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.

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!

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.

4 Hard Hats
2 Blue Wigs
1 Hipster
1 Cellphone


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