Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Moose Cafe

Okay, let's get this out of the way first. There is no moose on the menu at the Moose Cafe. There are mooses decorating the place as unobtrusively as a moose can be. There is also semi-pro art decorating the place - the less said about that aspect the better. But these aren't the reasons to end up going to the Moose Cafe - the best breakfast in town is the one for me.

We were visiting the Ballard Farmer's Market one Sunday and thought that beginning the day with a visit to the Moose Cafe was going to be grand. We got there at a slow time, but as usual the place picked up by the time we left. We brought a copy of Deborah Madison's "Local Flavors" cookbook to figure out what we might want to make with the stuff we would get from the market. This of course would prove difficult as we didn't know what was going to be at the market. The owner saw the book and said that she knew people who worked at Madison's restaurant (I'm unclear though, so don't quote me). In any case, she got her copy of another twenty year old book that Madison wrote and we looked through that. I got some ideas of what to do with our tremendous lovage bounty we have.

We've been to the Moose Cafe twice and each time they had Mexican breakfast specialties that were wonderful - chilaquile's one time and another one I can't remember the name since it was in Spanish but involved tortilla's, beans, eggs and chile's with some dashes of homemade hot sauce. I know that moose is not exactly Mexican, but in this case it really works. My wife was disappointed that biscuits and gravy were no longer on the menu (her sole discriminator on the worth of a breakfast restaurant), but her French Toast was very good as well.

Clientele:
4 Cellphones
3 Hard Hats
2 Ironic Wool Caps
1 Blue Wig

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Carnegie's

The psychology of fantastically wealthy robber barons fascinates me. I've only purchased a few hard cover books at full price but one of them was a biography of Rockefeller, and it was worth every cent. My guess is that my interest in these guys is that their wealth allows them to fulfill their character without any constraints - as the Hericlitean quote says "Character is destiny." In most of us, trying to divine one or another's character, such as it is, is hard to disentangle from the quotidian things in our lives that are beyond our control. In other words, when looking at most lives, are we looking at the events that shaped the character with more weight than the inborn character? Not so with the moguls - their freedom to do as they wish allows their character to shine (or more commonly, reek).

The life of Andrew Carnegie more than illustrates this belief. Once known as the richest man in the world, he sold his Carnegie Steel Company to J. P. Morgan for $480 million (I've cribbed these facts from this site) and then devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy. One of the greatest things he did was spend $56 million to build 2,509 libraries throughout the world. It is my guess that only funding massive world-wide vaccinations (which Bill Gates is interested in) and programs to alleviate global hunger can top this in terms of improving the lives of millions. Certainly it is incalculable to determine how many communities and lives have been changed for the better because of the knowledge freely gained from these libraries. I also can imagine my father as he was growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, going to the first Carnegie library built outside those locations like Scotland and Pennsylvania where Carnegie had personal ties.

This brings up a side note. At my last job I worked for a dot-com entrepeneur who was the exact opposite of Carnegie. He would have laughed at Carnegie's quote: "all personal wealth beyond that required to supply the needs of one's family should be regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the community." He was one of the greediest people I've ever known (which isn't saying much as I don't hang around very many of them...), but oddly charismatic and charitable as well. Yes you can be greedy on one hand and charitable on the other - see Bill Gates. But I bring my ex-boss into this discussion because of one of his core hatreds - libraries. I believe it was a philosophical horror to him - that libraries offer their materials for use for free. The notion of the public good being raised by this was not an element of notice for him - but rather the fact that books were not being purchased. I never really got into a discussion about it with him, but my guess is that he identified with the creator who needed to be reimbursed rather than the reader who benefited. But then, he never looked at the really big picture of things - where a society that values education (my ex-boss also loathed teachers - yeah, I didn't understand that one either) and learning will provide libraries, which in a positive feedback loop produces and fosters readers who further the literary careers of those that write the books that end up in the libraries. I also bring my ex-boss into this because his attitude is the one most often associated with capital-mongers and it is remarkable how Carnegie stayed true to his character through his philanthropy.

I believe it is a tribute to Andrew Carnegie that so many of his buildings have remained standing to this day after 100 years. However, few of them are still libraries. The combined social, historical and sometimes architectural significances should make it hard for a community to tear down a former Carnegie library. But then again, the historical Penn Station in New York was razed even though it was a marvel. Bucking this trend, in the Seattle area, the Columbia, Fremont, University, Green Lake and West Seattle libraries are still in their original Carnegie buildings.

Ballard had a Carnegie library on Market Street but it was replaced as a library by another building in 1963. The original building has survived intact - a distinction it shares with a few buildings in Ballard. Currently it houses a French style restaurant appropriately called Carnegie's. I'm glad it's French instead of Scottish (like the real Carnegie), because I don't think I could have handled eating haggis, though the whiskey would be nice.

We went down to Carnegie's on a Tuesday night to celebrate the year-end of school for my wife. We got there about 6:30 and we saw a couple at the bar facing the kitchen (they have an open kitchen against the back wall of the building.). We were greeted by a waiter and shown to a window table in an empty room. The room had very high ceilings and was restored with Victorian decor and trimmings. The room remained empty throughout the evening we were there and soon it was apparent we would be the only diners that evening. While it was nice to have the room to ourselves and pretend we had our grand dining room with servants, it was also sad that this place was not being used as it should by our fellow diners.

The food was excellent. I had coq-au-vin and my wife had a succulent pork dish. We got the prix-fixe specials where you get three dishes for one price. I started with a french onion soup that tasted like it was made in the correct manner with beef stock and slowly braised onions. We finished with the most diverse cheese plate that we've had in Seattle. All in all it was a splendid evening and one we would like to have again - but if it is always that empty, it may take a Carnegie's philanthropy to keep it open.

Imagined Clientele:
4 Cellphones
2 Blue Wigs
0 Hard Hats
0 Ironic Wool Caps

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Yankee Diner

Grandparent food. That is how my wife described the Yankee Diner on the waterfront in Ballard. She said they served meat loaf, fried chicken, roast beef and other "home-cooked" kind of things. She had kept up this description for years whenever I wondered about it. The image that I ended up with was of a cafeteria buffet kinda place where old geezers sit and talk about how Ballard used to be while a gruff waitress called Mabel made pithy wisecracks. I pictured linoleum floors, bright flourescent lights, ceiling fans and flystrips. Of course, this mental picture didn't make me want to visit, so we've avoided it for years.

However, the point of the Ballard Bites project is to visit places in Ballard we normally wouldn't go. Except for the ground-rule that we can't go to the Chinese restaurant that my wife saw a drunk fall out of at 7 in the morning once. So the Yankee Diner was fair game to us. We went on a Monday night, which might not be the best time to get a restaurant at its finest. Well, imagine all my preconceptions being wrong! Huh, who woulda thunk. The Yankee Diner is actually a very well appointed restaurant with a full bar and a deck overlooking the Lake Union approach to the Ballard Locks. The benefit of Monday night was that we got a window seat to a sunny night over the water.

The menu is also more adventurous than I had imagined, but of course heavy on the steak/seafood kinda thing. I had Wild King Salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and my wife had crab/shrimp cakes. The odd thing about my meal was how hot the fish was and how cold the potatoes were. The salmon was tasty though with its lime/chile butter.

We were warned that the Yankee Diner has huge portions, but we really didn't run into that with our dishes, I finished mine and my wife took home a crab cake. All in all, it was a pleasant experience and probably a bit cheaper than the seafood places down the waterfront like Ray's, but not as good in my opinion. However, my wife did get the grandparent thing right - a lady in the brightest pink possible in non-tropical climes came strutting from another part of the restaurant with her walker clearing the way from her birthday party.

Clientele:
4 Blue Wigs
2 Hard Hats
1 Cellphone
0 Ironic Wool Caps

P.S. Don't quite get the name though. Yes, there was a tremendous nautical theme going throughout the restaurant, ala the Yankee Clipper I guess. But this is the Pacific Northwest, not New England and those kinda boats don't really make up the heritage of Salmon Bay and Ballard.

Than Brothers Pho

Sometimes knowledge precedes experience. That is one thing that differentiates us from other animals. We have found ways of translating experience into language and visual records so that others may know of it. But sometimes it is better to experience rather than to learn secondhand. In matters of food and drink, I always thought that this was the case. Words (as the wine "commentary" industry continually shows) fail to convey what it is like to experience tastes. In a similar manner, cooking food from recipes when you have never had the dish before is always a problem - how do you really know how it is supposed to taste, look and feel? This commonly happens in our household and we just gamely do it anyway, scrupulously following the directions and eating whatever comes out.

One of the best dishes I've made in a long time was a Seafood Hot Pot or Pho. I have never had pho - a Vietnamese noodle, meat and broth dish - so I really didn't know much about what I would end up with. Well, it was an incredibly tasty and slurpy meal that I couldn't get enough of. I was looking forward to going to some pho places on my Ballard Bites project so I could get a taste of how the pros do it.

The first one I went to was Than Brothers Pho on Market Street in Downtown Ballard. I had done research on it and found that it had received some very good reviews. The place is in a newish building and has a very busy dinerish feel to it. They really sell only variations on one thing, pho, which is fine with me as long as they do it well. I had a beef pho (with flank steak and round-eye steak). The meals also came with a dish of basil, jalapenos and bean sprouts to put into the soup. I so fervently wish to say it was sublime, but it wasn't. It was meh. I was definitely underwhelmed. The other problem was that after 40 years in the fork/spoon/knife world, my use of chopsticks makes as much sense as a New Guinea aborigine with a GPS. But it seems we were invisible to the restaurant after our pho bowls were dropped off so I couldn't get a utensil better suited to my fumble fingers. I have to imagine that pho can be transcendently good with bursting flavors and smells, like what I cooked, but I'm finding it hard to make the trip to a pho restaurant again if I get another bowl of unremarkability. And by the way, I don't know if this is pho restaurant tradition or not, but note the number of your table. You pay by going up to the cashier and saying what your table number is and he will find your bill. The saving grace of the night was that eating pho is really cheap and filling!

Clientele:
4 Ironic Wool Caps
2 Cellphones
1 Hard Hats
0 Blue Wigs

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Madame K's Pizza Bistro

One of the benefits of locally owned businesses is they can be aware of their location's history. Your local Denny's couldn't care less that it happens to be in oyster harvesting country or the local McDonald's if it happens to be in organic beef territory. Also, beyond food concerns the locale's particular history can provide the restaurant with something unique to offer their customers. In Madame K's case, you can eat pizza in the same building that used to house a brothel. Now of course, most of the buildings in Old Ballard possibly could claim the same status. Madame K's has a small front room and a large back room leading to an outdoor area. In between the two indoor rooms is their kitchen. Flitting back and forth are the ladies of the place - dressed in turn of the century floozie costumes and sometimes attempting to be "in character". God that's gotta get old. It reminds me of the "Office Space" movie where the Jennifer Aniston character has to have certain amount of "flair" on her uniform. In any case, it appears the waitresses do not have to be overboard about it because ours certainly wasn't. At least the theme would help to keep away any fundamentalists.

We ordered the house specialty pizza - a white sauced pizza with artichoke hearts and lotsa garlic. We also added sausage and pepperoncini to make it more delightful. This was a pizza that even had my pizza-challenged wife eager to try again.

It probably should go without saying that once again, the Ballard restaurant secret police notified the gang where we were eating - the place filled up and there was a waiting line when we left. It would be a good idea to try to eat in the back as there is no space for the people to wait so you could have somebody's butt in your face as you're eating your pizza. Mind you, I know that this was a brothel and butts in faces might be considered part of the scheme, but that is one thing I think I'll pass on...

The clientele was overwhelmingly hip and yuppie:

4 Ironic wool caps
3 Cellphones
1 Hard Hat
0 Blue Wigs

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Original Pancake House

There several well known maxims that one should follow, "Never eat at a place called Mom's and don't play poker with a guy named Doc." Well, I would add, "Don't eat in a place that calls itself The Original." Like Dandelion, which we had visited the night before, The Original Pancake House was taking over a building that had sat vacant for a good amount of time - the restaurant McGrath's (not sure of the name but the place would have had skyrocketing Blue Wig scores...) had closed a couple of years ago. When I heard that something associated with breakfast food was going to renovate the place I was very glad.

You see, I've always loved breakfast. French toast, bacon, scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, sausage, bacon, hash browns, Denny's skillets, and bacon are all great things. And I like bacon as well. The benefit of going to church as a teenager with my Mom was that we would go to Perkins afterwards. She knew how to bribe appropriately. In my college years, there was the Hamburg Inn No. 2 where I would have the Reuben Omelet (better than you think!) with home fries. When I worked on the soul bereft east side of Seattle, a little outpost of reality was preserved at Chace's Pancake Corral where the hash brown omelette with tabasco sauce and a side of sour cream made my stomach roar with pleasure.

But there wasn't a place in Ballard that had captured my breakfast buds. Sadly, this place ain't it. The place seems rickety when you walk in, like it still has some remodelling or finishing to be done. Even though there it seemed like they weren't too busy, we still waited a few minutes for a table - apparently on some weekends there are half hour waits.

The room itself has the ambience of a summer camp cafeteria. I was a bit disappointed in not having many "skillet" or omelette choices, but this is a pancake house. I settled on something called like "Larry's special" which was supposed to be a sausage, egg and potato scramble. Well, it was a huge plate of bland nothingness which I had to put a lot of tabasco on to get down. However, the pancakes were about the best I've ever had, along with great maple syrup. My wife's swedish pancakes were very good as well but she could see that it wouldn't be enough food so she ordered some bacon. It came promptly, but the waiter was in a hurry and tripped and it fell all over our table. He came back a few moments later, with, I suspect, the same bacon (but maybe not, restaurants always have piles of bacon ready to serve...).

We were followed yet again by menu dopplegangers. The frat boys at the table next to us ordered Larry's hash thingy and Swedish Pancakes as well. Now that was really, really, really weird. At Dandelion the night before, there are only a few entrees, so two tables ordering the exact same things isn't too weird. But The Original Pancake House has a huge menu. The odds of two tables in two straight visits having the exact same entrees are very slim. I think I'm being followed by the undercover Ballard restaurant police.

Clientele
4 Hard Hats
2 Blue Wigs
1 Hipster
1 Cellphone

Dandelion

Seattle was having a heat wave in late May, in the 80's. We did not want a heavy meal but wanted something refreshing, and probably a bottle of cool white wine as well. We finally decided to go to Dandelion, a small recently opened restaurant by the old Ballard Library. We had seen the empty storefront get refurbished and we were delighted to see that a nice restaurant was going up.

It took us a few months to get there - even my wife's father and his wife had been there before us, though I don't think they have Bud Light... In any case, it was this project that got us there. We walked down in the breezeless heat, making sure that we didn't walk too fast. We got there and there were just two tables occupied - we thought this was strange on a Friday night. However, like every time on this project, we found that everybody was waiting to see where we would be going and came afterwards - all the tables were full in 45 minutes.

The menu was delightfully small (to help narrow our choices and not tax our brains was nice) and varied. Fish, lamb, beef, and a couple of vegetarian dishes. Local and organic foods are the emphasis, which we very much appreciate. The kitchen is open to the rest of the place and adds a nice touch of a bistro feel.

We started with a bowl of chowder and a sublime appetizer of which all I can remember is something salty wrapped around something soft and creamy. Our wine was from France and was nicely chilled during the meal. My wife had seared scallops on greens and I had a great halibut and saffron rice. Perfect portions so that we could also have a great cheese plate afterwards. A wonderful atmosphere and a wonderful meal.

The clientele is restricted to yuppies and hipsters. In fact there was one gentleman two tables down who was of a certain age subsceptible to crises. During the meal, he got up, walked across 24th street and went to his red Porsche. Don't know why, maybe he needed everybody to see that it was his Porsche - "Look at me!". However, we were both very heartened to see that the trophy wife stage of the crisis had not been attained. Though, he could have been talking to his mistress from the Porsche for all I know...

The other weird thing that happened was that the table of ladies next to us had the exact same things we did, except one of them only ate the scallops and not the greens and hence missed a lot of the meal. C'est la vie...

4 Cellphones
1 Ironic Wool Cap
0 Hard Hats
0 Blue Wigs