Cheese featuring Flagship, Just Jack, Soft Penne, and Spices including pepper and paprika now in hand along with four forks it would not be long before our tasting began and true to the rumors the pasta was delicious – a lovely blend of smooth textures and sharp flavors punctuating each bite and although perhaps not the best Macaroni and Cheese any of us had ever tasted (actually, not even as good as that at The Coterie Room the night prior) a very impressive dish.
Moving next to our sandwich, the signature “Flagship Sandwich” featuring Flagship, Just Jack, Basil, Tomato, and Tangy “Beecher’s Spread” on buttered Panini-pressed bread the sandwich would also prove to be quite delicious with a flavor not unlike a good Margherita pizza but with a bit more crunch – another worthwhile taste of the market, though I will admit my tastes lean more towards cheddar and thicker egg breads when I eat grilled cheese otherwise.
Having already mentioned the original Starbucks located just a few doors down from Beecher’s I’ll simply say that during the first day of our visit the line was greater than fifty persons long and as such we held off visiting for another day – a day when we would again arrive in the rain but also a day when the flagship store of the coffee empire was entirely empty save for five helpful employees who seemed more than surprised to outnumber their customers.
Generally unimpressed by Starbucks, particularly since the introduction of Pike Place Roast and the Via Starbucks system, I have to admit that I found the flagship location far more interesting than the average Starbucks space and with the merchandise and coffee selection quite extensive I opted to purchase half a pound of Ethiopian Harrar ($1 for home and a cup of the “Pike Place Reserve” reportedly only available at Pike Place – a product they ironically only sell by the bag at the store (instead opting to force the same awful Pike Place Roast you can get at any airport on customers here as well) but a product I later ordered by the cup on the observation deck of the Space Needle only to find it slightly less watery and bitter than the “standard” Pike Place Roast. So much for exclusivity, eh?
Moving on with our exploration of Pikes Place we next spent some time watching street performers perform, fish mongers throw fish, and protestors protest (though none of us were entirely sure what they were protesting) before getting into a line twenty deep at Daily Dozen Doughnut Company – the first of three donut stops on the trip and without a doubt the most simplistic of the trio with a conveyor belt style robot plopping out the buttery balls of dough that would be subsequently topped while steaming hot with either cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar or chocolate and sprinkles.
With the line moving quickly and the kiosk cash only it would be a short ten minutes before we found ourselves at the front of the line and opting for a mixed half dozen for a mere $2.69 (cash only) we chatted with the inked, gauged, and pleasant servers while or order was readied before making our way to the standing bar next door where we enjoyed our sweet treats alongside a creepy collection of rubber rats – each two-bite selection still hot and tasty but only the cinnamon sugar choices truly exemplary with a crisp exterior giving way to moist and fluffy interior flecked with buttery yeast notes and plenty of flavor. Sure these aren’t designer donuts, but for what they are they are quite tasty and also quite a deal.
Going next for more savories our path would lead us to Pike Place Chowder, winner of multiple awards for both their New England and Manhattan style soups and with their indoor seating a particularly popular spot on this afternoon due to the steady rain and chilly conditions outdoors. With the space itself inside a larger building and divided from a small pizzeria by an off white wall we entered the queue of ten quickly noting that both the signature bread bowl and the daily “market chowder” were already sold out but desiring neither with hopes of more variety and less capacity we chatted as the line progressed and we made our way to the cashier.
With seven selections still remaining and the option for a pick-4 chowder sampler with a side of sourdough for a mere $10.16 plus tax and tip it was a short debate between the scallop chowder and the smoked salmon bisque before we placed our order and on paying the bill we grabbed a tray, some oyster crackers, and two glasses of water before making our way to the pizza parlor for a seat (apparently allowed, but not without a snarky comment from the parlor’s purveyor about “tourists” and the quality of his pies.)
Beginning first with the signatures Erika started in on the Manhattan while I dug into the New England – a potage so thick you can stand a spoon up in it and even before adding oyster crackers for that extra crunch and salinity I can say without batting an eye that this was indeed the best New England clam chowder I’ve ever tasted, even if it was about as far from New England as I’ve ever consumed chowder. Thick, creamy, full of clams and potatoes with a slightly smoky tinge conferred by bacon – textbook, and especially compared to the Manhattan style which, although good and similarly filled with clams and vegetables, simply wasn’t my style given my preference for cream over tomato bases.
Moving next to the final chowder and one non-chowders I admit I was a bit hesitant about my sister’s choice of Smoked Salmon Chowder as I generally don’t fancy salmon but proving my skepticism unfounded I actually found this to be perhaps the most interesting choice of the quartet with the woodsy notes serving to temper the nicely cooked salmon while hints of capers, onion, and butter also found room on the palate to shine without being overwhelming or overwhelmed, a feature that would be equally well represented in the seafood bisque, a satin smooth puree with briny notes of the sea kissed by both butter and a touch of tomato that rivals some of the best bisque I’ve ever tasted without being too rich or heavy, even when sopped up with the still-warm sourdough.
From savories to sweet and back again the next stop on our walk of the market would be Bottega Italiana for some gelato and unlike the warm environs at Beechers, Daily Dozen, and Pike Place Chowder the frozen treats shop would not only prove to be far less busy but also far less well stocked with only nine of store’s twenty daily small batch concoctions remaining and most of those being your standard run-of-the-mill flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, apple, and lemon.
Standing and debating our options for a few moments as the server offered us samples and suggestions (she liked the chocolate, I personally found it a bit icy though impressively bitter-sweet) my sister and I eventually settled on two “small” cups with two selections in each – for my sister Coconut and Coffee and for myself Burnt Cream Panna cotta and Tiramisu each tasty and sweet but none particularly stunning save for the coconut which had a texture as creamy and smooth as frozen coconut oil but a flavor much closer to the flavor of fresh coconut flesh; a combination that impressed even the non-coconut lovers of the group as the best of the bunch.
With gelato now checked off the list we proceeded to the final stop of our first day in the market, a stop that intrigued me largely because not only had I never tasted a crumpet before but because I’d never even seen one on a menu before – two deficiencies I was rather certain a visit to The Crumpet Shop would solve even before we opened the door and crossed the threshold from the cold and rainy streets to the warm and welcoming interior where we were quickly greeted by two of three young female servers and a plethora of enticing smells.
Having already decided that we would check out no more than two options given the day’s substantial eating plans it was with a great deal of deliberation and consultation with the staff before we made our choices and after watching the medium sized English Muffins emerge from a small storage bin my sister set off to fill her cup of tea while I watched the pastries undergo the careful process of toasting, topping, and finally plating before carrying them to the table and filling my own cup of fair trade coffee – a thick Guatemalan blend with nutty notes and free refills but only sugar and Stevia available for sweetening (thus requiring me to break into my stash of Equal commandeered from Starbucks earlier that day.)
With the coffee and tea now prepared to our liking my first bite of Crumpet would be the menu topping “Maple Butter” option made with a creamy frosting laden with notes of both butter and pure Canadian maple syrup plus a bit of cream and without a doubt I can say that this was a game changer for someone who has never really fancied English Muffins as the crust proved to be thick, crisp, and toothsome while the interior was slightly moist, laden with butter, and pillowy soft providing a great support for both the maple butter on our first choice and the house made Hazelnut Spread and Ricotta on the second, a concoction so rich one bite would have probably been enough but a flavor so delicious that I found myself debating a return visit for breakfast two days later when we found out Café Besalu was closed for their holiday break – a return that would have happened were it not for two other must-visits in the Pike Place area; Piroshky Piroshky and The Confectional.
Beginning first with Piroshky Piroshky, the family owned Russian Bakery currently buried under a veil of construction but open and visible from the always crowded Original Starbucks next door I have to admit that were it not for the glowing reviews this is probably not the sort of place I’d have visited – to say the least this is a case where it is unwise to judge a book by its cover – yet in retrospect it would prove to be one of the best small bites of the trip and a place I would certainly return to on a subsequent trips not only for the unique food, but also the friendly service and bargain prices.
Having already mentioned the construction outside it was again under the clouds and rain that we entered the small shop where we were greeted by a smiling young woman with a heavy accent who asked us if we knew what we wanted and on telling her we would need a few moments to decide she offered us a list of their most popular items – two which we ordered and the rest which we eschewed for two alternative options, all of which were still warm and individually bagged prior to being placed in a larger bag that easily weighed 3lbs while costing just over $16.
Taking our goods elsewhere to eat and beginning first with the savories our first two tastes of Piroshky were the Smoked Mozzarella, Broccoli, and Mushroom Piroshky and the Spinach, Egg, and Cheese Piroshky, each piping hot with the cheese still bubbly inside the buttery leavened bread and both featuring surprisingly well cooked vegetables with plenty of flavor and texture that worked nicely not only in the pastry but on their own; particularly the slightly crisp spinach embedded in the quiche-like egg and cheddar amalgam.
Moving next from savories to sweets our second pair of choices from the Russian bakery were a decidedly safe Apple Cinnamon Roll and an entirely unique Moscow Roll, the first featuring the same buttery pastry as the savories imbued with cinnamon, sugar, and fresh butter-baked apples with the skin intact and the second a sort of croissant like shell harboring a cornbread textured blend of Bavarian Cream and cream of wheat that was quite unlike anything I’d have expected but also quite delicious with a mild sweetness beneath the buttery notes and flecks of streusel atop adding just a touch more sweetness and texture; a dish you simply must experience to appreciate.
Moving on from Piroshky Piroshky for more take-away snacks our final stop at Pike Place would be to The Confectional, a store serving $4.75 individual sized cheesecakes (think cupcake size) made with cage free hen eggs, all natural butter, house sweetened sour-cream and cream cheese, and thick buttery crusts made vanilla Spanish tea biscuits – seemingly a can’t miss recipe for success and all the more so when taking into account the friendly and accommodating servers, yet a store from which I emerged underwhelmed by all but one of our four selections while the rest of my family didn’t even bother to take more than a couple bites.
Starting first with the signature Raspberry White Chocolate and progressing to Caramel, Kahlua White Chocolate, and finally Quadruple Chocolate I will first note that the crust on each was fantastic, particularly the rich chocolate crunch surrounding the Quadruple chocolate and the intensely buttery version melding with the sticky sweet caramel, but moving past the crust and the caramel soaked selection each cake was simply too dry and crumbly with the Kahlua and Raspberry both sour and bland while the Quadruple chocolate was so intense that it was more “fudge” than cheesecake. A cute concept to be sure, but not on par with many other cheesecakes in Seattle (see Bar Del Corso and Spur,) or elsewhere and definitely not worth the calories when you could be eating a piroshky, crumpet, or donut instead.