A Hodgepodge of Food Highlights for 2011, Seattle and Beyond
1. Passport to Pleasure is a new column I kicked off during this year. Whether for a day or a getaway, I check out restaurants and romantic things to do in a hedonistic quest for great food and good times for two. It’s a nibbles to naughtiness thing. I took on a few Seattle neighborhoods (Queen Anne, Wallingford, Ballard, and a part of downtown) as well as some escapes from Seattle: Yakima Valley, Orcas Island (two parts), Portland, San Francisco, Whistler, and a street in Vancouver. (And if that’s not enough about Vancouver, how about these three reports? Plus, Passports about Victoria and Tofino are coming soon.)
2. On the topic of romantic getaways, I enjoyed a chance to check out the much-heralded Willows Inn on Lummi Island. But this was no ordinary stay, as I was there to work with Chef Blaine Wetzel in bringing my Sexy Feast column to life by leading a Sexy Feast dinner for the entire dining room. While I was walking participants through the sexual messages of each course in the meal, I was also amazed by Wetzel’s food. The creativity of his cooking (and plating) is something special, making me understand why The New York Times named Willows Inn one of the world’s “ten restaurants worth a plane ride.”
3. Japan’s earthquake(s) and tsunami forced postponement of my trip to Tokyo. (The devastating disaster hit just over nine months ago, and while the story has basically slid off the news here in the States, Japan is still in turmoil.) But with every crisis comes opportunity, so my partner and I reversed plans, moving forward our trip to Europe and delaying Japan until 2012. This resulted in a wonderful week-long stay in Ghent (Belgium), a four-day culinary tour through the Walloon Region of the country, and then a four-day feeding frenzy in Paris. I love our food scene in Seattle. But Belgium is fantastic. (Think chocolate, cheese, charcuterie, and more—as well as beer, of course!) And Paris dished up amazing experiences, including what was probably the best single day of eating in my life.
4. Despite a postponed trip, there was no lack of Japanese food for me this year. I continued my ramen-quest, which culminated in the cover story in the current issue of Northwest Palate magazine. It features ramen restaurants in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver. Concerns about cholesterol couldn’t keep me away from a good bowl of ramen! That wasn’t the end of the noodle-eating, though, as I ate more ramen and different Japanese noodles (plus some other Asian noodles) for the cover story of the next issue of IBUKI magazine. Look for that to hit newsstands in Japanese-centric places (like Uwajimaya) starting next week.
5. Speaking of Japanese food, I helped out in planning part of Andrew Zimmern’s itinerary when he visited Seattle this summer to do a Bizarre Foods episode. I met up with him at Maneki restaurant, where owner Jean Nakayama prepared a menu of slimy foods, including ika no shiokara (fermented fish guts). Delicious! The episode is scheduled to air in January.
6. There was plenty of other Asian food to be found in the past year’s eating itinerary. I’m a bit concerned that many of the new Asian restaurants focus on cocktails more than the quality of their cuisine, so I’m fussy about recommendations. One place that looks promising is Chino’s, in Capitol Hill. (I’m still waiting for their Chinese menudo to jump off the menu and into reality.) As the year comes to a close, I’m excited about the opening of U:Don in the U:District (if you will), as the fresh, in-house noodles are quite good. And this year I discovered Sushi Kappo Tamura, which now shares honors with Kisaku as my most recommended sushi restaurants in Seattle.
7. One of my favorite parts of being a food writer is that I get to attend great culinary events. Even better, I get to serve as a judge at many of them. I find that the ingredient-specific events offer the best quality food, with Lamb Jam and Cochon 555 my favorites. (Sadly, Cochon 555 is not returning to Seattle in 2012.) Guest Chef on the Waterfront is also fabulous, and what better beneficiary than Farestart?
8. With all the new restaurants I get to visit, I’m often frustrated that I’m not enough of a regular anywhere, and that sometimes it’s hard to return to old favorites. This year, though, I was able to get to most of them, including Joule, Crush, Trellis, Canlis, and Cafe Juanita.
9. That said, I’m often asked to pick my favorite new Seattle-area restaurant of the year. It’s typically a tough call, but this year, the honor goes to Altura in Capitol Hill. The chef’s counter is a perfect place to sit, the pasta is divine, the flavor combinations are bold, and the service is appropriately attentive. If you haven’t ever indulged in the pleasure of a tasting menu, this is a great place to try one. Go, before it gets too crowded.
10. As for sweet endings, this was almost a cupcake-free year, though I did get to one place and wrote about what makes cupcakes sexy. Like many, my focus this year was more on pie, with A la Mode Pies serving up some of the best. While we’re on the topic of “mode,” I still like D’Ambrosio’s pistachio gelato as my favorite frozen treat in the city. And in Queen Anne, Café de Lion opened, closed, and then reopened (to the delight of its fans, including me). The Japanese-style desserts have quite a following (don’t wait until the end of the day to shop, as you’ll miss out), and the coffee is quite good. As we start winter, I’m already looking forward to a warm day next year when I’ll go back for some of the best iced coffee I’ve ever tried. That, and much more, surely await in 2012.