Just returned last night from Seattle, after one of the best weekends of eating I've had in a long time. It started on Thursday night, a little after ten, when Adam and I arrived at the Walrus and the Carpenter
in Ballard, a neighborhood that was about 25 minutes from our downtown hotel. I was cranky from the flight delay, exhausted from jetlag, and not particularly hungry, but fighting the urge to give into petulance. My mood changed as soon as we were seated at a table in the warmly lit, white-painted dining room and I got a look at the menu. I wanted everything that was pescatarian-friendly, and we ended up ordering most of it.
We started with oysters, about which I know basically nothing, but when in Rome (or Seattle), etc. On the (very nice, very helpful) waitress's recommendation, we ordered the kusshi, salish, and treasure cove oysters. I ate them all plain, to better tell the differences. (Also, I want to learn to shuck oysters. It's one of those kitchen skills that comes up periodically on Top Chef
for which I would be entirely at a loss.) The small kusshi were my favorite, probably because it was the most mild -- learning to appreciate oysters will take a bit of practice. The salish was nicely oceany, the way seafood can be evocative of the ocean. The treasure cove was more briny, oceany in the way that a mouthful of saltwater hits you with the taste of the ocean. (I know it's the wrong Pacific Northwestern city, but the dream of the 1890s
is definitely alive with the staff's facial hair -- the luxuriant beard of the oyster shucker, the waxed mustache of the bartender. Brooklyn hipsters aspire, but fail, to be as authentically awesome as Seattleites.)
The first round of cocktails were lovely summer drinks. I had the Southside Ballard, with gin, lemon, honey, queen anne mint, and sparkling wine. The honey flavor was noticeable, but the lemon kept it from being cloyingly sweet. Adam opted for the Porch Swing, made with Pimm's, gin, lemon, soda, and cucumber. (I also chugged a Diet Coke for a needed anti-jetlag boost.)
Our first plate was the "smoked trout, lentils, walnuts, creme fraiche, pickled onion." It was amazingly good -- the smoked fillets delicious enough to satisfy the pickiest kosher deli aficionado, the lentils creamy, with the walnuts adding crunch and the pickled onion a bit of acidic brightness.
The "chickpea salad, local tuna, celery, soft boiled egg, pickled carrot" was weakest dish of the night, which isn't to say it was bad. A little heavy on the mayo for my taste, it reminded me of a combination of various sandwich salads -- tuna salad, egg salad, etc. -- mixed together. Very good versions of those salads, perhaps, but not nearly as good as the rest of the menu.
However, our disappointment in the chickpea salad was quickly forgotten. The "coonstripe prawn crudo, espelette, lime, roe" was easily Adam's favorite of the night. The prawns were sweet and fresh, with an excellent balance of lime and spicy espelette. I'm not sure the little green roe sacks tasted like much of anything to me, but the rest was too perfect for me to care. The crunchy fried prawn shells on the side, also dusted with
espelette, tasted like the best imaginable version of those shrimp chips that you can find in Asian supermarkets.
The "kohlrabi salad, celery leaf, brown butter, nigella bread crumbs" impressed me for its good use of two CSA products that baffled me last summer: kohlrabi and celery leaves. Brown butter on a salad was interestingly novel, but it congealed unpleasantly when it cooled.
With only one dish left to arrive from our initial round of ordering, Adam and I asked if there was anything else on the menu that we should try. Although we aren't usually huge fans of sardines or anchovies, on the waitress's assurance that people who aren't fans still like their versions, we added the "grilled sardines, shallot, walnut, parsley" and the "oregon white anchovy, green olive, breadcrumbs." We were glad that we tried them. Neither was overpoweringly fishy, and the preparations were delicious.
I loved the "brandade, billy's tomato, comte, capers." A large ramekin of brandade was topped with a thick slice of ripe, orange tomato and covered with melted cheese and capers, and accompanied by toasted bread. It was savory, awesome comfort food. The tomato's brightness balanced the richness of the cod and the cheese, and its juiciness, enhanced by the oven roasting, kept the cod from seeming dry (a problem that I have with bacalao croquettes sometimes). I also loved the crisp of melted comte, studded with capers, that came on the side -- as though the cheese melted too far down the side of the baking dish and they'd kindly included that excess on the plate.
In a testament to my restraint, I passed on the delicious-sounding cheeses (although I was helped in this by the fact that they were out of the burrata). And then ordered all four desserts. The most revelatory was the "drinking caramel, salt & pepper, whipped cream." Like hot chocolate but with caramel, and it. was. amazing. Why have I never heard of this before? One sip and it seemed so obvious that it was a great idea. (Although I would have opted for less pepper, but I'm not a huge pepper fan.) Also excellent was "fried rhubarb, chocolate, powdered sugar," like slightly soft, fruit-filled churros. (I don't usually love churros, despite my affection for fried dough, because I find them too dry. The rhubarb created a moist middle -- similar in texture to roasted eggplant, as Adam noted -- although it made them perhaps a little too soft.) The "roasted medjool dates, olive oil, sea salt" were delicious, like the Komi dates without the mascarpone filling. Adam preferred them to the fried rhubarb, pointing out (correctly) that I would have been more impressed if I'd never had the Komi dates. I liked the "maple bread pudding, espresso butter sauce, whipped cream" (espresso butter sauce on the side, of course) more than Adam, although it was just good, normal bread pudding.
Adam ordered the excellent "bearded lady, anejo tequila, cynar, averna, bitters, laphroaig rinse" (with a pickled fig in the bottom), which was a smokey, complex cocktail. I ordered an Aviation (a recent favorite), which was delicious.
After all of that food, we couldn't finish everything, so we took the last of the dates home. They made for an excellent morning snack, and a reminder of a fantastic meal.
Drinking Caramel Recipe (for one):
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 T butter
1/2 cup milk (I used 2%)
pinch of salt
optional: sea salt, pepper, whipped cream
As soon as I tried the Walrus and the Carpenter's drinking caramel, I knew that I'd have to try to replicate it at home. Tonight I made my first (of many, I'm sure) attempts, and the results, although imperfect, were delicious and so easy to make.
First, take the sugar, add it to a small saucepan, and heat over medium heat, stirring/swirling to prevent burning, until it liquefies and caramelizes. Be careful not to overcook the caramel -- mine tasted ever so slightly burnt in the end. Once the sugar is all dissolved, smells caramel-y, and is a lovely golden color, remove from the heat and add the butter, stirring vigorously to incorporate the butter. (The caramel will bubble up when the butter is added.) Add the milk, return to heat, and stir until the caramel melts into the milk. (The cold milk caused the caramel to solidify; I probably should have warmed the milk separately, but it melted back into the milk easily enough.) Pour into a mug and sprinkle with salt (a large grain sea salt would probably be best; I used kosher salt because it was all I have). The restaurant's version was with salt and black pepper, which was interesting but I'm not a huge black pepper fan. I might try some other spice in lieu of the pepper next time -- maybe cardamom?