Category Archives: Organic Friendly

Lunchbox Laboratory

Repeatable: Yes. Visits: 2

Lunchbox Lab burgers and fixin's

Anyone who likes playing with their food will love Ballard’s Lunchbox Laboratory, where you can tailor a burger’s patty and condiments from the ground up. The menu of options is dizzying. For the patty: beef, “dork” (duck and pork), lamb, churken (chicken and turkey). For the rest of it: condiments from the usual (lettuce, tomato, bacon, onions) to the exotic (truffles, half a dozen cheeses, and doctored ketchups and mustards). There seems to be only one type of bun, a fluffy, glossy brioche-like pillow that happily cushions whatever artery-clogging pile of ingredients is placed upon it. The bun gamely holds together until the first bite, when it collapses and pretty much everything starts dripping out, all gooey and luscious. Yes, the burgers are damn good. They’re also damn greasy. (They’re not cheap, either. A special–burger, fries, drink–will set you back at least $14).

Folks who love this place really love this place–like my husband, who has shortened his life span by a couple years in a two-week span by visiting half a dozen times. Not exactly a compulsive type, I could understand the Lab’s appeal after one visit. The tiny storefront is long on atmosphere: The hand-scrawled chalkboard menu, kitschy lunchbox collection, drinks  in laboratory beakers, and ubiquitous patina of grease all conspire to conjure up a mod American diner. The only things missing are the swiveling stools and Formica countertops–which may happen once Lunchbox relocates, as the chalkboard outside helpfully announces.

The details here are worth calling out: Sweet potato fries and tater tots can be showered with a choice of gourmet salts and seasonings; shakes can be vanilla or “special,” like the Pina Colada, with its snowglobe storm of coconut bits. I love a good shake, which is why I’ll be coming again. As long as I’m in the neighborhood, I may have a burger as well.

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Filed under Burgers, Casual, Organic Friendly

Sutra

Repeatable: Yes for veggies; maybe for omnis. Visits: 1

Sutra's beans, cashew cream, and carrots with fried sage

Sutra's beans, cashew cream, and carrots with fried sage

There are two types of vegetarian restaurants: the ones that lavish their efforts on eaters seriously smitten with vegetables and the ones that want to cater to meat-eaters too. The differences between them aren’t readily apparent unless you’ve been a vegetarian for a significant length of time. As a recidivist vegetarian (these spells can last for years) with many hard-core veggie friends, let me assure you that there are indeed differences. Most of Seattle’s vegetarian restaurants target an omnivorous audience, with menus full of pasta, pizza, bread and various forms of tofu coyly pretending to be meat.

Wallingford’s tiny Sutra, however, doesn’t play that game. No soy-carb fillers distract from the main show here: Vegetables, in all their lively glory, sometimes wild and foraged, always organic and seasonal. Three thoughts kept recurring during dinner as I scraped my plate clean: ” 1) Hallelujah! 2) Finally. 3) Yum.”

There was another thought too: “$33 for a four courses? What a steal!” With ingredients as pristine as the ones offered here, Sutra’s dinner provides amazing value. If I lived within 10 blocks of this place, I’d walk here for dinner every week.

Chef Colin, a whippet-thin man with yogic calmness, introduces the meal, explaining the ingredients and concluding with a brief statement of gratitude and awareness. I thought this prelude was low-key, brief, and appropriate–and quite frankly, I barely noticed that a gong was used, though every other reviewer in town fixated upon it.

We started with the generously sized celery root-roasted beet Napolean, a composed pile of sliced root vegetables given interest and tang by sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, capers, and an amazing wild nettle pesto I wanted to cram into my mouth by the spoonful. Nettles are extremely earthy, like bracken fiddlehead ferns, which taste extremely meaty and earthy, a bit like mushrooms.

The second course was a savory, intense tangle of braised winter greens and fresh watercress with slices of tangelos and crisp Jerusalem artichoke chips, dressed with olive oil and a balsamic reduction. Mmmmm.

The smoked great White Northern beans of the third course had a beautiful musky flavor that was complemented by a silky puddle of Hedgehog mushroom-cashew cream sauce. I loved the crunch of the roasted whole baby carrots and the crisp of the fried sage, too. The arrangement would have been perfect had the beans not been a tad undercooked. Still, I managed to eat most of them–even though I regretted their malodorous reminders several hours later.

Dessert was chewy circle of coconut-date-basil macaroon, topped with a local honey sorbet. I’m pretty sure the macaroon was raw–I don’t mean that it was undercooked, but that it was a purposefully uncooked formed dessert, which are quite popular among raw vegetarians (the various kinds: ovo-lacto (eat milk and egg); vegan (no animal or insect products); raw (no vegetables processed or heated above 116 degrees). Quite frankly, I didn’t care if it was cooked or not–it was delicious. But anyone expecting a traditional tart would have been utterly nonplussed by this chewy brown composition, which more closely resembled a chewy fat cookie.

If you decide to visit Sutra and have never really eaten much vegetarian fare before, please keep in mind that context is important. You wouldn’t judge a sushi restaurant by your understanding of a steakhouse, would you? So a vegetable that would be considered undercooked in a steakhouse is probably supposed to be that way in a place like Sutra (except for beans. Beans, like rice, should NEVER be al dente. We’re talking basic digestion issues here, folks.)

If flavors are too intense or too mild–well, sometimes that’s how ingredients actually taste (think of raw garlic). A great vegetarian chef understands how ingredients relate to each other and composes a dish that achieves a balance between loud and quiet flavors, acid and cream, crunch and goo. Chef Colin is still a young guy. The longer he cooks like this, the better Sutra’s going to get. His food was clean and pure, practically thrumming with positive intent and boundless energy.

So maybe I sound like I’ve drunk some of Sutra’s ginger-lemon Kool-Aid. I did. And I’ll do it again. (BTW, the ginger-lemon tonic is QUITE intense. Add some of the super-filtered house water to tone it down for personal tastes, and you’ll be very happy with it.)

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Spur Gastropub

Repeatable: Yes! Visits: 2+

Spur's addictive deep-fried hominy

Spur's dangerously addictive deep-fried hominy

Forget what you’ve heard about Spur, because most of it isn’t accurate. Here are some of the myths circulating out there:

1) That it does molecular gastronomy, like Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, so the food is pretty whacked out and weird.
2) That because it does molecular gastronomy, it will only appeal to food snobs, culinary daredevils, or Belltown bar-hoppers too drunk to notice what they’re eating.
3) That real men won’t eat there, because the food is pretty whacked out and weird.

First, let’s dispense with the myth that it specializes in molecular gastronomy. Would you call a restaurant serving ice cream on its dessert menu an ice cream shop? Or insist that a restaurant with a foie gras appetizer must be classically French?

So it stands to reason that a restaurant offering a bit of parmesan foam here and a flavor bubble there isn’t necessarily a temple of molecular gastronomy. Said restaurant, however, just might be steered by two chefs–Brian McCracken and Dana Tough–who are keeping abreast of the latest cutting-edge techniques and deploying them with intelligence, daring, and wit.

It’s not the HOW that matters at Spur, but the WHAT–the end result, the  food, which is some of the most deliciously original, creative, and likable fare I’ve had the pleasure of eating in Seattle in recent memory.

Consider the humble deep-fried hominy, for example, Spur’s complimentary amuse bouche (or bar snack). Hominy is dried corn kernels, soaked in lye with the hulls removed. Hardly anyone eats it anymore. Except at Spur, where it has been deep-fried into an addictive golden crackle. “The most amazing corn-nuts ever,” exclaimed by my husband. I single out those corn nuts because they embody Spur’s refreshing approach to cooking. Take a common ingredient, like corn, and make us appreciate it anew.

That’s what the widely (and justly) lauded tagliatelle ($14) with sous vide duck egg, oyster mushroom, and Parmesan foam does: Startle us into appreciating its separate components of noodle, egg, and cheese. At heart, it’s comfort food–a linguini carbonara really–but comfort food made by someone who can chew gum and talk at the same time.

Want a burger? Then try the pork belly sliders with diced apple and mustard bourbon sauce ($12). Really crave beef? Take a chance on the Ostrich burger ($15). It has the full robust meaty flavor similar to cow with none of the cholesterol (there’s a skirt steak for those who absolutely must, for $24). Of course you can get fries here–Spur is a bar, after all. The hand-made jojos, drizzled with smoked olive oil, will make you wonder why everyone else doesn’t deep-fry fingerling potatoes. (Because they can’t. Spur really knows how to fry, in addition to everything else.)

My only gripe is a paltry one: that the menu is too brief at a dozen items. We sampled half the options in one visit, and everything was fantastic, including the fried potato dumplings ($9; imagine a tater tot with a creamy knish-like interior) and Sockeye salmon crostini ($9; delicious but the least original item on the menu). Thrilled by the unexpected success of our meal, we tried three desserts too: Sarsaparilla sorbet with vanilla bubbles ($6, refreshing and light); “Corn Flakes” ($6, pastry flakes with straight milk ice cream); and the caramel apple mille feuille ($11; with pistachios and a layer of foie gras in the pastry; just forget it’s foie gras and you’ll swear it’s a nut butter). We finished every bite of our 8-course meal.

Spur is perfectly named: It’s an agent of change, a kick in the pants to the local dining scene, where gastronomical innovation sometimes means changing the dining room setup. But forget those cumbersome platters, gritty communal tables, secret “underground” restaurants, and silly paintbrushes in sauces–they’re trying way too hard. Instead, look for a kitchen that’s cooking with heart, gut, and head in the right place—and having fun in the process. The guys are Spur are doing just that–and doing a damn fine job of it.
Spur Gastropub on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Casual, Northwest, Organic Friendly, Pub Fare

Art of the Table

Repeatable: Yes! Visits:1

Every now and then comes a man who turns the status quo on its ear by promising change and delivering a difference, a man who inspires hope in humanity–and in the state of our collective tastebuds.  Last Thursday night, that man was Dustin Ronspies, chef-owner of Wallingford’s Art of the Table.

OK, so he’s not the second coming or even Obama, but he’s a much-needed breath of fresh air in the Seattle dining scene.

Having been to way too many overly hyped new restaurants this year, I was cautiously optimistic about AOTT. The reason for my optimism: Ronspies didn’t emerge from the incestuous, inbred pool of Seattle’s mostly mediocre restaurant kitchens, but, according to the Seattle Times, cooked on yachts and in the private kitchens of the ultra-wealthy all over the world. The man has experience cooking according to international standards–not local ones–a big plus for the four of us that night, who had eaten our way around the globe several times. (If you really want to learn what good is, you have to cut your teeth in New York, Tokyo, and Paris. After that, San Francisco, Vancouver, Sydney, and London. Owning a yacht and megabucks doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t ensure good taste.)

Also on the plus side: Ronspies obviously isn’t plugged into the local PR machinery that whips local foodies into a rabid lather weeks before the paint even dries on a new restaurant. Instead, he opened AOTT as a catering joint a year and a half ago. Restaurant service started as a way of drawing in potential new catering clients. Suddenly, he had a full-fledged supper-club styled restaurant on his hands: One seating, by reservation only, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Four courses for about $55, paired with a flight of wines for an additional $35. A STEAL compared to what else is out there in similar recently opened, communal dining supper clubs (like Corson Building, where the food alone starts at $80.)

As I was saying, the four of us are not an easy bunch to please; we’ve been disappointed more often than not when dining out at the latest greatest in the local Seattle scene.

We were all very, very happy at Art of the Table. Here’s why:

Amuse bouche: Slices of chiogga beets with a whipped cheese in between, slice of orange on top.Beets, cheese poofs, frisee, orange sliceDelicious.

First course: Squash soup (made fantastic with hidden chicken stock and foie gras) with a scrumptious mound of chopped apple, pecan, leeks, and terrine with ancho chili cream (AMAZING)

Squash soupSecond Course: Kale, pancetta & Parmesan souffle with arugula salad. Ronspies, an utterly adorable man with no pretense and an obvious love of fresh ingredients, admitted these were the first unmolded souffles he had ever made. His candor is a refreshing as his honest food.Souffle

Palate Cleanser: Spaghetti squash sorbet with cinnamon. Unlikely ingredients, beautifully creamy result that tasted teasingly like persimmon and lychee. Quietly brilliant.

Third Course: Pan-seared black cod with fricassee of Autumn vegetables. Perfectly cooked fish. My friend Megumi, who hails from Tokyo and knows her fish, ate every scrap of this dish. The hash of veggies was wonderful: three different mushrooms, some root veggies, all beautifully cubed and cooked to perfect doneness. Alas, the picture got muddled, so I can’t share it.

Fourth Course: Port-poached pear with a sneezy-delicious Vietnamese cinnamon (my least favorite part, as the pears were too hard), chocolate ganache crepes (yum), and pistachio ice cream (to die for).

Ronspies is so modest that he doesn’t trumpet what many other restaurateurs scream out: He sources all his food from farmer’s markets; he cooks mostly organic; he maintains his own charcuterie (his own pancetta was in the souffle); he makes his own ice cream and sorbet. He even serves and washes his own dishes.

Much to my delight, AOTT has a long list of craft beers; I got a light Pilsener from Germany (Pilseners are the Champagnes of the beer world) that hit the spot nicely. (Can someone please do beer/food pairings and offer flights of beers with each course?).

That’s about it–for now. I’ll be returning to AOTT soon and will update this post with more details and more info about my new favorite chef in Seattle.

NB: Forgot to mention the other day that Ronspies comes out before each course to describe its ingredients. He taps a little gong beforehand. Megumi tittered with delight each time he did it; other folks might find the gong annoying. I am TERRIBLE at sitting through long, multi-course meals with descriptions–last summer, I bolted from a dinner at the Inn at Langley just before dessert, much to my husband’s embarrassment. However, Ronspies makes the whole experience feel authentic and necessary–not forced. The gong isn’t a shtick so much as a useful, low-key way of getting everyone’s attention quickly.
Art of the Table on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Northwest, Organic Friendly, Vegetarian Friendly