Thistle Fool Ya

I was stopped in my tracks when I saw this thistle-like plant, cultivated in a garden outside Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. What makes it unusual is the intense purplish-blue color of not only the blossom but the spiky leaves surrounding it. My guess is that it’s a false blue thistle. Regardless, the plants were attracting a lot of bees.

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Sunday Fried Chicken at Brave Horse Tavern

When Amazon moved its headquarters from the imposing, ex-VA hospital building atop Beacon Hill to the soon-to-be industrial park at the southern end of Lake Union, it dramatically changed the economy and redevelopment of a section of town that had been characterized by light industry, small businesses and warehouses. Not only do employees of Amazon now work and live in South Lake Union (SLU), but eat here, too, as restaurants quickly opened to take advantage of the concentration of young, well-paid high-techies. Local restauranteur extraordinaire Tom Douglas was one to jump on the bandwagon. To go along with his other endeavors elsewhere in Seattle, he now has three places in SLU: Serious Pie & Biscuit, Cuoco and Brave Horse Tavern.

Sunday would seem to be the ideal time to go to any of these, for on any other day of the week, they’re packed with Amazonians and other diners who appreciate the goodness that Douglas consistently produces. There is also another incentive to eat at Brave Horse Tavern (located above Cuoco)—buttermilk fried chicken dinner that is served only on Sundays. Four of us split the dinner, smorgasbord of bar snacks, house-made pretzel and beers.

Tonight alone, I counted 34 beers on tap, most of them from West Coast microbreweries, which can be ordered in 12- or 16-ounce glasses or in a pitcher. Three of us individually chose Dos Borrachos Mexican Lager, Thai Fi Basil Pale and Rio’s Rompin’ Rye Ale. A good selection of ciders is also available as well as cocktails, wines and a long list of stiffer drinks. This place is not lacking for ways to get buzzed.

Brave Horse makes its own soft pretzels baked in a brick oven. By itself, the pretzel was very good, but the tavern gives you a choice of several accompaniments, including smoked peanut butter and bacon that one of our party ordered. Personally, peanut butter is on my list of prefer-not-do. I do like it in sauces used in southeast Asian cooking. But, I have to say that Douglas’ smoked version with bacon was remarkably good paired with a pretzel straight out of the oven, deeply browned and as good as a freshly made soft pretzel should be (☆☆☆½).

Brick oven pretzel with mustard, smoked peanut butter and bacon

Brick oven pretzel with smoked peanut butter and bacon

The tavern’s equivalent of an antipasto plate is its smorgasbord of bar snacks (☆☆☆). Outstanding were the house-made kielbasa, pickled vegetables and onion dip. Not quite so lofty were deviled eggs, pretzel chips and trail mix. Least impressive was an ale cheese that seemed curiously bland. Sliced apple and Rainier cherries completed the snacks.

Smorgasbord of bar snacks

Smorgasbord of bar snacks

It’s not clear why Douglas doesn’t offer fried chicken every day. It could be that the kitchen would be overwhelmed by orders on any other day but Sunday. The chicken is that good (☆☆☆☆). The flesh is supremely moist, encased in a perfectly seasoned and crunchy batter that hints of herbs. My first bite released juices that ran down my fingers and onto the plate. The sides changing seasonally, tonight were served (in Southern style) waffles, grilled corn and watermelon. The waffles were almost the chicken’s equal (☆☆☆½), studded with bits of bacon. The corn was blackened too much for my health-conscious comfort but tasty nonetheless, and I will probably not have a juicier melon all year.

Buttermilk fried chicken dinner

Buttermilk fried chicken dinner

Brave Horse Tavern can accommodate lots of people. The interior space is huge, filled with long tables for communal dining. We were the only ones at our table, and we would have enjoyed our own “space” just as much dining al fresco at individual round tables outside. There have been complaints about the extraordinary noise levels when the place is packed and even shouting at your companion is not a guarantee of being heard. Shuffleboards and darts, not to mention beers and plenty of good noshes, encourage customers to hang loose. You must be 21+ years old to enter. This is a fun tavern and another win for Tom Douglas.

Related posts of other Tom Douglas restaurants

Brave Horse Tavern
310 Terry Ave N
Seattle, WA 98109

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How many colors can a drake have? Judging by this one, whose photo was taken at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park in Renton, quite a few. If the ladies are attracted to colorful decoration, this guy is a stud.

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I have never paid much attention to hydrangeas until fairly recently. Now when I see them, I marvel at their complexity, at how each plant can have flowers with variegated colors, how each head unfolds from neutral-toned buds to petals bursting with color. The lacecap varieties intrigue me the most. I came across a patch of mophead-type hydrangeas at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park today. There were several different species in a small area displaying enough variety to make me pause and admire them.

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Super Clams at Ivar’s Seafood Bar (Renton, WA)

I’m not referring to their quality necessarily but their size. Ivar’s Seafood Bar at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park is offering Super Clams, apparently for a limited time or perhaps as a promotion for Ivar’s 75th anniversary. Bigger than its regular fried clams, these are king-sized strips, some pieces almost 3 inches long, none of them smaller than two.

A local institution in the Seattle area, the Ivar chain of restaurants is known primarily for fish and chips and, arguably more famously for its New England-style clam chowder. Its motto is ‘Keep Clam.’ Even if I do like their fish, I find myself ordering the clams more often. Regular-sized ones do have a problem. It is that the smaller pieces are mostly batter. While appealingly crunchy, they lack much clam flavor for obvious reasons. So, when my wife and I stopped here after a walk along the park’s beautifully maintained trail along Lake Washington, we had to ask what the Super Clam special was. The cheerful employee explained that the clams consisted of much bigger pieces. Okay, then, good enough for us. I also noticed that two other specials were fried green beans and smoked salmon chowder.

True to their potential, the clams were meaty and full of clam flavor, if a tad rubbery (☆☆☆½). Clam strips seem notoriously susceptible to vulcanization, except that those I had many years ago at Howard Johnson’s in Culver City, California (now closed), were surprisingly light. Ivar’s batter, likely a combination of cornmeal and flour, was crispy and nicely seasoned. These clams were the equal of those we had at the Minute Cafe in Bandon, Oregon, for size and taste.

The fries were crispy and fluffy but under-seasoned (☆☆☆), while the green beans lacked much flavor (☆☆), suggesting they might be frozen beans.

A combination of cream and tomatoes gave the smoked salmon chowder an appealing broth. There weren’t very large pieces of fish in an otherwise tasty, salty soup (☆☆½).

Smoked Salmon Chowder

Smoked Salmon Chowder

Coulon Beach is a nice location for Ivar’s. At certain times of the year, it might be the most popular in the chain, as lines of hungry customers can snake out the door. During the summer, the park is heavily used. You can eat inside the restaurant, which has a canoe and kayak suspended from the ceiling, or at one of many tables in the large, public covered pavilion next door. If the weather is nice, you have the entire park at your disposal, including picnic tables and bench seats.

ivar's seafood bar

I’m hoping that the super clams become a regular part of the menu and available at other Ivar outlets, if it hasn’t already.

Ivar’s Seafood Bar (Coulon Beach location)
1201 Lake Washington Blvd. Ste B
Renton, WA 98055

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Hokkaido Ramen Santouka: Is the Experience Worth It?

To make our signature tonkotsu broth, we simmer pork bones for about 20 hours until it is pearly white. Finally, after such a long, low-temperature cook, we add vegetables, dried fish, kelp, and other savory ingredients.

So explains Santouka’s website on its approach to making ramen broth. It surely qualifies as the legendary dedication (some say a fanaticism) that ramen chefs expend to realize their vision. The international chain has recently opened a Bellevue location, called Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, yet another Japan-based company that decided to open its restaurant on the Eastside instead of Seattle.

The founder, Hitoshi Hatanaka, who started the business in 1988 in Hokkaido, was inspired by the cult classic movie, Tampopo, which similarly galvanized rameniacs, in and outside Japan, to seek out the best of Japan’s favorite noodle soup.  Santouka’s shio (salt-flavored) ramen became so admired that the restaurant spread to other parts of Japan and to international locations throughout Asia and (for now) the Pacific U.S. states (Hawaii, California and Washington).

A misconception that many diners have was cleared up when our waitress explained that the ramen is not made in any particular “Hokkaido-style,” despite the implication in the restaurant’s name. It only refers to the founder’s origin from that part of northern Japan. And despite the menu’s offering of the troika of ramen kinds (shio, shouyu and miso), they are all variations of, or rather additions to tonkotsu, again a source of confusion for anyone expecting otherwise. This is borne out when the shio and shouyu arrive not as the usual light broths but instead creamy ones in the style of tonkotsu.

Prices are displayed for the medium-sized ramen. Small bowls are $1 less and large, $1 more. Shio, shouyu and miso cost $10.96; the spicy miso, 50¢ more. Every ramen comes with certain shared accompaniments, which include menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), a single slice of narutomaki (fish cake with a red swirl pattern), sliced green onions and roasted pork belly. Mushrooms (kikurage, or tree ears) appear only in the shio and miso variations. Only the shouyu comes with nori squares. Only the shio has umeboshi (pickled, salted plum). The special toroniku ramen replaces pork belly with pork cheeks and is priced accordingly ($15.96).

The tonkotsu shio ramen was exceptional. The broth was refined, complex, quite milky and fatty, with admirable restraint on saltiness. There was no doubt that it took a long time to make. The noodles were straight-cut and served al dente. As is typical of any thin noodle soup dish, the pasta quickly started to soften in the hot broth, one reason that the Japanese slurp up their ramen at breathtaking speed to avoid the inevitable doughiness that follows. The pork slices were somewhat chewy but tasty. Though the kikurage in Japan are sliced into 3mm slivers, here they are left whole (because people don’t know the metric system here?). Menma is sliced into slivers and cooked only with salt. A soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) costs extra ($2) and is served whole, unless you want it cut in half. The yolk was congealed, though I prefer mine to be runny, which raises an interesting tactical question (raised below).  The lone tiny umeboshi worked quite nicely, salty and crunchy. Overall, this was a first-rate ramen (☆☆☆½).

Tonkotsu shio ramen

Tonkotsu shio ramen

It’s really admirable that Santouka manages to keep sodium levels respectable. It was even more of an achievement for tonkotsu miso ramen (☆☆☆½), despite miso’s inherent saltiness. The broth exhibited similar milkiness as the shio’s but was heartier from the fermented soybean paste and had slight gingery undertones. The same comments above regarding the accompaniments apply here.

Tonkotsu miso ramen

Tonkotsu miso ramen

Judged on the ramen itself, Santouka does an excellent job. I can honestly say that the bowls I’ve had here and at Kukai and Jinya have been exemplary and catapult Bellevue well ahead of Seattle in establishing a very good local ramen scene.

Having said that, I do have complaints about Santouka.

The Bellevue location is the first stand-alone U.S. restaurant in the chain. The others are found in the Mitsuwa market food courts or in a mall (Honolulu). Downtown Bellevue is a high-rent district, which may explain, partially or entirely, why prices are relatively high. While ramen at Kukai might command a comparable price, the perception is that the serving size is smaller, possibly heightened by the smallish bowl in which the soup is served.

While visually arresting and minimalist, the restaurant interior gives off a poshness that you don’t get at other ramenya. Eating ramen in Japan has never been about upscale surroundings. Ironically, Tampopo had nothing to do with a swanky experience. To some extent, Kukai and Jinya have the same ambience, but not nearly so pronounced. The inside waiting area is minuscule, which means that when lines get long, you will be waiting outside, not so pleasant when the weather turns for the worse.

The dining experience itself has some shortcomings. Santouka no longer serves hot tea, which we think our waitress explained applies to the entire worldwide chain. Really? A Japanese restaurant without tea? If true, I want to be the fly on the wall when this apparently new policy is explained to patrons throughout Asia. If you don’t want beer, soda, juice or bottled water, they will give you hot or ice water. But no tea. There also is a no-takeout policy, which might be understandable from the standpoint of enjoying ramen at its peak, but otherwise there is no reason. But the kicker is, apparently this policy applies to taking leftovers home, according to one Yelper. Eh, what???

And the quandary about the egg. As I mentioned, you’re given the choice of getting it served whole or cut in half. If the egg were properly runny, halving it presents aesthetic problems, particularly as it’s served on the side in a little dish. Is this the reason why it was cold and the yolk partially congealed? If I had opted for a whole egg, would it have been served hot in the bowl and my wish for a liquid yolk fulfilled?

In summary, even Santouka’s excellent bowls of ramen might not be your cup of tea if you’re seeking better value or don’t care for its arbitrary policies.

Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004

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Happy Hour at Purple Café and Wine Bar (Woodinville, WA)

Smack dab in the middle of Woodinville’s “wine country” is Purple, a wine bar and café that had its start here and since expanded into three other local venues (Seattle, Kirkland and Bellevue). The dining menus are not the same among all four locations, though a few items are shared. For instance, on Wednesday nights, only the Woodinville location has the buttermilk fried rosemary chicken. Within walking distance are over 30 wine tasting rooms, most of which have wineries in eastern Washington. Purple has a prime location.

We were in time for its popular happy hour (3-6pm, weekdays), which has more variety in its snack list than in beverages. Beer in a can, for example, consisted today only of Amstel Lite and Bitburger Pilsner. Selections under Wine are a daily red, wine and sparkling. A wine bar should have a more expansive beverage menu for happy hour, in my opinion.

Still, my wife and I didn’t come here for drinks but to have something to eat after a movie. The HH Snacks include some interesting items, like gorgonzola stuffed dates, house made spreads, bruschetta, crab cakes and a cheese flight. We decided to share grilled broccolini and two sliders (BLTA and burger, both with shoestring fries).

Burger sliders are tricky beasts. The smaller patties make it difficult to keep the ground beef moist, even harder if restaurants want to cook it past the e. coli threshold. Rarely, if ever, does one get a ‘medium’ burger, let alone a ‘medium-rare’ one, to one’s liking. In fact, the waitress didn’t give us a choice. Purple’s patty was almost vulcanized, an unfortunate end result for meat sourced from the much-ballyhooed beef consortium of eastern Oregon’s Painted Hills. Condiments of grilled red onions, lettuce, tomato, sherry vinaigrette and spicy aioli didn’t improve the situation (☆☆). It cost $5. Aah, but the shoestring fries! Those were divine (☆☆☆½), if a bit over-salted.

Painted Hills beef burger with shoestring potatoes

Painted Hills beef burger with shoestring fries

BLTA (BLT with the addition of avocado) fared better. The bacon was nicely crisped between small, seeded burger buns. Again, it’s difficult for a slider to have the same impact as a full-sized BLT between slices of toasted bread, which can support more lettuce and a thicker slice of tomato, even more mayo. Still, for what you get and the price ($4), it is a very good and tasty sandwich (☆☆☆), worthy of ordering again. It too was coupled with those fantastic fries.

BLTA with shoestring potatoes

BLTA with shoestring fries

Also very good (☆☆☆) was the grilled broccolini. It was served after the sliders were almost finished, a reflection of the generally slow and uneven service here. We had to remind them that the vegetables had not yet arrived and (earlier) that we needed catsup for the BLTA fries. The broccolini were perfectly cooked, dressed with olive oil, chile flakes and red onions brightened with vinegar.

Grilled broccolini

Grilled broccolini

Purple Café and Wine Bar
14459 Woodinville Redmond Rd. NE
Woodinville, WA 98072

Flower Power: Hmong Success Story

In the Seattle area, it’s impossible not to see stalls run by Hmong growers at the farmers markets. Say what you will about their omnipresence at Pike Place Market, but their cut flowers and arrangements bring incredible color to an already vibrant local attraction. The Hmong now have stalls at farmers markets throughout Puget Sound. For many shoppers, weekly purchases would not be complete without an arrangement or two. And why not? Starting at $5 and rarely exceeding $20, a beautiful bouquet can be had. Purchased at the Issaquah Farmers Market, the one pictured above now graces our home.

Hmong flower stall at Pike Place Market (August 2013)

Hmong flower stall at Pike Place Market (August 2013)

Images of Port Townsend (WA)

With its deep port and proximity to abundant timber, Port Townsend in the nineteenth century was well on its way to becoming the commercial center of Washington State, but the railroads balked. Seattle eventually prevailed. Now, Port Townsend hinges much of its fortune on tourism and boat-building. The preservation of Victorian homes built during the boom years led to the establishment of the Port Townsend Historic District and placement on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now home to many retirees and destination of tourists (including my wife and me) who admire its quaint charms, good restaurants, recreational opportunities and local events, including the jazz festival in July and film festival in September. Port Townsend boasts a stunning setting by Admiralty Inlet and spectacular backdrop of the Olympic Mountains to the east, which buffer rainfall from the Pacific Ocean.