Sunday, April 13, 2008

Serious Pie

Serious Pie
A Tom Douglas restaurant featuring pizza variations

The first time we saw "Serious Pie," we thought it was, y'know, pie. Blueberry, blackberry; blackberry, boysenberry; boysenberry, huckleberry; huckleberry, raspberry; raspberry, strawberry; strawberry, cranberry...peach. But no, these are pizza pies, baked with the same craft and enthusiasm we've come to expect from Tom Douglas's restaurants.

The space is tucked behind the Dahlia Lounge, up Virginia Street from 4th. It's a small, intimate setting, with high tables, stools, and dim lighting that give it a bar feel. The staff is friendly and casual, knowledgeable and attentive: perfect for an upscale pizza place. And the menu is simple: a few appetizers, pizza, desserts.

The appetizers have a few interesting items, but we opted to go right for the pizza. After all, it's a pizza place, and we love our pizza, so we preferred to share a couple pizzas than share one and get some other appetizer. The two we ordered were a margherita pizza (tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil) and a wild mushroom pizza.

Now, we both prefer thin crust pizza, though we'll enjoy any kind of flat bread with sauce, cheese, and toppings. Serious Pie's pizza reminded us most of San Diego's Basic Kitchen: good, crisp, thin crust and fresh sauce and toppings. We were especially impressed with the tomatoes on the margherita pizza, and I'm not generally a fan of tomatoes (though I love tomato sauce). The wild mushroom pizza brought out the great earthy flavor of the mushrooms along with the crisp, chewy bread, the cheese adding a nice complement to the whole.

We were fortunate enough to interview Tom Douglas a little while back (we hope to post it soon), and we asked him specifically about Serious Pie. He told us that his favorite part of the restaurant was focusing in on pizza, really being able to dig in and figure out how each of the different parts worked: the bread, the sauce, the cheese. The way he puts it, they have a "theory of pizza" now. His joy and boundless interest in food really shows through in the fabulous results.

We thought we'd have some pieces of pizza to take home--usually we only split one. But the crust was thin, the pizza not too filling, and we each ate a whole one. The tables are so close together that as we were eating, we were eyeing the pizzas our neighbors had ordered and seriously contemplating whether to ask if they'd swap a slice to try one of ours. In the end, we decided to enjoy what we had and make sure we return to keep trying the pizza. Serious Pie has another benefit going for it: it's open 'til eleven most nights, making it a great place for a late-night snack.


Elysian Brewing Company
Upscale brew pub near Seattle's sports complex

Brew pubs being the new American restaurant, it's fitting that we find them close to baseball parks. There are a bunch in walking distance of Coors Field in Denver, up by Pac Bell SBC AT&T Park in San Francisco, and this one, Elysian, near Safeco Field in Seattle.

We stopped in for a quick bite before the Mariners game, which also happened to be just after the Dalai Lama's appearance at adjacent Qwest Field (home of the Seahawks). It was a hot day, seventy degrees in April (this was cause for much talk and celebration), so the place was jammed. Despite that, the staff stayed collected and friendly, and we found a bar table within ten minutes rather than waiting forty-five for a restaurant.

The interior, a converted warehouse, is a great open space, with exposed beams and girders and a real feel of openness. The bar sits at the center, with the restaurant tables around the sides separated only by screens (on one side) and waist-high railings (on the other). There are some TVs over the bar, but otherwise not many nods to the nearby sports fields, and the menu is a little more upscale than you'd expect from a sports bar.

Once we sat down, we ordered the "Oasis Plate," an assortment of hummus, baba ghanoush, cucumber salad, and pita bread. Our server disappeared for long stretches, probably due to the crowds, but we saw him running by often enough that we could have hailed him had we wanted to. After watching several of the Oasis Plates go by, we were surprised when he came back and told us they'd run out. "It happens around here," he said, adding, "more often than you'd think" as he left with our replacement order, the bruschetta. We appreciated his candor, but wondered whether the restaurant management should be more aware of what their most popular dishes were.

The bruschetta came out quickly, balsamic vinegar over tomatoes and olives on buttered toast, and lo, it was quite yummy. The olives really added a nice sharp flavor that went well with the vinegar. We hadn't quite finished it when another server came up and deposited on our Oasis Plate. She told us cheerfully that they'd only run out of the cucumber salad, so they'd substituted a Greek salad instead. That was fine with us; to be honest, the cucumber salad wasn't why we'd ordered it. It was entertaining to see our waiter's reaction when he came back to ask if we needed anything else and saw the appetizer plate sitting there. He just stared at it for a moment and then said, "I'm looking for the candid camera that's on me."*

* It's funny how that show hasn't been on in years, barring the occasional attempt to revive it, but the phrase is solidly in the American culture still. The show really touched something or hit a nerve with us. Maybe it's the idea that lurks in the back of all of our heads that maybe someone, somewhere, is watching us without us knowing it.

As it turned out, the Oasis Plate was a disappointment. The hummus and baba ghanoush were bland and nearly indistinguishable. The pita was warm and soft with some spice, though, and the peppers that came with the spreads were great: sweet and a little spicy. The tomatoes in the Greek salad weren't very fresh, but the olives and parsley were good, and the feta wasn't too bad. We love hummus, though, and for that to fall short really set back the whole plate.

When the bill came, our server had left the Oasis Plate off it. He shrugged off our thanks, saying it wasn't a big deal: "My manager told me to do it, I did it, it came anyway." We took pity on his overworked day and left a nice tip--he wasn't rude or brusque, and he took care of us the best he could.

His demeanor was Elysian in a nutshell. If you go when it's less crowded, I bet you'd have a great experience. They don't seem to handle crowds as well as they could. But it's a lovely space, a terrific location, and definitely worth a visit.

Three Girls Bakery

Three Girls Bakery
Lunch counter and bakery in Pike Place Market in Seattle

There are a hundred places to get food in Pike Place Market. At least, it seems that way to us, walking through it. On a random recommendation, we selected the Three Girls Bakery, a bakery and sandwich counter, to stop at for lunch.

If you like the idea of the old lunch counter, you'll love this place. A harried counter-culture staff of four sporting chains, tattoos, and piercings somehow dances through the narrow area behind the L-shaped counter, everyone keeping track of customers and calling to each other when someone needs service. The meats are in one area, the sandwich fixings at a large station behind the counter, and the breads opposite the fixings, in a large cabinet facing the customers. All around are old signs and a simple menu offering a choice of the aforementioned meat, bread, and fixings. You might wait five minutes or ten after sitting down for someone to take your order, but the staff are unfailingly polite and friendly, apologizing for any delays and willing to take the time to help you out if you ask what they recommend.

We ordered the clam chowder (on our waitress's recommendation--she "just went vegetarian again" that morning, but she said when she's not she eats bowls full of the chowder) and a simple turkey pastrami on caraway rye sandwich. When we told her we were sharing, she tossed an extra pickle on there rather than making us split one.

The chowder got top marks for the thick chunks of potato and the fresh clams (one would expect that at a fish market), as well as the broth, which was perfectly balanced between creamy and soupy. The turkey pastrami was delicious, the bread unimpressive but good. Overall it was a solid sandwich, and we quite enjoyed the lunch counter experience.

We'll have to go back to try some of the delicious-looking pastries or cookies. There were so many restaurants that we had to move on to sample another place. But Three Girls was definitely worth a stop in the crowded market, for good food and good atmosphere.

Dahlia Lounge

Dahlia Lounge
One of the "Tom Douglas" family of restaurants in downtown Seattle

The Dahlia Lounge was recommended to us by several people, and was in fact the first Tom Douglas restaurant we heard of. We made reservations for dinner and were seated right when we showed up.

We liked the interior, decorated in red wallpaper and fish sculptures that gave the place an Asian feel, but with Mediterranean-style mosaics. The ceiling lamps weren't too bright, and we were seated by a window that let us watch the people on the street walk by. If we were so inclined, that is, but you would be surprised how boring people on the street can be, at least, when you're being served dinner.

We started with vegetable samosas, large, muffin-sized pastries of thick fried dough stuffed with lightly spiced veggies. We tend to like them a little crispier, but we later learned that the chef is Tibetan and so that's her style, rather than the Indian we're used to. She also cooked for the Dalai Lama, who happened to be in town on the weekend we ate there (and, we learned later, accompanied him to Vancouver as well, so he must have liked the samosas).

The next course, a Tuscan bread salad, mixed tasty greens with a hearty Italian dressing and big chunks of bread. We don't often get bread salads per se, though we do often enjoy bread with salad, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. In this case it worked quite well.

To complement the Tibetan appetizer and Mediterranean salad, we selected an Asian entree: Five-spice duck with sauteed pea vines and curry fried rice, accompanied by sweet and sour rhubarb jelly. This was the highlight of the meal. The duck was tender and not too fatty, with a slightly sweet Asian spice. We loved the fried rice with the curry, a light seasoning that brought lots of flavor, and the pea vines added nice crunch and texture. We liked the rhubarb jelly as well, a sweet complement to the rest of the dish.

For dessert, Dahlia offers a good selection, and they offer three small dishes that can be ordered separately or as a trio. We ordered the milk chocolate and banana bread pudding, but the waiter brought us the trio, so we were forced--oh, the torture--to sample the passion fruit, lemon, and grapefruit mochi, as well as several small chocolates: White chocolate carrot & ginger, mocha and chocolate, and a small dark chocolate. Of the chocolates, the carrot and ginger was the most remarkable, a really interesting blending of flavors with the white chocolate. You wouldn't necessarily think that a carrot and chocolate combination would work, but you'd be surprised.

The mochi were all cold, sweet, and surprisingly tart, a little too much so for Mark, though just to my taste. The banana and milk chocolate bread pudding was delicious, warm and full of banana flavor with pockets of milk chocolate scattered throughout. Good texture, not too sweet.

Overall, the Dahlia Lounge was a terrific dinner. The staff were unfailingly polite and friendly, though our waiter was a bit distracted (perhaps due to it being a Friday night). We loved the location and the decor, and wish we could go back more often to try some of the other delicious-sounding entrees.


One of the "Tom Douglas" family of restaurants in downtown Seattle

Downtown Seattle is bursting with lunch spots, but when we reached Lola, we didn't feel the need to go any further. Warm and inviting, the restaurant has a breezy Mediterranean feel to the decor, modern wood lit by wrought iron hanging lamps. Red neon over the bar gives the place a touch of "lounge" feel. When you walk in, you're greeted by a friendly hostess and taken to a pleasant table, clean and bright.

One of the appetizers is a choice of six spreads, served with warm pita bread. We chose the kalamata-fig spread and asked our server what would pair well with it. She suggested a mint-feta spread to go with it. They arrived quickly with a pile of fresh pita bread, which didn't have much seasoning of its own, the better to let the spread's flavors come through. We loved the kalamata-fig: the sweetness of the fig melded well with the sharp olive flavor. The mint-feta spread was good on its own: quality feta with a good bite and a nice undertone of mint, but it was best when paired with the fig spread, just as our waitress suggested.

For a main course, we split the lamb kebabs with Greek salad. The staff graciously split the plates for us, and in fact they were terrific all around, offering to bring us more pita bread, checking up to make sure we were okay. Lamb is one of those things that's tricky. It's easy to make it too tough, or gamey, but it should have some taste of lamb. The kebabs were perfectly tender, and the savory red wine sauce complemented it well. The Greek salad was the real surprise. There's a lot of flexibility with Greek salads, too. You can have soggy cucumbers and bland olives, underripe tomatoes and flavorless feta, and too often, restaurants will make up for that with overpowering dressing. Here, the cucumbers were crisp, the olives juicy and tangy, the tomatoes and feta perfectly ripe, and the dressing supportive without overpowering the other flavors.

It's a good place for a leisurely lunch. The food takes a little while to come out, and it's definitely worth it. If you want to enjoy your lunch, this is the place to go. And ask for a "Lorade" when you do--our server, Lori, makes a lemonade with a splash of cranberry that has been named for her now. It's that kind of friendly touch that puts Lola a cut above the other wonderful lunch destinations in downtown Seattle.


Gourmet Mexican food in Seattle's Capitol Hill district

Tim's new job gives us the opportunity to visit Seattle every now and then, so of course we have to explore the restaurants. Mark wandered up to the Capitol Hill area while Tim was in meetings and liked the look of Galerias, so we went up there for dinner and were not disappointed.

Galerias has the feel of an elegant parlor, with patterned tablecloths, purple satiny napkins, and billowy floor-to-ceiling curtains partitioning the room. The friendly staff occasionally sing along with the ambient Mexican music (Mexican pop, not mariachi music) when they aren't bringing your food out. As you enter, the main space of the dining area is to your left, set off by several beautiful display shelves featuring bottles of tequila and Day of the Dead ceramic figurines.

We didn't have much time before the meal to linger and look at them, though, as we were greeted almost immediately and shown to a table. The menus at Galerias win for heaviest menu ever: printed on large slabs of heavy cardboard or light wood with a metallic veneer, they feel as solid as the steel they resemble. Reading through them necessitated a lot of turning of pages back and forth, as all the dishes sounded delicious.

Our waiter was particularly friendly and eager to help us decide on menu choices. After bringing a basket of tortilla chips and wafer-thin slices of a firm wheat bread, he recommended the chicken stuffed with poblano chilies and onions as a main course, the "Ciel, Mar, y Tierra" for an appetizer, and the spinach salad. We accepted those choices and dipped our bread and chips into the fresh green salsa provided with them, which was tangy, but not too spicy for me.

The salad came promptly, baby spinach with mango and walnuts and a light hibiscus flower dressing. The fruity dressing had a touch of cinnamon as well, sweet but not overpoweringly so. The spinach and nuts were good, but the star of the salad was the mango. Soft and ripe, one of the best mangoes we've ever tasted, it almost literally melted in your mouth. The sweetness worked well with the dressing; in fact, our only complaint about the salad is that it could have used something sharp and crunchy to offset the sweet taste and texture. Perhaps candied nuts, or cinnamon-glazed with spice, and a sharp cheese.

The "Ciel, Mar, y Tierra" (Sky, Sea, and Earth) appetizer came with the main course and actually consisted of more food. Perhaps the fact that the two of us were sharing everything confused him. This dish served chicken, chorizo sausage (pork), and tiny shrimp in different sauces over a masa corn cake, similar to the sopes you find in taquerias, all accompanied by fresh cotija cheese. The chicken was tender and moist, but fairly bland, and was our least favorite. The other two made up for it, though: good, savory chorizo, and abundant shrimp in a tomato sauce, neither of which were spicy at all. The corn cakes themselves were a solid base, chewy and fresh, a nice if inessential addition to the meat. Portion size is definitely not an issue: we were given six corn cakes in all, two with each topping, and it proved a little too much for us to finish completely (though we did eat all the toppings).

The main course, the stuffed chicken, came in a poblano chili sauce that was, again, not spicy at all, but had a wonderful flavor and a pea-green color. The chicken was drowned in the sauce, which would have been a crime had the sauce not tasted so good. As it was, we could probably have done with about half the portion. The chicken itself had been baked perhaps a little too long; it was somewhat tough, and we didn't taste much of the filling. But the side of rice had good flavor, and we enjoyed the sauce so much that overall the dish was a success. It would be nice to see what they could do with a tenderer chicken and a bit less sauce--that would push it from "good" to "great."

We had no room for dessert, but weren't rushed to finish our meal at all. Sitting by the window, we had a nice view out onto Broadway Street and enjoyed people-watching until we were ready to leave. Our waiter was very excited to hear our limited knowledge of Spanish, telling us in near-perfect English that he had only been in this country for six months and was still trying to learn the language.

Galerias is a friendly place to spend a couple hours over some very good food, if you're in the area. But Seattle in general doesn't do spicy food all that much, in our experience. So if you like your food spicy, be sure to tell them. We're sure they could accommodate you.


In Downtown Disney in Anaheim, upscale Mediterranean food.

Of all the places in Downtown Disney, Catal seemed most eager to seat a party of six on Saturday night, or at least they had the shortest wait time. They have a lovely upstairs balcony overlooking a square in the downtown where their associated Uva Bar serves drinks and appetizers.

We can't resist a selection of olives on the appetizer menu, and theirs were fresh and exotic, not just your standard kalamata. We didn't get all the names, but I remember the five of them as dark and rich; green and mellow; small, dark, and intense; small, maroon, and slightly bitter; and immense olives with a soft eggplant color and a smooth, oily flavor. Accompanying them on our appetizer plate was the "Tapas trio": a gazpacho shot, a crab cake, and two dates stuffed with ham and bleu cheese. I like gazpacho, but Mark doesn't, so I took the whole shot. It was really more like a cold V8 with finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers in it, but there was an undertone of spice that was quite pleasant.

Dinner certainly lived up to the appetizers. We shared an olive oil and dill-poached salmon over red pepper couscous. The tzatziki sauce on the side had great spice, garlicky and tangy--it wasn't just yogurt with cucumbers in it. Salmon is one of those things that Mark finds variable, but Catal's salmon kept a nice flavor of salmon under the light dill seasoning. The red pepper couscous could've used a little more red pepper, but the couscous was done just right.

We also sampled one friend's paella. It didn't compare to Mark's homemade one, but it was still quite good, rich and savory. The shellfish was tender and fresh too, the veggies crisp, and the rice tender and sticky.

The dinner was light enough that we felt able to get a cheese plate: two mild cheeses and a sharper Italian type that was quite tasty. They included a side of quince confiture, toasted walnuts, and balsamic vinegar drizzle. We polished the plate clean even after the cheese was gone. Then it was time for dessert, a carrot cake with coconut sorbet and carrot creme anglaise. We have a great experience of carrot cake, too, and this one scored pretty high. The cake was good and firm, tending toward a carrot flavor rather than a spice cake flavor, with big chunks of walnut & raisin, and--the part that's always hard to find--perfect cream cheese frosting. It went pretty well with the light coconut sorbet, too.

The service was good, although on occasion we felt slightly neglected, but that might be because we were out on the patio, or because it was a Saturday night and they were busy. It wasn't a bad trade for the view, and our waitress was friendly and very helpful. Maybe all the places on Downtown Disney are this good, but on a night when we couldn't go anywhere else, Catal made us feel like we were special, not like we were settling.

Wolf Creek Restaurant and Brewery

Wolf Creek Restaurant and Brewery
Nice rustic brew pub in a strip mall in Valencia

We got held up on I-5 (it's not "the five" until you pass the Grapevine) at some construction traffic, delaying our arrival in L.A. by almost an hour. Since most eating places close at 11, we had to stop for dinner sooner than we'd planned--distance-wise, if not time-wise. Google Maps helpfully told us that there was a cluster of restaurants in Valencia, around Magic Mountain Parkway and McBean Parkway. And a little further north on McBean was an intriguingly named brew pub called "Wolf Creek."

It has the look of a mountain lodge, all wood and wrought-iron interior, though the owners are native Californians (according to the hostess). They were celebrating their tenth year, impressive for an independent restaurant, though the growth of the suburbs probably has something to do with that.

Right off the bat, they impressed us with the house bread: warm and fresh, with an unusual garlic-olive dip that we couldn't stop eating. As is our usual habit when at a brew pub, we ordered the spinach and artichoke dip as well. This one was a clear winner, very creamy with a sharp cheese, like an asiago. The spinach and artichokes balanced nicely, neither one getting lost or overwhelming the other. The multi-colored tortilla chips were unremarkable, but didn't need to be anything more than a conveyance for the dip.

Balsamic vinaigrettes have as much variation as spinach and artichoke dip, if not more. They can be oily, creamy, sweet, sharp, tangy, spicy, herby, garlicky, and so on. The salad we got was unremarkable--fresh spring greens and I remember little else--but the dressing had a great bite of mustard, which I love. We've just started attempting to make our own dressings, and I keep looking at the Dijon in the fridge and remembering the dressing at Wolf Creek when I do.

Compared to the starters, the main course was a slight letdown, though it was still quite good. We ordered a lightly breaded chicken breast with sun-dried tomato pesto, and we got two flat chicken breast fillets (as opposed to the thick full right-off-the-bone breast cuts), perfect for splitting. The problem with fillets is that they dry out so easily, and that was unfortunately the case here. Not too dry, but not as juicy as they should have been. And the pesto, while tasty, was a little on the bland side.

Still, all in all, the food was quite good, and the service was beyond reproach. We're clearly not the only ones who thought so, because several of the people at the bar were regulars. We did ask the waitstaff whether the owners were transplanted from Colorado or Wyoming, but as far as they knew, the owners were just Californians "who really liked the mountain country."

Hey, that's cool. So are we.