Maui

April 29th, 2013 by Dawn

Yee's Orchard
Yee’s Orchard stand, selling our favorite mangoes, Golden Glow.

Eleven mangoes, three avocadoes, a handful of dragon eyes (longan), five limes, three pineapples, one pomelo, two passion fruit, two grapefruit-sized lemons, one orange-sized grapefruit, two whole coconuts, pickled green mango, and a dozen and a half apple bananas. We now know: this is all the fruit that our family of three can consume during a Hawaiian vacation.

All of this deliciousness is found at Yee’s Orchard stand, but the mangoes are what kept us coming back time and time again to restock supplies. They grow several varieties of mango in the orchard right behind the fruit stand. Our favorite is the Golden Glow, a variety developed by Mr. Yee himself. Juicy, floral, and perfectly sweet, they melt in your mouth like no mango we’ve ever eaten. These mangoes alone are worth the trip to Maui. Sadly, they can’t be transported to the mainland.

Maui
Dawn’s favorite dish of the trip: poke bowl from Eskimo Candy; doughnut on a stick from T. Komoda Store and Bakery; the crescent moon hangs while the sun sets.

This was the first winter in over a decade where we decided to try a tropical vacation, and we are sold. We found a delightful place to rent, directly on the beach, and spent part of February trading the gray skies of Seattle for sandals, swimsuits, blue skies, and the Maui ocean breeze.

We like to keep travelogues whenever we travel, mostly as personal mementos and a way to narrate our photos. But we’ve also found our travelogues useful to refer back to whenever someone asks us for recommendations. Since our travelogue writing style can get a bit lengthy and detailed, we thought we’d post a condensed list here of our favorites from the island.

Maui
Fresh cut coconut; hot out of the fryer malasadas from Home Maid Café; exotic fruits at Yee’s Orchard stand.

In no particular order, here are our top recommendations for Maui. Click on the links to read more detail in our Maui travelogue.

  • Poke bowl and the fish and chips at Eskimo Candy. Hands down, the best cheap eats of our trip.
  • Fish tacos at Coconuts Fish Café, piled high with 17 ingredients and served on grilled corn tortillas.
  • Yee’s Orchard stand. Buy all the fruit you can manage, especially the Golden Glow mangoes.
  • Mama’s Fish House for your splurge meal. Very expensive, and absolutely fantastic.
  • Pastries from T. Komoda Store and Bakery, including the guava malasadas and red bean paste doughnuts. This is a required stop if you’re headed Upcountry.

Maui
The view of Kamaole I beach, from the patio of our rental; the cove outside Mama’s Fish House; the black pearl chocolate and passion fruit dessert at Mama’s Fish House.

  • Saturday morning Maui Swap Meet. Find the guy hacking up coconuts from the back of his pickup truck, and the woman across the aisle from him selling passion fruit bread. Sample some of Jeff’s Jams and Jellies and pick up some souvenirs.
  • Tom’s Mini Mart beat out Ululani’s for shave ice during our visits. Order your ice the way the locals do it, with ice cream on the bottom. It’s reminiscent of a creamsicle!
  • Mana Foods for groceries, exotic fruit, and all sorts of gourmet foods.
  • If you’re in Kihei, stop by Home Maid Café (NOT the bakery/deli in Kahului) for malasadas. We also heard that breakfasts here are simple but good.
  • Lahaina Fudge Company. Try the chocolate peanut butter fudge and the lava flow (coffee and chocolate) fudge!

Maui
Lunch from the Gogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck at the Maui Swap Meet; palm leaf; four varieties of mango, plus fresh baked mango bread, dried mango, and more at Yee’s Orchard stand.

Have you been to Maui? What did we miss? We’d love to visit your favorites on a future trip, so leave us a note in the comments below!

Kamaole I beach sunset
Sunset over Kamaole I Beach.


Bellingham sweets and eats

May 12th, 2011 by Dawn

Are you planning some local travel this summer? Maybe you’re heading north across the border, or over to Lummi Island, as we recently did. Or you might be a Canuck heading down our way. Either way you’ll find yourself passing by Bellingham en route, hungry after being on the road or stuck at a border crossing for a couple hours.

Bellingham is an easy stop-off for I-5 travelers, and it’s not hard to find great bites to eat. On our three recent visits, we wandered downtown for lunch, where you’ll find all of the places mentioned here.

Bellingham
Rocket doughnuts; artwork inside Pel’Meni Russian Dumplings; a mint espresso doughnut.

Rocket Donuts was our first stop in December (well, Eric’s, as I shopped for pretty papers at Stampadoodle). We still had donuts on the brain after we’d stopped at Countryside Donut House on our way out of Seattle and sadly found them closed for the holidays. But once we’d arrived in B’ham, we realized there was still an entire half hour before lunch. Plenty of time for second breakfast!

Eric picked up my favorite, a plain cruller, along with an apple fritter and their donut of the month, mint espresso. The fritter had more apples than any I’ve eaten, and would have been a contender in our doughnut taste-off. The cruller was eggy and delicious, but the two of us fought most over the last bite of that mint espresso doughnut. The combo worked perfectly, and it may have been the moistest cake doughnut I’ve tasted. Oh, and they serve a pretty respectable espresso here, too.

Bellingham
Locals hanging out inside Old World Deli; pel’meni dumplings; waiting for the dumplings to boil.

Half an hour later, we were ordering Russian dumplings for lunch at Pel’meni. The colorfully painted restaurant has exactly two choices at the counter: potato or beef dumplings. We ordered one of each then watched the owner fiddle with the vintage turntable to fix a broken needle while our dumplings boiled. It wasn’t long before the vinyl was playing again and our dumplings were done. They were finished with a healthy dusting of yellow curry powder, some sour cream, cilantro, and the critical squirts of rice vinegar and hot sauce that transform the dumplings from good into the absolute perfect lunch. The beef version was by far my favorite.

Why can’t we have this in Seattle, I thought then. But wait. Not a month after our visit, they opened a location right here in Fremont. Swing by for your dumpling fix 5 pm until late in the night.

We loved the dumplings so much that we went back on our return trip the next day for an appetizer-sized reprise of the meat pel’meni. Not knowing the future, we figured this was our last opportunity to try them again for a while. It was tempting to have more, but we still wanted to try Old World Deli across the street.

The deli imports meats and cheeses, available hand-sliced or served inside one of their deli sandwiches served on Breadfarm bread.  My parma cotta (ham and mozzarella) panino was melty and delicious, particularly with the house-made mustard. It’s a comfortable hangout for the locals, with artwork pinned to the walls and casual chairs where you might kick back and read the paper one morning. I might do that sometime, since the breakfast panini menu looked worth trying.

Bellingham
Pretzel sticks are one of over a dozen forms of pretzels at Ralf’s Bavarian Bakery; truffles at Chocolate Necessities; farm fresh eggs at the Bellingham Farmers Market.

It was a frigid December day outside, and ice cream should have been far from our minds, but we’d heard that Mallard Ice Cream serves up some creative flavors. While they certainly have the standards, like strawberry, chocolate, or cookies and cream, you can also choose avocado, yerba mate, or White Russian.  After waffling over the extensive list, we settled on two: vanilla black pepper, and cider cheesecake. While it’s nice that they’re always experimenting and rotating through seasonal flavors, I am sad that I’ll need to wait months for another cold winter day to have that cider cheesecake ice cream again. It was heavenly.

Chocolate Necessities was our last stop on this visit. Almost an institution in Bellingham now, they have been making handcrafted truffles and chocolates for over 20 years. The location we stopped in also serves gelato, which we eyed with interest but there was no way we could fit in another bit of ice cream. Instead, we opted for a couple of truffles. The white chocolate peppermint truffle was a creamy version my favorite holiday treat (peppermint bark, of course!), and the scotch truffle was rich and boozy.

Bellingham
Mulunesh serving up her Ethiopian stew; 30 flavors to choose from at Mallard Ice Cream; the Bellingham Farmers Market.

In early April, we made a return trip to the Willows Inn, and found ourselves in Bellingham again on a Saturday morning, this time coinciding with the second week of their seasonal farmers market. What a lovely market! Larger than most in Seattle, the Bellingham Farmers Market sits under a series of permanent open-air structures, rather than tents. There’s a great mix of farmers of all sorts, crafters, and ready-to-eat food, with lots of open space, so while it’s lively, it doesn’t feel elbow-your-neighbor crowded. Street performers drew crowds, who were munching on soft pretzels from Ralf’s Bavarian Bakery and drinking homemade Chai from India Grill.

For lunch, we grabbed plates from one of the vendors, Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine. The owner, Mulunesh, was serving either chicken or lentil stew with beets, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, along with the spongy slightly sour Injera bread to sop it all up. Delicious, and in itself worth a stop.

So what’s next on the list for Bellingham? I’d like to try La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza, or maybe we’ll check out one of the breweries like Chuckanut or Boundary Bay. But what I’d really like to know is, what are your favorite bites in Bellingham?

Rocket Doughnuts
306 W Holly St, Bellingham
(360) 671-6111
Rocket Donuts on Urbanspoon

Pel’Meni Russian Dumplings
1211 N State St, Bellingham
(360) 715-8324
Pel'meni Restaurant on Urbanspoon
3516 Fremont Place, Seattle
(206) 387-1702
Pel'meni Dumpling Tzar on Urbanspoon

Old World Deli
1228 N State St, Bellingham
(360) 738-2090
Old World Deli on Urbanspoon

Mallard Ice Cream
1323 Railroad Ave, Bellingham
(360) 734-3884
Mallard Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Chocolate Necessities and Gelato
1426 Cornwall Ave, Bellingham
(360) 733-6666
Chocolate Necessities and Gelato on Urbanspoon

Ralf’s Bavarian Bakery
207 E Maple St, Bellingham
(360) 733-3066
Ralf's Bavarian Bakery on Urbanspoon

Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine
Bellingham Farmer’s Market
(360) 756-1627
Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine on Urbanspoon


Pistachio gelato taste-off

May 9th, 2011 by Dawn

I was gleeful when I found out this weekend that my favorite gelato is now available in my neighborhood (Ravenna), at Casa d’Italia. And this reminded me that I neglected to tell you the results of our pistachio gelato taste-off.

Gelato taste-off
Clockwise from top-left: Bottega Italiana, D’Ambrosio, Fainting Goat, vanilla gelato from Gelatiamo (we were unable to obtain pistachio from them this weekend, so didn’t rank this one), and Talenti.

After we’d stuffed ourselves with bánh mì at our January taste-off, we moved on to gelato. For an even playing field, we stuck with just one flavor, pistachio. With the same set of judges and ranking method as our sandwich taste-off, and only four gelati (hm – gelati, gelatos, gelatoes – nothing looks correct in an English sentence…), the best possible score was 9 and the worst was 36.

Talenti 4th place: This high-end grocery store gelato was a bright, almost fake green sitting next to the others. Talenti gelato tasted a bit artificial, too, and the texture was icy. While it had the biggest chunks of pistachio of the bunch, which initially seemed like an advantage, the nuts were soft and mealy. More than half ranked this at the bottom, giving it an overall score of 30.
Bottega Italiana 3rd place: Bottega Italiana’s gelato was creamy in texture but sweeter than our ultimate favorite. The primary complaint here was that it doesn’t taste much like pistachio. Instead, it’s more like brown sugar in flavor and color. Yummy, but pistachio should taste like pistachio. Score: 26.
Bottega Italiana on Urbanspoon
Fainting Goat Gelato 2nd place: It was basically a toss-up between the middle two gelati, with Fainting Goat Gelato garnering just one point more than our 3rd place choice. Fainting Goat’s version was not nutty and not particularly distinct, and some felt they’d be hard-pressed to identify it as pistachio in a line-up.
Fainting Goat Gelato on Urbanspoon
D'Ambrosio Gelato 1st place: The title of D’Ambrosio Gelato’s web site says “Seattle’s Best Italian Gelato” and we agree. Unanimously. It’s a rare occasion when nine of us agree on a winner (9 points!), so we can definitively say this is the best of the bunch we tried. Intense nutty pistachio flavor, with a great texture and tiny pieces of nuts throughout. Some detected a hint of salt that enhanced the flavor of the pistachio. I personally would recommend any of the flavors at D’Ambrosio and highly recommend a trip over to Ballard (or Casa d’Italia!) for a sampling.
D'Ambrosio Gelato on Urbanspoon

The Seattle bánh mì taste-off

February 23rd, 2011 by Dawn

We had no idea when we held our January bánh mì taste-off that this would become the most talked about sandwich in Seattle come February. While delicious and cheap, these nondescript Vietnamese sandwiches are so commonplace here that they don’t typically get a lot of attention. But after the New York Times’ piece two weeks ago covering their picks for best bánh mì in America, including two from Seattle, people started prodding me, “Hello? When are you going to post your taste-off results?”

Bánh Mì

As with all of our taste-offs, we don’t provide any particular criteria for the judging, yet when we discussed the results afterwards, we found we had pretty similar ideas of what makes a great bánh mì.

It turned out that a well-balanced bite of jalapeño often nudged a sandwich forward in an individual’s rankings. What we discovered, however, was that the “spiciest sandwich” varied wildly depending on which bite of each sandwich you took. The bánh mì that I found to have the most heat was deemed bland by another, who found that the spiciest sandwich in their ranking contained no jalapeño’s on someone else’s plate.

But a great bánh mì is clearly not just about the heat. Bread is key. A traditional bánh mì is served on a light crisp baguette, where the bread and exterior crunch are well-balanced with the filling inside.

In a good sandwich, that filling is often pork (our choice for this tasting) with a nice balance of acid from crunchy pickled carrots, daikon, and cucumber, along with some fresh sprigs of cilantro, and a swipe of mayo.

For those not familiar with our rating system, this was a blind taste-off, with an arbitrary letter assigned to each sandwich for identification. Each person independently stack ranked them, from their most to least favorite.

One point was given when a sandwich was the top of someone’s list, a second choice sandwich received two points, all the way on down the list. So with nine tasters for our five sandwiches, the best possible score is 9 (when everyone ranks it top on their list) and the worst possible score is 45 (all nine people rank it 5th on their list).

So without further ado, here are the results.

Seattle Deli 5th place: The cheapest of our sandwiches was the $2.50 bánh mì from Seattle Deli. It ranked as high as 2nd on a couple of lists, but it also had the most last place rankings, garnering a score of 35. While it got points for tender meat, several had complaints about the bread: too much of it vs. the filling, and no crunch to the crust. And most of our test sandwiches were bland, without much mayo or pickling in the veggies.
Seattle Deli on Urbanspoon
Madison Park Conservatory 4th place: A gentrified interpretation of bánh mì, this $9 sandwich was from Madison Park Conservatory. We were curious how a high end version from a restaurant would rank against the more traditional deli sandwich, and it turned out to be difficult to stack rank since it’s not apples to apples. Several said that in a general sandwich ranking, it might have placed higher, but it was lacking the elements considered critical for a good bánh mì. Here, the bread was soft potato bread instead of a crunchy baguette, the veggies were soft and not very pickled, and there wasn’t enough overall heat. But the pork belly! This is what brought rankings as high as 2 on a couple people’s lists. Juicy, rich, and oh-so-porky, this is what the sandwich was all about. Score: 31.
Madison Park Conservatory on Urbanspoon
Saigon Deli 3rd place: Only one point ahead of Madison Park Conservatory, the Saigon Deli sandwich got the whole range of rankings, 1-5. This $2.75 bánh mì had the crunchiest roll, which several people liked, and the pork flavor was good. But the distribution of jalapeño was uneven, making this the spiciest on one list and the blandest on another. By far the biggest complaint was too much mayo, pulling it down to a score of 30.
Saigon Deli on Urbanspoon
Yeh Yeh 2nd place: A number of tasters gave big points to Yeh Yeh’s Sandwiches for the bread, which was crunchy and crackly outside and soft inside. The pickled veggies were tasty alongside the meat, but they weren’t very well-balanced, since whoever made the sandwich had a heavy hand with the pickles. This was the biggest factor pulling it out of a first place ranking, giving it a final score of 22. Price tag: $3.50.
Yeh Yeh's Vietnamese Sandwiches on Urbanspoon
Pho Cyclo 1st place: With two-thirds of us ranking this as their favorite, the bánh mì from Pho Cyclo Café sat clearly above the rest with a score of 15. It had a great pickled crunch with a nice amount of fresh cilantro, and the sweetest meat of all the sandwiches we tried. Most felt it had the best overall balance of flavor and just the right amount of heat, making it a huge value at $3.
Pho Cyclo Cafe on Urbanspoon

And our conclusion? A second taste-off of pistachio gelato for dessert. We found a rare unanimous winner. Stay tuned…


Revel

January 16th, 2011 by Eric

Revel certainly has something going for it, considering that I’ve already eaten there four times since it opened last month.  It’s not just that it’s down the street from where I work in Fremont, though that’s certainly a bonus.  What has me coming back each time is knowing that I’ll soon be digging into a comforting Korean dumpling or noodle dish, and that there’s always something new to try.

Revel - condiments, interior, dumplingsHousemade condiments: prik nam pla (fish sauce with lime juice and Korean chilies), garlic soy ginger, sweet bean, chili sauce; restaurant interior; delicata squash, Early Grey ricotta, and pecan dumpling.

Revel is the second restaurant from husband-and-wife team Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang.  They somehow managed to keep their highly-praised first restaurant Joule running, give birth to their child last summer, and open Revel just a few months later.

The new restaurant space is completely open, with a full view of the kitchen from every table, and a long shared bar and kitchen work area.  I really like the casual atmosphere, which makes it easy to bring along my 1-year-old and watch him devour pork belly pancakes and delicata squash dumplings.  Plus, there’s a sizeable deck in the back that I’m looking forward to hanging out on as much as possible this summer.

Revel - noodles, ice cream sandwiches, short rib rice
Clockwise from top-left: Five-spiced duck balls, lacinato kale, smoke chili noodles, with fried shallots on top; ice cream sandwiches: coconut macaroon, Kaffir lime, with cherry compote, and vanilla pound cake, coffee, with milk jam; short rib, sambal daikon, mustard green rice with egg yolk.

The menu is just the right size: the lunch/dinner offering is one page with three dishes per category, including salad, (savory) pancakes, dumplings, rice, noodles, and ice cream sandwiches.  The staff recommends that your table shares several dishes, which I’ve done on each visit, but you could easily go it alone if that’s your preference.  My favorite plates so far are the corned lamb, arugula, and nuoc cham salad (with just the right amount of spicy kick in the nuoc cham), the short rib, shallot, and scallion dumplings (perfect for dipping in some prik nom pla or other condiments), and the five-spiced duck balls with noodles and fried shallots.  You might see the menu described as offering “Korean street food,” but our Korean friend Kye assures us it is not.  You’re better off thinking of Revel as serving inventive, Korean-influenced fare.  And then there’s dessert: how can you go wrong with a place that focuses solely on ice cream sandwiches?  Dawn and I both give a thumbs-up to the coconut macaroon sandwich with cherry compote. 

Brunch is a new, welcome addition as of this past weekend.  The categories read similarly (eggs, pancakes, sandwiches, porridge, and soup) with a couple of choices for each.  The Kalbi burger (made from marinated beef short ribs) with bacon and shallot pickle is diminutive in size, but was dripping with juicy goodness and may in fact be our favorite burger in Seattle now.  We were split on other dishes.  Dawn loved the andouille, shrimp, and ginger-scallion porridge, noting that the ginger gave the dish a subtle sweetness throughout.  I preferred the kimchi ramen, pork belly, and egg soup; the ramen might have been slightly undercooked, but the spicy kimchi was the perfect contrast to the richness of the soup.

Revel

Revel
403 N 36th St, Seattle, WA
(206) 547-2040

Revel on Urbanspoon


Willows Inn on Lummi Island

January 7th, 2011 by Dawn

Vacations are time for dreaming.  While vacationing in a particularly idyllic spot, I like to imagine myself as a local.  “See that house way up on the bluff?  Wouldn’t that be a beautiful place to live?”  “Or what about this cabin on the waterfront?  I would take a beach walk here every morning.”  Of course vacation makes everything romantic, and these wistful reveries ignore the reality of life, but isn’t it fun to dream?

Lummi Island
The marina and reef net salmon fishing area; rocks we collected on the beach.

Lummi Island, Washington is one of these places that brings your mind to wander.  A five minute ride on a tiny county-owned ferry takes you away from Bellingham to a rural island.  From the east side of the island are breathtaking views of Mt. Baker, and the west side has views of the sun setting behind the rest of the San Juan archipelago.  It’s the perfect stage for meditation and daydreaming.  And at only two hours from Seattle, it’s possibly the most accessible of the San Juan islands, making it an ideal location for a quick getaway.

We did just that last week, taking advantage of the weekday dinner package offered from Labor Day to Memorial Day at the Willows Inn.  A discounted rate offers a gourmet breakfast and multi-course dinner with an overnight stay. And this was a dinner we were particularly curious about.

The buzz about the dining room started this summer, just before we headed out on our trip to Copenhagen and dinner at Noma.  Noma was voted best restaurant in the world last spring, and everyone was atwitter with the news that a sous chef from such an extraordinary restaurant would come to little Lummi Island.  Blaine Wetzel arrived fresh from an 18 month stint working with Noma’s famed chef René Redzepi to head up the kitchen at the Willows Inn.  Chef Redzepi himself introduced 24-year old Blaine as an “unusual and rare talent” at a Seattle reception we attended last fall.

Blaine was drawn to Lummi by inn proprietor Wiley Starks, who has established a reputation for his commitment to the Slow Food movement and serving local, sustainable foods at his inn.  Wiley himself is a commercial reef net fisherman, providing all of the salmon served at the restaurant.  And he owns, operates, and lives on nearby Nettles Farm, which provides fresh eggs and produce to the kitchen.  Blaine has two full-time farmers at his disposal.

Slow roasted beef cheeks
Slow roasted beef cheek with grilled onions.

We arrived three days before the kitchen was to close for a six-week remodel.  Blaine excitedly told us that when they reopen in February, it will be a completely new experience, with a reinvented menu, updated dining room, and a modernized kitchen behind it all.  Since his arrival in August, he has been getting to know the foods of the area, working within the existing format of the restaurant, and visualizing next steps.

So the five-course one-seating menu we enjoyed exists no longer and may be only a hint of what’s around the corner.  While this is certainly no Noma, it is inventive food more than worth the short journey.

While everyone settled in at their tables, the kitchen sent out a couple small amuses, or “snacks” as they call them at Noma.  My favorite was the toast with turkey liver pate, house made capers, and dill, but I also savored the potato chip with house made sauerkraut and smoked black cod.

A round loaf of whole wheat bread still hot from the Wood Stone oven arrived with a simple slab of butter.  The bread was cut in wedges, exactly like the loaf served at Noma, but in a country bread basket from the inn.

In our first course, deliciously sweet Totten Inlet mussels were dotted on a plate with small rounds of potatoes and thick, vibrant green circles that turned out to be cucumbers.  Fluffy horseradish granita made the flavors pop.  Dots of green dill oil floated in a shallow broth, a visually engaging presentation.  I only wish the lighting at the tables was brighter than a single candle, since much of the visual appeal was lost in the darkness.  Hopefully lighting will improve in the remodel.

Then the decidedly not local Weathervane scallops arrived.  In a row down the plate, with cooked cabbages washing over them and mussel foam sauce lapping on one side, this dish looked and tasted like the sea, and was one of my favorites of the night.

The third course looked a lot like the first (more green dots), but flavor-wise was reminiscent of a dish I loved at Noma: potatoes, lovage, and whey.  Here, it was Nettles Farm potatoes with melted Havarti and buttermilk whey.  Every table around us was talking about how much they liked the flavors.

The Willows Inn
Crème brulée with toasted walnuts and homemade marshmallows; reading by a cozy fire in the inn’s common room.

Blaine and his sous chef were in and out of the dining room throughout the evening, delivering dishes from the kitchen alongside the wait staff.  This is trademark at Noma, where chefs, including Redzepi himself, visit tables.  Blaine says it’s important for the chefs to connect with diners, and they’re the ones best able to answer questions about what’s on the plate.

He delivered our main course, which was a medallion of slow roasted Skagit River Ranch beef cheek with grilled and pickled onions.  And just when we thought we were moving on to dessert, they brought out a bonus course of the tail braised and served with julienned kohlrabi.

Dessert, as read on the menu, was a puzzle to me: “crème brulée with toasted walnuts and homemade marshmallows.”  Why would an inventive chef serve crème brulée, a dessert that’s so standard on American menus?  And marshmallow doesn’t at all seem like something that should be paired with crème brulée.  Instead of a ramekin, it arrived in a tall glass, more crème than brulée.  And as soon as I took my first bite, I understood.  This was Girl Scout camp in a glass: marshmallow, campfire, and even hints of chocolate.  Delicious.

The Rosario Strait
Overlooking the Rosario Strait at sunset.

We definitely plan to return, perhaps after they’ve had a few months to get into a rhythm after the kitchen reopens.  Dinner will certainly be more magical when the earth tilts back and puts the sunset back into the dinner hour, since the dining room has a spectacular 180 degree view of the Rosario Strait.

And if we can’t make it in the spring, perhaps in the the summer, when they will continue the inn’s Sunday tradition of cooking up live spot prawns on the deck, served with margaritas and a sunset like none other.

The Willows Inn
Lummi Island, Washington
(888) 294-2620

The Willows on Urbanspoon


The Seattle baguette taste-off

November 14th, 2010 by Dawn

We learned our lesson from our last taste-off.  Stick to the basics, and don’t overdo it.  So what could be more basic than a baguette?  A great one eaten warm out of the oven, even plain, can be nirvana.  And baguettes are best paired with simple ingredients: a thick smear of butter, a hunk of oozing cheese, or homemade jam.

Baguettes

So it was decided.  There would be a baguette taste-off.  Here were today’s contenders:

We considered others, too:  the newly opened Le Rêve Bakery (not selling baguettes yet), Dahlia Bakery (missed out due to morning-of technical difficulties), Boulangerie Nantaise, Le Panier, Le Fournil, and the list goes on.  But remember the “don’t overdo it” part?

Marmalade

Four couples joined our hosts Kye Soon Hong and Eric Vigessa today:  Catherine Reynolds and Ken O’Hara, Lorna Yee and Henry Lo, Rebekah Denn and David Dickey, along with Eric and me.

You may already be familiar with our rating system, but I’ll reiterate it here:

This was a blind taste-off, with an arbitrary letter assigned to each baguette for identification.  We ate them sans accoutrements for the taste-off, and each person independently stack ranked them, from their most to least favorite.

A baguette was given one point when it was the top of someone’s list, a second choice baguette received two points, all the way on down the list.  So with ten tasters for our seven baguettes, the best possible score is 10 (i.e. when everyone ranks it top on their list) and the worst possible score is 70 (all ten people rank it 7th on their list).

Homemade butter, baguettes

We wound up with three clusters of bakeries in our results:  5th, 6th, and 7th were very close, then we jump up to the 3rd and 4th place rankings, and finally, the 1st and 2nd place winners, which were only two points apart!

La Brea Bakery 7th place: Over half ranked the baguette from La Brea last, giving it an overall score of 61.  However, this grocery store baguette didn’t take the more unanimous last place of our croissant ringer, because a few felt that it had a better crunchy crust and soft interior than the worst of the bakery baguettes.
Macrina Bakery & Cafe 6th place: Macrina didn’t have a good showing today.  Their baguette was the palest of the bunch, with a bubbly crust, and had very little textural contrast between the interior and exterior.  For the most part, it was in the bottom three on people’s lists, garnering a total score of 58.
Macrina Bakery on Urbanspoon
The Essential Baking Company 5th place: Essential got points for a caramelized crust, but many thought it was too dark, almost burnt in spots, and the baguette overall was tough.  The interior was the least traditional of the lot, with a darker wheat crumb, the sourest flavor, and none of the large airy holes inside that people favored in the higher ranking baguettes.  Its overall score was 50.
Essential Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon
Tall Grass Bakery 4th place: Here we enter the next clustering of baguette scores.  Seven of the ten of us ranked Tall Grass’s baguette 3rd, but the others’ lower rankings pushed it down to a score of 37.  One of those who ranked it lower gave it a “low crumb rating” and several felt that it had a simple, uninteresting flavor.
Tall Grass Bakery on Urbanspoon
Grand Central Baking Company 3rd place: Grand Central’s bread got higher accolades for the flavor and had a toasty brown crust, but the exterior was too hard for some.  With blunt ends, this wasn’t a traditional shaped pointy baguette like our top two finishers.  This one had the widest range of rankings, landing everywhere except last on people’s lists, giving it a final rating of 34.
Grand Central Baking Company on Urbanspoon
Bakery Nouveau 2nd place: There were opinionated discussions about the top two results, and it seemed to come down to either texture or flavor.  Many preferred the complex flavor of the 2nd place Nouveau’s baguette.  But while four felt that it was a winner across the board, others didn’t like the texture as much as our winner.  The color of this baguette was a beautiful golden brown.  Its overall score was 21.
Bakery Nouveau on Urbanspoon
Columbia City Bakery And our winner, by a hair: Columbia City Bakery, with 19 points!  All but one placed it in their top two, and most felt Columbia City’s baguette was the closest to the ideal baguette texture, with a crisp exterior and a moist, elastic, chewy interior.
Columbia City Bakery on Urbanspoon

So tell me, what is your favorite baguette?  And what should be our next taste-off?  Bagels?  Cupcakes?  Even teriyaki has been suggested.

And if you missed any of our past taste-offs, you can find them here:


The Piecycle

November 6th, 2010 by Dawn

Ok, people.  Pie delivery?  I’m sitting here, hunkered inside on a Saturday evening, listening to the rain hitting the windows and The Swing Years and Beyond, and I get a craving for some pie.  All I have to do is send a text message, and then a guy shows up on my front doorstep with pie?  Sign me up.

For a bit over a month now, Max has been doing late night (9 p.m. to 3 a.m.) pie deliveries by bicycle on Fridays and Saturdays.  All you have to do is send a text message with your order and location, and The Piecycle will be at your door, too.

The Piecycle

Did you catch that it’s raining tonight?  This guy bikes around in the rain, and the dark, delivering pies to the hungry masses.  That’s dedication.  It’s only $3 a slice, or $20 for a whole pie.

So what’s the catch, you say?  Well, he’s on a bike, so the delivery area is limited (and luckily, my house is included!).  He delivers all over the U-District and surrounding neighborhoods.  Send him a text to find out if he’ll deliver to your location.

Vegan blueberry pie and cheesecake

Tonight we tried the cheesecake, which had hints of lemon and orange and disappeared in no time.  And the blueberry pie is delicious, too.  Max frequently has vegan offerings, and let me tell you, I’d have been hard pressed to guess that this blueberry pie is vegan.

And with a day or two notice, he’ll even bring you a gluten free pie if you need one.  Custom orders are no problem.  Just let him know what you’d like.  How’s that for service?

The Piecycle
9 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays
Delivery to U-District and surrounding neighborhoods
Text your order to (425) 923-6655

The Piecycle (Mobile) on Urbanspoon


Allium on Orcas

August 17th, 2010 by Dawn

It turns out that, yes, it is entirely possible to spend just 24 hours in the San Juan Islands and feel like you’ve had a grand getaway.  At least it felt like this to us, parents with some unexpected vacation time and a babysitter for one night.  We considered a whirlwind food trip to Portland, or maybe a nearby overnight to Whidbey.  But we realized that a journey to Orcas Island takes as much time as a trip to Portland, and spending an hour on one of the most beautiful ferry rides in Washington state is infinitely better than time spent in I-5 traffic.

Orcas Island fire hydrant
A fire hydrant in the town of Eastsound, on Orcas Island.

Complete the picture with an evening at Lisa Nakamura’s new restaurant Allium.  Add sunshine blue skies, while Seattleites are complaining about rain ruining their Independence Day weekend (the San Juan Islands are in the rain shadow, after all), and you have the perfect start to a summer holiday weekend.

Islanders were saddened when their beloved Christina’s Restaurant closed in March after 30 years in business.  Lisa, then chef de cuisine at The Herbfarm, heard that the space was available.  She had already been dreaming of opening her own place, so two months later, Allium was born.

Allium
Daisies; the stairs leading up to the restaurant; Allium’s entrance next to Fishing Bay, in the center of Eastsound.

Allium
Bubbly, in celebration of this mom and dad’s first night away since baby was born!; the bar at Allium; the daily gnocchi, with Lopez Island beef tongue.

We walked in and settled ourselves into our reserved table overlooking Fishing Bay.  While we hadn’t had a bite of food yet, it took us about ten seconds looking at the menu to decide that there was no way we were leaving the island without a return visit to Allium the next day.  With just a day on the island, this would mean lunch before heading out on the ferry home.  Luckily, since the gnocchi is a mainstay on the menu (with an ever-changing daily preparation), I could set aside my gnocchi craving for the moment and focus on the rest of the menu.

We instead shared a refreshing fresh pea soup livened with flecks of dill, along with Oregon blue cheese brioche “pizza” with bacon and mango relish.  I wanted about five plates more of that brioche, but really, it was just the right size (as states Keller’s law of diminishing returns).

Did I mention the bread basket?  The flaky, warm buttery biscuits and herbed focaccia alone are worth the trip to the island.  Since the bread stands nicely on its own, the accompanying caramelized onion marmalade almost seems superfluous.  Until you taste it.  I was tempted to eat this marmalade straight out my spoon.  Ok, I might have done just that.

Allium
Coq au vin leg and roasted breast with smashed potato cakes; blue cheese brioche “pizza” with bacon and mango relish; inside the entrance to Allium.

Our entrees arrived next.  Let me preface this by saying I don’t typically order chicken at restaurants.  First, chicken is one of the easiest things to prepare at home, so why order in a restaurant?  Isn’t it a bit boring?  And second, I’m simply not a fan of chicken.  But I found myself cajoling Eric (who ironically loves chicken) into ordering it since our trusted friends Michael and Robin told us it’s amazing.

Indeed.  The coq au vin leg is served with a roasted breast, alongside smashed potato cakes and spring onions.  Remember what I said about not liking chicken much?  Can I just say this is hands down the best chicken I have ever eaten?

Our waitress had swayed us toward the Alaskan halibut in red curry cream when we couldn’t decide between that and the salmon (with morel cream!).  Her advice was well taken.  Not only was the fish perfectly moist and delicious with the curry, but the accompanying ginger risotto cakes were stellar.  I loved the crispy bits of rice on the edges, and the ginger complemented the curry nicely.

Allium
Beef goulash with sage spaetzel; the cheery dining room; a peek into the kitchen, with Lisa hard at work.

Allium
Flowers along the road; twice-cooked pork shoulder sandwich with pickled onions; a white picket fence in Eastsound.

I hesitated when I heard the dessert special was shortcake.  Still remembering the amazing shortcake I’d eaten the week before, I was craving shortcake.  But I knew it couldn’t match up to Rowley’s version.  It was a close second in my book, however, with first-of-season local strawberries and a thick strawberry sauce underneath, intensifying their flavor.

Chocolate puddin’ cake with Bourbon sauce was gooey and rich, like a brownie with pudding inside, a perfect dessert for chocolate lovers.

Allium
Angel food cake with a Nootka rose-strawberry Bavarian cream; Chocolate puddin’ cake with Bourbon sauce; outside on the deck.

Did you think we were done?  For that night, yes, but we were already thinking about lunch as we left.

The deck is a lovely place to sit for lunch.  Overlooking the water, with a cool breeze, there are sunny seats for those who want to soak it in, and plenty of umbrella shade for the others.  Bartender Paula suggested we start with her daily special cocktail, a Mojito made with Malibu rum and well-paired with the sunshine.

We first split the gnocchi with Lopez Island beef tongue and truffle oil.  Soft pillows of potato and a rich sauce?  This was exactly as my taste-craving imagined.  The plate went back to the kitchen without a speck of sauce after we’d sopped it up with the house made focaccia.

The twice-cooked pork shoulder sandwich came with pickled onions.  While I loved the tenderness of the meat, I wished that the onions weren’t together on one side of the sandwich, since they were not well-integrated with each bite of pork.  A small quibble, though.

Allium
A field of foxglove; Mango cheesecake semifreddo with orange Lilikoi; sunshine on Allium’s deck.

Ok, yes, it would be frowned on in Italy if you ordered gnocchi for your first course and pasta for your second course, but if I had it my way, I would order pasta for every course.  The spaetzel was done just the way it should be, with crunchy bits here and there and a toothsome chew to the noodle.  Lisa’s time at The Herbfarm was evident in this and a number of other dishes, with sage in the spaetzel and hints of dill in the beef goulash.

Being undecided on dessert, we ordered two.  You know, in the name of research and all.  Um.  Anyway…  The angel food cake featured the same local strawberries that graced the shortcake and came with a molded Bavarian cream made of Nootka rose petals picked down the street.  That and the mango cheesecake semifreddo disappeared all too quickly as we traded bites, scheming already about our next trip to Orcas.

A sweet ending
A sweet ending in celebration of July 4th arrived with the check.

Allium
310 Main St, Eastsound, WA
(360) 376-4904

Allium on Urbanspoon


Strawberry picking and a recipe for pickling

July 1st, 2010 by Dawn

The three of us headed to the Skagit Valley on Saturday for the ultimate strawberry picking event.  Jon Rowley, the man who was named the “Disciple of Flavor” by Saveur magazine, organized this second annual field trip north to show us where the sweetest variety of local strawberries are grown.  This is the same man who introduced Copper River salmon to the lower 48 states and who is well-known as our local oyster expert.

Shuksan strawberries
Shuksan strawberries

My first taste of a Shuksan strawberry was last year, when our friend Lorna shared with us some of her harvest from her day of strawberry picking with Jon.  These large glossy berries are a beautiful red color all the way through the center, unlike your typical white grocery store strawberry.  And they are the sweetest berries I have ever tasted.

They have a brief shelf life, deteriorating in only 24 hours, so they are difficult to stock in stores.  However, for a very limited time, lucky Seattleites can find Skagit Sun’s Shuksans at Whole Foods (Roosevelt Square, Interbay, and Westlake) and Metropolitan Markets (Queen Anne, Sandpoint, and Kirkland).  Shuksan season only lasts for about three weeks.

Shuksan strawberry picking at Thulen Farm
Jon Rowley helps Mike cut strawberries for shortcake; fifth-generation farmer Chris McKnight; kids and adults listening to Chris talk about the farm

First pick of this strawberry field at Thulen Farm
First pick of this strawberry field at Thulen Farm

Sixty of us met at Thulen Farm in La Conner to pick the first of the season berries.  Fifth-generation farmer Chris McKnight first talked to us about how they grow strawberries at his farm, a very small operation.  He said that the Shuksan plants are in very high demand, and they have to purchase new plants to keep the berries growing strong.  He pointed out a sparse field behind us where the plants were four years old and barely producing fruit.

He then had us grab empty flats and showed us to the field, where the Shuksan berries were hanging heavy under a canopy of green.  In no time, everyone had filled their flats to the brim with the brilliant red berries and stained their lips bright red, babies included.

Picking Shuksan strawberries
Empty flats waiting for picking; Dawn in the field; unpicked Shuksans

Shuksan strawberry picking
Devouring a strawberry; strawberries awaiting jam and shortcake; Eric and Ian picking together

Strawberry face
Strawberry face

As if we hadn’t eaten enough berries in the field (pick one, eat one), next up was a side-by-side strawberry tasting of five varieties.  The Shuksans and the Hood strawberries were our favorites, although we also enjoyed the Puget Reliance, which reminded Eric of the berries from his childhood.

Kids lined up immediately when Jon started handing out heaping plates of shortcake.  They waited patiently as the architectural masterpieces were assembled: half a biscuit, a spoonful of whipped cream, a heap of berries, the other half of the biscuit, more berries, another spoonful of whipped cream, and finally a few artfully placed berries with a drizzle of juice on top.  And before Jon handed the plate over, he asked each kid if they would be able to eat the whole plate of shortcake.  They nodded solemnly with hands outstretched, and carried it away with a smile.  There wasn’t a speck of shortcake left on those plates.

Shuksan strawberry shortcake
Jon Rowley hands out huge plates of shortcake to the kids, who devoured every bit

Anticipating shortcake
Anticipating shortcake

Shuksan strawberries
Licking the fork clean; I want more berries!

We spent that afternoon hulling and processing all those berries (remember that 24 hour shelf life?).  I churned a batch of my favorite strawberry frozen yogurt, and finished the first step in my three-day strawberry balsamic Ferber jam.  In the morning, we made blintz soufflés with strawberries, which were so yummy that we plan to make them again this weekend.  We also assembled our own architectural masterpiece of shortcake, using David Lebovitz’s three-seed shortcake biscuits.  Those seeds add just the perfect crunch and texture.

For the remaining few pints, I tried a recipe for pickled strawberries that my friends Michael and Robin had recommended to me.  I recommend you do the same.  Sweet and tangy, with a touch of spice, they are a unique way to preserve the sweetness of summer in a jar.

Spiced Pickled Strawberries
Adapted from The Complete Book of Pickling, by Jennifer MacKenzie

6 pints strawberries, hulled (preferably small and just a touch under-ripe)
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups cider vinegar

Puncture strawberries with fork tines and cut any large ones in half.

Combine remaining ingredients together in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar and salt are dissolved.  Remove from heat and let cool slightly.  Pour over prepared berries.

Cover berries and let stand at a cool room temperature for at least six hours or overnight.

Prepare canner or water bath, jars and lids.

Re-heat berries, gently stirring occasionally until strawberries are heated through but still hold their shape.

Gently spoon strawberries and hot pickling liquid into hot jars, leaving ½ inch head space.  Remove air bubbles and adjust head space as necessary by adding hot pickling liquid.  Wipe rim and place hot lid on jar, screwing band down until fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner and return to a boil.  Process for ten minutes.

Turn off heat, remove canner lid and let jars stand in hot water for an additional five minutes.

Transfer jars to a towel-lined surface or a cooling rack and let stand undisturbed until completely cool, about 24 hours.  Check lids and refrigerate any jars that are not sealed.

. . . . .

The pickled strawberries are lovely on their own, but here are some other tasty ideas from folks on twitter:

  • @mbruchas: Blue cheese and pickled strawberries tossed with summer greens, or pickled strawberries on ice cream
  • @tanukipdx: Chopped chicken liver with whipped ricotta and pickled strawberries on grilled bread
  • @jessamyntuttle: Salmon with pickled strawberries
  • @hhlodesign: Foie gras with pickled strawberries
  • @voraciousgirl: A salad with pine nuts, feta, and pickled strawberries

The Seattle doughnut taste-off

June 28th, 2010 by Dawn

We were reminiscing about our croissant taste-off last year, when a ridiculous plan was hatched and quickly spun out of control.  Doughnuts.  Let’s see where the well-known favorites stack up against Seattle’s mom and pop shops.

Doughnuts!

We retrieved doughnuts from all ends of the city and convened on Father’s Day morning for a taste-off of epic proportions.  If you thought four dozen croissants was excessive, try eleven dozen doughnuts in the same room.  Perhaps it was an ambitious plan.

Doughnuts retrieved from all over Seattle

The Contenders

Family Donut Shop.  An unassuming strip mall shop in the Northgate area is where those in the know stop for their sugar-rush, whether it’s a fritter, cruller, or a basic raised. Family Donut Shop on Urbanspoon

Frost Doughnuts.  Open for less than a year, this is the youngest doughnut shop in our taste-off, offering sophisticated creations out of their boutique shop in Mill Creek.  The shop is so popular that they are rumored to be looking for a second location closer to Seattle. Frost Doughnuts on Urbanspoon

King Donuts.  They sell teriyaki and doughnuts next to a Maytag Laundromat in Rainier Beach.  Needless to say, we were curious to see what kind of doughnuts are baked in a place like this.  Teriyaki doughnuts while you wait for your last load to finish spinning? King Donuts on Urbanspoon

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.  The Original Glazed Krispy Kreme was popular across the country before they opened three stores in the Seattle area, including the SODO location where we picked up fresh glazed doughnuts for our taste-off. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts (South Seattle) on Urbanspoon

Mighty-O Donuts.  Organic vegan doughnuts might make you imagine a tofu ring covered in glaze, but you would be hard-pressed to identify their doughnut as vegan in a line-up.  While the bakery is situated in Wallingford, you can also find these doughnuts in high-end area grocery stores like Whole Foods and Madison Market. Mighty-O Donuts on Urbanspoon

Original Bakery.  Open for decades, this neighborhood favorite in West Seattle is our oldest taste-off contender.  They sell no-frills doughnuts and other home style bakery items to go with your coffee at this friendly family-owned shop. Original Bakery on Urbanspoon

Top Pot Doughnuts.  Top Pot’s “hand-forged” doughnuts are in such demand that they’ve now got six brick-and-mortar shops, along with an Airstream mobile unit, plus a presence at our own Qwest field and in Starbucks across the country.  The doughnuts for this taste-off came from their original location in north Capitol Hill. Top Pot Doughnuts (Capitol Hill) on Urbanspoon

Lara Ferroni’s homemade doughnuts.  How do homemade doughnuts stack up against the very best doughnut shops in Seattle?  Lara made us a few batches from her soon-to-be-published Doughnuts cookbook, which is scheduled to hit bookstores this fall.  No fancy, professional bakery equipment here; just a stovetop pot and thermometer.  We should note for our taste test that only two of the twelve people judging knew that there were homemade doughnuts in the mix, so the doughnuts were judged as if they were from a professional bakery.

Cake doughnuts

The Judges

Six couples, three kids, two babies, plus one on the way gathered after some self-imposed carb fasting.  Those with voting rights were our hosts Kye Soon Hong and Eric Vigessa, along with Catherine Reynolds and Ken O’Hara, Laurie and Matthew Amster-Burton, Rebekah Denn and David Dickey, Michael and Robin Bruchas, plus yours truly.

Revealing the resultsRevealing the results

The Ranking Method

This was a blind taste taste, with an arbitrary letter assigned to each doughnut for identification.  Each person independently stack ranked them, from their most to least favorite.

A doughnut was given one point when it was the top of someone’s list, a second choice doughnut received two points, all the way on down the list.  So if there are seven doughnuts, the best possible score is 12 (i.e. when everyone ranks it top on their list) and the worst possible score is 84 (all twelve people rank it 7th on their list).

The Categories

We decided that the only way to make a fair comparison between shops was to compare the same kind of doughnut from each place.  However, it was tough to whittle the playing field so that we could avoid each person having to eat dozens of different doughnuts on a single morning. (I know, you’re asking, how is that a bad thing?)

To focus our attention on the doughnut recipe, we stuck with the quintessential plain cake and glazed raised doughnuts as our categories.  This meant we’d only have to try around a dozen different doughnuts, which should be no problem, right?

But then we got tempted by all of the other doughnut possibilities.  Apple fritter?  Buttermilk bar?  Bismark?  How could we ignore each doughnut shop’s specialty?  In the end, we decided a third category might be disastrous, but we would allow a specialty doughnut flavor from each shop, which people could taste, but these doughnuts would not be part of the judging.

Cake doughnuts

The Plain Cake Doughnut

A plain cake might not be the doughnut that you choose when you’re distracted by chocolate, maple glaze, sprinkles, and jelly.  But it’s an important doughnut because it tells you a lot about the bakery.  What is the flavor of the oil they use for frying?  Is the cake dense or light?  What kind of crumb?  Is it fried with a crunchy or soft exterior?

And besides, sometimes a plain doughnut is all that will do for dunking into your coffee.  And in case you’re wondering, no, Dunkin’ Donuts was not a participant in our taste-off, since they closed all west coast outposts a couple years ago.  Krispy Kreme was the only one of our contenders that didn’t participate in this category, because let’s be real here: which doughnut do you buy when you go to Krispy Kreme?

Mighty-O cake 7th place: A majority ranked Mighty-O’s doughnut dead last, due to the off-flavor (excessive baking soda and the taste of corn oil?) and lack of crunch to the crust.  With a uniform texture throughout, it was uninteresting and bland, garnering a score of 74.
Top Pot cake 6th place: Top Pot was all over the map, landing everywhere except in the number one spot on the stack rankings.  But the median score was 5, giving it an overall rating of 53.  The texture on this doughnut was bready with no crunchy crust, and some felt that it was oily, with a strong nutmeg or clove flavor.
Frost Doughnuts cake 5th place: With only a point advantage over 6th place (52), Frost had a score distribution similar to Top Pot.  This is a very sweet doughnut that seemed bland to some, and like Mighty-O and Top Pot, it had a soft exterior with no crunch.
Family Donut Shop cake 4th place: The rankings for Family Donut ran the gamut.  It might have placed better if it hadn’t been fried in slightly rancid old oil, since it was crunchy with a good open crumb.  Overall, it received a score of 48.
Homemade cake 3rd place: Homemade doughnuts did well in our taste-test, yielding two first-place votes and an overall score of 46.  The crust was crisp, which was an important criteria for most in the cake category, and there was a good crumb with a subtle nutmeg flavor.
King Donuts cake 2nd place: The sweet, cakelike doughnut from King Donuts made it into the top two slots in half of our stack rankings.  Its score was 35.  The nutmeg was well balanced and while many liked the texture and crunch, a few felt that it was a bit too fluffy.
Original Bakery cake 1st place: Original Bakery was the clear winner with a majority voting the cake doughnut as their favorite.  The crunchy crust and light interior made this the perfect doughnut for many.  This doughnut had a slightly unique (some called it citrusy) flavor to it, unlike the customary nutmeg flavor.  Was it cinnamon?  However, there were a few who didn’t go for the non-traditional flavor of this doughnut, resulting in a score of 28.

Raised Glazed

Raised dough is a canvas for many people’s favorite doughnuts: jelly-filled, maple bars, bismarks, and the ever-classic raised glazed.

This category was harder to judge than the cake category.  A few people mentioned that they thought only the top few cake doughnuts were worth eating, whereas they would be happy eating any of the raised doughnuts, including the lower ranked ones.  The rankings here were based more on subtle nuances, although the highest ranked tended to be doughnuts that had an airy soft interior with a touch of crunch on the edges.

Mighty-O doesn’t make a raised glazed, so didn’t participate in this category, and we were unfortunately unable to include Top Pot’s ring for this tasting.  Next time.

Homemade raised 6th place: Homemade doughnuts did not fare as well in this round as in the previous round.  Raised doughnuts can be tricky to make without professional equipment like a proof box, and some felt that they tasted a bit yeasty and not as sweet as the others.  The overall score was 69.
Frost Doughnuts raised 5th place: Half ranked the Frost Doughnut fifth on their stack ranking, but the rest placed it higher.  The resulting score of 44 put it marginally behind the next couple doughnuts.  This doughnut was more cakey than the higher ranked doughnuts, and some felt that it, too, was yeasty.
Krispy Kreme raised 4th place: With a very sweet dough, Krispy Kreme’s Original Glazed doughnut was no one’s favorite, rating an overall score of 42.  It was uniformly soft and had a shiny thick glaze.  And yes, our Krispy Kremes were eaten at room temperature, just like all the other doughnuts.
Family Donut raised  3rd place: Family Donut had four first place votes, but the rest of the votes spanned the entire range, pulling it down to a score of 39.  This doughnut was fairly sweet and if it didn’t have a slight old-oil flavor similar to their raised, it might have placed higher.
 Original Bakery raised 2nd place: Half of the people placed Original Bakery’s doughnut in their top two, and a couple said this was a clear winner above the rest.  This sweet doughnut had a strong nutmeg flavor and a bit of a crunch to the edges that people liked.  The overall rating was 35.
King Donuts raised 1st place: The King Donut was far and away the favorite, with nearly everyone placing it into their top three, and five ranking it their favorite.  It came in with a score of 23.  The doughnut had a good all-around flavor and sweetness, plus a great soft texture.  With so many favoring this doughnut, it makes me wonder if their teriyaki is as good.

Specialty Doughnuts

As a way to showcase the best of each bakery, everyone brought in a specialty doughnut to taste.  The red velvet from Frost was beautiful and with cream cheese frosting to boot.  Mighty-O’s raspberry lemon poppy seed was soft and tangy.  Lara supplied cute sugared twists and doughnut holes that were the perfect small bites.  And we could see why the bismark from Original Bakery has a loyal following.

I even tried my own hand at doughnuts, using Lara’s German chocolate recipe, and for my first homemade doughnuts ever, I was pretty pleased with the results.  Since they were easy to make, and I saved the used fry oil in my fridge, I’d like to try her banana doughnuts next.  Or maybe the ricotta fritters.

Specialty doughnuts

Then there were the apple fritters.  Nobody knew who was bringing which specialty doughnuts, so we didn’t plan to have four different apple fritters.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, with this being a classic favorite.  So we set up the plates for a spontaneous third taste-off.

Apple Fritter

One of our judges almost defected from her job when she heard that she would need to judge another round, but she rallied for the last four doughnuts.

There seemed to be two camps to the apple fritter lovers: some like the crunchy edges and others prefer the soft inside.  Since the fritters were each very different from one another, this resulted in voting being pretty scattered among the fritters, with one clear favorite.

Apple fritter taste-off

Top Pot fritter 4th place: The fritter from Top Pot Doughnuts was very traditional-looking in shape, with quite a bit of soft interior and a thick coating of glaze.  The edges were somewhat crunchy, and several thought the whole thing was too sweet.  As with every doughnut in this category, the votes spanned the whole range, although the Top Pot fritter was last on half our rankings.  The overall score was 34.
King Donut fritter
Frost Doughnuts fritter
Tie for 2nd place: The two fritters taking second could not have looked and tasted more different from one another.  The one from King Donuts was a regular-shaped soft puffy square, with lots of apple bits, while the one from Frost Doughnuts was a crunchy maze of crazy-shaped dough drizzled with caramel.  Nearly everyone gave these two fritters a 2nd or 3rd place ranking, leaving them with a tied score of 31.
Family Donut fritter 1st place: The flattest fritter with the crunchiest edges was from Family Donut Shop.  This one was a deep caramel-colored brown, and preferred by a majority of our judges, coming in with a score of 24.

Our conclusion was that doughnut judging is a lot more difficult than croissants.  With so many variations on even the standard recipe, not to mention the toppings and flavors that we didn’t even touch, the type of doughnut you like and consider the “best” may very well be quite different from mine, or our judging here.

But we did discover two things.  One: there are a lot of good doughnuts hiding in nooks and crannies of this city, certainly more than we tasted on this morning.  Any suggestions for other favorites we should try?  And two: we will never again try to taste 22 different doughnuts in a single morning.

The carnageThe carnage

What should we taste-test next?  Cupcakes?  Baguettes?


Brunch at The Harvest Vine

June 16th, 2010 by Dawn

Crack buns.  Need I say more?  Nicknamed by Harvest Vine customers who are as enamored as I am with “Carolin’s Sweet Buns,” these buttery pastries truly are addictive.  They go fast, too.  The first time we visited the Harvest Vine for their new brunch, our server had to check with the kitchen to make sure there were any left for us.  Fortunately for us, we got the last two.  Fortunately for the people who walked in the door behind us, more were on their way into the oven.

Carolin's crack buns 
Caracolillos: Carolin’s sweet buns with vanilla bean sugar

Made with hand-rolled croissant dough and crusted with vanilla bean sugar, they were a happy accident that came about while owner and pastry chef Carolin Messier was recipe testing this spring.  She was about to bake a batch of sweet buns and ran out of space on the baking sheet.  The only thing handy was a stack of ramekins, so she nestled the extra spirals of dough inside the ramekins and popped them into the oven.  It turns out these were the best croissant dough pastries she’d made yet.  The ramekin walls leave them slightly chewy around the edges, yet shatteringly flaky.

During her spring testing, Carolin also perfected her recipe for Mallorcan bread served with spaghetti squash preserves, and features it alongside other savory and sweet items on the new brunch menu.  Although the Harvest Vine has been open for more than a decade, this is the first brunch offering they’ve had.

With a baby now in tow, brunch was welcome news to us since it gives us a chance to go more often to a restaurant we love.  Carolin said we’re not the first parents to mention this – patrons she hasn’t seen in months, or even years, are bringing their young families in on Saturdays and Sundays.

Txistorra
Txistorra: Navarran style pork sausage

Piquillos Rellanos de Morcilla
Piquillos Rellanos de Morcilla: Blood sausage inside Piquillo peppers

Huevos Flamencos
Huevos Flamencos: Baked eggs with asparagus, peas, chorizo, jamon, and fried tomato sauce.

Much of the menu is familiar from the dinner hour, including a favorite of ours, the txistorra sausage, bright red from the paprika inside and served with grilled bread alongside.  And while we usually enjoy the morcilla blood sausage at dinner, it was under seasoned on both of our brunch visits.  A plate full of dry-cured Serrano ham made up for that shortcoming, though.  The same jamon is featured inside one of their three bocadillos, which are Spanish-style sandwiches.

The highlight from the savory half of the menu is head chef Joey Serquinia’s creation, Huevos Flamencos.  These eggs are baked with peas and asparagus in the Harvest Vine’s famous (well, I think it should be famous) fried tomato sauce.  As you dig in you uncover the bits of jamon and tangy chorizo below.

Pork belly and peppers topped the other baked egg dish we liked.  While pork may be a more likely mainstay on the menu than the asparagus and peas, the entire menu changes with the seasonality of ingredients and the whim of the chef.  Still, with their popularity, I expect that the crack buns will stick around for a while.

The Harvest Vine
2701 East Madison, Seattle
(206) 320-9771

Harvest Vine on Urbanspoon