Monday, June 16, 2008


Cascadia, Seattle
Upscale restaurant in Seattle's Belltown area

We were meeting a friend in Seattle for dinner. He had heard good things about Cascadia and the chef had just agreed to sell the restaurant and take over in the kitchen of the new Four Seasons this fall, so it was an obvious choice for a group of foodies.

Rather than eat in the dining room, we opted for the bar, with large windows onto the sidewalk for people- and weather-watching, and a nice view of the sound. The bar menu, more casual, is famous for their mini-burgers and snowball martinis. Mark tried the snowball martini, a vodka concoction with, yes, a small snowball in it. It comes with a small sprig of fir in it, giving the drink a real alpine flavor. Mark enjoyed it so much he had two.

Service was impeccable up until the food was ordered. As seemed to happen a couple times in Seattle, we weren't completely understood when we ordered the mini-burgers, and our waitress brought twice as many as we'd actually ordered. Fortunately, they were good enough that we finished most of them. Maybe it's our California accent.

The mini-burgers are indeed worth the trip. You can get beef, salmon, or veggie, all of which got high marks. The salmon is an actual ground salmon burger rather than a small fillet of salmon on a bun. Mark liked the beef, while Tim's favorite was the veggie, with a good curry flavor, especially with a fried onion topping. We also got dijon, cheddar cheese, bleu cheese, chipotle pepper dip, and a cone of French fries, which scored pretty high on our French fry scale: thin and crispy, good potato taste.

The only other thing we ordered was the artisan cheese plate, offering a good variety of cheeses: a bleu, a couple soft cheeses (including a cow cream cheese that we all liked), a white cheddar, and a Swiss. We had trouble picking a favorite from the plate, but the bleu was very popular: nice, creamy, and sharp. All the breads supplied with it were nice too, crispy flatbreads and crunchy breadsticks.

Even the lounge menu was rather pricey, but for location and ambiance, you won't be disappointed. We don't know what Cascadia will be like after it's sold, but if you can get there this summer, check out the mini-burgers and enjoy the view out the window.


Etta's, near Pike Place Market in Seattle
Another Tom Douglas restaurant, focused on seafood.

The one thing Etta's has that none of the other Tom Douglas restaurants do is a nice view of the waterfront and the foot traffic near the market. Most of the tables in the narrow dining area are close enough to the window to take advantage of the view. The view inside isn't bad either. Like the Dahlia Lounge, Etta's is decorated primarily with colorful blown glass; an assortment of ducks adorn the wall, and small hanging lights illuminate the tables when the sun sets.

The other constant across the Tom Douglas restaurants is outstanding service, and Etta's is no exception. Our attentive waiter had the kitchen split our plates for us, and no course arrived before we were done with the previous one. The plates were all very pretty, too, colorful and garnished with colored oils.

The menu is fairly simple, focused on seafood and divided into categories: Raw / Fried / Steamed / Soups & Salads / Main Courses.

The appetizers really shone. The clam chowder - becoming a staple of our meals - included a distinctive thick smoked bacon. It was mild but pretty good in general. Our favorite were the mini Dungeness crab cakes. Tom Douglas has published a book on crab cakes, and these were mostly crab, with seasoned breading that complemented the crab taste rather than overwhelming it. They were served with a green relish, with a vegetable consistency but a fruity taste.

We always check the bread, too, and they served us delicious olive bread. The light, crispy crust gave a satisfactory crunch to the bread, and there were plenty of ripe olives.

The spinach salad was interesting. We really liked the mustardy dressing, and the salad came with onions, curried cashews (unique and yummy), pears, grapes, radicchio. Overall there was more "stuff" than spinach, but still everything went together well. The different components provided a lot of different textures, with sweet fruit and sharp onions harmonizing under the dressing.

For the main course, the Troll Salmon with Etta's Rub With Love, asparagus, shitake relish, cornbread pudding. Good salmon, mild flavor. Mark was disappointed that the flavor wasn't stronger. A good rub should be a boost to the fish's natural flavor, but this one was just kind of there, not outstanding or distinctive. It was asparagus season, however, and it showed. Tom Douglas restaurants create their menus based on what's in season, and the asparagus here had a great crunch to it, just beautifully done. Shitakes added a nice flavor accent with good earthy mushroom flavor. Tim liked the cornbread pudding, which reminded us of quiche: the egg flavor was noticeable even over cornbread. Mark felt it was a little bland.

Etta's ended up being a good dinner in a great location. For a Tom Douglas restaurant, it fell a little shy of the others, but that's like being the worst Pixar movie. If you're down by Pike Place Market, and want a good sit-down dinner, you couldn't do much better.

Cafe Martorano

Cafe Martorano, in the Rio in Las Vegas
Restaurant/nightclub with an owner who's a personality and the best Italian food this side of south Philly. Seriously.

We really owe this discovery to Joe Posnanski, who wrote about the Fort Lauderdale location without mentioning it by name, and to the commenter on his blog who named the restaurant and mentioned the Vegas location. Once we got to Vegas, we saw signs for it all over the place, but as it's at the Rio, it's doubtful we would've made the trip or the reservation without the initial recommendation. But boy oh boy, are we glad we did.

We'd never been to the Rio before, even though Penn and Teller and the famed Voodoo Lounge are there. It's an interesting casino, very obviously directed at the mid-twenties crowd: things stay open a little later, it's got that trashy carnival atmosphere, and there's a lot of bustling activity, kind of like a younger TI or a more flashy Excalibur. Cafe Martorano is located on the second floor of the main concourse, facing onto the enormous floating head that is the centerpiece of a regular show (which we did not, alas, see).

We'd gotten there a little early (I built in an allowance for a late arrival by our flight, which miraculously did not happen), so we checked in at the hostess stand and browsed the pictures of the owner with various celebrities while waiting for our table. I should add that both the woman who took the reservation over the phone and the hostess, upon learning that it was our first time, made special note to tell us how good the food was. Restaurant employees don't often brag about that, in my experience, so it felt genuine to us.

In fact, the staff all around were not only extremely friendly and helpful, they were all very proud of their restaurant and their food. Our waiter, Ken, helped us settle on the "South Philly style" calamari for our appetizer, several times using the phrase "out of this world" to describe the dishes. He also told us about the owner, Steve Martorano, who has his image on t-shirts (one hanging right near our table) and his imprint on the simple menu with an instruction at the bottom: "No substitutions. This is how I cook. Please enjoy and don't break balls." It doesn't get more South Philly than that.

"Is he a nice guy?" our waiter asked us, rhetorically. "No. But he's a great guy and a great personality." He wasn't in attendance at the Rio location, but was expected back for the wrap-up of the WSOP. Our waiter was also very proud of the famous people who were dining there that night, among them a rap star/actor and a professional football player.

But the food was, believe it or not, the main attraction. For the rest of our dinner, we picked a side of spaghetti, because in a new Italian place you want to see how they handle the basics, and the special: sea bass with jumbo lump crab and shrimp, spring pea and cheese risotto, and sauteed spinach with chilis.

Spaghetti in the United States has become a comfort food, any old pasta with tomato sauce thrown over it, maybe with meatballs or sausage or (if you're in the midwest) chopped-up hot dogs added. I tell you, this spaghetti we had at Cafe Martorano was to regular American spaghetti what champagne is to Martinelli's Sparkling Apple Juice. You can see the relationship, but wow, this was just in another league entirely. Thick, rich spaghetti sauce made from olive oil and San Marzano tomatoes, pasta cooked perfectly al dente, with garlic and wine to season it. It was just spaghetti, but sometimes when you get a simple food done to perfection, it's better than anything fancy. A couple months after our meal there, the spaghetti is what I remember the most. It's the one dish I would say we have to get again.

Not to say the rest of the food was bad. The sea bass was marvelously light and flaky, the shrimp and crab topping a nice accent to it. The smooth, creamy risotto matched it well, and the sauteed spinach had good texture and taste (that is, not slimy), except when one bit into a chili by accident. We didn't think we'd be able to eat light at a traditional Italian place, but it worked well and we had room for...

Tiramisu. This was really just good, not terrific, not overwhelming. It was the perfect size portion, though. We enjoyed the thick, not-too-sweet cream and the strong coffee taste (yes, even Tim the non-coffee-drinker).

We'd go back to Cafe Martorano again just for the food. The atmosphere and stellar service was the crab on the sea bass, so to speak. We're already planning our next dinner for our next trip to Vegas.

Breckenridge Brewery

Breckenridge Brewery, Denver
Brew pub within a block of Coors Field (so you can guess who they cater to)

A good time to go to places near the ballpark is when there's no game going on. Even though it was prime dinner time, we got seated right away and had quick, attentive service. The interior is pretty standard sports bar/brew pub, all old wood and athletic memorabilia, mostly focused around Denver area teams. And the menu is pretty standard as well: sandwiches, some pasta, entrees cooked in beer-related sauces.

Of course we had to get the artichoke dip, and this one rated about a 6/10 for us. We liked the creamy/cheesy texture and flavor and the big chunks of artichoke, but it really could've used some spinach, and there wasn't nearly enough spice. The accompanying dippables were also a mixed bag. There was a good crispy flatbread, celery, carrots. Nothing as good as the pub bread at Wynkoop nearby, and the carrots didn't really work well with the dip (but were good on their own).

One of Tim's indulgences when going to Denver is buffalo meat. Because it isn't beef and doesn't qualify for most of the reasons he doesn't eat beef, he feels okay eating it. He's missed a good meatloaf, and Breckenridge Brewery has on its menu a buffalo meatloaf sandwich. It was a hit with both of us--good texture, perfect meatloaf flavor that was exactly what non-beef-eaters ("uncowtarians?") have been missing, lightly spiced and moist. The accompanying onions sauteed in oatmeal stout added just the right touch, rich and a little spicy. Mark liked the brown gravy that came with it; Tim opted for ketchup (as is traditional with all good meatloaf).

Our other choice was the pulled pork bbq sandwich, another staple of our brew pub dining. This one was a little better than average. The meat, while good and well cooked, could've been more tender. Mostly, though, we wish places wouldn't skimp on the rich, sweet sauce. I understand that for some people, barbecuing is all in the cooking, but we love us a good BBQ sauce, too.

The rest of the meal was fine. The salad and fries were good but not great, though the fries were big and dusted with spice--a nice variation. Overall, while this isn't a four-star brew pub, it's definitely a place where you can get a good meal and relax close by Coors Field. If you go on a game night, get there early (or late). And if you have more time, we preferred the Wynkoop, further from the field but with better food overall.