Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seattle! If I have to die eating, may it be here....

Oh, the shame of having a fabulous trip to Seattle and not writing it up while it all fresh in my mind.  Perhaps that’s one way of editing myself, to wait three weeks and see what I still remember.  In my defense, I’ve just spent ten days at the amazing Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) where I immersed myself in my novel-in-progress (which is starting to feel more like a novel and less like a 200-page mess).  There were two days of magical writing, where ideas and sentences flowed like a river, and eight days of the more brutal hard work of pushing, prodding, and hoping—which is a pretty good ratio, I’d say.

Anyway…time to catch up on Seattle, where I went to the AWP conference, the largest gathering of writers in the country.  I believe they’re up to 13,000 of us in this one place.  Thank goodness Seattle was up for the task of absorbing us and making sure we all got enough excellent food and liquor.

I had the first afternoon to explore on my own, and it was oysters all the way:  a wonderful selection of six at Cutters Crabhouse, and then I won’t tell you how many at Elliott’s Oyster House, which was an oyster bar I will dream about for the rest of my days.  Let’s just say, I ordered six, and they were the best oysters I’ve ever had—each unique, each bright, each with lingering mouth-feel and taste.  I may have ordered more after that first six…but how many more will be my little secret!  Perfect wine pairing, and very friendly waiter (everyone in Seattle was super-friendly—buzzed on coffee?).  I didn’t want to ever leave.  I’m sorry to say that I’m pretty sure that west coast oysters are the best.  And this place was so serious about oysters the menu included information about how they were harvested! (For the super-serious, here are my selections: Otter Cove, Penn Cove, Hama Hama, Fanning Bay [can’t read the handwriting!], Eagle Creek, Calm Cove.)

I walked through the Pike Place Market and the surrounding area and truly almost went insane because I wanted to eat EVERYTHING!  It was overwhelming, and I wish I had four stomachs like those lucky cows.  I tried some chowder at Pike Place Chowder, pastry at Piroshky Piorshky, and stared longingly at the ginger beer place, the cheese place, and a thousand other places and produce stands.  I cracked when I found the Copperworks Distillery, and tried a small (honestly, VERY small) sample of gin and bought some interesting-looking, amber tonic (Bradley’s Kina Tonic) that Steve later noticed was featured in the new issue of Imbibe magazine (yes, there’s a magazine for mixologists).

There had to be some space between all this eating, and woman does not live on food alone…she needs books!  I found the deservedly famous Seattle Public Library, which is an architecture wonder and—if the crowds are an indication—a vital part of the fabric of the city.  Seriously, this building is so beautiful and such an incredible showcase for the vibrancy of books that I almost cried as I rode the artsy escalators to the top floor for a fly’s eye view of the city through the glittering glass panels.  Of course I bought a ton of stuff in the gift shop. (See below for some photos I took with my NEW smartphone!!!)

That night, I met up with some fabulous Converse students at the Taphouse Grill, which had about a zillion beers—seriously, out spot at the bar faced a solid and vast wall of beer taps—and then hung out with more Converse folks at Wild Ginger, a Thai and Thai-inspired restaurant that created one of the most perfect appetizers I’ve ever had, which basically was a salmon curry compacted and distilled to its essence, all wrapped up in a banana leaf.  I had made a big production of how I don’t like sharing food and wanted my own…but when I got this dish, it was so incredible that I had to force bites upon other people so they could try it and I could watch their faces when their tastebuds got the hit.  This is why they trusted me when I ordered ginger ice cream for dessert to share, and that, too, was incredible.

Another dinner highlight was Miller’s Guild, located in a hip-happening hotel (not part of the conference hotel selections!) that was also one of Seattle’s oldest buildings (1926).  The restaurant was known for some sort of famous wood grill that looked very fiery and intense.  So I had to get beef—so tender and lush—but the most memorable aspect of this wonderful meal (with another fabulously friendly waiter!) was the cask-aged gin old-fashioned.  Yes, a GIN old-fashioned.  If you’re not up on current mixology experimentation, aging spirits for several weeks in a wooden cask is the new thing—flavor and color is added, and what flavor!  This was about as perfect a drink that could exist.  I was so enamored of it (and knew Steve would want to know everything about it) that the friendly waiter sent over the friendly bartender who answered every question I had—which gin, which bitters, what kind of sugar for the simple syrup.

Did I mention that people were friendly?  And that Seattle actually can be gloriously sunny, and when it is, people are even friendlier?

This might not come as a shock to you, dear reader, but it was a shock to me that I felt sick on Friday night, something sudden and drastic.  And—brace yourself—I HAD TO MISS A MEAL!* The horror, the horror.  But I hear that the Purple Café and Wine Bar was wonderful.  Next time (and there will be a next time; despite my extended stay due to weather, I am not done with Seattle).

Caution prevailed food-wise the next day, Saturday, which almost broke my heart.

And then the gods intervened in the form of a snowstorm in Washington that delayed my Sunday flight until Tuesday.  And, lucky for me, I was stranded with a DC friend who also had not had her fill of Seattle!

Sunday morning, I jumped back on the food wagon with a wonderful breakfast at the bar of Lola, a happening breakfast/brunch spot with an hour long wait, unless you lucked into a seat at the bar, as I instantly did (as if the food gods felt sorry for my prolonged compromised state).  Awesome bloody marys, and the bartender was pouring them out at a rate of about one every two minutes.

I walked to the Seattle art museum and took a guided tour of the Joan Miro exhibit which was informative.  I liked the museum overall, especially a wild and wonderful exhibit of African art.

My friend and I taxied up to the Capitol Hill area for drinks and dinner, and what a night!  One of the best food experiences I’ve ever had.  This was the night of the Oscars (on west coast time, remember) so there were no crowds, which made for a pleasant evening. First stop:  Tavern Law, a craft cocktail bar, with a thoughtful menu and a—guess what!—friendly bartender (thank you, Michael)!  I had to try a gin drink with egg white, since that’s something you don’t find at most bars (making a drink properly involves much, much, much shaking, which is hard on the arms and rotator cuff), so I had the Lusty Lady, which was delectable without being cloying: Genever gin, cranberry juice (I think…fuzzy notes!), egg white, and something lavender…actual lavender? Lavender simple syrup?  For my second drink, the bartender went off-menu for me, making a drink he had invented that involved—I kid you not—blue cheese tincture and saffron tincture. How does a drink work with blue cheese, you wonder?  Amazingly!  (I mean, as long as you’re a blue cheese fan.)  There was an earthy after-glow that was surprising in a delightful way.  (See Steve’s “Two at the Most” column for more on Tavern Law.)

Alas, we had to get some real food, so we walked to Lark and settled into a wonderful booth and had one of the best meals I’ve had, EVER.  The waiter spoke my language immediatelywhen he came to tell us about the menu and that everything was a “small plate” and that most people got three things.  Three!  Yay!  Exactly what I wanted to hear…though it was hard to pick three.  I decided a focus on fish would make sense, so I started with a yellowtail tuna Carpaccio that was bright and melted on the tongue.  And my friend had heard the char was to die for, so we both got that and if dying is anything like what that char tasted like, sign me up!  (For the super-serious, the dish is actually called:  “Arctic Char with Brussels Sprouts, Smoked Butter, and Rye Salt).  So beyond lovely…lovely times infinity.  (This is where I wish I had been taking notes, but I always find that it’s much more fun to simply eat and enjoy the moment.)  I felt guilty for so much indulgence that I asked the waiter for a vegetable recommendation, and he suggested the Bloomsdale spinach sautéed with Meyer lemon butter.  Any spinach with its own special name had to be something worth checking out, and it, too, was AMAZING!  If I could only have one meal in Seattle, Lark would have to arm-wrestle with oysters at Elliott’s.

On Monday, I walked back up to Capitol Hill, which was an interesting city walk and gave me a stronger feel for the real town, away from the tourist/convention life of downtown.  I came across about 1000 coffee shops and tiny restaurants that were begging me to eat something…more heartbreak as I pressed onward, to The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s (deservedly) famous and amazing bookstore.  I had decided that I would spend as much time as I wanted to, looking at books, reading staff recommendations, and my mission was to buy books by people I didn’t know or know of, books I hadn’t heard about…to just explore and go wherever that led me.  So, two hours and six books later, I emerged as if from a dream.  This is probably the best bookstore I’ve ever been in (I guess if I could only go to one, it would have to arm-wrestle The Strand in New York City), and certainly one of the best bookstore experiences.  (You can read about one of the books I bought and read, The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout, here.) 

For a light lunch, I picked Oddfellows Café, a hipsterish, brunchy vibe in an old, restored Odd Fellows building from the 20s or so.  The salad was…amazing!  And scrambled eggs with cheese on homemade biscuit with homemade strawberry jam was…amazing!  The eggs were such that the cheddar had melded into them, as if into its own form of food product.  So yellow!  And walking back to the hotel, I came across a dog park, so I people/dog-watched in the sun, which is—surprisingly, since I’m not really a dog person—is one of my very favorite city activities.

And the last meal:  Blueacre Seafood, where I had another really excellent salad (lavender-infused goat cheese!) and, of course, finally, SALMON with a brown butter sauce and almonds and dried cherries. Ah, so this is what salmon really can be?  Again, sign me up!  And for dessert, salted caramel pot de crème, so rich and luscious I regret to this day that I had to leave behind two bites.

And off to the airport the next day, sitting on the plane with my friend for entertainment, my amazing book to read, and time to digest it all before hitting DC and snow.

Oh, the AWP conference….right.  That was fabulous too…learned a lot, talked a lot, listened a lot, ended up with a lot of journals, saw a lot of cool people, had a lot of fun doing my four-minute reading of this story.

*Please note that on these extravaganzas I do not typically eat three meals a day.  Otherwise, you’re right, I would explode.  But it was awful to have to miss a planned meal (not to mention the fine company I was supposed to dine with).

Here are some pictures of the public library (uh-oh...I've got a smart phone now, but I'll try not to get out totally out of control):


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.