Chicken dum biryani

Annapurna’s Gift: Mirchi’s Biryani

After the superb paella at Tarsan i Jane recently, I was bowled over by another world-class rice dish, this one originating from Hyderabad in India. The city is known for its special kind of biryani. Dum biryani involves a painstaking process of layering basmati rice and meat (usually goat or chicken) that has been marinated in a complex blend of aromatics, curd (dahi), herbs and spices. The whole cooking vessel is tightly sealed and gently cooked over a stove until meat and rice are tender. This description doesn’t begin to explain the steps involved in the actual preparation and the long list of ingredients that can go into the dish. I would likely never attempt it.

Dum, meaning something like ‘breathing in,’ refers to the gentle steaming to cook the rice and meat. Since this is an entrée with lots of rice over the meat, in order to ensure consistency of texture, cooks first parboil the rice in seasoned water. They top the meat with a layer of half-cooked rice and successively add more layers of rice at increasing levels of doneness so that the top grains don’t finish firmer than those at the bottom.

Our chicken dum biryani was beautiful to look at. With some culinary sleights-of-hand, the rice appeared in shades of yellow, brown, white and orange, the first from turmeric and the last so vivid that food coloring must’ve been used. And the fragrance was equally splendid with aromas of garlic, ginger, fried onions, basmati, and warm spices, especially cardamom and cinnamon. The dark meat pieces of chicken couldn’t have been more fork-tender nor flavorful. The dish also had a kick from red chile powder.

On the weekends (including Fridays), Mirchi offers biryanis made with goat (called mutton on the menu) and a larger sized combination (chicken and goat). Dum biryani is Mirchi’s specialty and the restaurant makes one of the best. (☆☆☆☆)

I had my first manchurian at Spice Route in Bellevue, a name that describes a kind of dish with Chinese flavors of sweet and sour and Indian spices and chiles. Spice Route’s gobi manchurian is one of my favorite appetizers there. Although manchurian is not a common item on an Indian menu, at least here in the Seattle area, Mirchi does have it on theirs, made with cauliflower (gobi), paneer, baby corn, chicken or fish (which we ordered). Theirs has a nice balance of sweet and tart with a serious burn, a true makeover to adapt to fiery tastes if there ever was one. (☆☆☆)

Fish manchurian

Fish manchurian

The eggplant dish that I’ve seen most on local menus is baingan bharta. So it came as a surprise that Mirchi’s only offered eggplant curry (gutti vakanya), which piqued my curiosity. Nestled in a gravy were little eggplants slit lengthwise to the stems in a cross. The masala was a rich flavor combination of peanuts, coconut flakes, tamarind, sugar (jaggery), aromatics and spices, which begged to be eaten with rice or naan. (☆☆☆)

Eggplant curry

Eggplant curry (gutti vakanya kura)

In an interesting twist to Indian buffets at lunchtime, only on Mondays Mirchi substitutes the buffet with a thali meal, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

Mirchi Indian Restaurant
5625 221st Pl SE, Ste 100
Issaquah, WA 98027


Authentic Paella at Tarsan i Jane. Does It Matter?

When I lived in Los Angeles more years ago than I care to count, I had paella for the first time at a Spanish restaurant in West Hollywood called La Masia (now long gone). I had it there maybe three times. My great fondness for it could very well have been embellished by the passage of time. It was a delicious combination of shellfish, chicken, chorizo, vegetables and rice flavored with earthy, musty saffron. This was the specialty of Valencia and La Masia’s paella was as authentic as I was going to get outside of Spain.

Or was it?

There are those, especially Valencians, who campaign against what they consider inauthentic paella. Chef Perfecte Rocher is one of them, having grown up in Valencia where his grandfather had a successful namesake paella restaurant called Tarsan and the traditional ingredients of paella Valenciana were rabbit, snails and beans cooked over wood-burning fires. Even when Rocher took his culinary skills far and wide, with stints in highly regarded European and American kitchens and having received much praise for his imaginative cooking and impressive technique, when it comes to the paella of his homeland, he chooses not to stray far from his roots. The paellas that have grown in popularity outside of Spain with their soft, plentiful rice and plethora of ingredients are anathema. At smoke.oil.salt in Los Angeles, he decided to set things aright. For him, it was a mission to restore authenticity to a dish that had lost its way. He made paella in the traditional manner, using Bomba rice and just a handful of ingredients, none of which would surprise a Valencian or Catalan. Cooked over an unpredictable wood-burning fire, the rice must be given careful attention. The paella was so good that Jonathan Gold sang its praises.

Unexpectedly, he and fiancée Alia Zaine suddenly left Southern California and eventually moved to Seattle to open Tarsan i Jane in the space formerly occupied by Tray Kitchen. The official opening was May 5. The food would be Valencian-Catalan with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Paella would be served only on Sundays, 11am-3pm, as part of a five-course, fixed-price meal. There is no menu as everything is based on an omakase concept of placing trust in the chef (dolç de xef).

Four of us went on a Sunday last month to have paella. On entering the restaurant, I immediately caught the enticing aromas of wood smoke. The open kitchen behind a long counter was where Chef Rocher was standing over a wood-fired grill, flames lapping up the perimeter of a paella pan. We were handed two printed sheets of paper, one an advocacy for authentic paella, the other a menu of the five courses we were about to have.

Every course impressed us. Before the paella arrived, the combination of beets and cherries surprised us with the possibilities of gazpacho (on the menu, gaspatxo). Hiding underneath what appeared to be a shredded kale salad and two kinds of housemade grilled llangonisa were a poached egg and potato cubes reminiscent of patatas bravas. Both wonderful.

Grilled llangonissa, kale, andoni egg, potato

Grilled llangonissa, kale, andoni egg, potato

Yellowtail escabeche, oysters, pineapple chamomille

Escolar escabeche, oysters, pineapple chamomille

Beet and cherry gazpacho, pistachios, citrus

Beet and cherry gazpacho, pistachios, citrus

But, let’s get to the paella. TIJ’s paella changes according to what’s fresh, so one can’t count on having the same ingredients as someone else did the week before. Ours featured clams, unshelled fava beans, chanterelles and artichoke hearts. The pan is wide enough to give the impression of substantial portion size, even for four people. But, the first scoop exposed the shallow depth of the rice, only a few grains high. The result is that none of the other ingredients is entirely submerged in the rice, not even the beans. The rice sticking to the pan bottom was slightly crusty without being burnt (socarrat), a characteristic that paelleros strive for. Perfectly cooked rice requires their utmost attention. This was an outstanding paella (☆☆☆☆), the likes of which I’d never had before, redolent of wood smoke, earthy, salty. Here were rice with substantial chew, briny clams almost raw, vegetables providing their own interesting textures and flavors.

Paella de verdures i almejes

Paella de verdures i almejes

I’ve enjoyed many paellas before, doubtless some that would make a Valencian cringe. Does authenticity matter? To me, probably not. But, I’ve been now educated to what a classic paella is like, and the one crafted at Tarsan i Jane is outstanding.

Tarsan i Jane
4012 Leary Way NW
Seattle, WA 98107

Crab of the woods

Chicken of the Woods

I’ve taken a trail near my house many times and have never come across this fungus, which was growing on a Douglas fir stump. Laetiporus conifericola has striking yellow and orange coloring, difficult to miss when approaching it. It’s said to be edible and taste like chicken or crab, thus the common names chicken-of-the-woods and crab-of-the-woods, but I’m not in the habit of eating wild mushrooms that I haven’t vetted before.


Recipe: Sautéed Chanterelles with Bacon and Cream

Now is not the chanterelle season here in the Pacific Northwest, so it was a bit of a surprise to see the wild mushrooms at Costco last week. One pound for $8.99 was too hard to pass up. Even if eating light and local is what’s called for in the warm days of summer, chanterelles and smoked bacon together are hard to beat any time of year.

Sautéed Chanterelles with Bacon and Cream

1 lb. chanterelle mushrooms
4 slices thick-cut smoked bacon, sliced crosswise into ¼” pieces
3 tbsp. half-and-half or heavy cream
1 tbsp. sour cream
2 tbsp. minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp. lemon juice

Combine creams and set aside.

Rinse mushrooms under cool water to rid them of debris and pat them dry with kitchen towel. Shred larger mushrooms into smaller pieces, starting at the cap end and tearing along the stem with no piece wider than ½ inch. Leave small mushrooms intact.

Fry bacon in 12″ skillet over medium heat until crisp. With slotted spoon, remove bacon to a dish. In the rendered bacon fat, sauté mushrooms sprinkled with salt and pepper to taste, stirring occasionally, until most of their released liquid evaporates and the mushrooms begin to sizzle, about 10-15 minutes (depending on the their moisture content).

Add cream mixture, stir, and cook for 2-3 minutes until thickened slightly. Off heat, stir in reserved bacon and lemon juice. Remove mushrooms to serving dish and sprinkle with parsley.


Vashon’s Smashing Thai Restaurant: May Kitchen

From the outside, you would never guess what the inside is like. Curtains are perpetually drawn over windows on the storefront that’s half sheathed in plywood, half in brick, milk chocolate in color. There is likewise no indication that a restaurant occupies the space, let alone a Thai one. A small sign written in Thai and two elephant statues on the roof are the only revealing clues. More than these anomalies, the restaurant name is nowhere to be seen. But, the business is May Kitchen + Bar. Once you step inside for dinner (no lunch is served), you get atmospherically transformed to another world, surrounded by exquisite teak and mahogany paneling and furnishings that exude understated elegance and attention to detail. May Kitchen is the pride and joy of chef and owner May Chaleoy, who hails from Bangkok but now lives in nearby Burton on the island.

may kitchen

I had heard good things about May Kitchen over the past few years, not the least of which has been praise from some national publications. Its location on Vashon Island, a 20-minute ferry boat ride from West Seattle, limits the crowds that might otherwise swamp the restaurant, but many Seattleites have made the crossing to eat here. Even so, on any given night, the place will be packed, mostly with locals. May Kitchen is located on Vashon Highway, near the most popular corner in the town of Vashon at the intersection of the highway and SW Bank. My wife and I were on the island to visit good friends over the Vashon Island Strawberry Festival weekend. On the occasion of celebrating one of their birthdays, we at last had an opportunity to eat at May’s.

Festivities started with excellent cocktails and two outstanding appetizers. The first is probably their most famous. Imagine an airy mound of flash-fried watercress piled high in a nest of rice flour-battered goodness, and you have yum phak boong. By itself, the watercress was unseasoned, bland actually, but light and very crispy. But, pieces torn off by hand and dipped into a delicious, mildly spicy tamarind sauce made me swoon. A unique dish, unforgettable and deservedly acclaimed (☆☆☆☆).

Yum phak boong

Yum phak boong

Papia phak sot finds moistened rice paper wrapped around thin rice noodles, mint and cilantro, sprinkled with fried shallots. Again, an outstanding sauce, this one also tamarind-based and slightly sweet, helped make these fresh spring rolls a superstar (☆☆☆☆).

Papia phak sot

Papia phak sot

The entrées didn’t have quite the same impact as the appetizers, but not for lack of flavor.

Yum neua is Thailand’s contribution to the salad world. Lettuce, tomato and red onion with grilled beef in a tart, sweet and spicy dressing dazzles with its boldness. It’s become a favorite of mine. May’s sole problem was tough beef in an otherwise good salad (☆☆☆).

Yum neua

Yum neua

Chef Chaleoy makes her own curries from scratch, and the yellow curry in gaeng faak thong is no exception. What is basically a kabocha squash curry was overshadowed by the amount of fried tofu, one of three protein choices (chicken and pork the others). The curry sauce was exceptional, delicious enough to scoop over rice, but I wish there had been more pieces of squash to be enjoyed by all of us. (☆☆☆½)

Gaeng faak thong, red rice

Gaeng faak thong, red rice

It was really a shame that phad see iew was over-sauced. The dark sauce was too intense, calling attention to itself, an excess of salty and sugary qualities. A lighter hand would’ve made a world of difference. (☆☆½)

Phad see iew

Phad see iew

Our dessert was another matter. We shared an outstanding molten spiced dark chocolate cake reminiscent of a flambéed chocolate decadence. Hints of ginger and chiles provided enough spice to give the dessert an Asian twist, served alongside raspberries and blueberries. (☆☆☆☆)

Molten chocolate cake

Molten spiced dark chocolate cake

The limited menu has several more interesting items. May’s phad thai, for example, is served wrapped in a banana leaf. At the table, the server will add additional ingredients to the noodles one at a time. Another specialty whose name almost competes in length with humuhumunukunukuapua’a is a stir-fry of either chicken or tofu, cashew nuts and mushrooms in a roasted Thai chile sauce. Try ordering phad metmamuanghimmaphan without tripping over your tongue. Islanders are justifiably happy about having such a fine and authentic Thai restaurant on their turf.

May Kitchen + Bar
17614 Vashon Hwy SW
Vashon, WA 98070

Bernie and Hilary on the Same Ticket

Hillary Clinton will not pick Bernie Sanders as her running mate at the Democratic National Convention, but the pair of Bernie O’Malley and Hilary (one “L”) Emmer have teamed together and were named Vashon Island’s unofficial mayors for the 2016-17 term. Done obviously in fun, they capitalized on their ‘name recognition’ to run for the unofficial office and managed to raise $6,000 on the campaign trail on behalf of the Vashon Senior Center.

berniehilary - 1

My wife and I were on the island visiting friends during the Vashon Island Strawberry Festival when the mayoral announcement was made. The festival celebrated its 107th year. The grand marshall of the parade was Mary Matsuda Grunewald, a former Vashon Island resident before she was evacuated in 1941 with 110,000 other Japanese Americans to internment camps. Her family raised strawberries on the island and made the fruit an important crop before the war.


Banana Slug

For a native Northwest coast mollusk, the banana slug is only spotted in the wild, it seems to me, vastly outnumbered in urban Seattle settings by the black and red slugs. The only times I’ve seen the bananas recently have been on forest trails where they are clearly visible as they cross your path. Yellowish in color, often mottled (like an overripe banana), they’re gigantic in size as slugs go, the bigger ones reaching 6″ or so in length. This one was seen on a hiking trail not far from my house.