Having visited the market and done a fair bit of exploration of the chocolates, cupcakes, donuts, and coffee in Seattle there is clearly more to life than just sugar and although there were a number of really great full-fledged meals in Seattle there were also early cocktails and snacks (some that would qualify as a meal for others) as well as light lunches in the midst of sight-seeing (or eating baked goods) that could best be described as savory interludes in the day – five spots that didn’t really serve as a complete dining experience but more as an appetizer for things to come and all but one that despite their savory nature would serve up some damned tasty desserts as well.
With our first day maligned by cancellations, flight delays, and the general horrors that are Continental Airlines and IAH our dining itinerary for the (very late) first and entire second day in the Emerald City would require a bit of retooling but always with a contingency plan our early bites before a late reservation would lead us to the relatively new and critically applauded Beacon Hill Pizzeria entitled Bar Del Corso, a spot I’d been told was dishing out perhaps the best pies west of the Mississippi river by a chef in Los Angeles and a place that was high on my must visit list from day one of planning.
Owned and operated by Jerry Corso, a young man whose training began very early and led him to both sides of the Atlantic (and of the United States) to master his craft, plus his wife Bar Del Corso would prove to be an easy find and although a steady downpour plagued our walk from the street parking to the door the space and service could not have been more convivial and warm when we arrived mere moments after they’d unlocked the doors and with a no reservations policy we were quickly led to a sturdy four-top where menus were provided and waters filled before the hostess returned to the stand to greet a steady stream of customers that would see the restaurant filled within the hour.
With the restaurant bustling the next person to greet us after we sat was Lucas, a friendly young waiter who recited the day’s specials prominently listed on a chalkboard, offered us drinks which we declined, and told us to take our time after leaving us with some recommendations. Having already scouted the menu and knowing that this visit was only ‘pre-gaming’ for more Italian later I personally took this time to go check out Jerry’s handmade stone oven where Chef Corso was busy stoking the fire and adding wood yet more than happy to chat – a genuinely nice guy who really seemed to love what he was doing even as the area around the oven was, in my opinion, sweltering.
With Lucas returning and orders placed it would not be long before our first dish would arrive and with water remaining filled by the back servers I knew right away that this “snack” was going to be more of a meal before a meal for myself when I saw the portion size of the Baccalà Mantecato – a dish twice as large as I’d expected and one I knew my fish-phobic family would likely not overindulge on. Served alongside toasty rustic bread fresh from the oven and featuring the lightest flavored salt cod whipped with creamy potato and olive oil that I have ever tasted this small casserole was a perfect starter with a nicely balanced brininess made all the more heavenly by hints of garlic and a bubbly layer of grated parmigiano-reggiano DOP – a flavor still too “fishy” for my mother and aunt, but not really an issue as I was more than happy to overindulge on something so divine.
Moving next to the main event (or so I thought) our selections were a duo of pizzas, the first an upgraded version of Corso’s standard Margherita and the second a slightly more unique but beautiful Ortolana. Beginning first with the crust, as any discussion of pizza should, the pies that were brought to us still bubbling from the over were nearly my ideal for a Neapolitan pie – a crisp crust with a dense crumb and large blistered pockets along the edges complimented with just enough sugar and salt to give it flavor but not so much to overwhelm the toppings; a lovely ring with a wet center but not soupy at all.
Moving next to the toppings and cheese, for the Margherita it was the standard; top notch San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil, grassy and smooth olive oil, and for us the $3 upgrade mozzarella di buffula DOP – all textbook, particularly on this crust, and although not the very best Margherita I’ve ever had a strong contender especially given the price of only $15 even after the added cheese. For the Ortolana, this one without a “sauce,” what would arrive was actually quite impressive – an admixture of “Willie’s braising greens,” house cured coppa, smoked mozzarella, and chopped cherry tomatoes plus a dusting of pecorino that all worked beautifully together as the smoky cheese blended seamlessly with the briny pork while the vegetal bitterness of the nicely softened greens was toned down by the acidity of the tomatoes and sharpness of the cheese; a beautiful pie and an absolute must order.
Having already noted our upcoming dinner at Spinasse I’d originally planned to skip dessert at Bar Del Corso but when I saw the words Quince and Polenta next to one another on the menu and heard the description of an “upside-down” Cake I immediately reassessed…besides, dinner was still 2.5 hours away and as luck would have it the item that arrived at our table would turn out to be the best thing I ate in Seattle or Vancouver and amongst the ten best desserts I ate in 2011, a warm disc not much larger than a hockey puck and consisting of no more than toothsome grains, butter, sugar, and fruit rendered into a steaming hot pudding with just a bit of crunch at its base and a touch of cinnamon; a more toothsome sticky pudding if you will and the rare sort of dish where I ate each bite with my eyes closed and a smile on my face.
With some great eating already in our rearview and more to come another between-meal stop would be at Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie Downtown for Happy Hour – a fitting choice not only because the 3:00pm start would allow my sister and I a taste of the highly acclaimed pizza while affording us plenty of time to digest before the night’s dinner at The Herbfarm but also because my mother and aunt could thereby get a good meal at a great price since they’d not be joining us for the night’s extravagance.
Having heard that the space fills up quickly, especially for the discounted drinks and $6 personal pizzas our original goal was to arrive at Serious Pie as the Happy Hour began but unfortunately our amusement with the Fremont Troll and Archie McPhee plus a patch of bad traffic would delay our arrival till nearly 3:45, a time by which the restaurant was already full with a reported 45 minute wait during which my sister and I took a walk only to receive a text 20 minutes later that a communal 8-top was ready and that my mother and aunt were already seated (with particularly notable fantastic customer service assisting my aunt and her damaged Achilles’ tendon through the crowded and tightly packed space.)
Having already noted the bustling nature of Serious Pie it would be mere moments before a young lady named Leyla would greet us and dropping off menus she stated she would “be right back” with water – a process that took perhaps ten minutes as it seemed she was the only server working our half of the room and when she returned we not only received our water but placed our orders as well – three happy hour pizzas, an impressively potent house aged root beer, and a diet coke, all of which would arrive less than fifteen minutes later as the restaurant became louder and even more crowded largely due to a particularly sizeable group near the bar.
With the pizzas arriving hot and bubbling from the large wood-fired oven, an oven that on my observation appeared to be able to turn out at least 6 pizzas at once, we were all quite amused by the small size and oblong shapes of the pies as each one was cut into 6 two-bite pieces with the puffy golden crust making up the better part of one of those bites, especially on the four “corner” pieces. Served on black slates big enough to hold one or two pies it would not take long before we decided to dig in and beginning first with the aforementioned crust I must say it was not precisely what I expected but quite good none the less with a slightly blistered underside giving rise to a dense and bready interior with a touch of sweetness and good chew without being “tough” – a bit like ‘pan’-pizza from a national chain, but ever more pleasant and less dense to be sure.
Moving on to a discussion of the toppings our three pies would include “Buffalo Mozzarella, Tomato Sauce, Fresh Basil,” “Soft egg, House made guanciale, arugula,” and “Yukon gold potato, rosemary, pecorino” – all three featuring top notch ingredients in ample portions with the Margherita tangy and well seasoned, the egg a nice volley of creamy, savory, and bitter, and the potato and rosemary option a personal favorite largely because of the manner in which the lightly boiled potatoes provided just enough resistance to the tooth to be noticeable but otherwise served to lend their characteristic earthy body to the butter, hefty sprinkling of rosemary, and briny cheese.
Moving next to dessert but knowing the night was far from over for two of us we settled on one selection, my choice of the “Chocolate budino, sea salt, biscotti” – a dense chocolate pudding with a texture more smooth than mousse but less dense than panna cotta bespeckled with crunchy rocks of sea salt and a light lacquer of olive oil that added a fruity top note. Allotted only a couple bites each given the four spoons and rather small size I will say the thought crossed my mind to order another but deciding to show just a bit of restraint I instead took to using the warm and crunchy chocolate chip biscotti to wipe the jar clean while looking forward not only to our meal at The Herbfarm later than night but also another visit to a Tom Douglas spot the following day.
With another great day behind us and already checked out of our hotel with plans for Willow’s Inn on Lummi Island that night and a subsequent drive across the border to Vancouver a late lunch on 12/30 would see our second visit to a Tom Douglas spot – this time the downstairs of Serious Pie Westlake in a space formerly known as Dahlia Workshop now reborn as Serious Biscuit. Again with parking easily obtained at a meter and jokes appropriately made about the “serious” nature of Chef Douglas’ work we made our way into Serious Biscuit to find the restaurant largely empty at 2:15pm and upon browsing the overhead menu it took little time for each of us to identify something that sounded delicious, place our order with a rather distracted and unhelpful server named Norah, and find seats beneath the delightful Christmas decorations in front of the floor to ceiling windows.
With the kitchen wide open to see and two large guys working loudly as they mixed batter, scooped the dough onto sheets, and manned the oven another young woman took to the task of preparing our sandwiches – each biscuit warm from the oven, sliced, and topped with fresh ingredients being cooked to order – while Norah first spent time texting on her cell phone and then spent literally ten minutes flirting with her boyfriend in the middle of the restaurant; something I’ve literally never seen before and only ending when a group of four arrived to order some food and then resuming thereafter.
With sandwiches being prepared and the ‘scene’ going on behind us I took the opportunity of a ten minute wait to first browse the wine shop next door and then to check out the dessert menu at the Serious Pie upstairs before asking if it would be possible to order a dessert up there to eat downstairs after our sandwiches – a request that was granted without question and whose delivery would be timed perfectly just after we’d finished our biscuits – 5 in total that would arrive from the kitchen one at a time and each as impressive as the next mostly due to buttermilk biscuits almost too good to be true.
Beginning first with the less interesting options three of the selections would be a plain biscuit with butter and raspberry preserves, a biscuit with bacon, egg, and cheese, and finally a plain biscuit with honey, peanut butter, sliced bananas, and a side of bacon. Beginning first with the biscuits, never before have I tasted a buttermilk biscuit that managed to be both light and dense at the same time, loaded with butter yet just a bit crumbly, and capable of being picked up and eaten like a sandwich without crumbling apart – think everything a McDonalds biscuit is in terms of portability but make it three times as big, three times as delicate, and infinitely more buttery. As to the toppings – eggs fried up right in front of us alongside the bacon, house churned organic peanut butter, local honey, and house made preserves – not much else to be said, all delicious.
Moving on to the more interesting options, my sister went with the Crispy Hamhock, Collards, Smoked Onions only because I ordered first and selected “The Zach” – a dense biscuit topped with Fried-as-you-wait Chicken, Tabasco Black Pepper Gravy, a Fried Egg, and Bacon and having already mentioned the quality of the biscuits there was simply no eating either of these without the use of a knife and fork as both were smothered with their respective toppings, larger portions of protein, and a flavor profile running the gamut from savory to smoky crisp vegetable notes on the Hamhock sandwich and from creamy to crunchy to hot, smoky, and savory on The Zach; a truly remarkable sandwich and among the top 10 things I ate on the trip even if there was really not much “northwest” about it.
Having already mentioned dessert it would be just as we finished up The Zach (a team effort with everyone quite impressed) that Chris would descend the stairs with the “Warm Rice Pudding with Caramel, Vanilla Oat Crisp, and Golden Raisins” and as a big fan of rice pudding (and lucky enough to have had quite a few this year) it would prove to be another great dish; every bit as good as the budino the night before and perhaps even better with the rice textural but not tough and “stick a spoon up in it” thick but not gummy or heavy at all. With the rice pudding itself good, the presentation would also prove to be excellent as the kitchen opted to fill the bottom of the glass jar with molten salty caramel and top the dish with the vanilla toasted oats and raisins, a method that allowed everything to remain separated and at their appropriate temperatures until mixing effectively created a warm, sweet, and textural masterpiece that could have stood up to some of the better examples in Paris – a great dessert on a trip full of great desserts and a particularly noteworthy end to a surprisingly memorable lunch.
Having now spent a good four days in Richmond, Vancouver, and North Vancouver our return to Seattle on 1/3/2012 would finally find one of the city’s most highly regarded spots open for lunch – a place nationally known not only because the son’s owner has created an empire of restaurants stretching from the Empire State to the Golden State but also because they apparently put out a damned fine line of cured meats, sandwiches, and pastas in their own right – Salumi.
With the restaurant just returning from a holiday break that had lasted just under two weeks and having heard rumors of hour plus lines even during the workweek to get a sandwich our arrival at Salumi would be just twenty minutes after they opened the doors and much to both ours and the workers’ surprise we were actually only the second group of the day – a situation they admitted was “very peculiar” as there is generally a full house from 11:00 to close but an advantageous situation to us as we had time to not only browse the menu but also to taste some samples before placing our order for two sandwiches and two of the daily specials from the kitchen, all of which were prepared swiftly by the pleasant team and delivered to our table directly next to the kitchen.
Beginning first with the daily pasta, unfortunately not the gnocchi I’d hoped for, Penne with Tomato Cream Sauce with Sliced Bread would prove to be an admirable second choice with the house made dried noodles cooked to a springy al dente texture and topped with a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, heavy cream, butter, and garlic – a hearty rustic dish that fit the scene nicely and albeit not “haute” cuisine in any way, a lot of flavor for a mere $8 with a sauce that saw me sopping up every drop with the warm crusty bread served at its side.
For our second daily special my mother was keen to try the Baked Acorn Squash with Dittalini and Cotechino, a surprisingly inspired choice with the sweet meat of the squash removed after cooking and mixed with what appeared to be miniature penne noodles and fatty sausage plus a hefty dusting of pecorino cheese. Small but flavorful and an intense balance of sweet, savory, and spicy with a lot of texture this was another rustic dish that went quickly and a veritable steal at $6.
Moving now to the main events and with each sandwich cut into four by the lovely servers at the counter my first bites of Armandino’s famous house salumi had admittedly already occurred when we were offered samples while waiting in line but now pairing the fennel speckled and intensely savory pork with Roasted Onions, House made mozzarella, and a light olive oil dressing on ciabbata we all truly got to experience the quality of the signature sandwich. Generally not a fan of salami on its own I have to say that all things being equal this was actually a very good quality product, particularly when balanced against the creamy mozzarella, but what really stole the show for me was the onions – nearly translucent despite being lightly charred and as sweet as candy without overwhelming the rest of the sandwich.
Moving on to the more interesting (at least to me) of the two sandwiches, the slow roasted Porchetta with fennel, carrots, celery, and roasted onions on rustic Italian would prove to be the best bite of the afternoon with the savory pork not only piping hot but intensely juicy and soaking into the hefty bun more and more with each bite. Subtly spiced and light on the salt I really appreciated how Salumi allowed the pork to on its own while the vegetables laid a background of both bitter and sweet plus a crunchy texture to each bite. While I cannot say I loved this sandwich as much as the skin and salt speckled version at Roli Roti down in San Francisco it is a hard call to make given the differences in presenting the same cut of meat and I think both deserve their space on the “must eat sandwich” list for those visiting just as Salumi absolutely deserves its critical acclaim, long lines, and the attention of anyone serious about food who is visiting Seattle.
Moving on to the last of our mini-meals, this one actually only four hours after Salumi and four hours before Spur, our last day in Seattle would lead us to The Walrus and the Carpenter, a place considered by many to not only be one of the best new bars in America, but also one of the best oyster bars in America – two things that don’t necessarily sell me on a space, but a restaurant featuring both a cocktail and small plates list that looked fantastic and a setting that looked straight out of Paris by way of Seattle.
Having spent most of the afternoon wandering Ballard after lunch and having picked up some unique gifts in the artsy neighborhood in the process our arrival to The Walrus and the Carpenter would be just as they opened the doors at 4:00pm and with the restaurant still empty we were given our choice of seats and greeted pleasantly by literally everyone in the space – from the hostess to our server to the bartender, cooks, and even the guy with awesome beard who spent the evening shucking oysters in a nearly zen-like trance. With smiling faces all around and a soundtrack harkening the 40s and 50s we opted to take a seat in the back corner largely to afford us a view of the room but also because we anticipated the place to get loud – something that happened shortly thereafter as the restaurant filled to capacity within twenty minutes.
Greeted now at the table by Kat, menus were presented with cocktails, wine, beer, and liquor on the back and food on the front while in addition to the menu we were explained a number of daily specials, one of which would prove a must order even though I went into the restaurant hoping to show some restraint. With waters filled and cocktails ordered we spent a few moments deliberating and when Kat returned we were ready to order – a duo of bar bites, a duo of savories, a bit of cheese, and a couple of sweets, all of which would arrive with excellent pacing over the course of just under an hour and fifteen minutes.
Beginning first with our cocktails, four were ordered and it did not take any of us long to figure out why the bar gets such rave reviews – for $9 each these were some damned heavy pours with a lot of top quality booze from the friendly and knowledgeable bartender. Beginning first with a few of the weaker selections entitled The Moscow Mule with Vodka, Ginger Beer, Lime, and Sliced Ginger and the Porch Swing with Gin, Lemon Juice, Pimm’s, and Apple bitters I really liked the balance of each as the heavy use of citrus helped to meld the bitter notes of the alcohol but moving on to the heavier selections – my sister’s Mustache Ride with Bourbon, Cynar, Allspice, Maple, Lemon and my Norwegian Wood with Aquavit, Applejack, Sweet Vermouth, and Yellow Chartreuse all I could do was let the ice melt and sip them slowly – very slowly – but then again, I am a lightweight when it comes to alcohol and the flavors were admittedly quite nice.
Moving right along to the snacks and cheese which we munched on as we waited, under normal circumstances the charge of $3 for Bread and Butter and $4 for a bowl of Roasted Almonds, Espelette, and Sea Salt would have seemed strange to me, but under these circumstances I will forgive largely because of the portions and the quality – literally a cup of almonds full of flavor and crunch while the bread was crusty, warm, and paired with locally churned butter and olive oil. All things being equal, I’m actually sort of glad they charged for the bread because if they had not I’d have invariably overindulged.
Moving on to the cheese, the third of the first round to arrive, Kurtwood Farms Dinah’s Cheese would prove to be a cheese I’d never heard of but on first taste I realized it was one that should definitely be more common. Described by our sever as the only cheese offered by Kurtwood Farms and one of the chef’s favorites I personally loved the softness of the smooth cow’s cheese while a slightly bloomy rind and nutty notes proved a competent pairing for locally sourced Ballard bee Honey and a few more slices of a different room temperature crusty white bread with melted butter.
Arriving next as single dishes each separated by approximately ten minutes the following three courses would prove very impressive for “bar food” and beginning with the most simple of the group we were treated to “Roasted Medjool Dates, Olive Oil, Sea Salt” a dish of eight of these lovely fruits roasted to tenderness, shaken with large crystals of salt, and drizzled with olive oil. Pricey to be sure at $1 per date but a well picked selection with each the size of a medium egg there was nothing fancy about this dish aside from perhaps the plating, but at the same time none of that really mattered – it was delicious.
Moving next to more composed dishes, the nightly special that sounded so irresistible arrived next featuring Salt Cod Brandade with toasted garlic bread and fennel salad with capers. Knowing my fascination with brandade and overall distaste for capers I first opted to taste the salad and as expected found it far too pungent and although tender just too briny to be enjoyed. Glad to have established that and setting it aside in favor of the blistering hot ramekin I next dug into the cheese, potato, and cod amalgam with a fork before placing it on the bread – a lovely texture, light on the salt, and plenty of cod flavor but not quite as delicate and refined as that at Bar Del Corso it would prove to be a competent take on the Baccala, but overall the least inspiring dish of the night.
Saving the best (or perhaps just the largest and most labor intensive for the kitchen) for last, our final savory of the evening at The Walrus would be a dish titled “Duck Confit, Leek, White Bean, Bread Crumbs” – a dish that would prove to be much more than the sum of its parts and perhaps the best duck confit I’ve ever tasted. Beginning first with the duck leg and thigh – crispy crunchy skin and supple flesh beneath a thin ribbon of fat – it was perfect, but what really put this dish over the top was in fact that accoutrements, a large porcelain bowl filled with white beans in a leek puree imbued with aged cheese and topped with breadcrumbs…a veritable macaroni and cheese without the cheese and a spot-on-flawless balance to the crispy protein.
Still swooning from the confit the capper to our pre-meal meal would be another of my favorite foods and another stunning dessert from the fine folks of Seattle; Maple Bread Pudding, Espresso Butter Sauce, Whipped Cream. Arriving as a hot “slice” of rich egg bread soaked with maple syrup and resting in a buttery pool of coffee and rum enriched gravy with a ball of ice-cream thick whipped cream atop this is the sort of dish where a picture tells a thousand words – thick, rich, and although small for four persons more than enough for one given its heft.
With the bill paid and a generous tip left for the pleasant service we made our way from The Walrus and the Carpenter more than impressed by the space, the staff, and the food – definitely a special spot considering they essentially bill themselves as just an oyster and cocktail bar and despite the fact that the cocktails were almost too potent for me and we avoided the oysters I can definitely say that not only would I go back, but I have every intention of trying to make that bean, leek, and cheese admixture at home sometime soon.