Category Archives: Dining Out

The four warning signs of faux-fancy cuisine

Traveled to a big tourist city last week. After three days of ghastly airline, airport, and convention center food, I splurged on a fancy hotel restaurant that billed its cuisine as “local” (or at least, “regional”).

What a hideous and expensive mistake.

There are more and more of these tourist-targetting restaurants that serve faux-fancy cuisine. Some executive chef comes in and designs a menu, then leaves. A team of low-end cooks slavishly follow the assembly directions, with no modifications based on the quality of the actual ingredients.

I don’t know what was worse that night — the horribly, flabby, thawed shrimp passed off as local or the beautiful fresh scallops tainted with painted-on high-sodium artificial smoke before being seared in a pan of questionable grease.

Avoid these places like the plague.

The watermelon dish

The watermelon dish

Your first clue is the menu: Each dish has three ingredients that, in juxtaposition, raise the eyebrows rather than whet the palate. Watermelon chunks topped with large balls of goat cheese with a side of onions and orchids, anyone?

The second clue is the dinnerware: Gigantic white plates in weird shapes — rectangular, triangular, trapezoidal. Give me a break.

Sauce overkill

Sauce overkill

The third clue is the sauces: Salty, fatty and so highly flavored with hot pepper, mustard, or spices that they obliterate any flavor that the main dish might ever have had.

Finally, the damning fourth clue: A gluey version of balsamic vinegar zig-zagged artistically over your food and the trapezoidal plate. For dessert, it’s raspberry-balsamic glue for the zig-zag.

The scallop travesty (note balsamic zigzag)

The scallop travesty (note balsamic zigzag)

I wanted to cry — particularly for what must have been delightful scallops before they were poisoned with artificial smoke flavoring.

The next day I set out on the road and found myself in a small rural community. At 12:30 p.m. the downtown burger pub was filled with people drinking like fish (cocktails AND mugs of beer?). I got the basic lunch — a hamburger that could have fed three people, a mountain of fries, and a 24-oz. plastic glass of ice-cold Coca-Cola.

I ate the beef patty (quite good) and the tomato slice (fresh, and local) and had a few sips of Coke. You know what? It was about 10 times better than the previous night’s dinner. And so was the service.

Taking a bite out of food fanatics

Tom and I had an wonderful dinner at Mashiko last night. Hajime Sato, the chef/owner, has transitioned the restaurant to completely sustainable fish, and the sushi has not suffered in the least.

I suspect you would not be able to guess the identity of the fish in the photo; it’s rarely used in sushi.

I didn’t think to snap a picture of the other beautiful dishes Hajime was presenting to us — and was lucky I got the picture of this one before the last bit vanished. So I enjoyed a blog post by Jonathan Bender about Christopher Borrelli’s requestthat foodies stop fetishizing what’s on their plates and putting it on their blogs. Like Borrelli, I rather hope I’m not part of the problem.

San Jose

Spent the weekend in San Jose and was amazed at the difference it makes to be in a 60-degree climate. Lunchtime came and I just sailed out the door of the hotel and went for a three-mile walk. Quite a difference from trying to force myself out the door in the cold, wind, and rain in Seattle.

We had some lovely food on the trip, from breakfast at Il Fornaio (the hotel restaurant) to lunch at Yankee Pier on Santana Row (fresh local oysters, Dungeness crab, and braised chard with shallots). Tonight I re-created the chard at home, and it was fabulous.

And then there was the sushi boat that Seth and Sharon ordered:

Uneven Italian food

Two or three years ago a large destination restaurant appeared in our neighborhood. Well, it didn’t just apppear: It replace some of those quaint quirky little shops you get in an old Seattle neighborhood — the ones that you always mean to go into but never quite get around to investigating. They included a lawnmower sharpening place, a piano store that never seemed to be open, and a pottery studio and classroom that all the local moms and kids adored.

Now it’s a handsome Italian ristorante (not a trattoria) with a cafe so authentic that whenever I step in there I swear I’m back in Italy.

Back in Italy? Yes, this is going to be one of those blog posts by someone who lived in a foreign country for a year and now thinks she knows what authentic regional food is like. I’m prepared to take that stance and defend it. Read on.

The Scholarly Gentleman and I hadn’t rushed over to try out Picolino because we were afraid of being lynched by our neighbors. Picolino not only eradicated the pottery studio and gobbled up a half-block of storefronts that a local landowner had left as “reasonable rent” properties in her will, it created a lot of noise and traffic. Picolino’s enormous outdoor summer dining area is about 15 feet from the windows of the house next door. It has no dedicated parking. To say that the residential neighbors (who fought the place at every stage in construction) are unhappy would be to vastly understate the situation. They hold a grudge that is virtually Sicilian.

We were on our way into downtown Ballard for pizza when the Scholarly Gentleman suggested that we try Picolino. It was mid-week, and just 6 p.m., so it wasn’t crowded. Here are our observations:

• The service is good; not just good, but intelligent. The server quickly adjusted his suggestions and recommendations when he realized I was familiar with Italian food. He gets huge points for setting the grated cheese next to the serving of pasta carbonara, at a distance from my serving of pasta Puttanesca. A Puttanesca has anchovies, and Italians don’t put cheese on dishes that have fish.

• The focaccia is the best I’ve had since leaving Genoa. Genoa is where focaccia originated, so that’s saying a lot. Not only does Picolino have a great focaccia recipe, they are using a buttery olive oil that is just the way Genovese olive oils taste.

• The appetizer we selected, fritto misto, was tasty but odd in a few ways: The first was that since it was completely calamari, there was nothing misto (mixed) about it. (Fritto misto is a coastal Italian dish of tiny squid, tiny fish, and tiny shell-on shrimp.) The squid was fresh and tender and the batter used for the frying was delicious. But it was also a heavy batter with a lot of oil attached. And the portion was enormous. And did I mention that the aioli was not a delicate mayonnaise with garlic, but was a pinkish glob heavily flavored with smokey chipotle? All these were warning signals for what happened with our pasta dishes.

• The SG’s spaghetti carbonara was like nothing I ever tasted in Italy. It had large, postage-stamp-shaped pieces of pancetta (ham) rather than the tiny chunks of pancetta I’d expected. There was little evidence of the eggs that are usually scrambled directly into the hot pasta. Instead, there was a thick, unbelievably rich cheese sauce. The first few tastes were delicious, but quickly became cloyingly. We took half the (again, enormous) serving home in a box; heated up the next day, it exuded about four tablespoons of oil. Scary.

• My Puttanesca was a disappointment. I use Puttanescas (and Arrabiatas) as a measure of the quality of an Italian restaurant. They are quickly assembled, and depend almost entirely on the quality of the ingredients and, for the Puttanesca, on the balance between the ingredients (capers, kalamata-type olives, anchovies, garlic, hot pepper flavoring, and tomatoes). One taste of the dish told me that the anchovies were either missing or negligible. The olives, on the other hand, were big and bitter, and barely chopped up. The capers, which are often chopped, were whole, meaning that they didn’t lend much character to the sauce unless you bit down on one. Overall, this was a tomato sauce with bitter olives in it. It was also odd to find such a bold sauce paired with a thin spaghetti — that type of pasta is usually reserved for children’s food or delicate sauces.

I’m willing to try Picolino again, with a larger group, to see if they do other dishes better. It’s possible we just made some unfortunate choices. And I’ve got to have more of that focaccia.