Nicholas Restaurant (Gresham, OR)

After a long day’s drive in blistering heat into and out of Mount Rainier National Park and Mount St Helens Volcanic National Monument and checking into our motel, my wife and I were ready for a margarita and an ice cold beer. (Mis)guided by Quality Inn’s confusingly formatted list of recommended local restaurants in Gresham, we headed straight for what I thought was the address of a Mexican restaurant, but instead wound up at Nicholas, a Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurant. It was too hot (over 100oF) to get back into the car, so we decided to stay.

The interior is spacious and dominated by sunflower-colored walls decorated with black-and-white photographs and oil paintings. The wait staff was cheerful and friendly and prone to use “we” when referring to “you,” which I personally find a tad annoying.

Each table had a tall pizza stand that I thought took up too much table space if I wasn’t going to order a pie. But the reason for it became obvious when an enormous, complimentary pita bread (☆☆☆½), fresh out of the oven, about 24″ across, was placed on top of the stand. You tear pieces off and dip them into the manakish (a blend of olive oil, oregano, thyme, dried mint and toasted sesame seeds), a dish of which was on every table, or into other spreads ordered from the menu. The menu is liberally sprinkled with pictures of many items to help those unfamiliar with the cuisine. To us, several things were very familiar because we had them at Omar Khyyam in Renton, which unfortunately closed for business several years ago. Here were the recognizable grape leaves, lentil soup, falafel, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanouj, fried cauliflower, shish tawouk, and kibbeh, but also many items we’d never heard of. As it turns out, there are in fact “pizzas” whose base is the enormous pita, topped with a variety of Lebanese ingredients, including lamb, chicken, manakish, spinach, and roasted spicy peppers (shatta).

For starters, our thirst for ice cold beers was satisfied with bottled hefeweizen and Laotian beer served with frosted mugs. I love when restaurants do that.

Our vegetarian mezza consisted of tabbouleh salad, hummus, falafel with tahziki, spinach pie and tiny manakish pie. All were delicious, though the highest praise goes to the tabbouleh (☆☆☆☆), in which quinoa substituted for the usual bulgur and lemon juice was used with restraint, and to the wonderful tahziki (☆☆☆½) that my wife seemed to put on everything.

Vegetarian mezza

Vegetarian mezza

Spinach and manakish pies (part of the vegetarian mezza)

Spinach and manakish pies (part of the vegetarian mezza)

The mezza and pita bread turned out to be enough food, so we began to wonder whether it was wise to have ordered the shish tawouk (chicken kabob). We soldiered on but without regret. This was a fine example (☆☆☆). It may not make us forget Omar’s splendid version, but the chicken pieces with onion and bell pepper slices were perfectly grilled, served with an outstanding toum. The rice was denser and mushier than we’ve had before, though its flavor was very good.

Chicken kabobs

Chicken kabobs

Nicholas opened its first restaurant in Portland in 1986. Two more followed, including the one in Gresham.

Nicholas Restaurant
323 N Main Ave.
Gresham, OR 97030


Happy Hour at Golden Beetle (Seattle, WA)

Maria Hines is a celebrity chef around here. She was recognized with a James Beard award (Best Chef Northwest in 2009) and had beaten out Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef. Her restaurant that she opened in 2006, Tilth, is noteworthy not only for its fine cooking but its use of mostly organic and sustainable ingredients. In 2011, she opened Golden Beetle and, the following year, Agrodolce.

Golden Beetle is in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, on NW Market toward the eastern edge of Ballard’s commercial core. The food is described as Eastern Mediterranean, which includes the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Italy is apparently not represented; Agrodolce fills that bill.

It was the dinner hour when I was looking for places to have happy hour. As luck would have it, Golden Beetle offered one.

The happy hour menu has a good selection of Mediterranean items, including a serrano chile and orange zest hummus and mixed marinated olives. Chicken wings combined with harissa, ginger and peanuts, and pizzas also make an appearance, as does a stew of chickpeas, lemon, walnuts and yogurt. But two items struck me immediately: fried pistachios and spiced french fries. The latter includes among its ingredients sumac and harissa aioli. It is also fried in beef fat, which many of you may recall McDonald’s used to do before public concerns about cholesterol forced them to switch to vegetable oil. Whatever side you take on this debate, there is no argument that fries cooked in beef fat are tastier. While they can be ordered separately, I also noticed that the HH mini burger came with said fries, which would let me sample them. Done. I also got the raw winter greens salad.

At 3 ounces, the burger was small enough that I could manage the fries and salad at one sitting. It was a respectable one (☆☆½), garnished with pickled onions and tomato-garlic sauce. Somewhere was a hint of tarragon, which is not one of my favorite herbs. On the other hand, the fries were terrific (☆☆☆½). Looking overly browned, they nonetheless were wonderfully crispy and fluffy, sprinkled with flaky Mediterranean sea salt and, of course, savory from you-know-what. Accompanying the fries was an overly small dipping dish of excellent harissa aioli (I had to ask for another one), much more subdued than the equally first-rate harissa paste on every table.

Mini Burger with Spiced French Fries

Mini Burger with Spiced French Fries

The sole defect of the salad was its saltiness. Otherwise, the chard, pickled chard stems and feta, dressed in a cumin vinaigrette, was quite good (☆☆☆).

Raw Winter Greens Salad

Raw Winter Greens Salad

Golden Beetle
1744 NW Market St.
Seattle, WA 98107

Saffron Grill: Mediterranean Goodies at an Indian Restaurant

After a pre-screening of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, we had in mind to return to Setsuna Japanese Restaurant to try some of their other things for dinner. But we would have been a half hour early before opening, not so appealing when the weather was windy and rainy. Driving along Northgate Way, we spotted Saffron Grill, whose sign advertises it as a Mediterranean restaurant. A quick look at the menu, however, establishes it as much more of an Indian restaurant with a small Mediterranean representation in the salads and entrées. Some quick research on the internet revealed that the owner previously operated Cedars, an Indian restaurant in the U District with the same nod toward Mediterranean cuisine, before moving to Northgate and opening Saffron. (Cedars is still operating, apparently under new management.) Interesting that Cedars’ name also suggests a Mediterranean provenance.

Despite Saffron’s scores of Indian selections, we split tabbouleh salad and shish taouk, but not before succumbing to tonight’s special cocktail, passionfruit mojito and a glass of Kingfisher on tap. The cocktail menu has drinks evoking mostly exotic names and places (such as Maharani Mojito, Mango Martini, Calcutta Pear Martini, Bangalor Rose Martini). The beer selection is extensive with bottles from all over the world. The many wine bottles filling the nooks along the west wall show a very respectable selection as well, including tonight’s special pour of Cougar Crest Estate Grown syrah. From all appearances, the mojito looked like a standard one, pale greenish in color from mulled mint leaves, but there was an unmistakeable passionfruit flavor. Made from a syrup, it was rather sweet but nonetheless tasty. The beer was smooth and ice cold.

Aside from the standard lemon juice and olive oil dressing, the tabbouleh had a savory note. I couldn’t figure out what was responsible. The waitress couldn’t (or didn’t) offer an explanation. The parsley was very finely minced with chopped tomato, bulgur and green onions adding support. This was a nicely balanced tabbouleh, not as puckeringly lemony as Omar’s used to make it, but more refined—in short, a fine salad (☆☆☆).

Splendid was Saffron’s shish taouk version, five whole boneless chicken thighs alternating with green bell peppers on a large bamboo skewer, and grilled (or possibly baked in a tandoor). Our utensils did not include a knife, so we were faced with using only our forks to cut the chicken. It was so moist and tender that a knife was in fact unnecessary, though we did still ask for one. The lemon-yogurt marinade did an outstanding job of tenderizing and flavoring the chicken. The chicken’s golden tint suggested turmeric. The toum, creamy, garlicky and delicious, was a thin aioli with bright acidity. Oddly (but maybe not so much), the accompanying rice was basmati with Indian flavors, mixed with zucchini, carrots and potatoes. Even if the rice was quite ordinary, the taouk itself was worth getting again (☆☆☆½).

Our dinner was topped off with a cardamom and saffron ice cream. All I can say is delish (☆☆☆½)!

As the evening wore on, the restaurant began to fill up, obviously a popular venue to attract this kind of patronage on a Wednesday evening. The happy hour menu is quite extensive, with examples from both the subcontinent and the Mediterranean, ranging in price from $3.99 to $7.99, served everyday, 2-7pm.

Saffron Grill
2132 N Northgate Way
Seattle, WA 98133

Dinner at Lola’s (Seattle, WA)

Tom Douglas has quite a restaurant empire here in Seattle. As a whole, their quality is high. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation voted Douglas restauranteur of the year. Lola is one of those restaurants, named after his wife’s grandmother. The food is inspired by Greek cuisine with excursions into other parts of the Mediterranean and North Africa. Douglas has a farm in Prosser from where he sources his food as much as possible.

After a show at The Paramount, three of us had dinner at Lola to celebrate a birthday. It is located in the downtown core where six of Douglas’ ventures are within a two-block radius. The other complexes are in the popular South Lake Union area and at Pike Place Market.

The menu was small though there was enough variety to satisfy all tastes. At the very top was a list of six spreads that can be ordered with freshly made pita bread. We decided on tzatziki, kalamata-fig and fava skordalia. Freshly baked, the pita was brushed with olive oil, dusted with parsley and sea salt, thick, soft, chewy and great with the spreads. My favorite was the tzatziki (☆☆☆½). The strained yogurt was delicately tart with flecks of dill and a touch of garlic, tasting of sheep’s milk. The skordalia of fava beans (☆☆☆) was very much like a hummus. The olive spread (☆☆½) muted the saltiness of kalamata olives by adding figs, but it was a strange combination of sweetness and brininess. However, every bite was improved by pairing it with tzatziki.

Tzatziki, olive-fig and fava spreads with pita

Tzatziki, olive-fig and fava spreads with pita

We shared watermelon salad (☆☆☆½), squares of sweet, seedless watermelon on shredded iceberg lettuce and basil dressed with basil vinaigrette. The surprise was a rose-flavored syrup tucked underneath slices of smoked feta. A wonderful and refreshing salad.

Watermelon salad

Watermelon salad

Kebabs was a section of the menu, too—eight kinds in total. Our two choices were served on a cast-iron skillet heated up to caramelize the bed of red onions, some slices overly blackened but overall charred nicely and sweet. At our table, a small glass of ouzo was poured over the works that sizzled and imparted its anise flavor. Anderson lamb kebabs (☆☆☆) were grilled rare, coated in a red wine glaze. How about a cheese kebab? Haloumi cheese can stand up to high heat and retain firmness. They were paired with dried kalamata figs, glazed with grape molasses (petimezi). (☆☆☆)

Anderson lamb and haloumi cheese kabobs

Anderson lamb and haloumi cheese kabobs

North Africa was represented by tagines, another menu section. Seared scallops, mussels, clams, shrimp and salmon in the Northwest seafood tagine (☆☆☆½) were delicious and perfectly cooked, cherry tomatoes adding brightness and zucchini adding color. Typical for tagines, the scant amount of broth at the bottom of a cast-iron vessel was very tasty with seafood flavor, ouzo and butter, which we attacked with slices of toasted bread and spoons.

Northwest seafood tagine

Northwest seafood tagine

Our final entrée was housemade Greek sausage (☆☆☆), called loukaniko, made of pork, grilled, drizzled and underlain with lemon aioli and served with lightly sautéed red-ribbed chard. Wild huckleberries added a touch of sweetness.

Housemade Greek sausages

Housemade Greek sausages (loukaniko)

We hadn’t intended on having dessert, but Tom Douglas’ signature triple-coconut cream pie (not on the menu) called out. We asked our waitress about it when we saw it being enjoyed at another table. There were generous amounts of coconut throughout, in the crust, cream and garnish, topped with ribbons of white chocolate, but while good the pie (☆☆☆) lacked the intense coconut flavor that I vividly recall in Ted’s chocolate haupia pie, a personal favorite.

Coconut cream pie

Triple-coconut cream pie

One thing we noticed throughout the meal was the moderate noise level, helped by the very high ceiling, despite hard surfaces everywhere. We could actually hear each other across the table, a welcome relief from din bins.

2000 4th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121

Zut! est Bien

We had hoped to pass through Berkeley at around noontime or so for a quick snack. Visions of a legendary dessert at Bette’s To Go—the chocolate espresso twinkie—played with my mind. This Hostess namesake, a dense chocolate cake filled with espresso cream and enrobed in chocolate icing, landed in the Sterns’ 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late and was featured on NPR. As it turned out however, our arrival in Berkeley was closer to late afternoon. So we modified our plans. We’d have dinner at Bette’s Oceanview Diner (also greatly admired) next door and have the twinkie for dessert. I should’ve done my homework because the restaurant closes at 2:30 every weekday and BTG at 5pm. We barely got through BTG’s door before closing to order a twinkie to-go. What for dinner? The saleslady recommended Zut! across the street.

​Zut! (which literally means “Damn it!” in French) serves food inspired by the Mediterranean. We were too early for dinner which would have begun at 5:30pm, but the restaurant was still serving its afternoon (small plates) menu. Good enough. 

The Fried Brussels Sprouts (☆☆☆☆) were outstanding, clearly a signature dish, cooked to a perfect texture, nicely browned and accompanied with bacon bits and shredded Parm. A lemon half was thoughtfully wrapped in a mesh cloth jacket. The juice added the tartness that always seems to complement Brussels sprouts.

Zut!'s fried brussels sprouts

Zut!’s fried brussels sprouts

I’m usually tempted by hamburgers made with grass-fed beef. The Zut! Burger (☆☆☆) was a very good version with a slice of white cheddar cheese between a ciabatta roll. The fries were exceptionally good, almost upstaging the burger itself.

Zut! Burger

Zut! Burger

So, what about the twinkie? It (☆☆) has no resemblance to the Hostess dessert except for an oblong shape. Its chocolate and coffee flavorings are a virtual can’t-miss combination. Was it? Maybe if we had gotten this treat first thing in the morning, but the cake was dry, almost as if it were a day old. If that were indeed the case, then shame on Bette’s. We were not impressed.

Bette's chocolate espresso twinkie

Bette’s chocolate espresso twinkie