Sunday, December 30, 2007

Breakfast. bacon.

I woke up, reluctantly, but with one thought firmly in my mind: crepes. Ham and cheese, to be precise. And a mocha. (An indulgence saved for the occasional Sunday). I bundle into my most pajama-like clothes (fleece hoody and sweats, all black, so I look like an untidy sort of ninja) and out the door, down the hill to the Essential Bakery. There are plenty of open parking spaces; the bakery is nearly empty. Only a few other tables are occupied, and there is no line. Everyone has left town for the holiday weekend, and I am too early for the brunch crowd.

I had been hoping for a ham-and-Gruyére crêpe, but time has passed and the seasons have changed; now they have a bacon-and Swiss crêpe instead. I order my crêpe and a mocha and buy a loaf of bread, stumbling over the pronunciation of pugliese. (Later I will slice some for lunch, to eat with a smoked-salmon spread; it has a crisp, chewy crust and a soft interior that has a faintly sour tang to it). The guy at the counter tells me that he hears all sorts of variations on the word; he goes with an approximation of the Italian pronunciation.

My mocha comes in a big cup, the white foam swirled with a coffee-colored leaf. I drink these rarely, a treat saved for Sundays I have to work. They have the best espresso here, and my mocha has the dark intensity of espresso (but never bitter) smoothed out by chocolate. It wakes me up. I sit back and sip my coffee and wait for my breakfast and read about Bill Bryson's adventures traveling alone around Britain.

The crepe arrives, folded in quarters, sprinkled with chives, and scattered with cracked black pepper. I like eating things wrapped in other things; it is like opening a present to discover something wonderful inside. The crepe is soft and eggy and just crisped around the edges, almost sweet against the mild cheese, the savory bacon, all of it gently spiced by the black pepper. A man walks in, exclaims, It smells fantastic out there! Bacon, comes the reply from behind the counter.

Work is waiting for me; I have to leave. But it is enough that I have this moment to myself before moving on.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Eating out. Lark.

It's not dinner at Lark without each server stopping at my table at least once. J. is the one who greets me, tells me the specials of the day, takes my order and checks on me as I eat my dinner. But various others swoop down to fill my glass, take away empty plates, take my order for the quince tarte tatin, bring me a spoon and fork with which to eat it, and at last, the dessert itself. (Which is presently taken away and replaced by the check). There are five servers at Lark, and they have all come by my table tonight. Plus K., one of the owners, who presides over the room and stops to greet everyone. (Most of the diners tonight seem to be old friends). I tell J. that I saw her at the market a few weekends ago; she tells me that she sometimes works at Matt's in the Market during lunch (during the week, alas, so I won't see her there).

When I arrive, the restaurant is completely empty, except for the staff folding napkins and chatting behind the bar. It is a strange sensation to sit alone at one side of the room and look around at the neatly laid tables, stemware and flatware gleaming in the candlelight. The menu has some subtle changes, some old stand-bys (stand-bys is the wrong word, but you know what I mean). Today the farro is made with black trumpet mushrooms; I've had it with morels or chanterelles. Like everything else on the menu, it changes with the season. But when I eat here alone, I only order from the day's specials. Osso buco.

I order my osso buco and braised carrots and sit back. Diners begin to trickle in, sitting down at the booths across the room or at the tables that run down the middle of the dining area. There is bread, one studded with walnuts, the other plain, with a soft, airy, yet elastic crumb and a perfectly chewy-crisp crust, and sweet butter. (I prefer the one with walnuts). My osso buco arrives, with a tiny knife and fork to assist in liberating the marrow from the bone. The braised veal is tender and richly flavored in its dark sauce, over slender twists of fresh pasta and roasted vegetables (which I can't identify). On another plate I have sweet carrots, all kinds, fat little round ones (roughly the size and shape of a large marble) and elongated pointy ones like baby fingers. Some are soft in their honeyed glaze; others are just on the tender side of crisp, all under a gentle sprinkling of herbs.

The tables are all full by the time I have dessert, a tarte tatin made with quince. It is as good as always, melting fruit over the crunch of a puff-pastry crust, under caramel sauce and ice cream. So far I have tried it with apples, peaches, pears, and pineapple. The pineapple is my favorite, but they are all wonderful. The diners to my left, who have only just ordered and are sipping wine, look on with envy. I almost offer the woman next to me a taste (she is tall and glamorous and model-gorgeous), but decide against it. Their turn will come.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The day after Christmas.

I have the day off. I could go grocery shopping (the contents of my fridge: half - or rather more than half - a roast chicken, one onion, and some leftover Brussels sprouts sautéed with hedgehog mushrooms), or I could go watch National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. I choose grocery shopping. (The movie can wait until another day). Whole Foods is quiet for once, even in the late morning. After the holiday rush they are out of mushrooms, the white buttons, the brown creminis, the big portabellos. Never mind. I buy potatoes, onions, celery, a few carrots. In my mind I have already moved past last night's Christmas dinner, now only a memory.

As usual, I had gone to D.'s house. Like Thanksgiving, it was a small(er) gathering, fourteen people, all of us in the kitchen together. The usual suspects, minus a few. I arrived bearing my cake, a pint of cream (minus the four and a half tablespoons I needed for icing the cake), and two shallow containers of Red Rooster. (D. had made the Red Rooster a few days before and left it in the freezer), and the way she makes it, it turns out to be vodka flavoured with a little orange and cranberry juice). The smell of roast prime rib and caramelized onions filled the air. (When the roast came out of the oven and was placed on the table, I started eating the onions straight from the pan, hot and sweet and spicy with black pepper).

The menu was simple - the prime rib, perfectly rare, a green salad, mashed potatoes, a fruit salad (involving fruit salad, hard-boiled eggs, and Miracle whip - I am not sure of the origins of this dish, but it is strangely addictive), hot rolls (crescents from those cardboard tubes that pop open with a bang), and king crab legs - and there was tons of everything. We ate and ate and ate and then took a break for a movie before returning for dessert. My cake was fragrant with bourbon and rich with figs and nutty and spicy and if it was slightly on the dry side, a dollop of whipped cream (whipped with my new cordless stick blender) was all I needed to make it perfect. I staggered home, stuffed full and laden with presents and collapsed on the sofa.

But that was yesterday. Today I have groceries to buy, a whole week of dinners to plan. I'll mash some potatoes to eat with the leftover roast chicken tonight; I'll make soup with the carcass and the vegetables later on in the week. Another night I'll make fried rice, or mini-cheeseburgers, and with the last of the cheese I can make macaroni and cheese. They are out of bacon (unthinkable!) so I buy a thick slice of ham to chop up for the fried rice and perhaps the macaroni and cheese as well. I buy bread and smoked salmon spread and pâté for lunch; milk and juice and fruit and yogurt. Three bags of groceries later, I am on my way home. Ready for the week ahead.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Baking. cake.

It started with D, when she suggested I bring dessert to dinner on Christmas day. I couldn't make bread pudding - I always make bread pudding, and if no one else is sick of it, I certainly am. I couldn't make brownies - they aren't really dessert, and nor are cookies. Tíramisu seemed wrong. I spent days dithering, until a piece of luck came in the form of the most recent issue of Gourmet magazine. Flipping through the pages yielded a recipe for a fig-pecan-bourbon cake; it looked complicated and time-consuming, but not too much so. I would need dried figs and pecans and bourbon and cake flour, and, of course, a Bundt pan. Most of what I needed I bought at the market, except for cake flour, which I couldn't find anywhere. The perils of eating organic. A note posted in the bulk foods section of my local co-op suggested 3/4 cup pastry flour - which I had bought by mistake - to 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Some quick math brought that to three cups of flour to half a cup of cornstarch, more than enough for my cake. (I think).

I can't remember who taught me to read the recipe through and gather my ingredients together before I begin, or to estimate how long things would take. Usually it takes longer than I expect. What I like about Gourmet is that it tells you "active time" and "start-to-finish time." Certainly it takes me longer to simmer the dried figs until they soften and absorb most of the liquid. (The recipe calls for water, but I use bourbon and water). I am annoyed at the recipe, which merely says "until most of the liquid is absorbed," which is not precise enough for something like a cake, which needs precision. (I am someone who weighs my ingredients if possible, even when making macaroni and cheese).

My eggs are coming to room temperature; the butter is softening in its dish. I have to remind myself to do these things at the start of cooking, instead of in a hurried rush near the end. The flour is sifted into a large bowl, and then measured; I put all my dry ingredients together and the wet ones in another bowl. The figs are not ready, so there is time even for a quick dinner, which I eat standing up, hovering over the stove. The standing mixer is on one counter; the food processor takes up precious space at the other, but I need them both. It is fun to puree the warm figs with bourbon (I taste some - it's good); my food processor is shiny and new and with a few pulses the figs have become a smooth puree. The eggs are beaten with brown sugar and oil until pale and creamy before I add the figs, and then the flour mixture, fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg. As usual, I get flour everywhere.

But there is no time to dwell on the far-reaching mess I have made, because the pecans are just on the verge of burning and I rescue them just in the nick of time. A few more pulses with the food processor and the nuts are ready to be folded into the cake batter; the pan is already buttered and floured (a few bare spots linger, so I pray for the best) and waiting to be filled. And then it all goes into the oven, and I breathe a sigh of relief. It's out of my hands now. The scent of figs and bourbon and toasted pecans fills my kitchen, my apartment. An hour later I take the cake out - it is slightly burnt around the edges, but never mind, I can slice the dark bits off - and let it cool before turning it out on a rack. It is beautiful, dark and rich and fragrant, and I can't wait to taste it.

Two more days to go.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Market day.

I went down to the Pike Place Market this morning. It was raining and there were errands to run, so I took the car. I went shopping first, because it was too early for lunch, wandering through the stalls, buying dried figs and ground cinnamon and nuts. The lady at the spice market laughs at me for writing my grocery list on my forearm. I stopped at our favorite produce stall for hedgehog mushrooms (EVEN BETTER THAN CHANTERELLES! exclaims the sign) and "little green balls of death" (Brussels sprouts) and beautiful deep purple eggplants, tiny ones a little larger than a jumbo egg. I hear two of the people who work there discussing the sweetness of the Satsuma oranges and grab several, all loose skin and glossy dark leaves. The produce joins the other things in my bag and I head to Sur La Table. I need a Bundt pan. (Like the pecans and figs and ground cinnamon, it is for a new recipe I want to try).

Sur La Table is packed with people and kitchen gadgets. I trip over strollers and push past other shoppers to stare, stupefied, at the bewildering array of cake pans, which come in every imaginable shape and size. They are expensive. I give up, as Matt's in the Market opens soon, and head back out into the rain. Ducking into the old market building, I notice the creamery - good, I can get the eggs and heavy cream I will need for my cake here - and spy another kitchen store. I don't know how I've never seen this place in the twenty years I have been coming to this market, but better late than never, I suppose. I find a Bundt pan for much cheaper than those at Sur La Table (although they have the fancy ones, too) and run out the door, arriving at Matt's just as they open.

Again, I am seated at the bar. (This time I don't get carded). I order the seafood chowder and the 'mac and cheez,' and settle back to watch the bartender make Bloody Marys for the lunch crowd. This is the kind of place where the staff gets together before opening and has a drink as they talk about how the day is going to go, and by the time I leave he's made about twenty Bloody Marys. Plus a Virgin one, at which point I ask him, where 's the fun in that? I am drinking orange juice, so I am in no position to criticize. The chowder arrives to distract me from the notion that brunch was invented so people could drink in the morning without being labeled as alcoholics. Th soup is light and creamy without being too rich, filled with chunks of fish and shellfish and altogether extremely good. But I regret it when my macaroni (actually, they are cavatappi, twisty hollow corkscrews of pasta) and cheese arrives, lush and creamy, with a hint of goat - or perhaps sheep, I've never been any good at identifying cheeses - and fine shreds of prosciutto, with the satisfying crunch of breadcrumbs scattered across the top.

I wish I could eat more, but I am full and there is more shopping to be done. I buy cream and eggs and decide against steak for dinner or fish for the night after. (I think I will roast a chicken instead). I still have to go to the bank and the post office and I need a bottle of bourbon and oh dear where did I put the parking garage ticket? But in all it was a successful morning, and I am warm and well fed and I have most of the things I need for my cake. I can hardly wait to get home and unpack my bulging grocery bags.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eating out. Nishino.

It's wet and cold and rainy out, and I'm hungry, and we can't decide where to go for dinner. In the mad dash to the car (again, it's raining) I drop my box of chocolate on the wet pavement and bags of chocolate-covered cherries go everywhere. (In the darkness I almost don't notice my black book - full of notes and phone numbers, but not *those* kind of phone numbers - on the ground and snatch it up just in time). It does not bode well for the evening ahead. But we don't feel like cheeseburgers at Quinn's or pizza at Via Tribunali or pasta at La Spiga or twee little bites at Licorous (and I know better than to suggest Café Presse) and at first we head to downtown and Thai food, which has its own problems, what with the traffic and parking lots that say SORRY, LOT FULL and the multitudes of last-minute shoppers (and I am smug because all my presents are bought if not wrapped) and finally C. says, let's go somewhere that has parking.

Names scroll by in my head as I think of a place to go, like the tumblers in a combination lock as your fingers turn the knob past one number to the next. Anything at University Village will have the same parking problem as downtown, or, god forbid, Bellevue. Nishino, perhaps, in Madison Park. We drive up back the hill as I toss other names in the air - Dinette, but C. doesn't like things on toast; Coastal Kitchen, but it's hard to find parking - but ultimately, I've already made up my mind. Nishino has its own parking lot. And I want Japanese food, even if I don't know it yet. It feels strange to be here without my parents - the still-charming owners don't recognize me alone - but I have eaten there so many times it is still like returning to something familiar.

I order the unagi and the toro and a few different kinds of rolls; I ask for tempura and broiled hamachi collars and miso soup. Hot tea and miso soup warm us, and I am caught off-guard by the soup, which has a deeper, more complex flavor than the kind of miso soup you get in other restaurants or from instant packets bought at the supermarket. The sushi rolls - spicy tuna and house special - are good enough but not particularly interesting; the unagi is spectacular, as usual. They broil the eel just before making the sushi, so it comes to the table still warm and crisp around the edges. As always, the toro is better than anywhere else, like the unagi. One piece per person is just enough, one taste of that wondrously fatty tuna belly to excite the tastebuds, fill the senses.

The tempura is fine, but the grilled hamachi collars are even better, the meat rich and fatty and falling away from the elongated plates of bone with gleaming stretches of skin hiding pockets of unctuous flesh. I wish I could eat more, but I am full. I tell C. that the restaurant is the quietest I've ever seen it, with a handful of tables still open. We turn down dessert, and head out the door. Instead of turning left to the twisting lakeside road that lead to the old house where I grew up, we go straight, straight down Madison. I have been eating at Nishino for a long time, I tell C., since it was an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Carmine. It has been Nishino for twelve years now, and it is always busy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cooking. beef Stroganoff.

Impatience is one of my greater faults. This is apparent as much in the kitchen as it is anywhere else. Another one, as my mother tells me, is my lack of consistency, which is why I am not a chef, because as a chef you have to get it right, perfectly, each time. The combination of impatience and inconsistency has probably lead to the majority of my kitchen disasters (aside from the one involving flaming whiskey). Any cookbook will tell you that cooking requires patience - when you are searing meat, for example, and try to move a steak or a piece of fish too soon, the flesh will tear - and most recipes are tested again and again so that when you try them they will work. The danger, for me, is when I step outside of the recipe and start improvising. Which is, of course, just asking for trouble. It can turn out splendidly, or it can be disastrous, and, because it was an improvisation, it can never be replicated.

I can't remember the first time I had beef Stroganoff, but I remember ordering it at a restaurant high in the Swiss Alps when I was in my early teens. (I don't remember whether it was good or not). Later I would order it at the Kaleenka, a Russian restaurant near the market; it came with a choice of fried potatoes (which is the classic presentation), rice pilaf, or kasha (which I preferred). I have always loved beef Stroganoff, with its rich slices of beef, tender mushrooms, tangy, creamy sauce, and something like noodles or rice to sop up all that lovely sauce. Then the Kaleenka became a French café (bar le jour, café la nuit, Le Pichet calls itself), and I had nowhere to go for beef Stroganoff. The only solution, of course, was to make it myself.

I have never followed a recipe for beef Stroganoff because I only make it for myself, and it is hard to adapt a recipe for four or six for one person. It has never turned out the same way twice, and it is not always successful. Sometimes the beef is too tough or the sauce is too soupy. Sometimes my timing is off and the noodles are soggy by the time everything else is ready. Last night's Stroganoff was a combination of all of the above: tough beef, soupy sauce, slightly underdone onions, and soggy noodles; edible but not far from disaster. Having sliced up enough steak, mushrooms, and onions for two meals, I had a second chance to try again. (Because beef Stroganoff does not reheat well, I divide all the ingredients into two equal, single-serving portions, cooking one and reserving the other, uncooked, in the refrigerator).

This time, I would start making the sauce before dropping the noodles into the boiling water. The beef was briefly browned and seasoned, then placed aside. The thinly sliced onions were sautéed until golden, and then the mushrooms were added. When they started to brown around the edges, I added red wine and let everything simmer until the wine had reduced considerably before returning the beef to the pan. The wine had become a syrupy glaze. A few spoonfuls of sour cream were stirred in, until they melted into the wine and became amalgamated into a creamy, thick sauce. I drained the noodles and tossed them with the sauce-slicked contents of the pan, which always tastes better than just pouring the sauce on top of the noodles. Perfect? Not quite - I could have reduced the sauce even more - but there will be other chances. At least nothing caught on fire.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eating out. Matt's in the Market.

I first heard about Matt's in the Market from my uncle, several years ago. He would tell me about a tiny little restaurant above the Pike Place Market that had a few stools along a bar and no proper kitchen. The chef cooked up his soups and sandwiches on two camp stoves or something like that, and people lined up for ages.Everything came from the market downstairs, fresh produce and meats and seafoods and breads. Later A. would tell me that it was the best place to eat in the market, and I would nod my head and mentally file the idea away. Then the chef/owner expanded his tiny hole-in-the-wall into a light-filled space with about fifteen tables, a counter that overlooked an actual kitchen, and a bar with seven or eight stools. It was time to head out there and try it.

I'm early, having underestimated my own ground speed. The hostess directs me towards the bar, and I scramble up onto one of those bar stools, only to be immediately carded by the bartender. Apparently I look younger than I am. Maybe when I've eaten here a few times I won't need to rummage around in the depths of my bag for ID as soon as I sit down. The two other guys at the bar - one of whom looks barely old enough to drink - seem like regulars, or at least well-known to the bartender, who offers them Bloody Marys. They come "with a snit," a small glass of beer served on the side. I am not sure of the origin of this custom, but it seems to be a Midwestern one. They sit and drink their Bloody Marys and chat with the bartender, who is veering towards middle-age, barrel-chested and bespectacled (in owlish dark rims). I order the sautéed prawns and settle in with my book.

Diners begin to trickle in, and the tables around me fill up. My lunch arrives, three huge shrimp nestled on a bed of vegetables. There are fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts and some kind of squash that has caramelized to a crisp sweetness around the edges. Against the warm sweetness of the vegetables comes the cool sharpness of capers mixed with finely diced roasted red peppers. There is bread on the side, with a small dish of olive oil. Conversations flow around me and I listen in as I eat my meal. This is what I like about eating alone; I can concentrate on my own food, I can engage with other people, I can people-watch, I can stay in my own world or emerge out into the present.

Was it half as good as it looked? asks the bartender as he clears my now-empty plate. Better! I tell him. He hands me the dessert menu. I think of the long walk down to the market (just over a mile) and the even longer walk back (because it will be uphill the entire way) and order the bread pudding, heady with whiskey (or perhaps it is bourbon, I can't remember) and thick with golden raisins. It is a long wait for the bread pudding, for which the bartender apologizes, but it gives me time to eavesdrop some more, to sit and look at all the bottles of scotch and whiskey and bourbon and various liqueurs behind the bar, to look at the rain-streaked windows and down at the market below. I have never seen the market from this height, from the third floor in this building that holds layers of histories in all its shops and cafés and stalls; I can see the sign next to the neon Public Market sign that somehow I've never seen before.

The bread pudding is warm and crunchy around the edges and soft in the middle, with a scoop of ice cream melting on the side. To my right I can see the gleaming new tower that houses the remodeled and expanded Seattle Art Museum, a few blocks away. I'll go there another day. Right now I have my dessert to finish, which seems to take only a moment. I pay my bill and slip out the door, down the stairs and through the market. I see A., who cooked dinner for J.'s surprise birthday party last week, at the seafood stall where he works; I run into the woman who was my server at Lark the last time I ate dinner there, walking swiftly in the other direction. Another day at the market.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Eating out. La Spiga.

I had been thinking of going to Café Presse for dinner, but I ask if C. wants to come along and she gives me a look. (Our last venture there was not successful, at least for her. I suppose when you order your steak frites medium-well and it arrives closer to rare it does not endear you to a place). 611 is voted as being too far. (She is not wearing socks, and it's cold outside). Lark is too fancy, Licorous too fussy. 1200 Bistro went out of business a few weeks ago. Boom Noodle has not opened yet. I went to Quinn's last night. So La Spiga it is. Neither of us have been here for a while - actually, I can't remember the last time I had dinner here - and it feels like returning to something comforting and familiar as the hostess leads us to a table near the rear window. We can see the toy store downstairs and a patio with unlit tiki torches, and the lit windows of my own building in the distance.

Some tables have been moved around; the lounge area is by the front windows instead of in the nook under the stairs, but otherwise it seems as I remember it, cushioned banquettes and plain shelves against raw concrete walls. The overall aura is warm and romantic, but the tables are strategically lit with halogen spotlights so you can actually read your menu. (We must be getting old, eating dinner before 6 pm and grumbling about which restaurants give you enough lighting to see your menu). At last, unable to decide, I order tagliatelle with a wild boar ragú.

A basket of grilled flatbread arrives. It is warm and chewy, densely-textured. Once, when we had dinner here, we sandwiched tissue-thin slices of rosy-pink prosciutto between wedges of this same bread as a first course, but tonight the bread alone is all we need. Our pasta arrives, a lasagne of green noodles and bolognese sauce for C. and the tagliatelle for me. As I eat the slippery noodles in their savory ragú I think about how every time I order wild boar I am somehow...disappointed. No, not disappointed, because it is invariably tasty, but somehow it never seems quite as wild as I expect it to be. It might be any other meat, any other animal.

Then it is time for dessert. The chocolate grappa cake is gone from the menu; C. looks at me as if I had lost my mind when I consider the butternut squash flan, and I am not sure if I like the idea of farro in my apple cake. There is always tíramisu, but then there's always tíramisu; plus the espresso will keep me awake. (Another sign that I have become an old fogey, one step away from yelling at kids to get off my lawn, even though I don't have a lawn). I turn to the panna cotta, which is richer than crême caramel but comes floating on that same pool of caramel sauce. I steal a bite of C.'s pear gelato, which has the faint fragrance of pears - so faint I can't discern it, but she assures me it's there - and has an almost icy texture compared to ice cream, which tends to be creamier. We leave the restaurant and turn our separate ways at the corner; the walk home seems to pass in a flash, as it always does when I am full. (When I'm hungry it seems to take forever). I think about the weekend ahead, about errands that need to be run and what I'll have for lunch tomorrow when I walk down to the Pike Place Market, about the crowds that will fill the streets of downtown. But all that is yet to come.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Eating out. Quinn's.

I stop at Quinn's Pub on my way home, taking a slightly different route that takes me past a huge salon that I'd never noticed before (training ground for another salon, I think) and some sort of restaurant/bar where what looks like a company party is in full swing. The pub has huge glass windows looking into the street, and steam has fogged them so the tables are barely visible in the dimly lighted room beyond. A girl leads me to a table - I told her someone might be joining me later, but I'm not holding my breath - and I think I know what I want (the burger), but the menu seduces me into indecision. Maybe I should have the gnocchi, or the clam chowder.

The waitress notices my indecision, and coaxes me into ordering the gnocchi instead of the burger, as I have already tried the burger. I have a book with me, but it is too dark in here to read it, and I give up after a few pages and turn to watch people walk by outside. The foggy windows look like modern art, streaks of condensation reminding me of some artist (whose name I forget) whose paintings were long drips of paint across canvas (no, not Jackson Pollock). Above my head are light fixtures (they are too cool to be chandeliers) made of giant clusters of light bulbs that cast a warm yellow glow over the room. Tonight it is not busy, or perhaps it gets busier later on in the evening. The hostess paces up and down the room, and it makes me nervous, or at least slightly self-conscious.

The gnocchi are served over a creamy sauce, with a tangle of braised oxtail topped with a crisp round of marrow. I remember Alan Richman writing that removing marrow from a piece of bone involved a procedure so disgusting he would not describe it. The oxtail is intensely rich and meaty against the softness of the gnocchi, and the marrow is so crisp and melting that I could care less how it was removed from its bone. (The couple a little to the left and behind me ask how the marrow is prepared, and I overhear their server telling them that it is dusted with flour and fried). I am sad when it is all gone, because there was not much of it, and I could have eaten more. So I order some cheese.

Tonight's cheese plate has the same Chimay and Wookey Hole Cheddar as the last time, and a new Sally Jackson cheese. Sheep, I think; it's too mild to be goat, but I could be wrong. The accompanying apricot preserves are all the sweetness I need to end my meal; no crême brulée or apple tart or chocolate cake tonight. Perhaps another time. I'll be back soon.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Christmas party.

A few months ago I offered up my apartment for the Christmas party we hold every year at work. In past years it was held at our boss' house, now in the midst of remodeling, or at work, in a space now filled with furniture (due to the remodeling). In a blaze of self-confidence I assured my boss that it would be no problem at all, and went on vacation for two weeks. And then I came home, and reality struck. For weeks I spent my free time moving stacks of books and magazines off windowsills and hanging clothes properly in the closet and shoveling junk mail out of desk drawers. Still-unpacked boxes were wheeled into storage; beds were moved around to open up the space. I called the piano tuner, who spent an afternoon tinkling away and removed a stray cashew nut from inside the piano, most likely a refugee from the last Christmas party we had four years ago, when we still lived in the old house.

It took weeks. Books I would never read again were taken to a used bookstore; I would go in with a few dozen old paperbacks and emerge with...five or six. Leaves were added to the dining table. Two days ago R. and her family arrived with a Christmas tree and miles of twinkling lights. I found our old tree stand in our storage unit - I thought it had been lost in the move - and our ornaments in the back of my closet. These ornaments go back more than twenty years, the painted wooden toys, the beaded butterflies, the tinkly golden bells. It is strange to see them here, and yet not strange, to have a Christmas tree for the first time since I was in college, or perhaps high school. My family won't be here, and I am used to that, but I still feel a pang as I email a picture of the lighted tree to my parents.

Then it is time for the party and I come back to the present. As always, there is a whole roasted pig in the middle of the table. The skin is shatteringly crisp, and every time I walk past I snag a piece and pop it in my mouth. There are platters of cheese and crackers, and a pile of Vietnamese spring rolls, the shrimp glowing pink-orange beneath the translucent white skins. There is a huge salad; at the other end of the table K. warns people that one bowl holds braised beef, and the other holds braised beef tendons. She doesn't want to waste perfectly good beef tendons on people who won't appreciate them. Plates of steamed white buns appear; they are for wrapping around the salty-sweet roast pork. Desserts are piled on the piano, brownies (which I have made with bittersweet chocolate chips) and cookies and a beautiful little bûche de Noël filled with mocha cream.

I bring out the last dessert, a croissant bread pudding just slightly burnt on top. (This oven is unpredictable). But it is rich and creamy and heady with rum, stuffed with raisins. We make fun of J., who has the biggest serving of bread pudding, and discuss amongst ourselves which of us is the pickiest eater. (Not me). Small children - and not so small children - scuffle happily on the floor and on the vast expanse of my pale green sofa. My living room is larger than I had imagined it to be, and I am grateful for the slightly uncomfortable couch of carved Chinese rosewood, which provides extra seating. Grateful for my parents, who passed on all this furniture, grateful that my co-workers and friends and family are all here and apparently enjoying themselves without spilling wine all over my carpet. Now I have only to maintain this unreal tidiness of my home until my parents return in January.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Dessert time. Dilettante.

I have lived in Seattle for over twenty years now, and there are still some places foreign to me, places I have yet to explore. But there are other places and things that are long familiar, that stretch across the distance from my childhood to my present time. Like Dilettante. I remember those silver boxes of chocolates, the lids engraved with Dilettante in a curving, elegant script, a silver rose arching over that last e. Never mind Godiva chocolates in their gold paper or See's Candies in their white boxes. My childhood belonged to Dilettante truffles brought to parties or given as holiday gifts, something rare and elusive. (Perhaps there might also be those dark-chocolate dipped macadamia nuts from Hawaii, those gold-foil-wrapped chocolates crunchy with hazelnut from Ferrero Rocher). Later, much later, there would be truffles and an intense chocolate torte from Fran's (my mother nearly always had one on hand in the freezer), and caramels dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with grey sea salt. There would be honey pecans covered in chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar from Chukar Cherries, another local company. Even later I would discover La Maison du Chocolat, and my life would never be the same after that first taste of their champagne truffles. But Dilettante is my childhood, and always will be.

Not far from where I live now lies the stretch of Broadway, those several blocks of shops and restaurants and cafés and theaters, the area that people mean when they say you know that place, over on Broadway. The sidewalks are decorated with bronze shoe-prints demonstrating complicated dance steps. When I was small I would twirl around, trying to follow the quick one-two-three with an imaginary partner. Later in high school A. and I would go shopping along the avenue, darting into one shop after another in search of the perfect outfit. I remember coming home with a slithery bias-cut skirt of wine-colored satin. I don't think I ever wore it. It was during one of those shopping trips that we slipped into the Dilettante café for a late afternoon snack; I remember eating my bread and pâté and understanding for the first time that you needed the grainy bite of mustard and the sharp, sour crispness of cornichons against the rich unctuousness of the pâté, that taste was about contrast. Perhaps we had cake, too, but I don't remember, and more than a decade would pass before I would return to stand before those glass-fronted counters and gaze at the elaborately frosted cakes cloaked in dark velvety sheets of chocolate.

Several weeks ago we had gone out to dinner. I had just returned from two weeks of Taiwanese cooking interrupted by excursions into Japanese cuisine and was in desperate need of a croque monsieur and onion soup. But all they had by way of dessert was clafoutis and bread pudding and homemade ice cream. We needed cake. In some dim corner of my jet-lag-fogged memory I remembered that the Dilettante café would have cake, and before I could fall asleep on my plate I was sitting before a slice of chocolate cake, all soft layers of cake and rum-flavored frosting. I have to come back again, I thought, and tonight I have. It is impossible to choose between chocolate cakes with raspberry and chocolate cakes with rum and chocolate cakes with walnuts and finally I choose chocolate cake with cherries, a Black Forest cake, and like all their other cakes it is not those dense, rich, fudge-like things served in dainty slices over a puddle of sauces that have dominated our dessert scene for the past decade but rather Cake. And it is exactly what I want.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The birthday dinner.

A. calls me at work. J.'s birthday is approaching, and they are throwing a party for her, a surprise party. I am invited, to take the place of my parents, who live elsewhere for most of the year. These are my mother's friends, and I am more than thirty years younger than all of them. It seems peculiar to most people that I am always happy to join my parents' friends for dinner, but I know the food will be good and the conversation amusing, so after some wrangling over whether I should contribute to the dinner (we cannot agree as to whether it is more embarrassing for them to accept my money, even though I am old enough to be earning my own living, or for me not to contribute) I commit the date to memory, and swear not to breathe a word of the party to the guest of honor. (A week before the party, J. calls me about some trifling matter and I catch myself just before cheerfully telling her I'll see her soon).

The night of the party, and parking is a nightmare. All the guests are told to arrive at 6, as the guest of honor is not to arrive until 6:30. I run the three blocks from the parking garage to A.'s home, and burst into her lobby out of breath. The concierge looks at me like I am insane, but he always does that. Already people have arrived, people who ask me if I remember them, because we meet only rarely. But now I am old enough to remember my mother's friends by name, the one who lives on an island and comes to these gatherings only rarely, and the one who lives in Berkeley and whom I last saw some three or four years ago. C., the friend who lives in Berkeley, has flown up just for tonight, to celebrate J.'s 70th birthday. They have been friends for over fifty years. I hope to have friends like that fifty years from now.

Two white-jacketed chefs are moving around A.'s open kitchen; the air is full of good smells. There is a tray with dips and crackers and bits of toast, but I have my eye on the pale pink veal chops that are being dipped in flour and fried, the enormous salad covered in thin slices of pears and dried cranberries and slivered almonds and slices of goat cheese. The guest of honor is late. She is caught in traffic. But at last she is here, overcome with surprise; everyone has kept the secret. (With great difficulty, as she is on the phone with all of them practically every day). And at last dinner can begin.

A. likes to lay her dishes out on a narrow buffet table so everyone can help themselves; we begin with gnocchi in a sage-butter sauce, that extravagant salad, and an equally colorful array of grilled vegetables. The main course is veal chops over pappardelle barely slicked in some sauce I can't identify, and fillets of cod scattered with finely shaved fennel and the bright, sweet acidity of blood oranges. There is a fluffy rice pilaf shot through with tiny diced carrots, and good bread. Everything came from the Pike Place Market; everything is simple and extraordinarily good. There is a sense of lightness, effortlessness, as there always is chez A. The chef is a good friend, and he knows what he is doing.

For dessert there are chocolate cupcakes instead of birthday cake, and we sit around eating cupcakes and the bright little clementines that decorate the tables. J.'s husband L. has brought his own surprise, retrieved from the car as he slips away on the premise of making sure that they had parked legally. In his courtly way he passes around boxes of chocolate truffles, smaller boxes for the single women, larger ones for couples, each tied with a red ribbon and swathed in tissue. He is thoughtful in that way. I drive home through the quiet streets with my chocolates tucked in my purse; I want to call my mother and tell her about the evening. Soon.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Pub grub. Quinn's. (take two).

C. calls me from work. She's done for the day, and it's time for dinner. I throw on a jacket and head off towards Quinn's Pub, five blocks away through the biting cold. (Yesterday's snow is completely gone, only a memory). It is early, and there are few diners at the bar and the downstairs tables; upstairs is nearly empty. The mezzanine dining area has the same high-backed bench running along the wall, the same tables and chairs of dark wood, the same low, warm lighting that casts a dim, golden glow over everything. As I look around I think about that newspaper article a few weeks ago, describing how a local interior designer had her students play around with their own ideas for the 100-year-old space. I try to envision it any other way, but I cannot. Besides, I'm hungry, and I want to think about the menu.

The menu offers meatball sliders and fish-and-chips and gnocchi with oxtail and pâté and steak frites and the wild boar sloppy joe I had last time and salads and cheesy gougére. There are beers on tap and by the bottle and whiskeys and wines. I want to try everything I see. But all I really want is a cheeseburger, and when C. arrives that is what we both order, one medium-rare, one medium-well. I sit back and wonder if they will be like the steak frites at another restaurant, which has always arrived rare, no matter how it was ordered. Then again, it is so dark in here it would be hard to tell. Perhaps I should bring a flashlight next time. (As we leave, I tell our waiter, "I don't mind not being able to read my menu. But not being able to see my food is a bit ridiculous.").

The smell of toasted buns and grilled beef signals the arrival of our dinner. The burgers are topped with bacon and cheddar, the beef melting against the crisp, almost charred interiors of the bun. There is a small dish of ketchup on the side of my plate, nearly hidden by a vast mountain of french fries, but the burger needs nothing, no ketchup, no lettuce or tomato or onion or mustard to distract from the sweet-salty-soft-crisp contrasts of beef-bun-cheese-bacon. There is the wonderful caramelized taste of meat and bread when it is almost to the point of being burnt, but not quite. The fries are fries - I have never met a fry I didn't like - but this burger is something else. I have not yet finished my dinner before, as usual, I am already plotting the next one.

Reluctant to go back out into the cold, we order dessert, an apple tart that comes hot from the oven. It has a crumbly-textured crust shot through with bits of Cheddar, and the sweetness of the fruit against the crisp savoriness of the crust (is there anything better than cheese that has melted and then browned to a crunchy, salty brittleness that melts on the tongue like a snowflake?) is one of life's great pleasures. Outside it is cold and dark; a week of work and cleaning up my apartment for an upcoming party (another story) lies ahead. But for now we are warm and well fed and happy.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Eating out. Steelhead Diner.

I thought I'd walk down to the Pike Place Market for lunch today. But where should I go? Café Campagne for quiche? Etta's for the tuna sashimi salad? Maxmilien's for the moules marinières? Or perhaps I should go to the Steelhead Diner. Which is where I wind up, walking down Pike Street, across downtown, past shops and restaurants and throngs of holiday shoppers. The market smells of fried dough and roasting meats as I make my way past tiny cafés and souvenir shops and something called the Falafel King. I can't quite remember where the Steelhead Diner is, but the neon sign of a fish signaled that I had found my destination, up the hill from the market proper.

It is early for lunch, and things are quiet. The waiter tucks me into a small table at the far end of the restaurant, an L-shaped space with a counter that looks into the open kitchen, another long counter down the middle of one leg of the room, and another long bar facing that. There are booths and tables along the other leg of the room, some facing the windows that look over the market and the water beyond. I have my back to the wall, looking over the rest of room, a small window into the kitchen giving a glimpse of white-hatted chefs. I sit back and count the fishing flies that decorate the stretch of booths facing me and think about my lunch.

There are so many things to choose from - should I have the crab cake, which we had last time, or a sandwich? Fried chicken or grilled fish or salad or the caviar pie? At last I settle for the razor clam chowder and the petrale sole; the chowder is light and creamy and rich with the scent of bacon. The bread is the same as last time, something studded with all sorts of grains and seeds, and another bread swirled with cheese and herbs, and I still don't like either. I suppose the past decade of crusty rustic loaves has spoiled me for any other kind of bread.

The fish is simply cooked with lemon and capers, piccata-style, the fish lightly floured and fried before being sprinkled with pine nuts and the lemony sauce. I drink my pomegranate lemonade - sweet and tart and a clear ruby in color - and eat my fish and watch a stream of diners flow in. (It is now closer to the time that normal people eat lunch). It is all extremely tasty, and before I know it the plate is empty. And then I order dessert. (I did walk all the way here, and will be walking all the way back. Uphill). Should it be cake? Or a tart? Or the brownie sundae?

I have the pumpkin crême brulée. It comes with with a piece of praline, the sugar crust a deep gold. The custard is like pumpkin pie filling, only lighter in taste and texture, sweet and spicy against the almost-bitter burnt sugar. I walk out into the cold as if I were floating on air. And then, as I head homewards, it begins to snow, giant flakes the size of a fingernail drifting swiftly down until everything is dusted with white. Including me. I walk in the front door completely covered in snow - I had left three hours earlier wearing all black, and return frosted white - and my doorman laughs at the sight of me.