When I lived in Tokyo, there was a period of time when, inspired by Annie Hall, I spent every weekend in Omotesando dressed like Diane Keaton. Even then, no one ever came up to me, not even once, and tried to punch me in the face. That tells you how polite people can be.
I mention this because the one thing I was struck by during my time in the northwest U.S. was how polite and nice everyone was. EVERYONE wanted to know if I was having a good day, had advice on what to get and where to get it, or just wanted to shoot the breeze about the weather. At times, unnerved, I would try to play along, but people can sense masked awkwardness and instinctively move away (because, let’s face it, am I Rachel Ray? No. No, I am not).
Nice, laid-back people, Dungeness crabs, and Kurt Cobain — good things have traditionally come out of the Pacific Northwest. At the same time, this area is also well known for being a haven for scary psychos of the first order. As well as the home of sparkly vampires. So there’s also that to think about. This duality also shows up in the region’s food scene. There is bad and there is good (usually when cooks aren’t trying so hard). And then there is the I Don’t Really Know What To Think Yet. This category is the most infuriating of all.
You know, people talk about how weird Seattle is, how people walk around in plaid all day long and don’t take showers and eat only tofu. Well, there is a little bit of that, but the Emerald City is also a surprisingly food-oriented kind of city (I totally loathe the term “foodie”. Not because of any ridiculous, stupid backlash, but because it’s often used to divide people “in the know” from “everyone else” and suggests that people who like food also need to spend lots of money on good food. As a person who loves street food, I obviously don’t subscribe to that). So Seattle is “foodie” (gag), but in a very laid-back, natural and unpretentious way.
The embodiment of that would be emmer&rye (1825 Queen Anne Ave., (206) 282-0680), where local, seasonal produce meets up with gently twee surroundings and the chef’s great touch with vegetables and makes you feel like you’re in a Wes Anderson movie. But The Royal Tenenbaums, not Fantastic Mr. Fox. Favorites: a cauliflower and kale salad, steamed clams with strips of bacon in their cooking liquid, a perfectly grilled strip of beef alongside rings of squash.
There was also the nearly impossible-to-find Walrus & the Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave., (206) 395-9227), named after the creepy rhyme in Alice & Wonderland (what oyster lover wants to imagine walking, talking, baby-like oysters? Terrible). Aside from the terrific seasonal mollusks (half off before 5pm), there are truly great non-oyster sides (which change from week to week) like grilled lamb’s tongue, steak tartare and the best deep-fried brussels sprouts this side of anywhere. An even cheaper oyster alternative is Jack’s Fish Spot at Pike Place Market, which serves great quilcene oysters ($1 a shell), plus a no-frills menu of chowder and crab cocktail.
Rancho Bravo Taqueria (at 45th St and 2nd Ave) is not technically a restaurant, but a food truck — too bad the cat’s out of the bag on this one, locals. Great burritos (get either “Rancho” with sour cream or “Bravo” without) stuffed with either the typical fillings or tripe or beef tongue (recommended) make the wait for your plate a lengthy one at lunchtime. Dick’s Drive-In (three throughout Seattle) is a lot quicker, but the menu’s more limited too; the “Deluxe” is a double-beef patty cheeseburger with all the traditional fixings. If you’re a breakfast person, you have your choice between the super Eggs Benedicts or corned beef hash at Glo’s (1621 East Olive Way, (206) 324-2577) or the pancakes or “migas” (it’s a sort of breakfast tortilla, not the Spanish dish “migas”) at Portage Bay Cafe (4130 Roosevelt Way, (206) 783-1547). Finally, there is a great non-meat alternative serving good, tasty food: Araya’s Place (the only kind of Thai I’ll eat in Seattle, since vegan Thai is impossible to find in Bangkok). Recommended: the tofu “larb” (1121 45th St., (206) 524-4332).
What to say about Portland? I don’t know myself. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time here. Maybe I was disgruntled about the hugely long line outside of Voodoo Doughnuts. Maybe I just didn’t get it. But my time here was spotty. First, there were the towering pastrami or corned beef sandwiches and flavorful chopped liver at Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen (1038 Stark St., (503) 222-DELI). But then there was the overhyped, confused, and sometimes just plain too-salty fare at Castagna.
Did I have too many expectations of The Oregonian’s 2010 “Restaurant of the Year”? Of one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs of 2010”? Maybe so. But while the matsutaka with shaved, pickled marrow and roasted elk loin were delicious, the pine curd and roasted chanterelles with boullion and tea-poached cardoons with smoked sturgeon powder were overly salted, conceptual messes. And I still don’t know what to think about the “pickles of today’s harvest” with cured scallops, which taste sort of like new car smell.
Ever have that feeling where you mentally slap yourself over and over again until you can’t feel anything anymore because you have gotten yourself into a stupid situation? No? It’s just me? Well, okay. Maybe it is just me. In any case, I must have done that about 1,000 times over the last five days, spent on this or that golf course, menacing deer and humans with various stray golf balls. The situation was mitigated somewhat by after-golf lunch, which became my highlight of the day. The best: Bandon Fish Market ( 249 1st St., Bandon, OR, (541) 347-4282), where the mascot may be a dead fish (unnerving) but the fish and chips are fresh and tasty — possibly the best I’ve had in a long while. Halibut is more flavorful and firmer than the traditional cod.
The Pacific Northwest. What more to say about the Pacific Northwest? Shall I say I saw lots of people I really liked and had lots of fun despite the horrible, truly awful weather? Shall I say I enjoyed every meal, no matter where, because no matter what, the service was good and people still tried hard? Or shall I say I learned to stop blathering on because it solves nothing, and I believe in quality over quantity (obviously I’m lying)? This I’ll say: I have yet to be punched in the face. There’s still a chance, dear reader! Catch me if you can.