After an extended duration of travel, it’s only natural for experiences to start blending together. Outstanding encounters with various forms of food and drink linger in the memory banks and we can summon them at will. In addition to invoking all the senses, these lucid recollections trigger a stream of emotions. It’s always exciting to venture out into unfamiliar realms where you never know what kind of surprises might await. Since leaving our longtime home in Santa Barbara just over a year ago, Raven and I have covered quite a bit of ground through California, the Pacific Northwest, the Eastern Seaboard and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Living out of suitcases and occasionally forgetting where we are in the middle of the night are small sacrifices for the continuous adventures.
In all sorts of places along the way, our culinary muses have been utterly enthralled. I’m neither a critic nor a chef, but a true lover of food, drink and the places who know how to make them shine. Those who master their crafts and create things which transcend the norm deserve credit. So, for whatever a blog like this is worth, here it goes: The Blue Blog’s 2010-2011 Party in My Mouth Awards (aka The PIMMS…copyright pending), as we tip our hat to all the dishes, drinks, restaurants, bars, chefs and bartenders deserving recognition. All photos by yours truly.
Brunch Makes the World a Better Place Polenta and Sausage Ragu with Mozzarella and Fried Egg @ Tasty n Sons in Portland, OR
Polenta and Sausage Ragu with Mozzarella and Fried Egg @ Tasty n Sons in Portland, OR
When this place opens at 7, I’ve heard there’s already a line out the door. Once you eat there, it’s easy to see why. The menu – a fusion of North African, French and comfort food influences – is imaginative and daring. The dishes are staggered, one at a time, and you never know what’s coming when. This beauty landed in the center of a pack of vultures, eliciting a collective moan of ecstasy after our first bite. Integrated into the creamy polenta were morsels of housemade lamb sausage ragu, chunks of fried egg and mozzarella. It struck me as groundbreaking in the way it forged a new frontier of brunch-time possibilities.
Pretty Freaking Close: Poached Eggs Provencal @ Nicematin in New York City
I read the following description on the menu and my mind created an elaborate fantasy: “Ratatouille in crisp puff pastry with tomato cream sauce.” I must admit, since seeing the movie, I am somewhat infatuated with its peasant namesake. The reality of this dish proved even more dramatic than the fantasy. It’s a work of art and a mélange of blissful flavors. Perhaps the most innovative use of puff pastry I’ve seen.
That’s What I Call a Sandwich Burrata Grilled Cheese @ Artisan in Paso Robles, CA
Burrata Grilled Cheese @ Artisan in Paso Robles, CA
Since getting turned on to burrata – the fresh, pillowy overlord of the mozzarella family – I can’t resist it whenever given the chance. Artisan has the sort of menu which convinces me that lunch is my favorite meal. We had to go back a second day in a row because the first day we saw other people eating this sandwich and couldn’t ignore the jealousy. It was made on fetish-worthy, fresh, toasted whole grain bread with heirloom tomatoes, pesto and a little piave vecchio cheese. This sandwich captivated every sense with texture, taste and residual juices.Pretty Freaking Close: Grinder@ Tat’s Delicatessen in Seattle, WA
These sandwiches are as different as could be so picking a favorite is just a matter of the day’s mood. Our friends who own this deli are from the Philly area and don’t mess around when it comes to the authenticity of their subs. Eating a Grinder is like a rite of passage at Tat’s. A trio of Italian meats – capicolla, pepperham and Genoa salami – gets down like James Brown with provolone, hot and sweet peppers, pickles, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo on a fresh Italian roll. The addition of hot pepper spread (an original grinder ingredient) is a necessity. This is gonna get messy.
If More Salads Were Like This…
Several of the best salads I’ve had this past year happened to feature spinach as their leafy green. Enjoyed outside on a sunny fall day a year ago, this one still stands above the rest. Perky spinach bedded chewy chunks of pancetta, gorgonzola crumbles, tart dried cherries, red onion, shredded carrot strands, spicy pecan shards and a poppy seed vinaigrette. Every ingredient contributed significantly to the whole. The cherries would have to be considered as the wild card.Pretty Freaking Close: Spinach Salad @ Riverside Grill in Hood River, OR
When I saw mention of guanciale vinaigrette on this salad, I had to know what the heck that was and what it tasted like. It turned out to be an Italian pork cheek which turbocharged the dressing into an irresistible, smoky glaze. The role players harmonized like The Everly Brothers, starting with smoked chicken and moving onto blue cheese, pears and (the ubiquitous Oregonian cruncher) hazelnuts. The chicken was so yummy and almost too plentiful.
Thai has long been one of my favorite foods so when I was introduced to its street food subgenre (i.e. what Thai people actually eat), it threw me for a loop. This dish has several similar variations on the menu and they are all stellar. Raven’s favorite is made with tuna. Mine is this spicy forest mushroom salad with soy sauce, lime and chili powder dressing, shallots, lemongrass, mint, cilantro and toasted rice powder. The lime and chili merge with the herbs to create a remarkable synergy. It’s hot but the lime and vinegar keep it to a low roar. Eating becomes a more primal activity when using one’s hands to scoop up the food with sticky rice.
Pretty Freaking Close: Kale Salad @ Serious Pie in Seattle, WA
Of all the dishes we’ve had over the last year, this is the one we most wish we could make at home. We tried twice but it wasn’t even close. It’s the Holy Grail for a kale connoisseur. Somehow Serious Pie prepares their kale in a ceviche style (i.e. soaking it in citrus) without applying any other cooking method. This yields a perfectly tender green which mystifies the palate with each bite. In this presentation, it was sprinkled with Calabria peppers (tangy with just the right amount of heat), pine nuts and parmesan. When we went back months later and saw it was no longer on the menu, we busted an immediate u-turn.
Making Off Like Bandits During Happy Hour
Oysters @ Elliott’s Oyster House in Seattle, WA
Throughout the whole trip, we had been on a hunt for the ultimate oyster fix. We even went to Oysterville next to Willapa Bay on the Washington coast and still were left longing for more. One day at Pok Pok for lunch, a woman told us about this place which had an incomparable deal on oysters. Starting at 3 p.m., they mark ‘em down to 50 cents a piece which is practically unheard of. They go up in price each half hour. We took the ferry over from West Seattle and were at Elliott’s at 2:56, ready to suck down some oysters. I forget what kind they served us that day, but they were perfect. An accompaniment of champagne granita for dipping was a classy touch. Fortunately they have a one dozen per person limit or we might have kept going.Pretty Freaking Close: Salt and Pepper Calamari @ Seres in Portland, OR
This tapas-style dish is one of the Happy Hour specials at this organic Chinese restaurant in Portland’s Pearl District. It rendered Raven and I momentarily speechless after the first bite. It is such an exciting variation on the run-of-the-mill calamari. They are light, airy and crispy with savory Asian seasonings. Sautéed onions are as essential to the equation as the calamari themselves. It was so incendiary, we had to order another one.
Strutting It Like a PeacockMother’s Day Brunch by Chef Alex Kurnellas @ ASA Sky Lounge – Portland, OR
I had seen samplings of Alex’s kitchen ninjitsu over the years but never had one of these mythical multi-course meals I heard about him putting together from time to time. In a hip kitchen lounge 15 stories over Portland’s Pearl District, Alex went to work as he laid out an intricate three-course brunch in honor of his mom visiting from Hawaii and his girlfriend Shawn’s mother. A lot of people could manage to whip up a tasty brunch but few could present it with this artistic vision. He even printed out a menu. The final two dishes – Moroccan Hash and Strawberry Mascarpone French Toast – were sexy and scrumptious. However, it was the opening arrow-through-the-heart in the form of a mini-bagel with house cured salmon, creme fraiche, chive, grapefruit and balsamic reduction (more or less) which had me at its mercy. Raven’s fruit salad on the side brought more color and balance to the plate. Every dish came out beautifully with all the color and whimsy of spring.Pretty Freaking Close: Herban Bento Box @ Fresh Bistro in West Seattle, WA
We fell in love with this place for its Asian-themed brunch. We came back for Happy Hour and couldn’t believe our eyes when the Herban Bento Box arrived at the table. I can’t identify all the components right now but it was as fun as it gets playing the “I’ll have one of everything” game. This is a romantic spread for a couple to share as you feed each other crab cakes, mussels and whatever that is with the foam on top. Those baby ahi tacos sure are adorable. I want to crunch into one right now.
Cookies ‘n Cream Ice Cream by Three Twins @ Only the finest grocery stores
I’m Not a Big Sweet Guy but…
Cookies ‘n Cream Ice Cream by Three Twins @ Only the finest grocery stores
I rarely save room for dessert so I had to rack my brain to fill this category. I love ice cream but I hardly ever eat it. I’m a total snob. Most times I won’t even bother eating it if it’s not ultra gourmet. I’ve always had a thing for Cookies ‘n Cream so I had to try a spoonful of this stuff when I saw it in Phil’s freezer. A moment later, it was very clear this pint didn’t stand a chance. It was so apparent that every ingredient was of the highest integrity, any inclination towards guilt was counteracted. I would bet every flavor they make is close to the best you could ever have.
Pretty Freaking Close: Coconut Lemon Saffron Sorbet @ 50 Licks Ice Cream Cart in Portland, OR
“Coconut lemon saffron sorbet!” Raven exclaimed as she saw it listed on the board of flavors this mobile cart was selling on a hot afternoon. “Oh my god,” she moaned after the first bite. I was full but soon found myself waiting like a dog for any spoonful she was willing to share. Non-dairy frozen desserts don’t get any creamier. You could actually taste the saffron, providing high-brow intrigue amidst the tart lemonyness. This could become an expensive habit.
Blown Away at First BiteAl Pastor Tacos @ Cuernavaca Taqueria in Ventura, CA
Every Friday on the back patio of this under-the-radar taqueria, Chef Willie works his magic. With a deft hand slicing from roasting spit, razor thin pork lands on fresh corn tortillas. Two more flicks of the wrist and it’s topped with fresh pineapple, onions and cilantro. The explosion of flavors is enough to make a grown man weep. During a month in Mexico, we couldn’t find anything that touched this. It doesn’t hurt that Cuernavaca also has a pair of blue ribbon salsas. The danger with these tacos comes in knowing where to draw the line. You’re looking at Willie smiling and you know he’s got the goods. The stomach may be saying “No,” but the lips are saying, “Uno mas.”
Pretty Freaking Close: Khao Man Gai @ Nong’s Khao Man Gai in Portland, OR
Nong is an adorable Thai woman who could probably sell me roasted shoe if she wanted to. Out of a tiny trailer in downtown Portland’s biggest food cart pod, she purveys but one dish. Khao Man Gai is pillowy, magic, poached organic chicken with sublime rice and a chili-ginger sauce which may very well contain the secret of the universe. As if all this wasn’t great enough for $6, it comes with a cup of chicken broth which provides nourishment down to the bone. I was so enamored after having it, I wanted to shout from the rooftops. Maybe that’s why I’ve written articles and blogged about it on four separate occasions.
Food Network as Pied PiperPizza @ Serious Pie in Seattle, WA
When I had a home, I used to unwind while watching a few shows on the Food Network. When I saw a restaurant I should check out, I took notes in hopes I could make it there someday. I vaguely remember the episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” Serious Pie was featured on (ironically, it doesn’t meet the definition of any one of those Ds). I know I have never seen pizza which looked quite like it. Of course it’s way more awe-inspiring in person. Baked in a brick wood-fired oven, the oval-shaped pies are crisp to the point of being a little burnt, which ends up just right. The excellence of this crust is worthy of poetry and song. Our toppings were brussel sprouts, house made pancetta, caramelized onions and cheese (I forget what kind). While I was savoring each crunchy morsel, I rolled my totem to make sure I wasn’t in an Inception-esque dream state.Pretty Freaking Close: Lobster Roll @ PJ’s Family Restaurant in Wellfleet, MA
Duff Goldman is one of my favorite Food Network personalities because of how emphatic he is when he loves a certain dish. When he sank his teeth into one of these bad boys on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” I was determined to do the same. I didn’t realize until our trip to New England last fall how ubiquitous the lobster roll is in that food culture. So many restaurants have it, but they aren’t created equal. It’s just chunks of lobster meat with a light mayonnaise dressing in a roll. PJ’s lobster roll earns its title due to especially plump, tender chunks of meat, barely-there dressing and a small roll (really a glorified hot dog bun) which is well grilled. Sitting at a table with five friends who I dragged along with me, the collective expectations were extremely palpable. I had nothing to fear though, for they would all be resoundingly exceeded.
Marquee MealMustard-braised Rabbit Crepes @ Beaker & Flask in Portland, OR
When anyone asks Raven to name the best dish she’s had on this trip, the answer comes quickly. The meal just so happened to be on our first night out in Portland at this uber hip restaurant with a mixologist’s cocktail list. Raven had only tried rabbit once many years before and craved a reintroduction. She still jokes that she regrets sharing it with anyone else at the table. Fortunately she did so I can confirm its excellence. Slivers of crisp green apples provided a tart counterpoint for the succulent rabbit, bathed in a thick mustard sauce. The crepe was very light.
Pretty Freaking Close: Omakase @ Masu in Portland, OR
I had always wanted to order omakase but it never happened until this charmed evening when we joined our pal Phil for an epic seven-course adventure. For inquisitive foodies like us, it was exhilarating to have no idea what sort of elegant dish would be coming out next. Some were simple (hamachi sashimi), some stretched our comfort zone (fried fish spines, smelt fish and sardines) and all of them made us appreciate authentic Japanese cuisine on a whole other level.You Really Got Me Now
Hand-Pulled Noodles @ Frank’s Noodle House in Portland, OR
Pretty Freaking Close: Turkey and White Bean Chili @ Slim’s Last Chance Chili Shack in Seattle, WA
Rarely staying in one place for too long, Raven and I felt the importance of pushing ourselves to constantly explore each city’s culinary scene. However, when you find an exceptional dish, sometimes it seems most logical to keep going back for the tried and true. The hand-pulled Chinese noodles at Frank’s are the object of a noodle-lover’s fantasy. Long and chewy with a textbook balance between soft and firm, they were a winner each of the six or so times I had them. I favor chicken, shrimp or squid but they have several other options. Well-spiced with chilis and adorned with cabbage, this dish hit the bullseye for lunch, dinner or late night leftovers.
It doesn’t take a chili expert to know that what Slims has brewing in its pots is some pretty exceptional stuff. I had a craving for chili one day, which is kind of unusual for me, and this just so happened to be the most convenient place. They have four kinds of chili and we tried them all over the course of several visits. Once we tasted the turkey and white bean, there was no straying. We went back for it about five times. The hip, roadhouse ambience is part of the draw. It was also featured on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
Smoked Salmon Stole My HeartNorthwest Salmon Hash @ La Petite Provence in Portland, OR
Confession: I’m a hopeless romantic for all salmon but reserve a special place for those cured with a little smoke. I also have an appreciation for hash when it’s done right. Unfortunately it rarely is. When I saw this item on the menu, my synapses spun around like a slot machine. It was a long wait in a crowded restaurant but so worth it. The plate came out and my heart skipped a beat. The salmon was so fresh and plentiful in meaty-sized chunks. The hash was well-chopped and integrated with leeks and hash browns, just how I like it. A drizzling of fresh lemon dill sauce was like the perfect song playing at just the right time in a movie.
Pretty Freaking Close: Nova Platter with Everything Bagel @ Roasters’ n Toasters in Miami, FL
Whenever I go back to visit my parents in Miami, Roasters is an obligatory destination. If I were a robot, I might run on fully-loaded bagels with lox. That would be cool. As a human, they are just a rare treat these days, yet they remain the most guaranteed route to food nirvana. On a recent trip to Miami in April, I realized that nova is the way to go because it’s less salty than lox. I’ve never seen anywhere else where they slice it off the whole fish right in front of you. Watching the guy slice sheets of nova off the electric-colored salmon puts me into a trance. The platter is a must so you can construct your own bagel. It’s steep at about $20, but they give you so much salmon, it could easily be shared. Not that you would ever want to.
Singing for SoupRoast Pork Ramen Noodle Bowl @ Miho in Portland, OR
This was part of a festive group meal at an Itzakaya (Japanese pub style) restaurant in North Portland. I was never a ramen-eater in college and didn’t know it could translate to a more refined dish. This was one of those things where you can’t quite put your finger on why it’s so great, but you just want to keep eating it. The aesthetic appeal was definitely part of the x-factor, accentuated by a slice of hard boiled egg. I was sharing it with a table and definitely was left wanting more.Pretty Freaking Close: Cold Potato Leek Soup with Avocado and a Garnish of Tomato, Mango and Sea Bass Ceviche by Alex Kurnellas in Portland, OR
Dipping into homemade territory, this was part of an elaborate spring pot luck dinner hosted by our friends Chrissy and Andy. Alex is a former kitchen pro who reverts back to his expertise whenever given the opportunity. Everyone was amazed with this cold soup he pulled off. It was delicately nuanced in a way where each individual flavor shone through. The sea bass ceviche was such an elegant touch. A lot of fine dining establishments wish their chefs would bust out something like this.
Oh Pizza, How I Love Thee Spinach and Garlic slice @ Big Nick’s in Upper West Side/Manhattan, NY
Spinach and Garlic slice @ Big Nick’s in Upper West Side/Manhattan, NY
It took me until my last night in New York City to finally find my way into a pizza parlor. I got there late and ate a slice too many so I had to take a few laps around the block afterwards. Big Nick’s is a diner with a formidable, eclectic menu which also happens to make the kind of pizza New York is famous for. Being at a Greek place, it seemed apropos to go with spinach and garlic. Talk about a match made in heaven.Sort of Freaking Close: Maiale Pizzette @ Fratelli Ristorante & Bar in Portland, OR
If you can nail the crust, you’re well on your way to a great pizza. This one deserves dual credit in the Happy Hour category because it was a killer deal at only $5. Topped with crispy pancetta, roasted tomatoes, olives, hazelnuts, arugula and gruyere, it hit all the right notes. They love putting hazelnuts on everything in the Northwest and they work really well as a textural contrast with pizza.
Not Your Ordinary Bar Food Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Jalapenos @ Z’s Taphouse and Lounge in Goleta, CA
Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Jalapenos @ Z’s Taphouse and Lounge in Goleta, CA
The description sounded irresistible, but we didn’t expect that much ordering these at a bowling alley. Stuffed with cheese and wrapped with thick pieces of bacon, they were executed perfectly. You never know what you’re going to get spice-wise with jalapenos and these delivered a firm kick.
Pretty Freaking Close: Kung Pao Calamari @ Portland City Grill in Portland, OR
Located on the 30th floor of the US Bancorp Tower, this spot has the best view in town. This appetizer plate has great visual appeal with the reddish-orange chili sauce glazed over a mound of calamari rings which are chewier than they are crispy. These larger pieces are wicked tender with a light crunch. They are a reasonable deal during happy hour. I like that they come with a lot of green onions.
Fabulous Food On-The-GoKhao Man Gai @ Nong’s Khao Man Gai in Portland, OR
Lunch is an important meal during the week because it gives us a respite from whatever might be going on in our day. We want it to be quick, delicious, cheap and, if possible, healthy. Nong’s Khao Man Gai is all those things. Served out of a vehicle the size of a small horse trailer, it is one of about 40 food carts in an expansive downtown pod. Khao man gai is a plentiful meal for $6; especially considering it’s made with organic Draper Valley chicken and other high quality ingredients. It is handed through the window in a pouch of white deli paper. It didn’t matter if I was standing on the street corner or sitting on the curb, this meal worked its voodoo on me everytime.
Pretty Freaking Close: Spicy Chicken Burrito @ Korean Twist in Portland, OR
I had a lot of memorable food at the carts around Portland, but go figure that my second favorite would be right next to Nong’s. The Spicy Chicken Burrito from Korean Twist was actually my first love. After so many traditional burritos, it was revelational to try an Asian version. The lean, juicy chicken, slathered in sweet, spicy sauce is the crux of it all. Crunchy cabbage accentuates each bite. The addition of kim chi adds a touch of vinegary va va voom.
Crispy, Crunchy, Bang, Wow!Housemade Potato Chips with Crispy Herbs @ Lolo in Portland, OR
This Spanish tapas restaurant on the hipster haven of Alberta Street has a sleek look which doesn’t quite fit in with its surroundings. The atmosphere is somewhat cold and trendy but they know what they’re doing back in the kitchen. Whenever Raven sees homemade potato chips on a menu she always wants to order them. Not only were the chips absolutely perfect – ultra-thin, crispy and just the right amount of salt – but they had a generous sprinkling of fried herbs on top. All I can think of now are sage and rosemary but there were a couple more. They were clumped together and with each bite, Raven and I would give each other a look like we had discovered a Ming vase in a thrift shop.
Pretty Freaking Close: Pachamama Raw Kale Chips @ The Ferry Building in San Francisco, CA
It was kind of ridiculous that it took us until recently to finally visit the Ferry Building and explore its gourmet food vendors. Whenever we see raw kale chips for sale at healthy grocers, we always want to get them but balk at the price. We found this small stand selling sealed bags of raw kale chips for half the normal price. These little crunchy morsels are extremely addictive as we couldn’t help but polish off the bag in one sitting. They taste cheesy but there’s nothing but healthy, wholesome ingredients at work here. I need to start making these so I can have them around all the time.
My Kind of Ambience Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, OR
Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, OR
I didn’t actually eat here but I had a drink so that qualifies. The level of interior design creativity here is off the charts. It exemplifies the way the Northwest hipster aesthetic can be overly bold without seeming like it’s trying too hard. Flowing between levels, one can milk this multi-faceted lair of hedonistic style. Downstairs is a concert venue; upstairs is a restaurant, lounge and hotel. The décor is reminiscent of being inside the trunk of a doug fir while high on ecstasy. The use of mirrors in this room has surely left more than a few visitors questioning reality. The Doug Fir aesthetic gets more and more seductive as the night unfolds.
Not for Everyone but I Love It: Pok Pok in Portland, OR
Starting as just a walk-up window, this restaurant has evolved into a compound of sorts with all these different areas where patrons can dine. I always opt for the main dining room because it has this inner sanctum glow which envelops me in an exotic warmth. I haven’t been to Thailand so I can’t say how authentic the surroundings are, but it feels like a seamless merger between Portland and the Far East. The tables in the center are too close together but the booths on the perimeter are ideal. If you’re in a drinking mood, it’s fun to sit at the bar. At Pok Pok, there’s always a sense that if you’re within those wooden walls, you’re in the epicenter of cutting edge Thai cuisine.
Stand-Out Servers Topher @ Beaker and Flask in Portland, OR
Topher @ Beaker and Flask in Portland, OR
“My name is Topher unless everything goes wrong, in which case I’m Dave or Doug.” With an introduction like that, we were instantly in the groove with Topher. He elevated our experience with his witty interactions and candid sense of humor. There’s great service and then there’s those rare servers who are especially good at reading people and make a long, elegant dinner seem like about the most rewarding thing you could be doing.
Pretty Freaking Close: Chantelle @ Lefty’s Grill in Nevada City, CA
Some servers win your heart the second you see them and such was the case with Chantelle. She had the most positive attitude and made it seem like she really enjoyed her job. We came in late and she never made us feel rushed. Her reactions were so animated and on point when we asked about certain dishes. Particularly in regards to the ahi poke which ended up being one of the best we’ve ever had.
Unexpected Discoveries Vivify in Mount Shasta, CA
Vivify in Mount Shasta, CA
There are few things The Blue Blog appreciates more than finding the hidden gems of the food world. I was going to be content eating at the Black Bear Diner when we rolled into Shasta around 8 p.m. Raven’s iPhone alerted us to an organic Japanese restaurant just a block or two away from our motel. An organic Japanese restaurant in Mount Shasta? The whole place was a surprise but nothing more so than a special trout tapas plate. Restaurants don’t serve fresh trout and I can’t confirm that this was, but I’m 99% sure. It was prepared simply with some greens showcasing the pure, unadulterated flavor of the fish. We also enjoyed a few vegetarian sushi rolls including one with wild mushrooms. Vivify (what a name!) also makes its own raw desserts which was quite an unexpected treat as well.Pretty Freaking Close: El Burro Loco in Welches, OR
We were all beaten up by the time we got to our cabin that night. We were cold and wet from putting on snow chains for the first time. In a tiny mountain town like Welches on a Tuesday night, we didn’t have high hopes for our dinner options. We could hardly believe our luck when we learned there was a Mexican restaurant close by. Not only that, but it was one of the coolest Mexican restaurants we’d ever been to with a name which still makes us laugh. I loved my enchiladas and she adored her innovative coconut chili chicken verde special. The margaritas were solid and the atmosphere had flair and comfort. Our server rocked and, in a serendipitous occurrence, we ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in ages.
Shear InnovationUni “Ravioli” @ Masu in Portland, OR
When we ordered the seven-course omakase at Masu, the only direction we gave them was, “Please make sure to include some uni.” The first course served notice that we were in for an exotic culinary adventure like no other. I still don’t know what the uni was wrapped in (it was almost like a marinated sheet of daikon or some other vegetable), but it was divine. Accented with a light soy-based sauce and a sea bean, this was a piece of art which has served as a conversation starter amongst chefs and foodies ever since.
The Next Thing that Came to Mind: Sweet Potato Latkes by Phil Tseng in Portland, OR
Is there a Jew out there who doesn’t appreciate a well-done latke? We love them but they generally only come around once a year for Channukah if we’re lucky. When Phil announced that he’d be making Sweet Potato Latkes for a springtime pot luck, the selection seemed kind of out of place. Plus, I know Phil’s a good cook, but could an Asian guy really pull off this Jewish staple? It doesn’t sound that innovative to simply replace Russets with sweet potatoes but it deserves recognition as such because I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it. These potato pancakes were showstoppers. The sweet potatoes made them more interesting than normal and they were cooked to crispy perfection. Creme Fraiche and chives put the baby to bed.
You’ve Got to be Kidding Me! Shrimp Cocktail @ Zama Beach Club in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Shrimp Cocktail @ Zama Beach Club in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
While we’re talking about Phil, I found it interesting when we got back from Mexico, he was more intrigued to hear about our worst meal than our best. It didn’t take much contemplation to anoint this pathetic excuse for a dish as the lowest moment of our last year’s meals. Seafood cocktails are popular on Isla Mujeres but we were more interested in ceviche. Finally near the end of the trip, we pulled the trigger on this shrimp cocktail. It made us want to pull another trigger on whoever thought it was ok to serve this dish. Instead of a nice big glass of fresh shrimp protruding out of cocktail sauce, I found myself staring at a cafeteria-style bowl filled with a thick sauce which tasted like French dressing. Lost in it were bay shrimp which seemed to have come out of a can. Considering that this was served at an upscale beach club with high prices made it all the more insulting.
Really Guys!?: Club Sandwich @ Mesa Café in Santa Barbara, CA
I was hungover the day after my birthday and in dire need of some bacon to help reestablish my equilibrium. My friend Nicole was kind enough to offer to pick up something and bring it to me. How do you screw up a club sandwich? Well, Mesa Café put on a clinic in that department. First off, you forget to add bacon. Then you serve it on limp whole wheat bread. For good measure, you use low-grade turkey and cheese. Did I mention they forgot the bacon? If I wasn’t so hung over, I might have gone down there to raise some hell.
Highway Robbery Key Lime Pie @ Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the Cancun Airport
Key Lime Pie @ Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the Cancun Airport
We had a lot of time to kill before our flight and had never been to a Bubba Gump so it seemed like a no-brainer. One expects food to be high-priced in an airport without the quality to match. Our entrees were actually pretty good and the ambience was fun. There were no prices listed next to the desserts and we should have known to ask. Granted it was a huge piece of pretty good key lime pie but was it worth $13? Yes, you read that correctly. I might expect that in the Zurich airport but not in Cancun.
You Suck Too: Anything @ Zama Beach Club in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Pulling Out All the Potluck StopsLamb Sliders with Tzatziki on Pita from Alex Kurnellas in Portland, OR
It was Easter and the host – Cosimo – was already making a leg of lamb so there could have been a risk of lamb overload. But this was an Alex Kurnellas dish we’re talking about so it’s always the more the merrier. Sliders are so much fun and these got an extra boost from the Mediterranean theme. The presentation was spectacular and the flavor was even better. They were tender and juicy and benefited from the complexity that lamb is known to bring to the table.
Pretty Freaking Close: White Sea Bass Ceviche from Ian Zellet in Santa Barbara, CA
From what I gathered, it was a short but amazing season for white sea bass in Santa Barbara this year. Fortunately we got to experience the tail end of its glory thanks to Ian’s classy contribution to our “welcome back” pot luck at Jeff and Lora’s house. Served on a big, colorful dish with plenty of cilantro, this ceviche electrified guests both visually and otherwise. Having learned the craft from his mother, Ian knows how to achieve just the right nuances for a well-balanced ceviche. He nailed the perfect citrus tones and firm but fleshy consistency for this beautiful fish.
New Kitchen Tricks Up Our Sleeve Tomato “Crack”
Over the last year, Raven’s kitchen skills have ratcheted up several notches. Through some experimentation, she found that some of the most delicious things are also the simplest. We’ve been having a lot of quinoa and one night she decided to roast some cherry tomatoes. She just laid ‘em out on a baking sheet, drizzled olive oil and sprinkled on a little salt and pepper. When they are ready, the skin bursts open and the juices start to coat the pan. The tomatoes themselves are amplified in their sweet and savory goodness. But what really excites us is the “tomato crack,” as we affectionately call it. That would be the tomato ooze which turns into a salty glaze to be scraped with a finger. Oh man is it sinfully delicious. Better than licking the cake batter bowl.
Pretty Freaking Close: Brussel Sprout Chips
This was another accidental discovery. Raven was roasting some brussel sprouts when a few of the outer leaves came off. When they were done, those leaves stood on their own. They were so appealing, I would pick these over potato chips any day. Later on when she had gotten with the program, Raven made a separate tray of just leaves. Could you imagine showing up to watch football and there’s a big bowl on the table of crispy brussel sprout leaves?
The Lush Awards Bloody Mary Magnificence Halftime Tavern – Vancouver, WA
Bloody Mary Magnificence
Halftime Tavern – Vancouver, WA
We were staying in Camas, WA and had a vicious craving for a Bloody Mary. We looked it up on Yelp and found this place that one reviewer referred to as “The Church of the Bloody Mary.” Not only did we find an exceptional Bloody, but a really cool establishment in a building which has been around since 1903. We tend to run from Bloodys served in pint glasses because they usually aren’t strong enough, but this one at Halftime is an exception. We requested Lukosowa Vodka – since it’s made from potatoes – and the price came to $9.50. That was a little disappointing but this drink had about three shots in it so I shouldn’t complain. It was a dark and tangy version of the classic; perhaps a touch heavy on the Worcestershire. I couldn’t restrain myself from sucking it down too fast and wished I had another one immediately.
Pretty Freaking Close: Tasty n Sons – Portland, OR
We knew it was love at first sight when Tasty n Sons’ had five Bloody Marys on its drink list. Raven and I had to try the Tasty Jerk which comes with a piece of amazing, housemade beef jerky as a swizzle stick. The drink is too small for its price tag but makes sense for a hot spot like this. I recall a tomato-rich libation with exotic spices and a garnish of house-pickled vegetables.
Cocktail SupremacyFlaming Rum Concoction @ Tavern Law in Seattle, WA
Part of the draw to Tavern Law’s upstairs “speakeasy” is the mystery quotient of what you’re going to be drinking. When you order from one of the master mixologists, they might ask what you had downstairs or what kind of mood you’re in, but they won’t respond to specific requests. It’s up to their alchemical flow to determine what’s going to land in your glass. Raven’s request to our bartender was “a strong rum drink.” “I’m going to get you druuunnnkkk,” he guaranteed gleefully. Out came a flaming concoction in a Tiki chalice as if delivered by a native elder during a sacrificial ritual. When she asked what was in it, he fired off a long list of crazy ingredients. I doubt they were all FDA approved. It carried the mystique of drinking a magical elixir as it had more of an herbal than sweet profile. When Raven asked him to make another one “just like that,” of course she shouldn’t have been too surprised to receive a completely different libation.
Ginger Lemon Drop @ Portland City Grill in Portland, OR
Do cocktails taste better when looking out at a spectacular view? The jury is still out, but our research so far would answer affirmatively. On a clear day 30 stories up, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens figured prominently into the metropolitan panorama. I am a sucker for just about any food or drink made with ginger. Usually the ginger flavor isn’t strong enough. This one was just right as the ginger pirouetted with the vodka and lemon (I think it was Domaine de Canton liqueur). Sealing the cocktail with a kiss was a ginger-sugar rim. If loving a froofy drink like this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Cocktail Supremacy: Old School The Gibson at Olive & Twist in Portland, OR
The Gibson at Olive & Twist in Portland, OR
This was our neighborhood bar when we stayed in the Pearl District. I love the retro ambience in here with a lot of black and white, mood lighting and velvety cushions. It was here I got turned on to this classic martini made with Plymouth Dry Gin. What makes it a Gibson is the addition of three cocktail onions. This is a perfect example of why some of the most simple libations are also the best. It was so clean with just enough naturally-imparted flavor from the gin and onion pairing.Pretty Freaking Close: Aviation @ The Beehive in Boston, MA
Strolling on the south end, we came upon this happening hot spot with live music, a swanky bar and an extremely enticing food menu. I had never tried a cocktail with creme de violette and I love gin so I went with the Aviation. It actually tasted like violet and the alien-jade glow from the liqueur gave it an additional sense of intrigue. I felt like I had gone back in time to a far off land.
Doing it Blender Style Mango Daiquiri @ Cockteleria Minino’s in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Mango Daiquiri @ Cockteleria Minino’s in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Ordering frozen drinks in Mexico was undesirable because more often than not you’re getting something brimming with artificial flavors with little trace of any alcohol. We knew we could trust Minino’s margaritas but their daiquiris were hit or miss. On this day, the bartender must have been in a really good mood because this creation was like frozen sunshine. The consistency was smooth and creamy and the flavor tasted as natural as possible. Best of all, this big goblet of tropical delight packed a wallop. I would try a few more times before the trip was over and no other daiquiri touched this one.
Wet Woody @ Gar Woods in Tahoe City, CA
This is the signature cocktail for this lakeside establishment and their sister restaurant, Riva Grill. It’s like a rum runner with a blend of rums and fruit juices, topped generously with a pour of Myers. I recently had a couple during Happy Hour and they are not only ridiculously strong but delicious to boot. It’s one of those where you have to be really careful not to get brain freeze. Gar Woods has a whole list of them offering different types of rum as a floater to alter the drink’s dynamic.
Keeping it Neat Desert Juniper Gin by Bendistillery
Desert Juniper Gin by Bendistillery
I appreciate gin more than the average fellow but I’m not normally inclined to sip it straight. During our visit to the Bendistillery, Raven and I lit up as soon as this stuff passed through our lips. It was sweet and pure as if it had bubbled up from a spring in the middle of the desert. Made using only local juniper berries, it has a distinctly different personality and flavor profile than any other gin I’ve had. You wouldn’t want to mix this with any juice.
Flor de Cana Grand Reserve Rum
Even for someone fairly tuned in to the global cocktail scene, I was completely in the dark when it came to sipping rums. Up until not that long ago, I only knew rum as a mixer. At a high brow sports bar in Portland called Spirit of ‘77, a bartender took me under his wing and opened the door of enlightenment. He gave me a small glass of this Nicaraguan rum and my perceptions were immediately altered. Here was a smooth, sophisticated operator. I can’t help but ponder what some of Flor de Cana’s older, aged rums must be like as well as those from other small batch producers.
My Kind of Bar AmbienceTavern Law in Seattle, WA
The main bar area at Tavern Law is nothing to shake a stick at. But if you’ve made it this far, you’ve got to go the distance up to the secret “speakeasy” upstairs. It requires a phone call and gaining access through a mysterious door. But then, all of a sudden, you’re back in the early 20th century with low, wooden-beamed ceilings, photos of scantily-clad dames, vampire lighting, high-backed chairs and period-appropriate music. It’s hard not to feel blissfully elitist when holding court in these coveted confines. It’s also nice to know the place isn’t likely to be raided by the Untouchables.Runner Up: Villa La Bella on Isla Mujeres, Mexico
“Beer so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt,” reads the sign which reels passer-bys into this oasis nestled on the Caribbean Sea. Taking those first steps through the gate, you really might think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Or maybe that’s just the island humidity pushing you to the brink. From my seat at the swing bar I couldn’t help but chuckle while taking in the view of the pool and sea. Jimmy Buffet played through the speakers. I swung back and forth on my seat like a parrot who got into the rum. They only serve beer, margaritas and pina coladas but what else could you want? The latter two are made from scratch. After taking that first, frosty sip, the bartender arrives with a tray of chilled, moist washcloths. Ahhhhhh….Honorable Mention: Birch Street Uptown Lounge in Camas, WA
I would have been impressed discovering this place in a big city let alone on a side street in a tiny mill town like Camas. It’s another pre-prohibition era hot spot with all the swank accoutrements to provide the necessary authenticity. We felt very welcomed by Dennis; the uniformed bartender from Baltimore. Birch St. already had me in the palm of its hand before I went to the men’s room. There I found myself staring at a framed sheet of dialogue from The Godfather (Clemenza, Sonny and Tessio discussing the task Michael is up for). Now that’s what you call good taste.
Soggy Peso in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Definitive Local Watering Holes
A lot of the best local’s bars are either hard to find, don’t look like much from out front or both. Soggy Peso definitely meets both criteria. When you do make your way into its cozy sanctuary, you’re guaranteed to be met with a warm welcome. Texan ex-pat owners, Mal and Sally, are usually there to extend some longhorn hospitality. Freddy is one of the friendliest, funniest bartenders you’ll meet. This poolside palapa is dripping with character and characters. During Happy Hour, the volume escalates as locals from around the island rap about the latest happenings. Everyone knows this is the place to be on Sundays for the BBQ special. Resident mascot, The Soggy Doggy, makes his rounds hoping for fallen scraps.
Honorable Mention: Chelan Café in West Seattle, WA
It was a major inconvenience not to have TV where we were housesitting during the NBA finals. We sought out a few different bars with varying levels of success. Raven tracked down this café and dive bar in an industrial zone under the freeway where we watched one of the Heat’s painful losses. This was one of those situations where we walked in and had to embrace the reality of being the new kids on the block in tight-knit local’s territory. Rather than getting the cold shoulder, we were accepted somewhat curiously like explorers entering the village of a native tribe. It was amusing when the sexy bartender came on for her shift and deflected playful commentary from the peanut gallery. One excitable cat actually bought us shots of tequila after he won his bet. I can imagine all those guys still sitting there now in the same spots.
Winery “Wow-Factor”JM Celllars in Woodinville, WA
We’ve been to probably close to 30 wineries over the last year and there have been some great ones. While the best individual wine was not found here (might have been a Bordeaux blend from Elevation Cellars, also in Woodinville), JM deserves credit for being the best overall. The setting is gorgeous as the winery is contained in a big house surrounded by enchanted landscaping. They had a fire burning in a pit as we approached on a chilly winter day. The selection was comprehensive with Bordeaux, Burgundian and Rhone grapes expressing themselves in sophisticated wines. The staff was very personable and accommodating. Last but not least, JM had a spread of hors d’ oeuvres laid out for guests to snack on. These wines are fabulous on their own but really shine when paired with food.Runner Up:Mt. Baker Vineyard and Winery in Everson, WA
Cruising on a scenic road to a remote cabin with your loved one, you see a sign for a winery and pull in. Being that this is the second-most northern winery in the country, you don’t expect much in terms of the varietals they are able to grow. Well, it turns out that this place has more diversity in that department than almost any we’ve seen. There isn’t much in the way of tasting room ambience, but as long as we’re in from the rain, that is a mere formality. We liked their whites, we liked their reds (the dolcetto and tempranillo especially) and we liked the people. One tasting session led by an employee named Ben was full of laughs and riveting conversation. It really is the remote setting and surrounding enchanted landscape which infuse this winery with an extra mystique.
Love These Guys Too: Folin Cellars in Gold Hill, OR
This state-of-the-art winery and tasting room knocked our socks off. In fact, it might as well be the winner in this category. Our lengthy experience at this state-of-the-art tasting room in the boondocks was the crème de la crème. Almost every wine had that extra something going on starting with a thinking person’s viognier. Reflective of the French Condrieu region, it is distinguished with an elegant minerality. Their rhones are stars as well but it was a show pony of a tempranillo which left the most indelible mark on my palate. Steve – the tasting room manager – became an instant friend. We were feeling a rosy glow as we pulled away from Folin and continued south to the California border.