(Filed from San Francisco, California at 3:15 p.m. on September 20, 1999)
bon vivant \ ban-ve-vant, bo-ve-va \ n. [F, lit., good liver]: a person having cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes esp. in respect to pleasures of the table syn see EPICURE
Okay, I admit it: I love to eat well. If that makes me a bon vivant, an epicure, a flat-out foodie, I'm okay with that -- hey, the description fits me to a T. Since this is my lot in life, I often find myself in one of my three favorite food cities: Seattle, New Orleans or San Francisco (the latter, luckily, where I live). To those of you who would say "huh? New York isn't one of your favorite food cities?" I say this: can you catch gulf shrimp in New York? (you can in New Orleans) can you forage for mushrooms in New York? (you can in Seattle) can you hook a big ol' salmon in the East River? (no, but you can in San Francisco Bay). And while I LOVE NEW YORK, I find myself more often than not in Seattle, eating my way through town and looking for anything else that's new and exciting in the Emerald City. A recent visit went something like this...
(Note: much of the following commentary is taken directly from the writer's notepad)
* * * * *
Thursday: Breakfast at Cafe Campagne. Always my first stop in Seattle -- I love the tables near the entryway since they benefit from their proximity to windows and get good morning light. People walking to and from Pike Place Market. City hustle and bustle -- even in Seattle! Posters of can-can girls on the walls, brass rails, towers of flowers...tres Francais. New breakfast menu: Oeufs a la Lyonnaise consists of two poached eggs atop potatoes that are keeping company with salt cod, caramelized onions (my favorites!) and parmesan. Portion just the right size for breakfast. My sliced baguette is lightly toasted and even more lightly buttered and a slick of raspberry jam makes it absolutely delectable. Chickens are being roasted in the large glass case in front of me and their aroma is heavenly. Paris sans attitude. An ideal start to a Seattle day.
Lunch at Brasserie Margaux. Brooding dark wood is warmed up by seductive orange sconces in this clubby yet inviting room. The banquettes and overstuffed chairs relax the room even more, especially near the front windows with their flood of light. All the talk is about Margaux -- "it's beautiful," "such a chic new spot," "everyone's going there." Well, it certainly looks good here. Yep, chic. Margaux is a bit off the beaten path but this north-of-Belltown corner of town is rapidly developing. An elegant yet lonely-looking woman sits at the bar at the far end of the room -- she's the only one there on this early afternoon. The brasserie menu features "Le Wok du Jour." Sweet and sour duck soup first -- I savor shredded duck which is lightly perfumed by a sweet and sour broth. The Wok du Jour is Italian today, not Asian: I'm presented with clams and calamari tossed in a kicky tomato sauce, all of it over bow tie pasta. So light. The two gentlemen seated behind me sound European and wear plaid jackets as only European men can. Dessert: an individual Valrhona chocolate cake with melted, warm chocolate inside and a petite scoop of raspberry sorbet outside. Perfect. The ruby-red sorbet melts next to the warm cake...
Dinner at Tulio . The decor is Brooks Brothers gone Italian. Chef Walter Pisano's menu is Italian, too, but not traditional, which spells fun for me. This is the dish I must try: Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Sage Butter and Local Chateau Dumas Mascarpone. Assessment: wonderful! The sauce is light and the sweet potato puffs dissolve in my mouth. I could make a meal of these gnocchi -- I'd probably eat fifty of the little guys. I've been hearing about Tulio for years, so why did it take me so long to get here? Perhaps because it looks Brooks, not my usual vibe. The risotto with sea scallops, leeks, basil, orange zest and saffron butter is also light. Saffron, yum. Sensual textures and flavors. Mary, who's joined me this evening, says "this is easy food to eat." A bite of Mary's wood-roasted salmon with braised greens and a spicy tomato sauce is again smooth and sensuous. My lamb sirloin with a balsamic glaze is heartier and warming. Is this Italian country food with a dash of city sophistication? The torte di cioccolata is a chocolate pudding cake with a citrus-caramel sauce. It reminds me of the dessert at lunch...is this a trend? Mary and I fight over the cioccolata so we order another.
Friday: Breakfast at Sazerac. What I love about this place is how easy it is to feel like a star once you walk in the door, even at 9 AM when you haven't had any coffee yet and your eyes are only half open and your hair is all mussed up. It must be the rich purple banquettes which line the wall (and where I always sit). Or maybe it's the whimsical glass orbs which float down from the ceiling and double as light fixtures. Or the open exhibition kitchen which feels so close it's as if everyone were cooking just for you. A yam biscuit with soft scrambled eggs, "Sazy" ham and country gravy. Dee-lish. The Big Dawg (Chef Jan Birnbaum) is such a southern boy...I'm staying a while and reading my newspaper.
Lunch at Andaluca. Talk about colorful, snazzy, sexy. Hand-painted murals, lots of purple and copper and it's all so rich. The lighting is somewhat low, which helps everyone look better -- and these folks already look good. Spanish/Mediterranean fare. The crab tower salad tastes Spanish -- must be the hearts of palm (los palmitos ) mixed in with avocado and crab and topped with a gazpacho salsa. The frisee alongside is wonderfully crunchy. Fresh. The spicy calamari salad is one of the "shareable plates" on the menu and it's addictive. Andaluca is a perennial Seattle "Best" and I'm starting to see why. The chef, Wayne Johnson, is new...is he upholding the already-high standards or setting the bar even higher? His sweet corn risotto is incredible, a melange of roasted tomatoes and baby artichoke hearts alongside creamy rice. The chef smiles a lot, which tells me he's having a good time. Dessert is a fallen chocolate cake next to an almond tuile (cookie) in the shape of a horn. The tuile is stuffed with milk chocolate mousse and sits on a pool of caramel sauce. My friend Stacia and I fight over it, ladylike -- latter-day Grace Kellys at the table.
Dinner at The Georgian . Utterly elegant. Oh yeah, I'm at the Four Seasons. Pinks and soft beiges, tufted chairs, smooth linens, creamy china, sparkling crystal...the chandeliers are huge and yet the room isn't bright enough. This is the kind of place I dreamed of coming to when I was a kid...and now I'm here. A big kid. New chef Gavin Stephenson is a bigger fan of French technique than his predecessor, Kerry Sear, although they're both fans of Northwest ingredients. Julie and Mike finally get here. My morel mushroom ravioli with a chanterelle ragout is smooth and expertly prepared. Mike has the carpaccio of smoked salmon with beluga caviar -- simple, beautiful. Julie eats like a bird. My roast loin of venison sits atop creamy mashed potatoes and there are onions, mushrooms...France and the Northwest fusing beautifully. Julie's grilled tenderloin is in an oxtail and shallot sauce...the sauce reeks of butter yet I revel in every delicious drop. It's Julie's dish but I eat more of it than she does. Julie and Mike are put off by The Georgian's decor and wouldn't come back. I'd return in a heartbeat.
Saturday: Breakfast at Macrina Bakery. It's post-industrial tables (are they concrete?) paired with colorful wooden chairs at this uber-bakery. Thankfully, the light that pours in through the front windows softens the otherwise stark decor. Macrina must have the best bread case in town, an amalgam of muffins and scones and rolls that dazzle the eye. Brunch is a new addition and obviously popular, since the place is packed with Belltown young 'n hip. I sit at the counter, directly behind the tattoed breakfast cook who is busily flipping pancakes and such. Dainty she's not. The cinammon raisin brioche French toast, served with a warm fruit compote and a splotch of creme fraiche, soothe my morning tummy. Three cups, er bowls, of coffee later, I leave.
Lunch at Stars. A beautiful dining room reminiscent of a South Beach hotel, what with gauzy linen drapes floating down from the golden ceiling and yellow and white-striped banquettes swirling about. Some chairs are covered in lime green, tasty enough to eat. My table is near the large picture window and the sunlight is pouring in...there always seems to be sunshine when I come to Seattle, and this city is indeed spectacular in bright light. Jeremiah Tower is no longer involved with Stars but the name, and the fame, live on. My demitasse of gazpacho is flavorful and fresh and a second demi brimming with carrot and ginger soup is graced with anise, a sublime touch. The wood-oven-roasted mussels have a warm and inviting flavor, almost delicate -- a touch of garlic and bits of lemon seem to be doing the trick. Dessert is another star, a hot Valrhona chocolate cake with brandied cherries ice cream. "The Markdown Lunch" is a surprising feature, a choice of soup or salad, the daily special and coffee for a sale price of $12.50. The new Stars? Well, the Ladies Who Lunch are indulging and so would I if I was nearby come the noon hour.
Dinner at Brasa. One very seductive dining room...do I belong? Lights are low, rust and copper tones...the room appears to glow. There's an animated buzz enveloping the servers, guests, yet it's not loud or obtrusive. This is Tamara Murphy's baby, a place of her own at last for the James Beard Award-winning chef. The Argentine beef carpaccio with arugula, Reggiano cheese and white truffle oil is so smooth and the arugula doesn't even bite. Buttermilk fried quail with a soft-cooked quail egg, pancetta, frisee, balsamic. What an intriguing dish, its fresh yet warm flavors pure delicacy on the palate. The day boat scallops with fines herbes, a petite chive cake, a quail egg (a pattern?) and house-cured bacon is another revelation -- smooth, silky, sensual. And there's chocolate on the menu, a warm chocolate torte with hazelnut ice cream. I'm in heaven. I want Tamara Murphy to move to San Francisco.
Sunday: Baseball at Safeco Field. This is the new home of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. Baseball gone fancy, or at least more comfortable than before. There's even artwork here, a symphony (a grand slam?) of translucent bats suspended overhead as you walk through the gates. Safeco also has shiny carts with neat containers holding ketchup, mustard and onions. The carts must be placed every hundred feet or so and a fellow stands sentinel at each one, quickly wiping off any spills made by fans. I see Nestle ice cream sandwiches just like the ones I had as a kid. The hot dog stand is called Rolling Roof Refreshments, in honor of the retractable spectacle overhead. Once in my seat I make the acquaintance of Benjamin, a boy of about ten, who is seated to my left -- he likes the roof best. Another young man, Christopher, is seated next to Benjamin -- glove in hand, Chris is decked out in his Mariners best. Sadly, no fly balls come even close during my watch. I'm sweating in the hot noonday sun -- can this be Seattle, Toto? I buy a (hot) dog at Rolling Roof and slather it with the works, being careful not to spill anything on the cart. The dog is nice and meaty and not artificial-tasting in the least. Best of all is the bun, a chewy hunk of bread flecked with sesame seeds. One has to conclude that there is food for every palate in the jewel of the Northwest, Seattle.
Cafe Campagne (206) 728-2233 breakfast, lunch and dinner; Brasserie Margaux (206) 777-1990 breakfast, lunch and dinner; Tulio (206) 624-5500 breakfast, lunch and dinner; Sazerac (206) 624-7755 breakfast, lunch and dinner; Andaluca (206) 382-6999 breakfast, lunch and dinner; The Georgian (206) 621-7889 breakfast and dinner; Macrina Bakery (206) 448-4032 breakfast and lunch; Stars (206) 264-1112 lunch and dinner; Brasa (206) 728-4220 dinner only; Safeco Field (206) 346-4242 games from April-September.
© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
back to stories index