Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wild Beast. Lark.

Some five or six years ago Lark started hosting what they called the "Whole Beast" dinner, a feast involving an endless series of dishes utilizing every part of an animal - pigs, lambs, and a goat or two - and I do mean every part of the animal. I went to my first one in the spring of 2008 (there were pigs' ears on the menu, and perfect lamb crépinettes). Last year, the dinner shifted its focus (and time - it happened in November) away from the usual pig/lamb/goat menagerie and turned to wild game, perfect for fall.

Last night I caught up with my friends - we met at my first Whole Beast dinner, and it's now become a tradition for us to sit together - at the door and we settled in at the same table as last year. We opened our bottles of wine - a Rioja and a Cabernet Sauvignon, both from 1998 - and nibbled away at a dish of almonds and olives. The menu looked thrilling, fourteen dishes broken up into four waves, plus a sorbet (more like a slushy) intermezzo and two desserts. We wondered aloud about the duck testicles and if the emu could be considered a large animal and tried the pheasant rilletes - they were fantastic - and checked out the costumes (all the servers and several other guests were in full Halloween getup).

Here are some dishes that stood out: Frogs legs, garlicky-sweet, the aforementioned rillettes, and the duck testicles, which were tiny chunks of deep-fried meat, with a texture somewhat like that of sweetbreads. There was a tiny cup of pheasant consommé with agnolotti, foie gras, and truffle (possibly my favorite dish of the night), and brown beans with thick chunks of wild boar bacon laced with the sweetness of leeks and maple syrup (which recall the Quebecois fèves au lard). I love the "little stewed birds" (quail) that are wrapped in bacon and scented with anise, and the skewered Bison hearts in some spicy sauce.

We drink our slushies - spiked with herbs and liqueurs it tastes curiously like Campari - and await the last wave, the wildest tasting of them all, with a saddle of Scottish blue hare that emphatically reminds you with every bite that you are eating wild game. Best of all are emu meatballs, with the croxetti pasta I love so much and the gentle perfume of matsutake mushrooms. We have been eating and talking for three hours. It feels good to catch up with my friends, which is hard to do at parties where there are too many people to say hello to, or farmer's markets where you are in a hurry to finish the week's shopping.

Dessert is a soft quince spice cake, which I like a lot, and a tiny cup of cocoa sorbet with white chocolate granite, which I love tremendously. I am unbearably full, a little drunk, and I can hardly wait until the next dinner. They are bringing back the Whole Beast dinner in the Spring. I'll be there.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School lunch.

I have been reading and re-reading this post in reference to the current battle over school budget cuts in Great Britain and alternately weeping from rage and heartbreak.

I grew up in the south end of Seattle. We lived on a nice street, the highest in the neighborhood, with sweeping views of Lake Washington and the mountains beyond. But the local elementary school and high school were down in the valley below, in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. I had tested into what was then called the Horizon program, which meant that our math and writing skills were one grade ahead of the average. Four grades - 1st through 4th - shared a vast space which contained three open classrooms, one central common area, and a small lab; we were in a newer wing of the building, separated from the rest of the school. Our paths rarely crossed those of other students, save for one day when an older boy tried to beat me up on my way home from school. I escaped with a scraped knee and was never allowed to walk home alone again.

It was an interesting time, the mid-to-late-80's. M. told me the other night that she had been bussed into our school district because of the Horizon program but also because of "forced integration." That part I don't remember. What I remember is that we spoke in hushed tones on the playground about the supposed drug house down the street and joked that classmates who wore red were "Bloods" and those who wore blue were "Crips" (rival gangs). I don't know if there were any actual gang wars going on but I remember used needles and condoms ("Eeeewwww!!" we said) on the playground and a drive-by shooting late one summer, before school started. Then I left for the manicured grounds of the city's most expensive private school, in fifth grade, and never looked back.

But this is all irrelevant, or perhaps it isn't. We were talking about school lunch. Our elementary school served breakfast and lunch, every day. I usually ate breakfast at home - whole wheat toast, English muffins, oatmeal, cold cereal, congee, or fruit and yogurt - but I also dimly remember school cafeteria pancakes, or perhaps it was French toast, with sausage, maybe some fruit, maybe orange juice in a plastic foil-sealed cup, like the ones they give you on airplanes. It was cheap, like the lunches, which I also occasionally ate (flabby pizzas, corn dogs, Salisbury steak), washed down with plain or chocolate milk (a rare treat). I think it cost a dollar. And for many kids, it was free or otherwise discounted. I wasn't really conscious of it at the time; I led a happy, sheltered, middle-class life that I later came to understand was incredibly privileged. I remember being shocked that some kids ate their lunches as if it were the best thing they'd ever tasted. I think about it now, and it breaks my heart.

I think that people - like Jamie Oliver, and others, like a friend, following his example - who are trying to change the way children eat are doing an amazing, incredible thing. In one sense, the system (as it stood 20 years ago) was doing one good thing: it made sure that children got fed, twice a day. In another sense, it wasn't: the food was crap, except for those for whom it was the best thing they had. It is part of a larger problem - where does the responsibility lie? On the school system which can't afford it, or on the parents who can't afford it? The more I think about it - and I say this as someone who is single and childless and doesn't see that changing anytime soon - the more it makes my heart ache. I don't have any understanding of what it must be like to have to send my child to school hungry. I hope I never do.

Twenty years have passed since I last ate in that elementary school cafeteria. I still remember the flimsy partitioned foil trays and the plastic sporks, the crates of half-pint milk cartons. We have to do better.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

the art of dining alone. Lark.

I haven't been to Lark in a while. I used to come here once a month, almost religiously. I'd go straight from work in fleece sweats or from home having changed into something slightly more respectable. My life is different now, made up of different circles of friends that nudge together in some places and overlap in others. There are cookbook clubs and Saturday brunches and jaunts up to Vancouver or over to Vashon or strawberry-picking in the Skagit Valley. When we go out to dinner I often find myself in West Seattle or Ballard or Queen Anne, and it feels good to explore different corners of my own city, to find my way in an unfamiliar place. But I miss my neighborhood, and I miss going to Lark, alone. It always feels like home.

L. has often remarked that she gets terrible service when she dines alone, which surprises me. She is very pretty and intimidatingly stylish and I would expect waitstaff to fall all over her, but apparently this is not the case. J., on the other hand, says she projects an aura of "I belong here, bitches." I don't remember those first few times of eating alone at Lark, but I am sure that I did not project that aura of "I belong here, bitches." I might have kept in mind Mary Cantwell's words about keeping my posture straight, my gaze confident while asking for a table for one. They must have been kind, for I kept going back. K., who is one of the owners, would always stop by for a word of greeting.

Anyway, I am here again. It is late when I walk in, and they are surprised (usually I come for dinner very early). I chat with my server, M., and collapse gratefully and ungracefully in the corner booth, order the foie gras and one of the night's specials, a poached duck egg. I eat far too much bread and butter (and what wonderful bread and butter it is) because lunch was ages ago and suddenly, I'm starving. My poached duck egg arrives, floating in broth on a raft of toast and a tangle of braised chard, covered in cheese shavings that melt slowly as I eat. The yolk is molten gold, and I am torn between eating it all quickly, before it gets cold, and savoring every last bite, slowly.

The foie gras, too, is perfect, seared and served on a crispy pig's trotter cake, with a few stray bits of crispy trotter (there are few phrases more delightful than "crispy pig trotter") sprinkled around. There is a pool of tangy-sweet peach puree, slices of pickled peaches that send shocks through the rich haze of the foie and trotter cake, and a few green curls of mizuna so you can pretend you had some vegetables. It is exactly what I wanted. No dessert tonight, no need for it. I am happy when I head up the hill towards home.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Brunch. the gold standard.

Some friends and I gather together most Saturday mornings for brunch, trying different places around Seattle. While we sometimes have a bigger group, often there are just three of us, the original three who met at a diner early one morning when I was completely jet-lagged and uncharacteristically up early. (I can hardly believe it's been just about a year now). We've eaten at greasy-spoon diners and casual cafés and fancy restaurants. There have been hits and misses, and a few clear favorites, some dependable standbys. I am always late, rushing in with my hair still damp from the shower.

We had been meaning to try Harvest Vine since I first heard that they had started serving brunch. Some friends who have impeccable taste had gone, months ago, and raved about it. Finally, we made it there, after a quick trip to the farmer's market earlier in the morning. It was early, just after they opened; only a few tables were full. We ordered coffee and caracolillos (sweet rolls shaped like the snails they are named for), quickly, and debated over the rest of the menu. We all ordered eggs; I chose eggs scrambled with chanterelles and bacon. The caracolillos were perfect, spiraled rolls of soft dough that seemed like a cross between a croissant and brioche. They are a sign of good things to come.

Everything was perfect - M.'s baked eggs with tomato sauce and goodness knows what else, J.'s poached eggs and sausage, my scramble that is almost custard-like in its softness. The bacon is home-cured and the chanterelles are cooked just right, even if my revuelto looks, honestly, a little revolting. (There is no way to make eggs scrambled with mushrooms attractive). We mop up every bite with our toasts and mutter about what we might order next time, or if perhaps there is room in our stomachs for another dish. There isn't, of course. We'll have to come back, and soon. There have been few brunches as spot-on as this one. Watch out, Seattle. A new gold standard has been found.