Peonies at the Seattle Chinese Garden

It’s been twenty years or so since its official opening. During that time, I didn’t know that there was a Chinese garden in Seattle. I am not alone, I suspect. It seems it hasn’t been well publicized for all the years it’s been in existence. Locals are more likely to have gone to the Japanese Garden near the University of Washington. But that may soon change.

It turns out that there has been a multi-phase plan for the garden’s landscape design. The goal is to establish one of the largest Chinese gardens outside of China and the first of Sichuan-style in the U.S. Take a look at the architect’s rendering and tell me it doesn’t look exciting, let alone ambitious.

(Image from

Two weekends ago, the garden hosted the Peony and Bamboo Festival. If it weren’t for an announcement that my wife saw, I would have gone on even longer unaware of our local treasure. It was time for us to pay a visit, even more so for the chance to see peonies. I’ve been to Portland’s Chinese Garden in 2006 when it hosted a spectacular exhibit of cut peony arrangements, which boosted in no small way my admiration for what some regard as China’s ‘official’ flower. Add to their wondrous beauty the intoxicating scent that many of them give off and you have one heckuva flower.

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Of the multitude of peony plants, 400 were donated to the garden by ‘The City of Peonies,’ Luoyang, which itself hosts a renowned annual festival. The plants are now approximately 3-4 years old, it appears, not yet the splendid specimens they will become.

What more can be said than that a warmer than usual winter and spring caused the peonies to flower early this year? By the time of the festival in mid-April, many blossoms were already past their peak. But a great deal more were in perfect form. One can imagine that when mature, these shrubs and trees will produce even more spectacular displays.

Seattle Chinese Garden
6000 16th Ave SW
Seattle, WA 98106

Seattle Restaurant Week: Etta’s Seafood

Every April and October, Seattle area diners look forward to Seattle Restaurant Week. The program actually extends over a two-week period (except Fridays and Saturdays) and features many restaurants that have agreed to offer a 3-course dinner for $30 per person (and, in a few cases, two-course lunch for $15). These prices can be great values when one considers that big-name restaurants participate and offer many of their popular menu items.

So far, my wife and I have gone twice in the last week, for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Monsoon East, where we enjoyed some of our favorite dishes. For lunch on Thursday, we went to Tom Douglas’ Etta’s Seafood.

In the Tom Douglas empire, Etta’s is one of his earliest ventures, doing business since 1995. Because of its focus on serving freshly caught seafood, quality and no doubt proximity to Pike Place Market, it remains a very popular restaurant among locals and tourists alike. The two-for-15 Restaurant Week deal gets you a choice of appetizer and main course (dinner adds dessert). In our case, we shared steamed mussels and clam chowder as starters and pan-fried salmon and fish & chips for our entrées.

Not only were local mussels steamed perfectly but they were served in a superb broth, rich and slightly tart with beans that surprised with a crispy exterior (☆☆☆½).

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Penn Cove Mussels, Green Garlic Confit, White Beans, Spring Herbs

Chopped fresh clams, a few pieces gritty, and diced potatoes floated in a refined white chowder. It was also creamy, thankfully free of excessive thickness that characterize many cornstarch-y versions. A subtle flavor of bacon was imparted by bacon salt. (☆☆☆½)

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Creamy Clam Chowder, Bacon Salt, Parsley Oil

I wish that more restaurants would use panko for their fried fish batter like Etta’s. Personally, I find flour batter less appealing, the more thickly-applied examples having a tendency of soak up more oil. Etta’s was nicely crispy and while the cod was very fresh, it could have benefited from more seasoning (☆☆☆). The accompanying fries and cole slaw were quite good.

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True Cod Fish And Chips, Malt Vinegar Slaw, Dill Pickle Tartar Sauce

Douglas makes a proprietary spice rub called Rub with Love, which is used primarily for salmon, and is available commercially. Etta’s preparation with wild-caught salmon (pictured at the top), which quickly became a signature dish long ago, is remarkable for its perfect balance of being smoky, sweet and herbal (☆☆☆☆).

We finished our meal with Triple Coconut Cream Pie.

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Triple Coconut Cream Pie

Etta’s Seafood
2020 Western Ave
Seattle, WA 98121


Signs of Spring at Pike Place Market

The following images taken at Pike Place Market here in Seattle are more evidence that spring has arrived. The flower stalls especially are bursting with tulips. Local asparagus, artichokes, morels and fiddleheads are a joyful reminder that bountiful crops are beginning and will continue to appear through the fall.

Seward Park: Seattle’s Great Urban Walk

It’s not so easy to find old-growth forest within Seattle city limits anymore, yet Seward Park has the Magnificent Forest featuring evergreen trees aged 200 years or more. The park was designed by the famous Olmstead brothers and remains a wonderful legacy of a time when city officials saw fit to set aside forested areas for public enjoyment. It occupies all of Bailey Peninsula that juts out into Lake Washington.

At this time of year, what strikes you more than the tall trees are the kwanzan flowering cherries that were blossoming throughout the park. My wife and I saw them almost immediately on the first trail we took and along the park’s periphery. A spectacular stand is located in the amphitheater area.


Kwanzan cherry trees (click to enlarge)

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A network of footpaths winds through the park, a walker’s paradise when you consider that much of the park is inaccessible to motor vehicles. Over its 277 acres, trails diverge and connect, signposts clearly marking their names and distances. We were never far from the park’s edge no matter which path we took; they all eventually connect to the paved 2.4-mile walking and biking path that encircle the park. Walking along here reminded us of the Seawall trail around Stanley Park in Vancouver with its similar surroundings of water on one side and forest on the other though not as spectacular.

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The forest understory was carpeted with the usual native plants, including lots of huckleberry shrubs. New-growth licorice ferns were unfurling their fronds. Grassy areas showed signs of spring, too. It looked as though the flowers blanketing them were just ‘weeds,’ but a closer look revealed tiny wildflowers, including pinkish-white, sometimes reddish asters.

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douglas aster

Douglas’ aster (Aster subspicatus)

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Licorice fern

Seward Park is an urban oasis that we need to visit more often.


Chicken Wings in Black Bean Sauce

I love the funky savoriness of Chinese fermented black beans (douchi). I also love chicken wings. No big surprise then that I love them together. Rather than packaged, loose black beans (which need to be swirled in water and drained several times), for convenience I use the Master brand of fermented black beans bottled in oil. I find other prepared black bean sauces sometimes too salty and add other ingredients, including garlic, whose portions I’d rather control myself.

Chicken Wings in Black Bean Sauce

  • Servings: 2-3
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2 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 tbsp. fermented black bean sauce (preferably Master brand), drained of excess oil
23 c. minced green onion, divided
1 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. minced ginger
2 lb. chicken wings, cut into 2 pieces, tips discarded, fat trimmed
23 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp. sugar 
1 tbsp. soy sauce
4 small seeded and minced chili pepper (optional)
14 c. dry sherry
14 c. minced cilantro

Heat wok over high heat until very hot and add oil. Add black beans, 13 cup of the green onions, ginger, and garlic and stir-fry mixture for 30 seconds.

Add chicken wings and stir-fry mixture for 2 minutes.

Stir in broth, soy sauce, sugar, sherry, and chili peppers (if using), bring liquid to boil, and simmer mixture, covered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Reduce liquid in wok, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced (about 14 cup) and starts to sizzle but not scorch, about 10-15 minutes more. Remove pan from heat. Toss wings in reduced sauce until coated.

Transfer wings to cookie sheet, lined with aluminum foil and fitted with wire rack, and bake wings until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Transfer wings to platter and sprinkle them with remaining 13 cup green onions and cilantro.

Rhododendron ‘Unique’—Harbinger of Spring

When the ‘Unique’ variety of rhododendron (R. campylocarpum hybrid) starts blossoming, it’s the signal in the Pacific Northwest that the rhody season will be in full swing. It’s extremely popular locally, not only for the flowers but more importantly its handsome ovate leaves and compact shape that make it a valuable landscaping specimen throughout the year. I have several shrubs growing in the front yard. After 20 years or so, they’re now quite tall. Last year, our region suffered an almost unprecedented drought. I admit I didn’t water them, except for once, through this botanically stressful period which saw little rain between May and October. So, it was quite the surprise when the shrubs started sprouting a profusion of buds that could lead to the greatest floral display ever, maybe the result of our very wet winter and early spring. The buds start out pinkish and, as they start to open, take on apricot tones. When fully in blossom, they become cream-colored with faint tinges of pink.


Rhododendron campylocarpum hybrid (‘Unique’)


Hello to Nice Weather on the Little Si Trail (North Bend, WA)

There’s nothing like the promise of a beautiful day, after an extended period of wet weather, to stimulate the desire to do something outdoors. Last Friday was such a day. We decided to hike on the Little Si Trail near North Bend, which strangely we’d never done for all the years we’d been living in western Washington.

The trail is very popular among locals who appreciate that it’s open year round. At 1,400ft, it isn’t very high, easily dwarfed by the peak next to it, Mount Si at 3,900ft and open only 7 months out of the year. Popularity is further bolstered by the trail’s moderately difficult designation, while Mount Si’s is rated as difficult. Still, the hike is not like a walk in the woods, rising about 1,100ft above the trailhead and the most strenuous parts being at the beginning and end of its 2.2-mile length over relatively steep, rocky surfaces.

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The biggest challenge for my wife and me was our lack of conditioning. By the end of the hike, my legs and knees were aching, back and butt seeking cushion and the rest of my body craving ice cold beer.

Almost the entire length ventures through beautiful forest, dominated by Douglas fir and western red cedar, and tall big-leaf maples clothed in thick mats of bright green moss.

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Impressive also are occasional glimpses of gigantic boulders, some in spectacular heaps, some huge and monolithic, covered in mosses and ferns.

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As with any mountain trail, the surface is uneven not only from rocks but exposed tree roots that are easy to kick, especially by tired legs.

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Clearings at the summit reveal Mount Si and the broad Snoqualmie Valley below.

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At the summit, you can rest to your heart’s content on the bare rock exposures and bask in the sunshine on a clear day or shiver when the winds blow. It took us four hours to make the round trip, including rest at the top. If we’d been any younger or in better shape, it surely would’ve taken less time.

Wildflowers on the Little Si Trail

In the next few months, my wife and I will be conditioning ourselves for a trip to Peru and Bolivia later in the year. High-altitude hiking in the Andes will be punishing enough without even taking into consideration demand on legs, knees and lungs. Our first real hike of the year was yesterday, the popular Little Si Trail that starts in North Bend. (The mountain is called Little Si because it stands next to the bigger Mount Si.) The trail gains a bit over 1,100ft over its 2.2-mile length, so there wasn’t enormous pulmonary challenge, but our quad muscles and knees took a lot of punishment. Still, we had a wonderful time outside and enjoyed the scenery along the way, including beautiful forests and view of Mount Si  and the Snoqualmie valley from the trail summit. We also noticed the season’s first wildflowers, which I could count on one hand. The flowers pictured above belong to the red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).


Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)