Friday, November 30, 2007

Eating out. fondue.

I remember going to a fondue restaurant in Taipei in the 80's, but since everyone looks at me as if I had completely lost my mind I wonder if I imagined it all. I have a vague memory of bread dipped in cheese, a cozy atmosphere, but that was all some twenty years ago and it is possible that it never happened at all. The restaurant in my memory was called something like Swiss Chalet, or Chalet Suisse, something vaguely European but not quite. I suppose the food was vaguely European, but not quite, as well. That was my first experience of fondue. The next experience was at the age of 11, in some small Swiss town where we had stopped after dropping my grandfather off in Geneva (or perhaps it was Lucerne, I can't remember). We stumbled upon a small fondue restaurant with outdoor tables and had a dinner of steak fondue cooked in a pot of bubbling oil; it came with a round platter covered with small dishes of sauces and pickles and other savory little nibbles. (I don't think any fondue has tasted as good since; it belongs to that time and place and can never be duplicated.

People from my parents' generation were into fondue. Like crêpe pans and avocado-green kitchen appliances, fondue pots were one of those things people gave as wedding gifts in the 70's. Or so I have heard. (Some people were given bongs, but that is another story. I know my parents never received one. Perhaps they had the wrong friends). Now fondue is popular again; you can buy fondue sets made of sleek stainless steel or colorful enameled cast-iron that come with color-coordinated skewers and stands that hold the pot over a can of sterno. Or you can go to a restaurant that serves fondue. The Melting Pot is one of these, a chain of restaurants in practically every state coast-to-coast. I have always wanted to try it, and when my mother's friend E. calls me to invite me to dinner there, I leap at the chance.

We head out to the Melting Pot in lower Queen Anne, just south of the Seattle Center. Its proximity to the nearby theaters means that when we arrive at 7 the earlier diners are heading off to see the Nutcracker. (Later, as we are leaving, we see people leaving the ballet, little girls in velvet dresses with frills. I guess nothing has changed since I was eight). We choose the Big Night Out, which promises three kinds of fondue: cheese, to start with, meat and seafood, and - finally - chocolate. A stainless-steel pot sits on a burner in the middle of the table, and presently our server comes by and begins pouring things into the pot: White wine, a mix of gruyère and fontina, shallots, dates, and white truffle oil which is spritzed over the melting cheese with one of those spray cans that people who like to play with their food use for cooking oils or salad dressings. There are chunks of bread and fresh vegetables and crisp Granny Smith apples, perfect with the molten, wine-and-truffle-infused cheese. The main course arrives, a neatly arranged platter of lobster tail (dusted with paprika), chicken (marinated with garlic), pork (in some citrus marinade), and beef (marinated in balsamic). There are all sorts of sauces, creamy and spicy and buttery, and before I know it I have eaten everything on my plate. And it is time for dessert.

At last the chocolate fondue arrives, a raspberry purée swirled in. There are strawberries and banana slices and tiny brownie squares and rice krispy treats and marshmallows. The talk swirls around the table as we muse aloud over how the Swiss fondue is like the Chinese hot pot or Japanese Shabu-shabu. As always we eat our meal while talking about past meals, or dinners yet to come. And I think about perhaps I will come back here again.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pub grub. Quinn's.

It was a dark and stormy night...No, perhaps I should go back a little in my story. For several years now I have been walking by a restaurant called Zöe in Belltown, on the rare occasions I find myself in that trendy neighborhood north of the Pike Place market. There's a Patagonia there, and the Macrina Bakery, and Lampreia, one of our favored restaurants for the past decade. But I hate to find find parking, and there's only street parking or the occasional grungy pay lot, so I avoid Belltown unless I really need another fleece jacket. Occasionally I would peer in the windows of Zöe, glance at the menu posted by the door, but somehow I never quite made it there. (J., foodie extraordinaire, tells me that it is very good). And now I live within walking distance of all kinds of restaurants - Lark and Café Presse and La Spiga and Via Tribunali - and have no need to eat at places which require street parking, my bête noire. Capitol Hill has become gentrified, or worse, yuppified, anchored by a Trader Joe's where Capitol Hill begins to slide down towards Madison Valley, sprawling down the bustling Pike/Pine corridor in a tangle of clubs and pubs and coffee shops as it flows westwards towards Downtown, and then on to the water.

I digress. Some months ago, I began to hear rumblings of a new gastropub - ghastly word, that - to be opened by the husband/wife owners of Zöe. Zöe is named for their daughter; this new pub would be called Quinn's, after their son. Having no sense of direction, I couldn't figure out where it was going to be just by the address. Thank the lord for the internet. I was in Taipei when Quinn's pub opened, and it wasn't until last week that I figured out the Mexican place halfway between home and work had become a sleek new pub. I hadn't noticed it because I had been taking a shortcut to work that took me around the former La Puerta; I had seen the beginning of the renovations and had assumed that it would be another yoga studio or housewares shop. But early reviews were good, and I had only to read the words "wild boar sloppy joe" before my feet were itching to head over there.

When I left work it was already dark and pouring rain. I walk as quickly as possible down the three or four blocks that stand between me and my ultimate goal: Dinner. The bright Mexican restaurant has become a softly lit pub, all dark wood and high windows, with a scattering of small tables and a long bar on the main floor, overlooked by a mezzanine level with more tables upstairs. It is modern and slightly rustic, all at the same time. I ask for a beer and the wild boar sloppy joe, and a side of sautéed spinach. The sloppy joe is dark and savory, spilling from the sesame-seed bun; there is the sharp contrast of some crisply fried sage leaves and onion and one deep-fried hot pepper. The spinach hides the crunch of pine nuts and the sweetness of raisins, perfect against the mineral tang of the leaves, so dark they almost look black in the candlelight. I eat my dinner - I wish the sloppy joe filling was hotter; it seems strangely cold, but tasty nonetheless - and drink my beer and watch the cars outside illuminate the falling rain with their headlights.

I am almost full, but not quite, and I want something else, but not dessert, so I ask for some cheese. There are three kinds of cheese - a sort of Cheddar, a medium-soft cheese whose name I can't remember, and a wedge of softer Chimay. At one side is a scoop of apricot mostarda; another plate holds a heap of Melba toasts. And by Melba toasts, I mean thin golden slices of baguette that have been fried in olive oil (or brushed in oil and toasted, I'm not sure). For some reason my waiter has given me a fork with the cheeses, although perhaps a knife would be more appropriate. Still, the cheese is wonderful - I love the Chimay best of all - with the crisp toasts and the sweet apricot preserves, and I contemplate coming back again just for the cheese. Perhaps with a salad. But there are so many other things to try, and I will have to come back again.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday lazy Sunday.

I woke up this morning with sunlight slipping through the cracks around the blinds. It is a beautiful day, and a mad idea comes to me. I have an errand to run in Belltown; why not walk there and have something to eat beforehand? It's only about a mile and a half (famous last words), and I could use the exercise. With an eye to the cool autumn air I slip on a vest and wrap a scarf around my neck, sling my backpack on, and head out. And it is a perfect day for a long walk, cool but sunny, without anything more than the slightest of breezes. But the Macrina Bakery is farther than I remember, and as I zig-zag across downtown and cut towards Belltown I begin to feel as though I will never get there, and the closer I get, the farther away it seems. But at last I am there, and it is jam-packed as usual, and I write my name and number in my party (1) on the clipboard, and wait my turn. (There are only about twenty-five seats, and it seems like your best bet is to come with a friend, instead of solo or as a group of three or four, or god forbid, five).

There are five stools at the counter, and two couples are seated ahead of me. One lone man is tucking away at his meal, and I resist the urge to tell him to hurry up. (He's very cute, with tousled dark hair and glasses, and when he stands up at last I see he is wearing a turtleneck sweater under a corduroy blazer, and carrying an army-green canvas bag with a red star, probably a souvenir from some Communist country. But right now he is the only thing standing between me and my brunch). It's hard to stand here waiting for a seat whilst all around you people are eating their omelets and smoked salmon-and-scrambled-egg-bialys. The waiter decides not to even attempt to pronounce my name, and as I am standing right there, merely points to my name and asks, "is this you?" (For the record, my name is pronounced Kai - like "hi" - ru - like the "roo" in "kangaroo." It's not that hard. But if you're drunk, you can get away with calling me Kangaroo, like my friend J. used to).

At least when you have to wait for a seat, you have time to peruse the menu and decide on what you want. The wait is only about ten or fifteen minutes, a record for the Macrina (usually it's half an hour), and I have mentally shuffled between the toasted bialy with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, or the waffles, or the french toast, or...ooh! Eggs scrambled with bacon, topped with cheese and served with toast, herb-roasted potatoes, and salad. I order a cappuccino and the egg scramble and settle in with a James Bond novel found at the thrift store. In short order a laden plate slides into view, followed by a small fruit salad. I eat my meal - this is probably one of the best places in Seattle for brunch - and watch the sole chef move around the kitchen, pouring beaten eggs into pans and turning waffles onto plates.

And then it is time for the long walk home.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving days.

All week people have been telling me their Thanksgiving plans, and most people seem to be dreading them. One friend has to drive some four hours in the dark the night before to spend it with an aunt. Another has to fly home and cope with a sister and a fiancé that his parents hate. Someone else tells me how grateful they are that the much-hated daughter-in-law will not be there. Various people have in-laws and siblings and nephews and nieces descending like plagues of locusts. It all reminds me of Sartre's assertion that hell is other people. I wonder why Thanksgiving is so much more difficult - or at least it seems that way to me - than other holidays, and I realize that because all you have to focus on is each other, and the food. Christmas brings the added stress - and distraction - of presents. The Fourth of July means barbecuing outside and splashing around in the pool and, after night falls, fireworks. At Thanksgiving there's just you, your family, and that damn bird.

Yet I think it is my favorite holiday. How can it not be? It is all about the food, and moreover, all about the food I never eat the rest of the year: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy - the gravy is the most important of all - and stuffing. Pie is immaterial, because we never had pie when I was growing up. (Although homemade pumpkin pie is the food of the gods). I wonder if I am more nostalgic about the past, if I imbue it with a warmth and happiness that didn't actually exist, because my own family is an ocean away and I can choose to join friends who have invited me, for a dinner I didn't have to cook. Perhaps things were harder when I had to plan a meal and run to Whole Foods at 9 pm the night before and to the Pike Place Market at rush hour and more stressful when I had to produce dinner in a kitchen shared with my mother who got mad if I talked to her when she was cooking.

D. has invited me, as usual. It is the quietest and smallest holiday dinner I have ever had at her house, thirteen or fourteen people. (The loudest members of the family are traveling in Hong Kong, and when they are here the decibel level is much higher). For the first time everyone is seated at one table (actually, two put together) in the kitchen instead of the usual grownups in the kitchen, kids in the dining room. In the absence of her older sister J. makes the mashed potatoes, standing on a stool to wield the masher (she is eleven). The boys - there are four of them - prefer prime rib to turkey, so we have both. R. brings a vast pan of stuffing; I have made a creamy spinach gratin that T. finishes in her own kitchen two houses away and brings back to the table, the cheesy crust crisp and dark gold against the green-and-white of the spinach and béchamel. The table is quiet - relatively speaking - as everyone makes their way (so to speak) from one end of the table to the other, passing plates back and forth. I thought I had restrained myself rather well. But then it was time for dessert.

T. is bustling around making berry shortcakes. From somewhere pies appear, pumpkin and apple and one very small pecan pie that are all slipped into the oven to warm. I have a warm berry shortcake, a small piece of pumpkin pie, and an even smaller piece of pecan pie. That last bite of pecan pie just about kills me, and I stagger upstairs to collapse on the futon before I can make it to my car and drive home. Another year gone, another Thanksgiving past.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Eating out. Lark.

As always, after a Saturday at work, I head off to Lark as soon as I am done for the day. The bright spot in a long day. (But having to work is not so bad; it is raining outside, and in the lab it is warm and there are snacks. And overtime). It is unspeakably early for dinner, and the room is almost empty. I am settling in and the hostess is just asking me if I have eaten there before when K. (one of the owners, she manages the restaurant with that kind of perfect ease that some people just have) glides up and says "of course she's been here before!" My server for the evening swings by; she remembers me too. Of course, I am young and female and Chinese, and I have eaten here several times, alone, which some people might consider unusual.

The menu has some old favorites and new items, but I wait to hear the specials before I decide. I am momentarily swayed by sautéed Alaska spot prawns (with roe), but as soon as I hear the words "veal cheek" my choice is made. Choosing something to go with it is harder; I flip through the menu before at last zeroing in on the gnudi. I've never had them before, and imagine them to be something like gnocchi. Bread arrives, along with more diners who sit to my left and farther down to my right. There are two kinds of bread: one tangy and dark, with a thick, almost blackened crust, and some slices of the most perfect baguette, the crisp crust yielding to a soft interior that is almost sweet. I prefer the baguette, and wonder if it is from the Columbia City bakery.

The gnudi are ricotta dumplings, a bit like gnocchi, tossed with wilted shreds of dark green chard. There is the gently astringent bite of olives and the sweetness of grapes; it is a perfectly balanced dish with the rich greens against the melting softness of the gnudi. As I eat the dumplings - they are like clouds - I listen to the couple next to me discussing what they should have for dinner. (They have never eaten here before, and it is always interesting to listen to people who have never been here before mull over their choices aloud). I wish there was more gnudi, but I have another course coming. The veal cheek is so tender it falls apart beneath my fork; I set my knife aside because I don't need it. There is a piece of grilled porcini mushroom, a sweet cipollini, some crisp-soft baby carrots. The sauce is so good I mop it up with the remainder of my baguette. I tell K. that if the room hadn't been so full of people I would have licked the bowl, and she laughs.

I usually get the tarte tatin, whichever one is in season, but tonight I have the pear crisp, with finely chopped pecans tossed with the chunks of fruit beneath the crumbly topping, sweet and buttery and warm against the cool vanilla ice cream. Around me people are trying to decide on their orders, or eating their first courses. A table of chic Japanese women chatters away as the last of their group - each more beautiful, more elegant, although all of them are beautiful and elegant - sweeps in, high heels clicking against the floor. It is dinner as theater, and every time I come away enchanted all over again.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Taipei, day 15.

My mother's godmother invites us to dinner, and we meet at a restaurant in the basement of Breeze Center, where we've gone grocery shopping earlier during this trip and where I now remember browsing around with my cousins and trying (unsuccessfully) to talk J. out of horrendous Prada shirt that he insisted on buying, before going off to eat xiao lung bao in one of the basement restaurants. My father's mother died when he was six; I only met my mother's mother once, and she died when I was eight. So Grandma H. is the closest thing I have to a grandmother, along with C., another close family friend who lives on the East coast. (That's a story for another time). Grandpa H. had a bad fall not too long ago, and he looks frailer, but otherwise the same as I remember. They both look as they always will in my memory, as they did in my childhood photographs that I flipped through earlier this afternoon. I am leaving tomorrow, and this is my last dinner in Taipei, my last chance to see them until I come back to Taipei again.

My trip ends the way it began, with a bowl of tangled yellow noodles in a clear pork broth. Taiwanese food. There are pig's feet braised with peanuts and red-cooked pork belly with bamboo shoots and a sort of omelet with pickled radishes, a round golden sun. (In the past two weeks I have eaten enough pig's feet and pork belly to decimate a litter of pigs, enough bamboo shoots to populate a small forest). There is three-cup chicken, so-called because the classic recipe calls for one cup each soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar, with ginger to add depth to the sweet-salty-sour richness of the sauce. A bowl is filled with tiny fried fish with peanuts and a few slices of hot peppers. There are vegetable marrows, tiny ones, cooked simply until soft and melting. It is the kind of cooking common to roadside stands, only served in a coolly modern restaurant in the lower floor of an upscale shopping mall. Fruit arrives, a plate laden with guava and starfruit and honeydew melon and that magenta-skinned fruit with the black-seeded white flesh whose name I can't remember, and the sweetest pale pineapple, but I resist the pudding or sweet taro soup or deep-fried bean-paste-filled dumplings.

Soon I will be home again, and I will think about all the things I ate on this trip, and wonder how I can change the way I eat and cook half a world away. I will buy tofu from that shop in Chinatown and ask K. where she gets that dark reddish brown wild rice and stir-fry my leafy green vegetables with shreds of ginger. And I will try to eat more green vegetables and less meat and more fish and try to braise pork belly in soy sauce with wine and ginger and that yellow rock sugar that melts and thickens the sauce until it is almost like syrup. More likely I will go back to macaroni-and-cheese and croque monsieur and steak and roast chicken, with vegetables as an afterthought. But maybe not.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Taipei, day 14.

For some time now - years, perhaps - my parents have been talking about a small Japanese restaurant they often go to. It started out as a roadside stand kind of place, with an open kitchen and low tables and stools, or so I assume. Usually these places are cheap but this one has restaurant prices. And when you become known to the management they are more willing to serve you things that are weird or rare or expensive, or all of the above. Eventually the roadside stand became a proper restaurant, but I have not been here until tonight. I have been waiting to eat here, and when I heard my mother make plans with A. to have dinner here three days after I return to Seattle, there was no choice except to protest. Loudly. And here we are.

We're late, and my father has already arrived, seated in a bamboo-screened room at the rear of the restaurant. I walk past the tables and the long sushi bar; there cups of hot tea and little dishes of pickled vegetables, and the waiter, who knows my parents well, goes over what he has in mind for tonight's meal. Something light, not too much food, my mom says. The waiter brings chilled saké, and it goes down as easily as cool spring water, without a hint of burn, only a faint lingering warmth. The sashimi arrives, and I am rearranging my chopsticks when W. suddenly yelps and grabs my arm. I turn to look and jump about a foot in the air. The shrimp antennae are still moving, the heads freshly severed from the peeled bodies. And this is just the sashimi platter. There is salad of vegetables - sweet onions, corn (which in Taipei tends to show up in weird places, like on pizza), asparagus, slices of giant prawn. The chu-toro is slightly frozen, and not as good as what I have at home, the only jarring note. The toro in Taipei is never as good as what I find at home, but there is so much other good food that this is a mere quibble.

Three pieces of nigiri are placed in front of me: one piece of flounder, barely singed with a blowtorch, the sweetest uni I have ever tasted, and a slice of raw beef so meltingly tender it is almost like toro, or even foie gras. A custardy white blob, wrapped in a shiso leaf, dipped in a tempura batter, and fried turns out to be some kind of fish bladder. It is the best thing in the entire meal, and it is one of the best meals of the entire trip. There is a chicken wing, deboned and stuffed with fish roe. The abalone is less interesting. A fresh carp, like a giant goldfish, is split open and grilled, needing nothing more than a squeeze of lime, not even a touch of the seasoned salt on the corner of the plate. Tiny green cabbages - like miniature Napa cabbages - are sautéed with dried shrimp the length of my smallest fingernail. We end with a soup of clams and garlic, smelling of the sea, tasting of the sea.

At last dessert arrives, a slice of ripe papaya, some pickled apples and giant Japanese beans over ice. I need nothing more, and I want nothing more.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Taipei, day 13.

E. invites us to lunch, and I find myself at the appointed hour in a bright, airy teppanyaki restaurant. The main room has two teppanyaki griddles, each seating eleven or twelve customers. We take our seats and E. suggests the beef set lunch, and the eating begins. Most of the time, I don't know what I am eating, and some of it is weird, beginning with the tea, which tastes of preserved plums. The chef chatters away, and I have trouble understanding him less because my Chinese is inadequate and more because of the surgical mask he wears, muffling his words. So I am not sure where the salt he is grating (from a large rock) onto our plates comes from - I think from Peru - but as I understand it, it comes from a mine up in some mountains instead of the sea. Ok.

Three large grapes - I think they are grapes - go onto a bamboo-mat-covered dish, which is then covered with a huge metal dome. When I say the grapes were large, I mean roughly the size of a small egg. A Cadbury's creme egg, perhaps. Each grape sprouts a delicate white flower which I cannot identify. But that mystery will have to wait, as we eat our soup, which is sweet with fruit - I think there is pineapple juice, and I may or may not have eaten a piece of what tastes suspiciously like pear - and fragrant with mushrooms, perhaps those white Enoki ones that come vacumn-sealed in plastic back home. There is a piece of toast made of some weird bread; glasses of warm beet juice are poured. That giant grape is soft and warm and infused with the fragrance of that white flower, which tastes like it smells, almost like honeysuckle.

There are some other dishes - a sort of salad, if you could call it that, and the most recognizable item of the day, a single, griddle-steamed white mushroom - and if my own food perplexes me, E's vegetarian lunch is even stranger looking. A lull in the strange foods parade produces some tender white fish and giant prawns. The beef, when it comes, is not steak, but rather, sliced thin, as for sukiyaki or hot-pot. Each slice is briefly cooked on the hot griddle and rolled around a different filling - some kind of cheese on top of a slice of what appears to be seaweed, a shiso leaf spread with what tastes like mustard, a piece of dried mullet roe. (I cannot assume that any identifications I made are correct. Most likely I am wrong).

At last there is fried rice, made with onions and garlic and eggs and bright green scallions, instead of fruit, which is what E. has. The rice is savory and tasty and I would have eaten more, except I am full and there is dessert to come, fruit and black-sesame popcorn (cooked right on the griddle, popped underneath that same gleaming stainless steel dome that covered everything else cooked in front of us) and some kind of sweet soup. E. offers me some of her soup, which has that same ruffly white fungus-mushroom that Taiwanese people like to make sweet soup with, and I barely escape having to eat it.

Like most of the meals I've had over the course of this trip, much has been unrecognizable, some has been just plain weird, but on the whole everything has been incredibly good.