Monday, August 11, 2008

Dinner out. Palace Kitchen.

I am at work when the phone calls begin. M. wants to invite E. out to dinner (an occupational hazard for out-of-town guests; everyone wants to invite you to dinner, so you find yourself dining out every night, nearly always with the same group of people). Unfamiliar with Seattle restaurants, she leaves me in charge of finding somewhere to have dinner. I have to come up with a) a place that is open on Monday, and b) is up to E.'s standards. Ten minutes of frantic Googling brings me to four choices: Nishino, Campagne, Palace Kitchen, and the Harvest Vine. This covers all bases - Japanese, French, Northwest, and Spanish (tapas) - and includes several of my favorite restaurants. Several phone calls (and a few more hours at work) later, M. decides on Palace Kitchen, the best (in my opinion) of Tom Douglas' restaurants.

Palace Kitchen, on the far edge of downtown Seattle, is one of those places that I rarely come to; it is too far to walk, and in a neighborhood with a serious lack of parking. Not to mention that they don't take reservations for less than six people, which I find extremely off-putting. But the food is so damn good that every time I come here I promise I will come back as soon as possible; if I am lucky that averages out to about once a year. But just having tonight will be enough. We walk in to find M. already waiting at one of two large oval tables on either side of the door (a giant rectangular bar fills the center of the room; booths run along one side, and tables are scattered about elsewhere). E. is late, so we begin ordering appetizers and chat away.

First comes a plate of grilled chicken wings, my mother's favorite dish even during the year she was a vegetarian, the skin is crisp and faintly charred, the meat cooked just right, the wings arranged like campfire logs on a pool of some creamy sauce. The pork belly is one small cube of rich meat, yielding a mere bite for each of us, sweet and intense. We order a second round: plin, a sort of ravioli filled with roast pork and chard, a grilled sardine falling apart next to tomato bruschetta, olive poppers stuffed with cream cheese. It is one of those slow, languorous dinners, more conversation than food. Our waiter hovers near the bar, wondering if we are ever going to get around to ordering our main courses. But now I am even more unable to decide what to order.

We continue as we began, sharing entrées as we shared our appetizers, passing around platters of roast chicken and arugula salad tossed with some kind of herbed yogurt dressing. There is pasta tossed with fresh summer vegetables and sweet corn cakes served with tomatoes and a soft corn custard. Being a greedy sort of person I order the gazpacho for myself, three tiny demitasse cups filled with different flavors, watermelon (sweet and tart), cucumber (cool and refreshing), and a more classic tomato (just a little spicy). I take a little more of the chicken, roasted in the applewood-fired grill, and it is gently flavored with woodsmoke, juicy and tender like the wings we had eaten in the first go-around. It is a lazy sort of dinner, tasting and picking from an array of dishes, and it is a pleasant way to enjoy a meal. At last everything is gone, every scrap of arugula and corncake eaten, every strand of house-made pasta twirled around a fork and deposited into the waiting mouth.

And still there is a little room left for dessert, shared and passed around like everything else we ate tonight. I order a chocolate pot de creme, which comes with Bing cherries and a cherry-preserve "pop-tart," which resembles the real thing about as well as the maple éclair I ate last time I was here resembled a maple bar, an everyday item that has been transformed into something else entirely, something extraordinary. My father orders the cornmeal cake, surprisingly light and moist, wrapped around a custard filling and floating in a pool of blueberry sauce. All too soon they are all gone, too, and it is time to go home. Maybe I'll come back soon, again. I hope that this time, I will.

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