Saturday, April 26, 2008

This is a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.*

I woke up to sunshine and clear skies; it is a perfect day to drive up to the Skagit Valley to see the tulips while they are still in season. I drink my tea and eat my breakfast (ok, so I ate the last brownie from Wednesday's batch) and gather my things, wallet and keys and tissues, two digital cameras and my cell phone, a scarf and a jacket in case it gets cool. Not likely on such a beautiful day. It is just me and my car (which seldom gets driven these days) and the freeway ahead of me. The traffic is light, the music is good, the gas tank is full (after a gaspingly expensive fill-up before I set out), and even though I only have the vaguest idea of where I am going, I am not worried. I'll find the tulips. Or they will find me.

There is no traffic, just the freeway ahead, and I see familiar exits flash by as I drive on, farther than I have ever driven by myself before, the exit for my old high school, the exit for the ferry for Whidbey Island, the outlet mall where we go on our biannual shopping expeditions. Eventually I see signs for the tulip fields, and pull off towards the town of Conway, which sports various general stores and cafés and a pub and several antique stores. Little signs point the way to "Tulip Info" and I follow one into a sort of antiques/auction barn where a helpful woman highlights a free map and circles various fields. There are guided tours and helicopter rides and markets, and I thank her and head back out on the road. It is a beautiful drive, winding roads leading over wooded ridges and wide expanses of fields; a clear day means that I can see the Cascade mountains in the distance. I pass a grocery store attached to a little café, the shelves of the store filled with exotic canned foods and imported cookies and crackers, all sorts of things like smoked oysters and tinned pâtes and pasta in fancy shapes.

Large roadside stands proffer potted plants and organic fruits and vegetables and fresh seafood, but I press on. I pass an endless field of daffodils, from a distance a blur of dazzling yellow, and know that I am nearly there. Across the road from one of the main tulip fields is a nearly-empty parking lot, so I stop there instead of the crammed lot next to the field. And then the endless fields of tulips stretch before me, a sea of purple and pink and red flowers planted in neat rows that seem to stretch all the way to the mountains at the far end of the horizon. Knots of people pause to take pictures of each other kneeling between the rows of tulips; small children run around until they are told to pose adorably, shoulders just above the nodding heads of the flowers. I make my way clear across a patch of pink tulips before I reach the main path and notice the sign that says "PLEASE DO NOT WALK BETWEEN THE ROWS." Oops.

After I take about a hundred pictures of tulips from different angles, I head off to find some lunch, and wind up eating bread and soup at a little French bakery in Anacortes. I head to the wine shop recommended by the couple I sat with at the Lark Whole Beast dinner last week (it is owned by their son) and am immediately greeted with the offer of some Cava, which I decline because I still have to drive back to Seattle and my navigational skills are fuzzy even when unclouded by alcohol. This is a serious wine shop, stocked with a dizzying array of Washington state wines, as well as offerings from Oregon, California, France, and basically any place that produces wine. Or so it seems.

On the way back I stop at something called The Pie Barn. They have all kinds of pies, rhubarb and strawberry rhubarb and peach and apple and blueberry, baked and ready to go, or frozen for you to bake at home. But what I want is ice cream, chocolate brownie or lemon or Spumoni or Blackberry Revel or Huckleberry cheesecake. I am torn between the latter two, but the kind lady behind the counter advises that I go for the cheesecake. I choose that one, and she scoops a bit of the blackberry on top as well, so I can taste it. It is very good, but the cheesecake ice cream is better. After I finish my ice cream, it's time to head home. I get stuck in traffic, but it is a beautiful day and I have a pile of cds to listen to, and it is a long drive for someone with nothing to think about, which is not exactly true. I have plenty to think about, like how next time I will come earlier in the day, and figure out ahead of time where to have lunch so I don't wander around indecisively at two in the afternoon, but how it was a beautiful day, the perfect day for a long drive.

*with apologies to Modest Mouse for appropriating the title to one of their albums.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dining Out For Life. Quinn's Pub.

Tonight is the fifteenth annual Dining Out for Life event, where participating restaurants across the nation donate a portion of the day's proceeds to benefit AIDS charities. In Seattle's case, today's event benefits the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, a local organization that helps people living with HIV/AIDS. Lifelong's headquarters are in my neighborhood; I walk past every day on my way to and from work (and often buy books at their thrift store). When I pass the poster in the window at Quinn's Pub, I know that on April 24th I will go there for dinner. I don't really need any excuse to eat there, but knowing that a portion of my bill will go to Lifelong is just a little extra incentive.

When I walk in just after five, there seems to be a bit of a buzz in the air; usually it's still quiet when I have an early dinner. Most of the tables downstairs are filled; by the time I order my dinner all the tables are taken, and there are only a few seats open at the bar. I order a pretzel with a Pétrus rarebit sauce and fish and chips, the fish and chips I've been craving for more than a week now. As I wait for my dinner I see plates coming out to other tables, laden with mysterious things I don't recognize, many involving little haystacks of salads and piles of toast, white porcelain bowls filled with pâtés and dips, heaps of house-made chips. My pretzel arrives, resting atop a small dish of rarebit sauce, cheesy and slightly alcoholic. I break off bits of pretzel and dip it into the sauce, although the pretzel is so good it doesn't really need the sauce. On the other hand, the sauce is so good I could probably eat it straight from a spoon.

I see that the woman a few tables away has also ordered the fish and chips, along with a dish of sautéed spinach, which seems like a good idea to me, so I order one too. The fish and chips arrive, one huge piece of golden-crusted fish lightly sprinkled with sea salt. There is malt vinegar, and aïoli sauce (which disappoints me, because I like tartar sauce with my fish and chips), and ketchup for the fries. I eat all my fish and spinach, and some of my fries, because I have reached that horrible point in my twenties when I can no longer eat fish *and* chips, much the way I can no longer have a burger and fries, which is a very sad feeling indeed. One of the servers tells me that the fries stand up pretty well in the fridge, and boxes them up for me - that's lunch for tomorrow sorted - but I think I have a little room left for dessert.

I order the panna cotta, and when my server brings it, she says that she told the chef that plated it, This looks like an 80's Trapper-Keeper! The panna cotta anchors a white rectangular plate swirled with a lime-basil balm and a rhubarb sauce, bright green and rosy pink, scattered with tiny cubes of intensely bright mango; the flavors of the sauces and fruit against the creamy panna cotta are as vivid as the colors. I think I did have a trapper-keeper that looked like this plate. Pink and green were the colors in the late eighties. I do remember a sweater patterned in pink and orange and green, possibly hints of aqua and black, that I wore with black leggings and Keds.

Those were the days.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Whole Beast Supper. part two. (scroll down for part one).

By now, we are halfway through dinner, but none of us shows signs of flagging. The third wave brings tender pork cheeks in a spicy broth with ramps and cubes of pineapple, which are sweet and hot at the same time. Slices of lamb tongue are tossed with finely shaved cauliflower - a technique I remember from the asparagus salad that came with a rabbit loin last spring - and crunchy sliced almonds. This method of preparing cauliflower, as with the asparagus, gives it a different dimension, changing its flavor and texture into something unexpected; its sweetness is intensified with the sharp acidity of capers. We each have a crepinette - a round, flat sausage of lamb and pine nuts wrapped in caul fat. There are slices of kidneys - which kind, I am not sure - laid across a bed of basmati rice with tender green asparagus. A ten-minute recess is called, and people get up to walk around a little. Strangely, I am satisfied but not stuffed. But there is one more wave to go.

First, there are tiny espresso cups with a grapefruit-Campari ice to cleanse the palate. It it an electric deep orange, and goes to my head like a jolt of espresso, settling my stomach like a good digestif. It reminds me of my first meal at Rover's, more than a decade ago, where they served a red wine sorbet flavored with herbs, and what a revelation that had been. I resolve to buy a bottle of Campari and experimenting with different juices, to start my own tradition of a cocktail hour at the end of the day. (It will probably never happen). There are only three more dishes, and then a dessert. People who were complete strangers three hours ago seem like old friends; one thing alone has brought us here together - a love of food - but we are finding all sorts of other interests in common, besides a sense of adventure and a profound trust in the chef. We eat at the same restaurants, but come here most often. At Lark, there is a sense of warmth and friendliness, of inventiveness grounded by consistency in a way that I haven't seen anywhere else. It isn't enough that the food is good, or even that it is consistently fantastic; part of the pleasure of being here is the relaxed ambiance, the complete lack of pretension, the obvious passion for food carried by everyone here. It's why I come back again and again; I always find something new, but it's always the best version I've ever had, whether it be a rabbit shepherd's pie or osso buco or a simply grilled fish.

The final wave begins with lamb kofta, tiny meatballs with carrots of all colors floating on a cloud of couscous. The couscous is as light and delicate as it was the last time I had it here, soaking up all the juices on my plate. The lamb sweetbread ravioli are basically much bigger versions of the agnolotti I had a couple of dinners ago, but with sweetbreads instead of ground veal. Somehow, miraculously, the sweetbreads are crisp-chewy inside the pasta dough; the fat green peas and pinky-nail-sized fava beans tell us that despite the cold weather, it is spring. The last dish is pork tongue dolce forte, pork braised in wine with prunes and goodness knows what else. The sauce is rich and dark and tangy with something I can't figure out, and I want more. The fact that I am now full is completely immaterial.

Before dessert the chef and his staff come out to rapturous applause. Everyone has worked on the menu together, and you can see influences from all over the world, which gives the whole meal a certain unpredictability; there was a certain lightness to it, but each element was tied to the next by the consistent precision of a group of chefs who really know what they're doing. A plate of crackling chocolate cookies comes around, chewy and dark and dusted lightly with powdered sugar. Warm lemon madeleines arrive wrapped in a napkin, with a creamy custard sauce on the side, and they are perfect, sweet and golden with molten centers. Having been severely traumatized by a plate of very stale madeleines some years ago, I have not been able to eat lemon madeleines since. Until now.

I pay my bill - it is the most expensive dinner I have ever eaten without someone else paying, and I am glad my parents are not here to witness my gluttony; after all, they taught me to enjoy food, so it is mostly because of them I am here tonight - and say goodbye to my new friends. We'll see each other again.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Whole Beast Supper. part one.

I had been waiting for this since last summer, when K., one of the owners of Lark (she runs the dining room), had told me about the annual Whole Beast Supper. They order a whole animal - usually a pig and a lamb or two, possibly a goat - and cook various parts of it in twenty or thirty ways. It is served family-style, at communal tables (unless you have a large enough party for a whole table), which is a great way to meet other people. I am excited and a little scared at the same time, and have prepared for tonight's feast by eating lightly for two days - a little macaroni and cheese for lunch and cereal for dinner yesterday, some yogurt and a few chocolate malt balls for lunch today. I think I'm ready, and in fact I am so excited about the evening ahead I run down the hill, down the four blocks to Lark, taking the shortcut that crosses the Seattle University campus and deposits me almost directly across the street from the restaurant, a few minutes early.

K. has seated me at the first table just inside the entrance - this is the table we had the very first time I ate here in February of 2006 - where three people have already taken their places. We shake hands and introduce ourselves; they look familiar to me. We are all regulars. They are joined by two friends, taking up half the table, and two more couples flank my place at the other end. Actually everyone looks strangely familiar, and I am sure I have seen them here before. No one ever looks at a woman dining alone, which gives me a certain anonymity, as well as allowing me to watch all the diners around me. The tables fill up, and bowls of Marcona almonds and marinated olives arrive. The party at the other end of the table have ordered glasses of cava, while the couple to my left have brought their own wine, which they promptly share with me.

The menu is arranged in four waves of four or three dishes each, with a palate-cleansing ice before the last wave, and then dessert, a total of fifteen dishes and two desserts (including the almonds and olives as one course, but not the sorbet cleanser). I resolve to pace myself, to avoid eating the bread, to take small bites and savor each one slowly. Hard to do when a platter of salami and coppa floats into view. Or perhaps it was the lardo on toast with mostarda di uva, melting cured pork fat over a grape jam, sweet and a little salty, soft and a little crisp. (Despite my notes I can't remember the order in which the courses arrived; I can only remember that they did not come in the order as described on the menu). At some point the chef/owner came out to talk a little bit about the dinner, to introduce the guest chefs, and to warn us that we should eat the guanciale-wrapped dates very carefully, because they are hot and the Gorgonzola stuffed inside is like "molten lava." They are sweet-salty-creamy-tangy all at once, which is what you want in a starter, and even though I want more I know there is much, much more to come.

The second wave begins with - I think - a warm pork pate en croute, which is like meatloaf, only better. Later the chef - one of the two visiting guest chefs - comes and sits next to me (she is a close friend of the two women on my right) and tells us that she didn't quite like how the pastry turned out, but I thought it was just fine, better than fine. It is warm and savory, homey and sophisticated at the same time, elegant rusticity. It is one of my favorite dishes this evening. There is squid stuffed with chorizo and eggplant (again, I am not sure about this, as the details are a little fuzzy), and it may be the only stuffed squid I have ever liked, tender and richly flavored by the stuffing. A salad of pig's ears and watercress with green papaya is passed around, all crunchy textures (the ears) and cool green flavors (the watercress and green papaya) spiked with pickled chiles.

We have only made it through the first two waves. I'll get to the rest of the meal tomorrow.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Saturday lunch/Lark.

I had been at work for some hours when the noises of lunch became apparent from the kitchen. A., the cleaning lady, was cooking for our boss; I could smell the clean, nutty fragrance of steaming brown rice, hear the sizzle of radish cake (made from daikon radishes and goodness knows what else) frying on the stove. K. swoops in, calls me to lunch, and whooshes off to call my other co-worker, T., to join us. The four of us sit down to steamed brown rice, sautéed shrimp with ginger, stir-fried soy beans, and a heaping pile of radish cake, my favorite, lighter and crisper than the often leaden kind found in crowded dim-sum restaurants. There is a salad, lightly dressed with a balsamic dressing, and a small piece of fish, also cooked with ginger. It feels nice to have someone cook for me; usually I do my own cooking, or go out to eat, and often either one can be a burden. There is something comforting in eating someone else's home cooking, something calming and reassuring. It makes me feel cared for, loved, even. I didn't have to do the shopping and cooking and cleaning, or decide what to order. It just appeared before me.

Dinner at Lark has that same quality of being cared for, of being comforted, which is why I come here as often as I can. It is unusually cold outside - it has been snowing lightly in some parts of Seattle - and I run the three blocks to Lark in my usual monthly ritual. Never mind that I will be here again on Monday night (more on that later); tradition must be upheld. Someone I haven't seen before - she must be new - leads me to a table at the end of the room, the corner banquette. (By now I think I have sat at every table on this side of the room, and most of the ones on the other side). I flip through the menu, but as soon as I hear that the special is a rabbit shepherd's pie, my choice is made. I don't order anything else - not a salad, not a plate of sautéed mushrooms or the nettle soup or a bite of seared foie gras - I don't need anything else, not tonight. I eat bread and butter and imagine what the party and the large table in front of me will be like - they always seat large parties at that table, or at either end of the banquette-lined wall - will they be loud and boisterous, or chat quietly as they choose their meal?

My shepherd's pie arrives, distracting me from all other thoughts. The pie is baked in a small oval Staub cocotte, with a little salad on the side. I made myself some little shepherd's pies last week, but they are unto this one as a Hershey's kiss is to a Maison du Chocolat truffle. That is to say, very good in its own way, but nothing compared to the other. Unlike my own humble concoction, there is not a dense layer of mashed potato forming a crust, but rather some airy, potato-scented cloud that seems to be mostly butter. Below that airy cloud is a sort of stew - but that is too pedestrian a word for this - of rabbit meat and cauliflower florets in a slightly tangy sauce that sharpens the sweetness of the rabbit and the cauliflower, point and counterpoint. I think there is mustard in there, and more butter, and I would have mopped up all the sauce with my bread, but I am too full. It is the perfect little dinner for a cold night.

I have the pineapple tarte tatin, because it is warm and sweet with caramel and I have a cold walk home, and it is as good as ever, crisp buttery pastry, golden fruit, cool melting ice cream. I pay my (unusually modest, because I only had one dish and a dessert) bill and walk home. My bag feels lighter on my shoulders, my strides longer; I am home before I know it. And in two nights, I will be back.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Eating. marrow.

Most people I know look at me like I am a cannibal when I confess to a deep fondness for marrow bones; I only order them when dining with like-minded friends (of which I have, happily, a good number). Or when I am alone, as I am tonight. I was craving fish and chips, day-dreaming all day long of golden-battered fish and crisp chips and creamy tartar sauce. (If I were being honest I think of fish and chips as merely an excuse to eat tartar sauce, much the way I view cupcakes more as a vehicle for frosting than anything else). The consolation for being still at work at 5pm (having arrived around 6:30 am) is that once I leave I can go straight to dinner, and I walk very quickly towards Quinn's Pub, one of my neighborhood favorites. It is early for dinner, and there are few diners. I have an upstairs table, tucked away in the corner by the window.

Then a crushing blow is dealt - there is no fish and chips tonight. The fish delivered that day was unacceptable to the chef's exacting standards, which I suppose is always a good thing in a restaurant, but I am momentarily heartbroken. I really wanted fish and chips tonight. I turn instead to marrow bones, roasted and served with a red onion relish and toast, and the gnocchi with oxtail (which also comes with a crispy nugget of marrow, my favorite part), which my server assures me are two of the best things on the menu. (I usually order either the gnocchi or the cheeseburger, one of the best I've ever had, but I've never tried the marrow bones before). More diners begin to filter in; the music seems to fade a little as the voices rise.

Four marrow bones arrive before me, each towering bone capped with the onion relish. There is a little salad next to the bones, a spoonful of sea salt, and a stack of toast. I scoop bits of the marrow onto a piece of toast, adding a little relish and a sprinkle of salt. It is perfect, the rich fat of the marrow melting into the toast, with the contrast of the tart-sweet relish that adds a little bit of a crunch. I wish the toast were more toast-like; it is merely lightly grilled bread, but it is still incredibly good. Yellow dribbles of fat stain the napkin that lines the plate; crumbs scatter everywhere. I am making a mess, but fortunately, no one seems to be looking.

A small plate of gnocchi arrives, a handful of tender little dumplings in a creamy sauce, topped with braised oxtails that fall apart at a touch, crowned with a round of fried marrow. I like this crispy little nugget of marrow more than the marrow from the bones; it is just one, perfect, bite. I am full now, and happy; I tell my server that it was all wonderful, even though I really wanted fish and chips. It was a good way to start the week.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A tale of two cakes.

I was recently commanded to make two different cakes for two lab birthday lunches (late March, and then early April). They were greeted with mixed reactions ranging from rapturous (the chocolate cake) to completely disgusted (the rum cake). This is not particularly surprising, as the rum cake (from a recipe that came from someone's mother-in-law) is made with a yellow cake mix, which you doctor with Jell-O vanilla pudding mix, rum, and a sort of rum-butter syrup. Of course, I am notorious for the reckless abandon with which I throw around liquor while cooking, and this cake is no exception. After (or before) you make up the batter, you grease a bundt pan and sprinkle it with finely chopped walnuts (which my lovely sexy food processor can do in about three seconds), pour in the batter, and bake it. Then you poke holes in the bottom of the cake with a skewer and pour the syrup on top before inverting the cooled cake onto a plate.

The person who had requested this cake loved it, or at least said she did, but everyone else hated it. Including me. It was too sweet. It tasted too artificial. There was too much rum. There was not enough rum. It was too rich. I thought it was kind of boring, but then I think all cakes that don't have frosting are boring. I had poured the rum syrup into a fissure that formed around the top during baking (I had probably overmixed the batter) and sprinkled the cake with a bit more rum (I couldn't resist) and it had collected itself into an uneven vein that ran through the cake, giving you a shock of sugar and rum with each bite. I cut myself another piece - actually, it wasn't that bad - and defiantly ignored the ungrateful sods who were verbally pissing all over my perfectly good cake.

But I had to redeem myself somehow. For the April birthday lunch C. requested a chocolate cake, one with lots of frosting. I briefly considered one from the pages of Gourmet, all dark chocolate layers and billowy icing, but my last venture into something from their test kitchens was, how shall I put this? - not a success. (A bourbon-fig-pecan cake had turned out rather dry and uninteresting, unless heaped with a drift of whipped cream or ice cream). I was wary. My reputation was already shaky. So I turned to Amanda Hesser, who has never failed me, and her mother's Chocolate Dump-It cake, which I had made before. (When in doubt, work with what you know). Like the rum cake, it is made in a bundt pan, but this one is liberally frosted with a sour-cream frosting that is basically equal parts semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted, and sour cream. I could do this. I could melt together butter and chocolate and whisk in sugar and eggs and milk that had been clabbered with a bit of vinegar.

As always, flour got everywhere, on the floor, all over the counter, in my hair. I stepped into the spilled flour and left ghostly footprints on the pale mocha of the carpet. The batter looked lumpy and unprepossessing; it seemed too liquid-y to come together into anything like a cake. I set my timer and crossed my fingers. The smell of chocolate filled my apartment; maybe everything would work out ok. I couldn't remember whether I was supposed to frost the cake the night before or just before serving; I called K. in a panic. Bring the sour cream and chocolate chips to work and make it there, she tells me. I tuck a spatula and a measuring cup and the bag of chocolate chips into my backpack, leave a note so I won't forget the sour cream. It worries me that I need to do these things now; what will my memory be like in ten years, twenty, thirty, forty? The cake emerges from the oven, a dark chocolate crown has risen to fill the pan. I let it cool, flip it out onto a rack; it falls out easily with a soft whump.

At work I melt chocolate chips in the microwave, let the sour cream come to room temperature in a small bowl. The frosting is not perfect - it is a little lumpy - but no one will care. I slather it over the cake recklessly, and then add strawberry halves around the top and sides. The recipe suggests piping rosettes and leaves and decorating them with almond slices, but I haven't piped anything onto a cake since 1993 and don't plan on starting anytime soon. It was good cake, moist and rich without being dense, the icing creamy but not too much so, the tartness of the sour cream cutting through the sweetness of the chocolate. I thought of all the things I could have done differently, and then dismissed them from my mind. It was good cake.