When is a restaurant worth all the hoopla, and how long can it keep all its dishes in the air at the same time, so to speak? On a trip to Seattle, we visited three established restaurants, two with large national reputations and a third from the city’s best-known chef/entrepreneur. What we got ran the gamut from exceeding expectations to a surprising letdown.
Or maybe it should not have surprised professional eaters, which we consider ourselves to be.
The chef/entrepreneur is Tom Douglas, who has five Seattle restaurants and three cookbooks to his credit. We went to his Palace Kitchen on a Sunday night, not because we knew much about it but because it serves late seven nights a week and it was easy to find on the ride from the theater to the hotel. Inside, it felt right, seemingly dark, but bright enough to read the menu and see the food and a noise level that rumbled gently, enabling us to talk comfortably. No smoking; Seattle law prohibits it.
The Kitchen runs a wood-fired oven, used to roast chicken, fish and a few other things, on a menu that is what we’d term Modern American - that roast chicken is sauced with rhubarb and almonds, for instance. But the choices lend themselves to nibbling; much of what we tried came from that part of the menu. And since it was Seattle, after all, we aimed mostly at seafood.
Out of that oven came a grilled sardine, the best we’ve had since our last visit to France. Crisp, slightly smoky skin, moist flesh, a little lemon, a little parsley; all it took was some easy knife work to yield up the pieces of succulent fish. Grilled mackerel chunks sat on a lightly dressed salad, their juices seasoning the greens. Abalone, the unusual shellfish that’s actually a snail, arrived thinly sliced, slightly chewy, its flavor mild. Riding alongside for contrast were some crisp pickled radishes.
And then there were the chicken wings. Huge, meaty wings had been marinated in – well, it’s a mystery, but we’re pretty sure about soy sauce and garlic and a little pepper, but beyond that, and we mean way beyond, there was lots more. Then they went into the applewood-burning oven (the residue, presumably, of those Washington State apples) and roasted until deeply brown and crisp. Oh, the delight of them, and that’s not even counting the marvelous sauce that turned out to be coriander chutney pureed with sour cream. A great dish, to be sure, whose last dribs and drabs were wiped up with first-rate bread.
Fresh pappardelle noodles came with tuna "meatballs" alongside, the tuna coarsely ground and gently patted into shape. The pasta wore a light stock-and-butter emulsion and was studded with fresh green peas and lightly smoked marcona almonds, the whole thing working together with both textures and tastes to make a memorable dish.
A signature dessert at several of Douglas’ restaurants is his coconut cream pie. Having grown up with aunts who were demon pie bakers, we learned early on that a handsome pie isn’t necessarily a tasty one, and that sometimes those fragile crusts just crumble at the wrong place. Okay, so it wasn’t a perfect piece, as you can see. But was it divine, oh, yes. A good crust, flaky but chewy with bits of shredded roasted coconut in it, a filling made with coconut milk, whipped cream rather than meringue, and topped with shards of white chocolate and fresh coconut. Rich and light and fabulous, to be sure.
Excellent service, a good wine list, and even a steak-and-egg breakfast available after 10 p.m., along with the rest of the menu, every night. A superlative example of regional American cooking.
2030 Fifth Ave., Seattle, WA
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Wild Ginger has been around for 20 years or so, and is often listed as one of the most popular restaurants in Seattle. An early example of Pan Asian or Pacific Rim cuisine, it’s downtown, in a large pair of rooms across the street from Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony. The large menu offers many opportunities for small dishes fun to play with, and a good-sized cocktail menu, as well as a carefully chosen wine list that pairs well with the Asian flavors. We were particularly happy with a 2007 Domaine La Croix Belle Syrah from the Languedoc, where the winemakers worked with Wild Ginger’s chefs to create a vibrant result, with a spicy nose and a clear note of clove to go with the food. It’s available by the glass as well as the bottle.
Satays, or kebabs, to mix cultures, are a feature here, with 11 options on the current menu. One called Viet-In-Thai involved ground lamb seasoned with onion, garlic, coriander and hoisin sauce and cooked quickly enough to leave a dark outside and a juicy interior, intriguing to the tongue. Wild Ginger’s take on wonton soup used a rich, lightly gingered chicken stock to cradle dumplings filled with pork and shrimp. And laksa, a Malaysian soup we’d only read about, is described as like bouillabaisse, but in reality is much more complicated. A fish stock seasoned with a complex paste and coconut milk held several kinds of fish and shellfish, none overcooked, and some rice noodles. Not fiery-hot but definitely spicy, it was great.
The Siam Lettuce Cup held small chunks of grilled fish, seasoned with lemongrass, peppers, lime and Thai basil in the cradling piece of Boston lettuce, a fork food, rather than the wrap-it-up-and-eat that lettuce cups often demand. Squid came stir-fried in a red curry sauce with the licorice-y notes of Thai basil topping things off, pleasant but not as remarkable as the lettuce cup. Spicy Manila clams did better, with a pungent broth that cried out for bread, but alas, there was none to be found to prolong the pleasure of the tender bivalves.
And that brings us to the question of caring for customers. We were uncomfortable sitting at our table. The seats were too low, or perhaps the tabletops were too high, but it made for awkward eating. fit. The chairs themselves had an uncomfortable ledge at the juncture between back and seat, unseen because of the seat cushion but felt by the user. On our way out we expressed some displeasure to a hostess who assured us the other dining room was a better fit. Service was slightly disjointed, with a note of coolness. We can live with that, but when a used fork was removed from a soiled plate and put back on the table for future use made us gasp. Places with $30 entrees shouldn’t be one-fork restaurants. More oddly, as the other plate was removed, the server took the fork, and removed a clean spoon as well.
Nice setting, interesting menu and some superior dishes. Weaker on comfort and service.
1401 3rd Ave., Seattle, WA
Lunch Mon.-Sat., Dinner nightly
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Canlis was THE restaurant in Seattle as soon as it opened in 1950. It’s proud of its architecture, its art, its food (the family was early locavores) and its service. Perched high on a hillside overlooking Lake Union and the distant Cascade Mountains, the view is stunning as dusk comes on. An interior that might be dismissed as faux-ski-lodge in other settings seems organic here. Valet parking only (and pay attention to the directions on the website or on the telephone options if you drive), and a platoon of servers to present each course with simultaneous delivery.Clearly a spot for major celebrations, Canlis’ menu is heavy on seafood with Asian accents. (Originally the servers, all female, wore kimonos.)
Not much is shocking. Peter Canlis Prawns arrived in a buttery sauce, with little of the promised garlic, red chile and lime. Still, they were large and perfectly cooked. The Canlis steak tartare was tasty, moist and ruddy, although the toasts with it were cold and slightly soggy.
Slices of duck breast, rare as requested, were arranged over crescents of lightly cooked fennel, the plate drizzled with a black pepper jam, which worked well with the duck. King salmon sat safely amid parsley potatoes with preserved Meyer lemon, the latter ingredient combining two of the West Coast’s hottest current trends, the Meyer lemon and North African-style preserved lemon. Both were good but not astounding. A side dish of forest mushrooms was inadvertently overlooked but arrived as a splendid saute of a large handful, just pure mushroom taste.
Doughnuts, another item that’s popping up on more menus lately, were fresh and warm, filled with banana, a milk chocolate dipping sauce on the side, and a quite good peanut butter ice cream to add to the fun. The smallest serving of bread pudding we’ve ever seen, an oval about an inch high and wide and less than two inches long, had two apricots poached in muscat wine alongside. The olive oil ice cream didn’t fly with the combination. And the bread pudding, supposedly made with panettone, the Italian sweet yeast bread, was so shy in its flavor as to begin to blush when we took its picture.
Good, pricey wine list, many, many cocktails, some innovatively designed, and a final flourish that did astound. At the fireplace near the front door, Ann’s coat was being warmed for her when we got there.
Alas. Just not what we expected, and thus not worth it.
2576 Aurora Ave., Seattle, WA
Dinner Mon-Sat. (Nightly in December)
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair