Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Day in Seattle

I visited Seattle briefly a few years ago. Instantly, I fell in love with the mountain-water-cityscape combination. My post-marathon visit to Seattle was also brief. I wanted to see and eat as much as possible. Since my mother hadn't been there before, we had a few touristy items to cross off the list. We went to Pike Place Market, the Seattle Central Public Library, Pioneer Square, Olympic Sculpture Park, and the Space Needle. We stayed not far from downtown in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I really enjoyed the location and vibe of the area: a cleaner, prettier Northern Liberties/Fishtown combination.

In our short visit to Seattle, we did manage to eat at quite a few places. The highlights were perfect meals at Sitka & Spruce and Staple & Fancy Mercantile. I also managed to enjoy a brief interlude at Taylor Shellfish Farms.

I had a fantastic experience at Sitka & Spruce from start to finish. I made the reservation over the phone a few weeks in advance. The person who answered the phone (also the person who waited on us) seemed genuinely excited that I had called and was visiting. I feel as though I rarely have a positive interaction when calling a restaurant.

Sitka & Spruce is a gorgeous space. The restaurant itself is tucked inside a multi-use space with a coffee shop, sandwich counter, flower shop, wine bar and home goods shop. It was slightly confusing, but the entire space is well curated. 

As with any full day of eating, you need an early lunch. The bread from Columbia City Bakery was amazing; so was the butter. It is not a stretch to suggest that it was better than any baguette being made in the Philadelphia region. 

I started with a cup of broth made with pork, chicken, fish, and seaweed. A weird choice. I've been interested in broths since I ate at Eleven Madison Park more than a year ago. The whole duck for two begins with a cup of broth. It was the essence of duck. Fork does the same thing for their whole duck. Anyway, the broth was a flavorful, warming addition to the meal. 

As an entree I had raw Quilleutte salmon, pickled seabeans, konbu and mizuna. The salmon was velvety, the pickled seabeans perfectly punctuated the dish, and the greens were a lovely complement. I wish I could have eaten more here, but this was only the beginning.

After a quick rest, we were back out and about. We stopped at Taylor Shellfish Farms with the hope of finding Dungeness crabs. I have a long family history of eating Dungeness crabs. They have achieved the aura of a higher power in my family: "Oh, you're going to Seattle/San Francisco, make sure you eat some Dungeness!" A family friend from Seattle visited us each summer. He packed Dungeness crabs in ice, took them on the plane, and prepared them for us the same day. As a little kid, I had only known the painstaking, yet rewarding, work required to enjoy Maryland crabs. My ten-year-old mind was blown away by Dungeness. So much meat for so little work? It didn't even make sense. 

Alas, Taylor Shellfish Farms was out of them in the late-afternoon hour. The delivery truck had arrived, but it would take an hour to prep them. While my mother was sorely disappointed, I ordered half-dozen west coast oysters, a live spot prawn, and geoduck sashimi. In a day of eating, I barely even count raw seafood as eating. The oysters tasted far better than eating west coast oysters on the east coast, the spot prawn was pretty cool, as they break it apart (kill it) at the table, and the geoduck was texturally great, while approaching the sweetness of a raw scallop.

After a walk to the Sculpture Park we went to dinner at Staple & Fancy. I
chose this restaurant based on combination of Chowhound, Yelp, and the difficult task of finding restaurants that are open on Monday. Thankfully, my mother was up for the tasting menu. I had to do some double eating, but for the most part she ate everything. In fact, she said it was the best meal of her life, besides Zeppoli

For $50 a person it was a steal. Between the quality and the quantity, I could not have been happier with the meal: salmon bruschetta, seared tuna, coppa, fried oysters, caesar salad, asparagus soup, buffalo mozzarella, rigatoni with guanciale, hanger steak, ricotta cheesecake. It was an onslaught of perfectly prepared food. I can't quite liken it to any restaurant in Philadelphia. Rather, I can't liken it to any restaurant in Philadelphia without writing something like, "what X tries to be...with less salt/cheese/butter." In fact, everything I ate on the west coast was less heavy handed than most of the food you find in Philly. After this brief stay in Seattle, we were off to Vancouver.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Seward's Folly

Almost a month ago I went to Anchorage to run a marathon on the summer solstice. I'm trying to run a marathon in all 50 states, so I thought I'd visit the nicer states first. Also, I've wanted to go to Alaska since I watched Insomniac with Dave Attell in 2003. It seemed like a strange place. Then, when I was in grad school in Western Mass, I watched every episode of Northern Exposure on DVD. I had to visit this very far away place.

I didn't have high hopes for food in Anchorage. Reviews of the best places on Yelp and Chowhound all ended with something like, "...considering it's Alaska, this place wasn't bad." After a disappointing sushi night, I decided to focus on carbo loading and eat in. 

I think this would have been one of my favorite marathons if it hadn't rained for the first 8-10 miles. In this photo I'm thinking, "It's raining. I really don't want to get out of the car. Why am I running another marathon?" But, my mother and I had made the trip to Alaska. The marathon was uphill the first half and downhill the second half. It cleared up a bit, but remained overcast. I ran a far-from-PR negative split. I enjoyed it and could walk the next day. After running nine marathons in nearly five years, it does become easier.

Anyway, enough marathon talk. After the marathon we drove down to Seward for a marine cruise. I was very excited to visit Seward, as I had written a paper about a woman, Queen Silver, who visited Seward in the early 20th century. I thought she was going to be the subject of my dissertation, but alas, no. It was fascinating to think about her visit to Seward in the teens. 

The guy cleaning up the trash on the touristy marine cruise asked me what I had planned for the solstice. I mentioned driving back to Anchorage and he said, "Oh, Anchorage. Go to Humpy's and have the halibut tacos and an Alaska Pale for me." I decided to follow up on that recommendation the next day.

The tacos look like a giant mess. Who doesn't love the 1990's squeeze bottle sauce presentation? It was halibut season and the tacos were the best food I ate in Alaska. I was not even offended by the flour tortillas. Looking back, everything in Anchorage seemed like it was from the 1990s: the architecture, the cars, the signage.

I also decided upon Alaska because my mother wanted to visit. Since it will likely be the only time she ventures to Alaska, I asked her if she wanted to take a plane to land on a glacier in Denali National Park. Denali doesn't seem like the type of park you can visit for one day. There's a whole bus system that (rightly so) limits vehicular traffic in the park. Sitting on a bus all day, after driving 4.5 hours, the day before a marathon, seemed like a miserable idea. Thus, I found the glacier landing. I would never do something like this. But, for my mom, I went with it. It was by far the best part of the trip. Landing on a glacier, with a view of Mt. McKinley, defies words. I felt like a giddy five-year-old when I stepped off the plane. It was other-worldly gorgeous.

I'm not sure that I would go back to Alaska. It is truly beautiful. It is truly far away. I might want to visit Fairbanks and drive north to the Arctic Circle or see the Northern Lights, but as long as I live on the east coast, Alaska is very far away folly.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Louisville Two

I’m trying something new. I’m blogging within days of returning home from a trip.

Last year I visited Louisville to read the AP US History Exam (they call it a reading, but it's grading). I was invited back this year and had another lovely time. 

It was much easier the second time around. I may have earned a reputation as “the girl who stretches during breaks.” On the plane back to Philly, surrounded by other readers returning home, a kind woman handed me my yoga mat from the overhead bin. She said, “I heard there was someone from Question 4 stretching during breaks. Was that you?” Yeah, I didn’t see anyone else stretching, so I figure it was me. Alright, I graded 1375 essays over the course of seven straight days. Doing ten to fifteen wall backbends twice a day was the only thing keeping me from terrible back pain.

While the reading was great, I made a few suspect food choices. I’m always torn between trying new places and sticking with what I know. When you add a year-long interim into the mix, I figure going to a place I’ve already been might be as risky as trying a new place. Unfortunately, I was probably wrong about that theory. 

I’ll get the failures out of the way. First, I went to Milkwood. Chef Edward Lee won Top Chef a few years ago. He has a James Beard Award winning restaurant called 610 Magnolia. Since, as far as I can tell, 610 Magnolia doesn’t have a bar, requires a credit card for reservations, and is off the beaten path, I haven’t been there. There was a time when I would sit alone at a table for two and enjoy a multi-course tasting menu. At this point, I think I can find food worth eating in a restaurant with a bar. Thus, I went to his other, co-run, restaurant Milkwood. I should have never eaten there. I should have left after my initial interaction with the bartender (they were out of the first two beverages I ordered, one being a cocktail). But, I stayed. The food was incredibly mediocre. Poorly-seared scallops, a boring salad, not crispy pork belly, room-temperature food. A waste of time.

My next failure was Hillbilly Tea. It is a beautiful place. Perhaps I should have had tea instead of food. It’s not worth detailing this experience. They did make a delicious bourbon and ginger cocktail.

Now, onto better food. I went back to Garage Bar. Last year I had insanely good turkey wings. I thought about these wings at least once a month. I still wonder why no one in Philadelphia is serving turkey wings. They were as good as I had imagined them all year. I also tried one ham: S. Wallace Edwards & Sons from Surry, VA. It was mind blowing and unforgettable. The flavor was so funky and basementy; it happily reminded me of a sour beer.

I also tried out Taco Punk. Less formal than everywhere else I ate, this is a laid-back, seemingly hipster-run place. I tried the Punk Platter with one shrimp in coconut sauce taco and one pineapple pork taco. The platter included a side (kale) and chips & salsa. With homemade tortillas, shredded cabbage, pickled onions, jalapenos and cilantro, these tacos were totally great. For $10.95 I felt really good about this place.

The greatest find of the trip was Rye on Market. Well, I didn't find it, but I discovered it on Instagram. I like to follow professional photographers who travel. With so many followers, when they ask where to go in a city, they get many replies. I saw that Rye on Market looked pretty awesome. And, indeed, it was so awesome that I ate there three times.

The atmosphere was distinctly gentrifying hipster. This is not a terrible thing. I enjoyed cocktails that were better than any cocktail I’ve ever had. As the cocktail list changes daily, I tried several different beverages. With regards to food, the small plates were best: Korean roasted shishito Peppers, golden beets & baby carrot, grilled zucchini, roasted cauliflower. Oh and the meat plate was amazing. The larger plate, a sweet corn agnolotti, was the weakest of all the dishes I tried. I can’t wait to go back next year. The whole bar experience at Rye is perfection.

In the end, it was a pretty good food trip. I should have gone back to Harvest and Eiderdown. I deeply regret not returning to Eiderdown. Hopefully, “there’s always next year." Every year there are rumors about the reading being moved to Salt Lake or Cincinnati. Based upon my two trips to Louisville, I'd be rather sad about eating and grading in either one of those towns.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Portland, Maine Revisited

It’s that time of the year again. It's the time when I blog about a place I visited months ago. It’s also the time when I imagine that blogging will get me into “writing mode.” As if “writing mode” is really a state of being that you can conjure or harness. I digress. Below is a post I drafted months ago, but never finished, on my New Years trip to Portland.

I have always had a certain affection for Portland, Maine. When I lived in Western Mass I would drive nearly three hours to visit for dinner. While Boston is closer, Portland offers more New England charm. Jeans and duck boots are formal attire. The seafood makes you wish you hadn’t eaten seafood anywhere south of the Maine/New Hampshire border. Far removed from the fast-paced world that many of us are used to, it seems as though you have to want to be in Portland to live in Portland.

I decided to revisit Portland over New Years. Yes, why not visit during the coldest time of the year. Venturing north after a blizzard, there were piles of snow everywhere and the sidewalks were icy deathtraps. Yet, there were no wind-chill warnings; frostbite-inducing temperatures are simply par for the course Down East. In spite of the frozen climes, Portland proved to be even more enjoyable than the last time I was there. With new restaurants and bars, Portland has quite a bit going for it.

I’ll give a quick rundown of all my stops:

1. Novare Res: If you’re into craft beer, you can’t visit Portland without a stop at Novare Res. It’s basement-y, dark, cold, and has fantastic beer. The Oxbow on tap was as fresh as can be. I didn’t eat anything there this time, as it was a pre-dinner stop. 

2. Fore Street: I have been to Fore Street several times over the years. They were doing farm-to-table before it was called that. Nearly as fancy as things get in Portland, it’s a gorgeous restaurant. My first visit to Fore Street was in 2007. Sadly, I have to admit that each subsequent visit has been less and less impressive. Nothing was terrible, but nothing was fantastic. Well, the oysters were fantastic. Quite honestly, with everything else happening in Portland, Fore Street may be best for a quick appetizer before venturing elsewhere.

3. Standard Baking Co.: Okay, this bakery is amazing. It’s attached to/below Fore Street. Somehow, I never visited before. While their bread is served at Fore Street, I never realized that there was an amazing bakery offering tasty treats just below. All of the breakfast pastries were great, while the baguette was just okay. The country loaf, or whatever they serve at Fore Street, achieves a level of goodness that you can't find in the Philly area.

4. Maine Beer Co.: Maine Beer Co. has been a favorite of mine since their bottles arrived in Philly and Western Mass a few years ago. Their newly constructed brewery is a short drive north of Portland in Freeport. I was able to try the Lunch on tap. I’ve never had the chance to sample it in Philly, as it seems to be the most limited of their releases. All the beers were great. The tasting portions were perfect. Oddly, the bottles were more expensive at the brewery than they are at my local Whole Foods. 
5. Eventide Oyster Co.: The standout of the visit was Eventide Oyster Co. Relatively new, Eventide Oyster Co. resides in the space that was one of my favorite cookbook stores: Rabelias. I suppose the best ode to that cookbook store (since relocated to Biddeford, ME), run by a husband and wife for years, is an amazing restaurant. Everything here was perfect. Oysters from Maine, Razor Clam with Uni butter, a green salad, a lobster roll, a fried oyster roll, sashimi, more oysters. We wanted to order the entire menu. Well, we pretty much did. Everything was light, fresh, enticing, and perfectly seasoned. I can’t recommend this place enough. Eventide is one of the best restaurants I’ve visited in a long time.

6. Miyake: For New Year’s Eve we went to Miyake. The omakase was pretty great. Sitting at the sushi bar watching Chef Miyake work was perhaps as interesting as the food. He maintained his serene composure as the restaurant filled up for a busy holiday service. The highlight of the night was Maine Uni. I can’t say that I’ve had Maine Uni before this meal. Compared to west coast Uni, it’s definitely less creamy and more salty. Chef Miyake smiled at us when we became visibly excited about the Uni. Lovely.

7. Portland Alpine and Hunt Club: This bar is relatively new to Portland. I’d like to write a Yelp review that begins with: “I don’t know why everyone on Yelp hates on this place…oh wait, I do. Because everyone on Yelp loves to hate on everything.” The bartenders were not rude, as Yelp would have you believe. I didn’t try any food, but it looks like a nice, simple menu. There is nothing wrong with this bar. If anything, it’s too modern and slick for Portland. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, Portland probably needs a cocktail bar that does it right. If I lived in Portland, I’d be there as often as I would be at Novare.  

Once again, Portland didn’t disappoint. While my wintry visit didn’t exactly make me want to move there, it did remind me of everything I love about Portland and, perhaps reluctantly, New England.