Culture Food Travel

Asleep in Seattle

Just got back from a lovely trip to Seattle. It was my fourth visit to the gray city, but probably the first time I really had a memorable stay. The difference between this and previous visits is that I was sleep-deprived and burnt out from work — two conditions that make a very unhappy and particularly surly Andrew. Instead of feeling vibrant and thrilled to be someplace other than San Francisco, I wanted nothing more than to sleep for four days, holed up in front of a fire and a good book.

Jeremy and I arrived on a Wednesday. He had reserved a very large suite at the Bacon Mansion Bed & Breakfast, a massive place in a quiet neighborhood of Seattle’s upscale Capitol Hill. My sister and her boyfriend Jody were scheduled to meet us and share the suite. They had flown to Portland from Washington, D.C., and then taken a 1,000+ mile road trip up through Oregon and Washington.

Three things made this trip particularly satisfying: the eating, the drinking, and the people.

The Eating and the Drinking

Wednesday: Once we all got settled, we went to Martin’s Off Madison, a small gay bar lounge. Later we dined at Cascina Spinasse, a new and celebrated restaurant famous for its interpretations of the cuisine of Italy’s Piemonte region. At my unfortunate recommendation, we ordered the menu degustazione, which promised “a family style tasting of every antipasto, primo, and secondo on the menu.” I’ve done this sort of massive feasting in Modena, Italy, but I forgot that it’s a menu designed for hours of eating, not the normal American 60-minute dining experience. The food was uniformly excellent, with remarkable standouts like the trippa con ceci e fegato grosso, a sort of tripe stew with chickpeas and foie gras; insalata russa, with roasted beets, light and tender rabbit, and English peas hand shelled by a young man we could see standing in the kitchen mere feet away; ravioli di bietoline, a beet green ravioli with butter and marjoram; and polpetti di coniglio, or rabbit meatballs wrapped in caul fat and topped with a pinch of delicious pickled horseradish. I also discovered an Italian beer that didn’t suck: Menabrea Birra Bionda.

It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had, right up there with my dinner at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. The problem is that it was entirely too much food for 3 people to try to eat in about 2 hours. We were all on the verge of exploding when we were done, and we still walked out the door with a massive bag of leftovers.

Thursday: Did not sleep well and had a horrible case of the night sweats. So much for rest — at least there was more drink and food. Audrey and Jody took off to do some required tourist things (it was their first trip). Once Jeremy and I shuffled out of the room, we hoofed it through the neighborhood, stopping to appreciate the lovely Cal Anderson Park, with its unusual pools and fountains. We ended up at a corner pub called Quinn’s, with large plate-glass windows and some handsome, cool people sitting inside. We stopped there for drinks, but were pleasantly surprised at the items on their menu. They specialize in Belgian beers (lots of them). We ordered from the lunch menu: clam fritters, fish (rockfish) & chips, and a small mixed green salad. The service is terrific and friendly. I’m very picky about my fish & chips, having tasted some of the best in the world (London, Ireland, and Wellington, New Zealand). Quinn’s was excellent, although the batter could have been a tad crispier on the bottom (it had steamed from sitting on hot chips).

After Quinn’s, Jeremy and I did happy hour at The Lobby Bar, within stone-throwing distance of Quinn’s. Nice place, nice layout.

That evening, we ate at a very touristy place. It was typical of the sort of mass-production seafood joint you’ll find on every pier of every major American city — good prices, average fare, unimaginative preparation, but filling.

Friday: Thursday night, I finally slept well! So well, that I was ready to jump out of bed and have a hearty breakfast. Unfortunately, Bacon Mansion is not in the hearty-breakfast business, so I took off in search of the perfect Seattle breakfast. Nearly a foot-mile later, I discovered Odd Fellows Cafe, which made me — a non-morning person — grateful to be wide awake. Had a terrific mocha, followed by a delicious bowl of seasonal fruit with honey, mint, and almonds. As my main, I had the breakfast panini, with eggs, bacon, provolone, and tomato. Jeremy had the baked eggs with country ham, gruyere, and spinach, served in a little black cast-iron skillet. After that meal, I almost bought into the “fuel for the day” cliche.

From Odd Fellows, we made a bee line for Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum, which Audrey and Jody had visited the previous day. I can write a whole separate post on this museum (and probably will), but since I’m focused here on eating and drinking, I’ll just say it’s one of the most moving museum experiences I’ve ever had.

After the museum, my feet were killing me, so we headed back to Bacon, took a nap, and then took a walk through the nearby Volunteer park, which sports a massive, aqua-blue reservoir for Seattle drinking water, their Asian Art Museum, and, most impressively, a functioning water tower that — for free — provides the same gorgeous vistas as the Space Needle. After the tower, Jeremy and I went in search of a neighborhood bar. We walked through beautiful residential neighborhoods, marveling at Seattle’s obsession with complex gardens and its variety of plant life, all packed into small geographic regions. We even found a male and female Monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana, as Jeremy proudly reminded me), fondling one another softly in the front yard of someone’s beautiful home.

We couldn’t find the bar I’d looked up online, so we settled on a place called 22 Doors, which ended up being one of the best accidental stops on our trip. Not only was their food delicious, but the ambience and quality of staff were out of this world. Massive wall of fine liquor, check. Artwork and photography by local artists, check. Cozy outdoor grotto with space heaters that actually keep you toasty, check. Friendly, talkative staff interested in your good time, check. Unusual and way-above-average menu, check.

We had beet salad with goat cheese and two mini burgers with carmelized onions and mozzarella. Their mini burgers are the foodie’s answer to the White Castle slider — compact, non-greasy, and you want more. A little frustrated that we had not been able to locate a fine sushi joint (dinner plans for later that day), we asked our server, Trevor, who surprised and delighted us with his knowledge of not only local sushi, but sushi from his many travels to Tokyo! Finally, an authority on the subject. He recommended three places, Nishino (Frensh fusion), Maneki (traditional), and Shiro’s (chef centered).

Later, we decided on Maneki, but they couldn’t seat us and instead offered us some questionable seats in a nook lorded over by a tall white bartender. The menu seemed uninspired. We got an off vibe about the place and decided to go to Shiro’s instead. The best decision we could have made.

Shiro’s was a fantasyland of exquisitely fresh fish and great service. Itamae Shiro Kashiba served us up right with his omakase chef’s special, which consisted of all the usual suspects, plus a few surprises. Audrey, Jeremy, and I ate two large plates of sushi (one all sashimi, the other all nigiri sushi) and left that terrific restaurant utterly satisfied.

For after dinner drinks, we took Audrey to 22 Doors to see if we could thank Trevor for the recommendation and then just hang for drinks.  We ended up closing the place after a long wonderful stint on the patio talking about movies, travel, politics, and family.  I’ll return to the topic of 22 Doors momentarily.

Saturday: Audrey and Jody flew out that morning, but Jeremy and I were staying for an extra day. We slept in (I was finally getting all the rest I needed). After shuffling out of Bacon, we walked down to Pike Street Fish Fry, which is right across the street from Quinn’s. It’s a small, no-frills joint that serves only a handful of things. Their pulled-pork sandwiches are popular, but we stopped in for the batter-fried halibut and chips.  It wasn’t the best fish & chip experience I’ve had, but I’d go back there in a minute.  The batter was uniformly crisp, the halibut of slightly better than average quality, and their chips were good.  They offer six alternate dipping sauces and have plenty of malt vinegar laying about in well-handled bottles.

We then walked up the street and noticed that a Seattle police precinct was having a block party (!!).  They had a fun array of bomb robots, patrol horses, a woman in a massive bomb-protection suit, kiddie tours for the SWAT truck, some live music, and the hot precinct captain shaking hands and wooing passersby.  Very odd, but all harmless; it arrested my attention.  We stopped in boom noodle, not because there was anything interesting inside, but because they were playing the Red Sox/Dodgers game, tied at 4 in the 8th.  Before Dustin Pedroia’s exciting walkoff hit, I had a beer and Jeremy sipped tea out of a specially engineered Bodum cup.

We stopped again by The Lobby Bar so Jeremy could have a big, girlie Bloody Mary.  He particularly enjoyed the wailing of a local lesbian rocker who set up a little gig in the back of the bar.  I think Jeremy wanted to marry her.

After that, we headed back to 22 Doors, sucked back into it by the power of its people (and food).

The People

Tourist eyes have no blinders, no shutters. People — the same people you’ve left behind — look differently.  They don’t talk the same.  Their smiles are brighter, fueled by embers of authenticity, not by mere rules of the social contract.  Although there are the same cigarette butts in the same chipped and dirty gutters, the same city soot on the same grimy old windows, everything — the composition of it all — seems fresh.  These dirty old things enjoy the rare and special quality of being brand new.

I wrote this during one of our visits to 22 Doors.  Trevor, Angela, John, Anita, Jose, and others we met really made this trip more complete.  It was a trip not only about resting and recharging, it was a trip filled with the sorts of travel surprises that emerge only in the company of very nice people.

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