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.