Tuesday, March 31, 2009

BBQ road trip

Took a trip with Bob Lyon and his wife, Sandra, to Brank's in Sumner. Bob has a case full of trophies and is known as the grandfather of NW Barbecue circuit, though some of his sweetest victories came down South. 

He's been trying to coax me to this place for some time, and my first impressions were hopeful: the stack of wood, the huge pig statue on the roof, the sing-song accent of the owner, Charlie. 

But after trying a little bit of everything, I was reminded, once again: You're not in Memphis anymore baby! 

The brisket was dry and chewy, the ribs were fine, though would have benefitted from better trimming and more smoky flavor, the loin was bland, the pulled pork was shredded and the sauce made the statement. I wanted to like it, but...

I think the best BBQ I've had in Seattle was at Peco's Pit, though they still overdo in on the sauce. Someday, I would love to lead a tour of Memphis hot spots, to turn the uninitated into Q believers. Anybody game? How about next May?

Monday, March 30, 2009

First sign of spring?

Update: Asparagus came out on top of the poll on everybody's favorite first signs of spring. Did you know that these days there are practically no commercial asparagus farms left in Walla Walla? 

Had my first halibut of the year last night, cooked the same sure-fire way Jon Rowley schooled us on making salmon perfect each and every time.

It's so simple, but it works: Sear a well-seasoned piece of fish on the stove top -- I used my ScanPan grill pan, which is a bear to clean -- and then finish it in a 275-degree oven for 10-15 minutes. It's beautifully moist, never dry, not gummy and undercooked. 

I walked to Pike Place Market under sunny skies yesterday and it was packed! I was mighty discouraged when I spotted whole halibut for $15 a pound, and fillets for $19. Drat! Guess I wouldn't be snagging any of that. When did halibut get to be so damn precious?

Walking back to Lower Queen Anne, I stopped at QFC and they it was on sale for $9.99. Score!

I rubbed my Alaska halibut with a seasoning mix I bought while on vakay in Hawaii. It's a lovely combo of dill, thyme, tarragon, sage, brown sugar, Hawaiian sea salt, kukui nut and lavendar from Ali'i Kula Farms. It has become my go-to not-so-secret-ingredient in all sorts of things.

Alongside a savory bread pudding and peas and carrots seasoned with dry mint, the halibut was easily the succulent star of the plate. How do you do your halibut?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Suffering several withdrawls

I have not been out to eat in a week! 

That's insane. Unthinkable. Just plain weird.

But that's my new life now that the gravy train has come to a screeching halt. My dining out budget in 2008 was something like $40K and I'm not exaggerating, even though I'm prone to gilding the lilly. I was out there all the time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, happy hours, afternoon tea and sloppy late night snacks.

No more.

I'm happy to be back in my kitchen. I love to cook. Just absolutely hate to clean up. Thank goodness for my prep cook/dishwasher husband, but more importantly, thank heaven for his late mama who banged it into his head to never leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight.

Still, I miss the drama of the dining room and the thrill of being served something spectacular while sipping wine and wondering, what the hell could be better than this?

As this sucky recession wears on my last good nerve, I gotta ask, am I the only one cutting back? Please take the poll and offer me some suggestions on the city's best cheap eats, so I can get back out there! 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Happy Hour from Hell

With The Stranger's Happy Hour guide in my bag and sporting a powerful thirst, I hit the bars with a couple buddies, trying to find some cheap drinks and inexpensive eats.

We got a late start, so had to skip downtown Seattle, where the happy hours end at 6. No prob, we'd go to the Market. 

First, Maximilien, where the "Bonsoir" at the front door is delivered in a true-blue French accent, which I love. But the bar was packed, so we quickly walked to Cafe Campagne, where we were told "sorry" yet again. They stop getting happy at 6, despite the hours listed said in the guide.

OK, what about Kell's? Same story. There was even an ad that says its happy hour runs daily from 5 to 7, but we were given the cold shoulder.

At this point, we were all starting to get pretty cranky. Let's check across Post Alley at the Pink Door? Boom. Happy hour's over. Even at Lowell's, which goes until 8, and the Athenian, the kitchen's were closed and they were only offering limited menus.

At 6:50, I remembered the new Thoa's, which used to be The Islander. We power-walked over there and slipped onto some barstools just in time for happy hour's last call. The beer was cold, the ahi poke salad was fantastic (and looked a lot like the pic above), the bartender was gracious. I took a peek at the menu, which looks like a mix of Thai, Vietnamese and Hawaiian. I would definitely come back for seconds.

In the meantime, with my dining budget slashed to shreds, I'm going to be hitting a whole lot more happy hours. Any suggestions? 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

So I walked into McDonald's....

UPDATE: The poll results are in and I'm thinking not many Southerners voted because the "unsweet" tea came out on top. My pal Michael Donahue puts at least six packets of sugar in his glass if he can't get a sweet tea.

I have not been in Mickey D's in years. I honestly do not remember when I last sunk my teeth in a Big Mac. I once ate two in a row when I was in high school and made myself sick.

I just don't spend my money at chain restaurants. Does that make me a snob? 

But I have been tempted by the latest come on: Cheap sweet tea. It's brewed tea and, yes, you can actually get a wedge of lemon, but you have to ask. They also have unsweet. That's what tea without sugar is called in the land of sweet tea.

It's a help yourself set-up, and I did what I always do, pour myself mostly unsweet and top it off with a little sweet. Not half and half. Not a VIP (half tea, half lemonade, which is also known as an Arnold Palmer, or in Seattle, a Tiger Woods). 

And, you know what? It was pretty darned good. For half a second, I considered a Big Mac. But I just couldn't pull the trigger. Maybe as my fortunes wane, I'll be more into the dollar menu.

How do you drink your iced tea? Take the poll and I'll report the results.

Finally, congrats to Martha Foose on her well-deserved nomination for the fantastic "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea" on the nomination for a James Beard award. It's my fave cookbook from 2008, especially because I can hear Miss Martha's voice in the delicious stories she tells. Treat yourself to this book and we'll club up over a round of Mailbox Cocktails and a batch of Sold my Soul to the Devil-ed Eggs. Amen!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Great Oyster Debate: Raw or Cooked?

UPDATE: The votes are in on the poll and people prefer their oysters in the raw. Thanks for your feedback!!

Took a trip to beautiful Samish Bay Saturday, the spring sunshine working like a tonic to purge the toxic developments of this past week. 

My better half and I split a couple dozen oysters and had a picnic right there on the water's edge at Taylor Shellfish. I had written a story about this kind of field trip last fall, but the weather was much better this time around.

While trying to get our damp lump charcoal going, we pryed open the Virginicas and slurped them down. A young woman from Maine asked us to show her the inside of one of our bivavles. Said she wasn't big on seafood. I said oysters are like the graduate degree of seafood eating. Where should I begin? she wondered. Something mild like sole or halibut. Her boyfriend suggested clams. 

We cooked the second dozen on the coals until the shells popped. I brought a mix of butter, garlic, Worchestshire and Frank's hot sauce to drizzle on top. Oh. So, so good. The lightly poached shellfish had that extra bit of texture, that slight pop when it hits your teeth. It was a very close call, but on that afternoon, the cooked came out ahead.

What's your favorite way to eat an oyster? Please take the poll and I'll fish out the results soon. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

High on Malbec

For years, I've been a Pinot Noir fanatic. Just love how something so approachable can also have such amazing complexity. Kinda like Beyonce. If I had a ton of money, I'd fill my rapidly dwindling "cellar" with Melville, Hitching Post, Calera and Sanford just to name a few.

But after taking a trip to Buenos Aires (that's me and Mr. Movies and More photographed in the Recoleta neighborhood), I developed a new appreciationg for Malbec, a grape best known for its supporting role in building up character in great Bordeaux. I love Malbec's slightly spicy quality, its heft. This ain't no lightweight.

Got a chance to try an outstanding Malbec, a 2007 reserve from Bodega Mi Terruno, a family-owned winery based in Mendoza that's just starting to make its way into the U.S. thanks to Elemental Importers, a new outfit based in Seattle (click here to see Elemental's portfolio) Restaurants should get on board with this affordable pour tout de suite!

Went to a tasting last night at The Capitol Club and that wine was, by far, my fave. And, at under $20, I can buy a case and throw a big steak cookout as soon as the weather gets nice. I've been begging Ryan and Ashley, the owners of Elemental, to bring in some Argentinean chimichurri in their next container. Anybody want to second that? 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In search of comfort food

Got together with friends for a little post P-I pity party featuring "Government Cheese and Macaroni", though it tasted too good to live up to that moniker. I do not believe Uncle Sam doles out Gruyere.  For a while, it seemed as if every restaurant just had to have its own tarted-up version of mac-and-cheese on the menu.

Traditional comfort foods seem to be lodged deep in our inner child. (Thank you Dr. Freud.) But cheesy pasta has never been my nostalgic drug of choice. When looking to unravel the knot in my gut, I head for Cream of Wheat or mashed potatoes, though certainly not on the same menu. Those were staples in my grandmother's repertorie, the feisty, Winston-smoking, South Dakota native who welcomed me into her kitchen as soon as I could stand on a stool. Cooking with Nana. How cliche, huh?

Thank goodness she taught me how to do more than boil water because I ended up having to cook dinner at age 9 for my brother and sister when our alcoholic mother left our alcoholic father. Man, that sounds so dark and Dickensian, but it wasn't as bad as all that in my revisionist history book. Messing around in the kitchen gave me great pleasure, even when things didn't always work the way they should. "Hey, we'll just keep the milk on the porch," my father declared when the fridge died, like he had invented some fun game called "roughing it, Kelly-style." 

The comfort food of that era was meatloaf. I tried to recreate my mother's version, but settled for the recipe on the back of the oatmeal container. Not bad. Not good either, but it served its purpose.

So, what does it for you? Vote in my little poll and I'll include a recipe for the winning entry in an upcoming post.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The mother of all hangovers!

Oh lawdy! My head! Those P-I-ers sure know how to party.... 

The beginning of the end times for me started Monday afternoon with a trip to the liquor store, where I filled my trusty flask to the brim Wild Turkey-style. The official tippling was supposed to begin at 5 at Buckley's, the same spot where we had gathered to joyously celebrate when the JOA dispute with the Times was settled in May 2007. The night anything and everything seemed possible.

But first, I stopped at the rally organized by some folks from the Times. Very nice gesture, though the camera crews outnumbered those in attendance. Passed the flask around as the raw wind pounded me back inside the building where the globe still spins, where journalists were still working hard to put out that last P-I. That's so damn heroic.  Yes, there were beers on many desks and gallows humor all around, but it was something of a miracle to watch these good, no, great people do their thing one last time. My husband, John Nelson, is among that crew, volunteering to lay out inside pages of what turned out to be a magnificent paper.

If you haven't already read it, Lewis Kamb exquisitely captures the flavor of that last, bittersweet day. Click here for this poignant piece.

Eventually, after passing around the flaks for a few more swigs and taking a couple snorts myself, we headed over to Buckley's and the drinking began in earnest. At one point, we heard peers from The Miami Herald phoned in to help out with the tab. Can I get a STELLA!!!????

Throughout the evening, one young woman took care of our adult beverage needs with the kind of grace and efficiency I have not seen in some time. We've got to leave her a huge tip, we all agreed.

TV broadcasts of the P-I goodbyes were turned up for all to hear, and the increasingly boisterous crowd cheered when images of their colleagues appeared on screen. Booed when Hearst was mentioned.  The image that still haunts me appeared the next morning on the front page of The New York Times, photographed by Dan DeLong, the faces in the photo show naked sorrow. 

It is like a death in the family. And that party was like a wake. We had spent the past 60 days worrying and wondering and speculating about what would come next. Some of us hatched Plan Bs. (See blog post below.) There were tears at this rowdy celebration, a sense of loss for the iconic institution and all that it means. But the deepest sense of loss comes from tearing apart this fine group of people, the exceptional talent dispersed like, well, yesterday's news. I still have a hard time accepting that.

My husband -- a 29-year-veteran of newsrooms, from the Bellingham Herald, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Spokane Spokesman-Review, Memphis Commercial Appeal and, finally, the P-I --and I finally stumbled home around midnight, our soon-to-be-college-bound daughter, Claire, came downstairs to check up on us. She has grown up hanging around newsrooms, making her own connections with the special people who habitate in those wonderfully messy, deeply cynical, constantly energizing enviroments. She's been posting P-I stories on her Facebook. She's feeling the loss, too, as I know so many others are in this great big extended, slightly dysfunctional family. 

I am taking comfort in the promises pledged on the evening of March 16, the day the P-I died, to stay as connected as we can. I already have two standing dinner dates in the works. But, bottom line: Our lives will never be the same. Oh baby, where's that hair of the damn dog? 

Monday, March 16, 2009

My new boss...

So, this is my exciting Plan B: I'm going to work for Tom Douglas, doing an apprenticeship in his kitchen(s) and chronicling my journey from critic to cook. My start date: April Fool's Day. No kidding.

I'm deeply sad to see the P-I go. I'm so grateful for all the wonderful people I got a chance to work with. I'll miss the feedback from readers and, hell yes, having my meals paid for. It's been a great two years. I'm looking forward to the next chapter. Stay tuned for the details.

If you're trying to reach me, please drop me an e-mail at leslie.dines@gmail.com.

Tuesday morning update: As I was walking back home from picking up extra copies of the final print Seattle Post-Intelligencer, my head fuzzy from last night's wake at Buckley's, I got a text message from an author I really respect offering to introduce me to her agent. How freaking cool is that? I'm smiling through my tears.

My last suppers

I got one final assignment last week, just in case there was a paper on Friday. Not to be.

But I got busy, getting into a couple of places I'd been dying to try and hitting a few faves before the old expense account was slammed shut for good.

I really enjoyed Crush, despite the crushing din of a boisterous birthday party. (Hey big mouth b-day girl: Get a room!) Seriously, it was fun to watch the festivities while enjoying the spectacular food. Especially impressed by the stinging nettles finish on a seared scallops dish. Dang, where's my camera!

Also liked Tilth, though the dish I was hoping to try was MIA. Still, the albacore tuna from FV St. Jude was really special, cooked like a piece of ahi, served rare with avocado and grapefruit.

Had stellar lunches at Cafe Presse and Boom Noodle, too. There are so many more places I wish I could have circled back and tried, restaurants I think are doing very good work. I will miss chronicling Seattle's greatest hits and the misses, too.

Not the happy ending I was hoping for...

Just heard tomorrow's P-I is the last print edition. Even though we knew this was coming, I could not helping hoping for some last-minute reprieve. Bill Gates to the rescue? Not to be.

Can't really blame the billionaires who don't want to tie their fortunes to a sinking ship, but I just wish it wasn't so. 

I have had so many people tell me that this wretched development has been like losing a dear friend. There will be a period of mourning, otherwise known as a wicked hangover. I'm guessing as soon as the doors of Buckley's open, the wake will begin. 

Just this morning, I filed my last stories, one on spring greens and one on touring Lake Union. They'll likely show up online, but here's a preview of the final dining column:

"I hate long goodbyes, so I'm not going to go on and on about how sad I feel about filing what is likely my last column in my 25-plus year print career. Instead, I'm going to drown my sorrows before picking myself up and starting a new chapter."

More on that very soon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

By the way...

I've had more than a few people mention the comments on the Canlis review all appear to have been written by the same person. You know who you are and you're not fooling anybody.

Following up on that front, I'm going to interview Canlis chef Jason Franey today for a story I'm working on about spring menus. And the Jepoardy question is: "What's the best way to show we are all professionals?"

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bacon Salt shoutout!

Wrote an item in my (last? gulp... still dunno) dining column, ribbing Jon Stewart for mocking the fabulous Baconnaise, brought to us by the guys from Bacon Salt, Dave Lefkow and Justin Esch, pictured above on QVC. 

I first dipped into this spread when I made BLTs and BLATs for a couple of friends, who also happen to be former food critics. I made a couple different versions, a classic and a "fancy" rendition, the latter featured bacon from Bavarian Meats (best bacon in Seattle, no doubt, and they sell pastries made by the master baker whose creations I ate as a kid in Leavenworth... small world!), heirloom tomato (ripened on the kitchen window for days), curly endive and Baconnaise. A winner.

Brainstormed with Dave and Justin about the best way to use Baconnaise and included the list, which you can read by clicking on this link: Leslie's Last Dining Column in the Seattle P-I? Sniff, sniff! 

Actually, I don't think it's the last. I've already filed my column for next week, featuring Cantinetta, a sweet new spot in Fre-lingford. Here's your early heads-up: Get in there! Oh, and they don't take reservations unless you come with five others. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hello Reuben!

Reading Nancy Leson's roundup of her fave Reuben haunts helped kick in the craving that's always simmering at some low level. I love a good Reuben -- one of my all-time Reuben highs was at Hill's Someplace Else in Spokane, one of the biggest bummers was at the Carnegie Deli in NYC -- but have eaten so many disappointing Reubens, I sometimes feel like giving up the hunt.

Yesterday, met a friend at Pike Place Market for lunch. He's from San Diego and was thrilled to see the snow falling. I layed out a few options at what has got to be the world's greatest smorgesbord. We could get Cajun/Creole, which is next to the African place, which is right down from falafel and on and on.

A few weeks ago, we went to the Market Grill and I was blown away by how good the fish sandwiches were and couldn't believe it has taken me so long to get my butt onto one of those too-few stools.

I suggested we cruise by and see how busy they were. Packed. So, we went across the way to 3 Girls -- which is easy to mistake for Three Sisters -- but this spot has been serving food since 1922, according to the menu, and I've heard good things about the Reuben.

It was darned near perfect, pressed between a panini grill, a melty mix of swiss, sauerkraut, Thousand Island-like spread and a decent amount of corned beef. The key was probaby the assertive caraway seed rye. Come to think of it, I cannot recall a flaw. Sometimes, sandwiches get soggy because the sauerkraut weeps. Or there's too much of one ingredient, not enough of another. But this was just right. 

Any Reuben recommendations to share?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Some fan mail

My critical review of Canlis set off a firestorm, which is not unexpected. I also had people write to say I was brave. Click HERE to read the review and the comments.

I was only trying to be honest, yet point out the many fine qualities of this lovely restaurant. 

Here's one of the strangest e-mails I got, spelling mistakes and bad punctuation and all:

"i dont get it. that enire article about canlis is fabricated and untrue. how could you say all those false things that are complete lies. it almost makes me think that your entire palet is off, that you dont know anything about food, and you are a complete fake. explain yourself."

Hmmm. Now, how do I possibly answer that? 

Here's the deal. I got a call the night the review was posted from Mark Canlis and he was damn gracious, he said they will learn from it. That's exactly the point, and to give the potential customer a heads up about what they can expect. And, I am so happy they already have such a fiercely loyal fan base to throw flames at anybody who is critical. That's what a review should do.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sounds like a really good time!

I love it when music and food come together, so I'm really excited about an event March 19 at Showbox that features bands and restaurants for "One Rockin' Night."

Check out the details about this fundraiser for Vera Project and other worthy causes by clicking on this link.