The Diller Room

Have you ever found yourself in a restaurant or bar where the atmosphere just didn’t fit your mood and frame of mind? This happened to us on our first night in Seattle when we stopped into the Diller Room, a dank and dive-y bar located in a building that started life as a nice hotel, turned into a second home for pioneers and miners, and then devolved into a Chinese laundry that served as a front for a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Even after all that storied history, we just weren’t feeling the place on that first night — but a return visit a few nights later found us in a far different mindset, relaxing into a cozy booth in the back of the lounge and talking over food and drink to the hip-hop and soul soundtrack coming from the speakers around us. Our final verdict was that the Diller Room was just our sort of bar after all, especially when it came to the plentiful drinks and cheap appetizers.

Charcuterie plate to the left with a nice cheese pairing to the right.

Each of those plates you see above were $6 during happy hour, and we were happy with the ample selection of local meats and cheeses provided. While not quite up to the level of the charcuterie platter we ordered at Pike Brewing, we still enjoyed these creamy cheeses and savory cured meats, with our only complaint being that the bar made no effort to tell us where the food was coming from. I suppose that’s a rather picky thing to wish for, but we come from a place where a man can buy a smoked turkey and wind up talking to both the man who raised it and the man who smoked it all in the same visit. Still, that meat, cheese, and flatbread was just what we needed to soak up some of the Diller Room’s tasty drinks.

First and foremost on that drink agenda was a tasty cocktail called “The Manhattan Project,” a mixture of Bullieit rye, Punt e Mes, Antica vermouth, and Angostura bitters garnished with some of the tastiest brandied cherries I’ve ever had. I stuck with beer, choosing the very drinkable Old Seattle Lager from Maritime Pacific Brewing. Jess switched from Manhattans to Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics not long after, and we were well on our way to a wild and crazy night.

It’s always a good feeling when you can return to a place that didn’t exactly hit the spot the first time around and find that it becomes one of your most memorable places after all. Such was the case here with the Diller Room, where the lights are low, the drinks are strong, and the appetizers are cheap enough to keep you well-balanced for a long evening of fun.

The Diller Room on Urbanspoon

Coffee Break: Cherry Street Coffee House

One of the main things Seattle is known for is coffee, and we managed to to drink enough quality java during our stay that I can almost forgive the city for foisting the over-roasted abomination that is Starbucks on the rest of the country. Our first full morning found us needing a jolt of caffeine to counteract the effects of the time zone changes we had made in addition to the end of Daylight Saving Time. Lucky for us, the friendly red glow of a Cherry Street Coffee House location was visible from the front of our Harbor Steps condo, and we wiped the sleep from our eyes and made the best sleepy shambling beeline we could to the front door.

Now to be perfectly honest, the coffee at Cherry Street wasn’t anything special. Jess ordered a respectable latte, while I contented myself with a strong, but slightly over-roasted Americano. The flavor was decent, but there were strong overtones of acid and burnt flavors that overwhelmed the natural sweetness that can often be coaxed from a coffee bean. Still, a dash of half-and-half did the trick of cutting that acidic flavor and allowed us to move on to what was the best part of our visit: the Tomato Bagel. Being a tomato lover, Jess immediately picked this item from the menu, while I went for the classic lox — which was unfortunately sold out. Taking a cue from my better half, I ordered a tomato bagel, too, and we were both treated to a large toasted bagel topped with a healthy schmear of cream cheese and several slices of a lovely bright red Roma tomato. I was skeptical about how this was all going to go down until I took the first bite — and it was pure bliss. Warm toasted bread gave way to the cool, rich tomatoes with all that luscious cream cheese holding everything together. It made for a great breakfast, but I could see myself grabbing one of these for lunch or an afternoon snack.

Cherry Street Coffee House wasn’t the best coffee we had in Seattle, but the service was good and lively, and that tomato bagel will always have a special place in our hearts. There are several locations around the city, so if you need some carbs and cream cheese, give them a try.

Cherry Street Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Piroshky Piroshky

My love for pastries is just a little different from most people. Sure, doughnuts, danishes, and cinnamon rolls rule the the hearts and minds of the baked-good consuming masses, and I’ve certainly eaten my share of them over the years. But I’m a savory guy — even when it comes to pastries, and it’s just my luck that Seattle’s famous bakery Piroshky, Piroshky has people like me covered with some fine specimens of delightful savory pastries. And you fans of the sweet stuff need not worry, either: there’s a fine list of sugary items from apple to marzipan for you to choose from. As for me, my first experience with one of the little stuffed Russian pies was filled with smoked salmon.

First, the crust, which was light, flaky, and baked to a buttery golden brown. Within this delicious shell was a finely minced smoked salmon filling that was smooth, creamy, and quite fishy (in a good way). The hand-held pastry made for the perfect walking snack, and even before I had finished it, I was plotting my next trip to the bakery.

That next trip came a couple of days later. A late night of severe over-indulgence had left us feeling a little less than perfect in the morning, and so we made our way slowly back down to Pike Place Market for some coffee and carbs. My choice this time was another savory variety, the beef and cheese, and I was treated to a warm mini-loaf stuffed with minced beef, onions, and topped with melted cheddar cheese. This piroshky proved even tastier than the salmon, and as we sat down by the water front watching the sun rise above Elliot Bay, breathing in the chilly November air, we felt the cobwebs of the night before being swept away and prepared ourselves for another day in the city. The Kotelnikov family has been selling their tasty wares since 1992, and they’ve attracted the attention of foodies worldwide — including a segment on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. It’s clear to see why these pastries have such a devoted following: they’re inexpensive, delicious, and come in such a wide variety as to suit any taste.

Piroshky Piroshky on Urbanspoon

Monkfish Bourguinon

Monkfish, the ugly fish known as the “poor man’s lobster,” is one of the stranger fish I’ve ever encountered, and its light, sweet flavor and meaty texture makes for a nice substitute for meat in a way that most fish couldn’t. We came across these monkfish filets in the Pike Place Market, and after tearing a couple of the fishmongers away from their heated and in-depth conversation about the relative merits of MDMA as a cancer treatment, we bought a hefty sized portion to cook for supper that night. Given the monk’s heft and substantial texture, I decided to go for a heavier stew than our previous night’s dish of mussels and use the same sort of tomato and red-wine based sauce found in a classic French beef burgundy. The result was a nice cross between a true bourguinon and a hearty bouillabaisse, and once again we were well pleased with the fresh taste of the seafood available at the Seattle market. This dish could be tasty with other white fish, but monk is one of the few species out there that can really stand up to a bit of stirring and stewing.

Monkfish Bourguinon

  • One pound monkfish, sliced into medallions.
  • 3 tablespoons beurre manié (flour mixed with butter)
  • 1 large can San Marzano tomatoes, whole
  • 2 cups dry red wine
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 6 ounces pancetta, cut into lardons
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into coins.
  • 12-15 sugar snap peas (or more to taste)
  • 2 cups flour
  • Salt and pepper

Salt and pepper the monkfish medallions, set aside. In a large saucepan, cook the pancetta until it renders its fat. Sweat the shallots and garlic in the pancetta fat until they begin to turn translucent. Add the tomatoes with liquid and simmer on medium heat, stirring until the tomatoes begin to break down. Add the carrots and red wine, maintain simmer until carrots begin getting tender. Add the buerre manie, stirring to mix thoroughly. In a separate skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil. Dredge the monkfish medallions in the flour and brown them in small batches, being careful not to crowd the pan. When the fish has turned a golden brown, add it with the sugar snap peas to the tomato mixture and simmer until the peas have just begun to become tender and sauce has thickened. If sauce gets too thick, add a splash of water or wine and stir. Serve in bowls with ample amounts of crusty bread. Enjoy!

Fusion that works: Japonessa Sushi Cocina

Any of you who have kept up with this blog or my other work with the Arkansas Times know that I’m quite a skeptic of fusion cuisine, which can often be a cover for a chef who knows just a little about cooking in several traditions but has mastered none. It’s the sort of thing that has resulted in Guy Fieri shoving pulled pork inside a nori roll, which is a crime against sushi and barbecue all in one. That’s not to say that all fusion is terrible — on the contrary, Little Rock’s most popular food truck, The Southern Gourmasian, sports a playful and well-executed menu of dishes that bounce back and forth between Southern and Asian flavors, ingredients, and techniques. So when Jess and I stopped outside of Japonessa in downtown Seattle and saw the restaurant described as a “sushi cocina,” I really had to worry that we’d be in for some sort of strange Spanish/sushi hybrid that would please no one. After two meals at the place, however, I can happily report that Japonessa is more sushi than Spanish, but with just enough love given to the flavor accents and fresh tastes of Spanish cuisine to add just the right amount of nuance to the food. And the sushi? Top notch — and forgive the flash photography; it was a night time meal in a dark restaurant.

We stuck to some basic things on our first visit to Japonessa: a plate of nigiri featuring salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and red snapper along with a spicy tuna roll. The spicy tuna was fresh and had a nice kick to it, but really wasn’t any different than any version of the same we’ve had in numerous sushi joints. The nigiri (my favorites) were lovely, with a thick, fresh slice of glistening fish resting atop a small bed of still-slightly-warm rice. The flavor of each fish was spectacular, from the slightly gamey and wild taste of the salmon to the buttery tuna to the clean and firm snapper. Each piece was quite enjoyable, and since it was happy hour, the plate didn’t hit our wallets hard at all.

We got our first taste of Spanish influence with the Mexican Ninja roll, a spicy roll full of tuna wrapped in various types of fish and shrimp and topped with green onions. I was extremely skeptical of such a thing, but our server insisted that it was one of their best rolls, and I’ll give him credit on a good recommendation. Spicy, tangy, and with a bittersweet kick from the green onions, this roll burned our mouths and delighted our tongues. As with the nigiri, the fish was nice and fresh — and the sushi chef wasn’t shy with the portions, either. There was almost too much flavor going on with this one, but I can’t be disappointed in how the whole package turned out — it was definitely a lot of flavor packed in every bite.

 

For our second meal at Japonessa, we started again with an old classic, the Spider Roll, and were treated to a very tasty tempura-battered soft-shell crab wrapped in rice and nori. The crab was still piping hot from the fryer, and unlike some spider rolls that are all crunch and no taste, this one had a wonderful sweetness to it that was only accentuated by the crisp batter. We also ordered a salad of mixed greens, and while a salad is a salad, the ginger dressing on this one was quite good. The highlight of this meal — and indeed, of my whole Japonessa experience, was a dish that prepared steamed monkfish liver three ways: with crab, scallop sashimi, and salmon roe, each served on a slice of cucumber in a small pool of ponzu. The liver was soft and creamy, with a consistency between a firm liver mousse and foie gras. The flavor was slightly fishy with just a hint of liver richness, and while Jess wasn’t a fan of this one at all, it was love at first bite for me. The crab and salmon roe versions were both very good, but that scallop sashimi bite goes down as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten: briny, sweet scallop, sliced thin and resting just right on top of the firm, unctuous liver, the whole thing brought together by the fresh crunch of cucumber and the pure umami tang of the sauce. It’s a must-try, and something I hope I get to eat again.

Japonessa Sushi Cocina is located at 1400 1st Avenue in Seattle. Service was very attentive and friendly, and everyone was quite knowledgeable about their menu and willing to recommend a favorite.

Japonessa Sushi Cocina on Urbanspoon

Mussels with Chorizo

Jess and I are both huge fans of mussels, and so when we found some of the fresh, shiny shellfish at Pike Place Market in Seattle, we knew we had to have some for our supper that night. We had been walking around the market for some time, and in addition to the mounds of seafood everywhere, I had become quite enamored of the DeLaurenti specialty food shop — particularly the links of dried chorizo that were hanging in a case in the back. I wanted that chorizo, and I wanted those mussels, and it was pretty obvious what had to happen: Moules a la Portugaise, a dish I had first become acquainted with in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. This recipe isn’t exactly the Les Halles version (I used butter instead of olive oil and ignored the parsley), but it turned out to be quite a hearty and filling dish with a rich broth and lots of lovely mussels and chunks of good chorizo.

Michael’s Mussels with Chorizo

  • 2 lbs mussels, scrubbed with beards removed. Discard any mussels that are open and won’t close if you give them a good poke.
  • 8-12 ounces dried chorizo (mild or spicy), sliced in 1/4″ pieces. Be sure to use the dried variety and not the moister stuff. You want the consistency of hard salami, not breakfast sausage.
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter. We used Plugra because it was our honeymoon and Plugra is awesome.
  • 1 sweet yellow onion, diced.
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced.
  • 2 cups dry white wine.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

In a large pot (that can be covered), melt two tablespoons of the butter and wait for it to stop foaming. Add chorizo and cook until the sausage has rendered some of its fat and darkens in color. Add the onions and cook until translucent; add the garlic and cook for three minutes more. Pour in the white wine and bring to a boil, add the chorizo, a dash of salt and pepper and boil for about five minutes. Add the mussels to the pot and cover, steaming the shellfish for 15 minutes, or until all the shells have opened. Give the pot a gentle shake every so often to stir the shellfish and coat with the wine mixture. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the last two tablespoons of butter until melted. Serve with a loaf of crusty French or sourdough bread. Enjoy!

The Pike Brewing Company

Ah, beer. From ancient times to this modern age, beer has been with us as the happy result of what happens to barley water when it gets a little funky. Lucky for us in these civilized times, mankind has gotten the art of beer-making down to a pretty good science — and even luckier, American beer-making is at its greatest moment in history in terms of flavor and variety. The craft beer scene has exploded across the country, and the result has been a golden age of the golden brew across these United States. It wasn’t always the case. Time and again, I talk to brewers who all say the same thing: they got into brewing because the state of American mainstream beer in the 20th century reached a horrible low point in terms of taste and quality. This was the case for Charles and Rose Ann Finkel, founders of Pike Brewing, a couple who started by importing some of the finest beers that Europe had to offer and wound up creating one of Seattle’s most famous and tastiest brew pubs. The pub is located just outside (and underneath) the well-known Pike Place Market and sports an excellent menu of suds and eats that we enjoyed greatly.

We chose the Pike Sampler (shown above) to get a good representation of the different varieties available, but we also wanted to soak up some of those suds with something good to eat. To that end, we ordered the Ploughmans Sampler, a plate of charcuterie, cheese, olives, and flatbread that was easily one of the best bar appetizers we’ve ever tried. Two of the meats, the salami and coppa, were from Seattle’s own Salumi Restaurant (and we’ll have more on THAT lovely place later), and our favorite meat on the plate was a prosciutto from La Quercia Artisan Meats in Iowa. Each separate item was distinct in flavor and texture, from the oily, almost sweet flavor of the rosy salami to the briny coppa that finished on a note of subtle heat. The prosciutto was the second best pork I’ve ever eaten, and when the first best is true jamon iberico, that means it was some damn fine ham. We reveled in the taste of salt and fat, tearing small strips of the pork with our fingers and chewing slowly, washing each bite down with a different type of beer to see how many tastes we could match. Of equal pleasure were the cheeses, from the ale-rubbed “Naughty Nellie” (also the name of our favorite Pike beer) to the creamy camembert-like “Cirrus,” to the Seattle-made cheddar from Beecher’s in the Pike Place Market. This was a quality meat and cheese board, with many of the components from local producers.

While bread, beer, meat, and cheese might be a perfect meal, we didn’t want to pass up some of Pike’s seafood offerings. To this end, we ordered the Dungeness Crab and Artichoke Dip, a hot and creamy mixture of crab meat, onions, and cheese. I found the dip to be tasty, if a tad heavy on the onions; Jess liked it better than I did. The seafood dish that had us both raving, though, was the Roasted Garlic Jumbo Prawns, a dish made of sweet, succulent shrimp with a subtle garlic flavor and a rich, meaty texture that just blew us away  — these are the sort of shrimp we just can’t get here in Arkansas. There wasn’t anything I’d change about this dish except the quantity: shrimp lovers will be teased by the small starter plate.

So after all that talk about the good food, how was the beer? Well, I wouldn’t place the beer in the elite ranks of craft brews, but it certainly had its bright spots. We particularly enjoyed the Naughty Nellie, a crisp blonde ale that was very drinkable and a perfect addition to the food. Fans of Belgian styles will be fond of the Monk’s Uncle Tripel, a fruity and wild-tasting beer that is a very good example of the style. The rest of the tasting try consisted of a decent IPA, APA, and porter — and while we tried a drink of their barleywine, it wasn’t for us, but I find barleywines to generally be too boozy in flavor anyway. That Naughty Nellie had us coming back for more, though, and I’d call the entire Pike line-up very solid in terms of quality and flavor — just pick whatever style you like that they do, and you’ll be almost certain to get a very drinkable entry.

We came into Pike Brewing half-expecting a glorified TGIFriday’s made for tourists. What we got was a fun and friendly brew pub with some good-to-great beers and a wonderful selection of nibbles. It’s a fantastic place to stop in for a drink or three, and it’s certainly one of our Seattle highlights. Pike Brewing is located at 1415 1st Avenue in Seattle.

The Pike Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

A Wedding, and a Week in Seattle

Well, friends, it’s been awhile since our last update, but we had a good reason: after nearly four years of engagement and a year of planning, the Arkansas Foodies went and got hitched. We had a lovely ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hot Springs, a wonderful venue located in the restored Ozark Bathhouse on the Spa City’s historic Bath House Row. I can’t speak highly enough of the MOCA’s staff, as they were very accommodating with our taking over their museum for a day. We couldn’t have had such a wonderful day without a lot of people in our corner, so special thanks to Mueller’s Bistro and Bakery for a lovely and delicious cake, Lisa Whitley of Glenwood Florist for our excellent flower arrangements, Leneé Curtis Photography for their low-key approach to our wedding pictures, Randi Slick of Signature Events for their materials and set-up, and Central Arkansas Entertainment for a good DJ. In addition, thanks to Jess’ Aunt Charlotte, who loaned us a lot of serving materials and to my mom and dad, who hosted the rehearsal dinner, provided some home-smoked meats for the reception, and who, in the case of my minister father, made the whole thing legal.

The one main person responsible for this wedding’s success, and without whom none of this great day would have been possible, is my mother-in-law, Tracy Miller. From the very first stages of planning, Tracy was always ready to help us figure out the best way to execute something, offer suggestions on substance and style, and keep us motivated to continue on when things got a little overwhelming. She was the first person in the venue, helping set everything up, she cooked and prepared a number of sweet and savory treats for the reception, and was one of the last people to leave after everything was cleaned up. Jess and I don’t think there’s any good way to really ever thank her for all the time and resources she spent on making our wedding day a special one, but I do know that nothing would have gone as well as it did without her.

For our honeymoon, Jess and I took a trip to Seattle, Washington, a city with a well-deserved reputation as a paradise for foodies. We ate, drank, and cooked a great number of delicious things, and I’m excited to start posting about all of them. From the fresh seafood and briny oysters to charcuterie and craft beer, we ate our way all across downtown, fueled by the plentiful coffee found all over. We were lucky enough to catch an autumn week in the Northwest without a drop of rain, and while it was a little colder than the weather we left in Arkansas, it was a magical and invigorating trip full of fun sights and delicious eats. So stay tuned, readers, we’re going to be offering up some of our favorite eats in Seattle coming up on the blog!