Tag Archives: Seattle restaurants

A Seattle Gem Turns 25: Le Gourmand

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the passage of time. You’d think I’d get used to it at some point, but I never do. I often joke in an overdue email reply to someone that “I blinked twice and a week went by!” Honestly, it does feel that way sometimes.

Last week my husband and I were talking about something that happened in 2000 and I was stunned by the realization that the turn of the millenium was over ten years ago already! Remember when Y2K seemed to be the thing that was going to bring the world to its knees? It seems like such a simplistic, naive concern now.

So I shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that I was surprised to hear that Le Gourmand is celebrating its 25th year. Chef and owner Bruce Naftaly called recently to share the news with me. Twenty five years in that charming, nondescript brick building that everyone rushes by making their way down the hill from Fremont into Ballard. It’s like a century in restaurant-years. And it’s a milestone made only more notable because of the oddly low profile Le Gourmand has held in town. Bruce is happiest in the kitchen. Though he surely enjoys making the rounds in the dining room to chat with guests but even then he seems a tad out of his element. He rarely makes appearances at the usual chef-o-rama grazing events. I was thrilled when he agreed to be one of the chefs that joined the celebration of the 2001 release of the Best Places Seattle Cookbook I did with Kathy Casey. He contributed a few recipes to the book, including my introduction to cooking with shiso leaves by way of his Savory Nectarine and Shiso Soup.

Bruce only launched the restaurant’s web site in this past year or so, and sheepishly admitted that he’d recently gotten himself a cell phone. He certainly doesn’t blog or tweet or otherwise go out of his way to trumpet his restaurant. Every year or so I get a phone call from him with some bit of news he’d like to share. It’s his very understated way of keeping me–and surely some other writers in town–in the loop and keep Le Gourmand on their minds.

All that to say that you kind of have to seek out Le Gourmand. It employs the “whisper” method of making itself known. I imagine many people know it as “that restaurant alongside Sambar,” the wonderful cocktail destination that Bruce and his wife Sara added about six years ago. Which is maybe not a bad thing! Hopefully some of them will slip through that doorway and treat themselves to the riches of dinner at Le Gourmand one day.

Maybe  just the motivation they–and anyone who hasn’t been to Le Gourmand, or hasn’t been recently–need is the 25th anniversary menu that’s available now. And based on what Bruce told me, should be available at least through the summer. For the first-timers, the menu is a great introduction to the restaurant, offering as it does dishes from the LG hall of fame, some of which were on the menu in the first year. Dishes that have been foundations of the restaurant over the years. Rabbit liver pâté (which he used to serve with housemade poppy seed crackers, the seeds collected from garden poppies). Blintzes filled with Sally Jackson sheep’s milk cheese. Boeuf à la ficelle with cabernet-pressings sauce. And of course, ending with the salade in true French style, mixed lettuces with a colorful scattering of edible flowers in a pitch-perfect vinaigrette.

Bruce’s call was inspiration enough to get me and my husband back there for dinner last week. Though we couldn’t limit ourselves to the 3 courses of that anniversary selection, instead opting for the seasonal 7-course tasting menu. Which means returning another time for the Whidbey Island mussels with lovage and steelhead with gooseberry and dill sauce. Instead, we sipped at a fascinating and delicious radish and rose soup. Tucked into seared foie gras with aprium and yuzu leaf sauce. Relished a ragout of morels and asparagus. Devoured steelhead wrapped in fig leaf (from their garden) in a vin de noix sauce. And, heaven help us (a generous menu!), beef tenderloin with housemade jowl bacon, cèpes, and crispy spaetzle. The latter course served, in quintessential Le Gourmand style, with a pretty side dish of buttery baby red potatoes, kale, and cabbage. Salad was all the dessert we needed after that feast. Delicious.

I suppose it’s pretty obvious by now. I love Le Gourmand. Enough so that I deemed it to be worthy of nod as the “millenial Seattle restaurant” that I covered in the December 1999 issue of Seattle Magazine, an honor I got to bestow not long after starting my stretch there as food editor. A couple small changes since then. Where once a garden plot rested at the south edge of the restaurant, that’s now where contented cocktailers sip their Vespers and Sangue Amaros on the garden patio of Sambar. And the once French-garden colorscape of pinks and greens of Le Gourmand’s interior has given way to bold white walls and whimsical marionettes.

Otherwise Le Gourmand is the same gem is has always been. Ridden the waves of booms and busts and restaurant trends that come and go. “Naftaly has every reason to be proud of what he creates at Le Gourmand,” I wrote back in 1999, “and the significant role he has played in defining what it means to eat locally and eat well in Seattle.” With another ten years under his belt, to me that still very much holds true. As does Bruce hold true to what matters to him most. His kitchen, his garden, seasonal foods, local producers. His family, his customers. His cooking.

Le Gourmand Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Dahlia Lounge Nostalgia

I imagine more than a few Champagne corks will be popping over the course of this month as Seattle’s beloved Dahlia Lounge restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary. Beyond Champagne toasts, they’re celebrating too with lots of fun and prizes throughout the month, check out the goings-on here.

Any restaurant that survives and thrives to hit such landmark milestones is something worth celebrating. (Tip of the hat to Pike Pub & Brewery where our friends Charles and Rose Ann Finkel are also toasting 20 years since they first opened doors of the brewery! Woo-hoo!!) With Dahlia, the anniversary stands out for me for a number of reasons.

Professionally, I’ve been eating at, and writing about, Dahlia Lounge and its


Tom Douglas and me, March 1993, both much younger then....

 eventual siblings for about 18 of those 20 years. After enough meals to form a solid opinion, I came to the conclusion that–for me–Dahlia stands out as a quintessentially Seattle restaurant. Its colorful, inviting room. The professional but relaxed and friendly service. Carefully prepared food that’s got finesse without ever being fussy. Menus rooted in Northwest ingredients  and seasonality but with Asian and European influences that show Seattle’s got an open palate.

Personally, Dahlia’s been the home to a number of my own celebrations over the years, so I definitely connect with the place by way of deeply fond memories. My husband and I chose Dahlia–then in its original 1914 4th Avenue location–for the “rehearsal dinner” location when we got married in 1993. We had that upstairs area at the back of the restaurant to ourselves, and Tom cooked up the dinner. The menu included spicy cornmeal pan-fried oysters with artichoke remoulade, ginger and garlic


Hmmmm, looks like a bottle of Bernard Griffin? Nice.

glazed spare ribs, chipotle glazed Alaskan halibut with grilled cornbread salad and pear tart with caramel sauce.

Ten years later, it made sense to celebrate again with Dahlia. Now in its new 4th & Virginia location, we took over that back room and had one of the best nights ever with family and friends, eating and drinking well to toast a decade of married life! Mark Fuller (now making his own waves at Spring Hill in my neighborhood) was in the Dahlia kitchen then and cranked through an amazing menu that included shrimp dumplings, slow roasted sucking pig with fennel relish, salt-roasted ehu (a Hawaiian snapper) and lemon-thyme panna cotta with rhubarb confiture. What a fun and delicious night that was. I’d say that we’ll be celebrating there again in 2013 for our 20th, if not for


Ten years for Bob and me, twelve for Dahlia Lounge

 our master plan to run off to Vegas and get married again on that occasion!

Dahlia opened in November of 1989, a few months after I’d left Seattle for a spell to attend culinary school in France. But I learned about the opening and the restaurant’s early popularity long distance, my mom a trooper about keeping me up to date with Seattle goings-on by way of newspaper clippings. (She also sent me every single batch of Sunday comics; oh, how I love and miss that lady!) Upon my return a couple years later, I wrote my first national magazine article about Seattle restaurants, for a May 1992 issue of Restaurants and Institutions magazine. By then, I’d had a chance to check out Dahlia Lounge in person, noting that “The free-spiritedness of chef-owner Tom Douglas makes a strong first impression when you walk in the door.” And, later, “Douglas swears that his cooking is simple, but to me, his food is testament to a Northwest culinary attitude that is deliciously refreshing to come home to.”

A couple of decades later, I think those reflections are no less true. Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen, Etta’s, Lola, Serious Pie are all imbued by the free spirit of Douglas, his wife Jackie and the passionate, creative team they work with. And that Northwest culinary attitude? More than ever it’s about consciously chosen ingredients of quality, made to shine without unnecessary flair. Just great food that feeds us well, makes us happy, and makes us glad to call Seattle home.

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Drinking Well: Sambar

It was the perfect refuge for a hot summer’s evening. Eight of us gathered onsambar5 the cool, shaded garden patio of Sambar in Ballard for drinks, some snacks and some wonderful quality time catching up with friends. Few places make me quite so happy, eating and drinking so well in such a lovely, calm, engaging setting.

Sambar is the younger, hip sibling of the beloved Le Gourmand restaurant next door. Chef/owner Bruce Naftaly first opened the doors at Le Gourmand in 1985, helping set the stage for the delicious melding of “eat local” and “fine dining” that was just a twinkle in a few chefs’ eyes back then. From day one, Bruce was noting on his menus the sources of ingredients he used, whether it was plums from a backyard tree in the neighborhood or grape sambar6pressings from Chinook winery that he used in a sauce. There are a lot of stars in Seattle’s current culinary firmament. But Bruce was among the first to wrench Seattle’s fine dining scene out of the Continental motif and into a celebration of local bounty. In fact, one of the earlier articles I wrote while food editor of Seattle Magazine was one for the January 2000 issue, challenged to pick a chef worthy of millennial props. I chose Chef Naftaly.

Bruce and his wife/chef/partner Sara opened Sambar five or six years ago, adjoining Le Gourmand, with a mod, colorful, contemporary decor in contrast to the (then) pretty sort of Monet-style French motif of the elder (since updated to be clean, bright, white, with cool mirrors and artful puppets on the wall). The cocktail menu is outstanding, distinctive, taking best advantage of premium and seasonal ingredients. On this recent visit, with so many of us around the table, we had occasion to sample a number from the current list. I startedsambar4with a cocktail of gin, Dubbonet rouge, grapefruit juice and a touch of cardamom; outstanding, Ravana I think it was called. Others tried La Rose (Hendricks gin, rose syrup, Champagne and rose petals), Celeste (light rum, rosemary, cassis, lemon, Champagne) and the Vercour (Hangar One Citron, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, jasmine blossoms).

We nibbled too, of course. The swiss chard gratin was out of this world, with garlic and a rich cheesy sauce. Mussels simple and perfect, “just like Paris,” said one of my friends. Another had passed on sampling the mussels, figuring they were pretty basic and not far from what she could make at home. But we prodded her to give one a try and her eyebrows involuntarily rose while taking in the glorious sambar2flavors. I waited a bit too long to take a picture, but this tells how much we loved them! Extra bread, please, to sop up those amazing cooking juices. And frites! Can’t come to Sambar with out an order (or two, or three) of the great frites.

Couldn’t have been a more perfect Friday evening out in Sambar’s garden with the gals. Come winter, we may just have to do it again, buoyed against the grey and chill by the color and dynamism Sambar holds inside as well.

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Seattle’s Top Restaurants

I count this among the small pleasures in life: flipping through the day’s mail, as I did last week, to see that it includes a copy of Seattle magazine’s annual “Best Restaurants” issue. Not only because I’m an adamant fan of our local restaurants and love to see what’s on the radar, which spots I need to add to my “gotta get there” list. But also because, for just over six years, I was the food editor at Seattle and that restaurant issue was by far the biggest project of the year. It pulled together the culmination of a year’s worth of restaurant experiences, homing in on what really stood out as the very best of Seattle-area dining destinations. Fun, challenging, super detailed, tough decisions. To be honest, I enjoyed the process while it lasted but it’s a treat now to just have the magazine show up in my mail slot.

And it’s nice to know, perusing this year’s honorees, that I’m not too far out of the restaurant-scene loop! In fact, I’ve been to all five of the year’s “Best New Restaurants,” three of which I’ve blogged about in recent months: Spinasse, The Corson Building, Poppy— and Olivar and Spring Hill are on my too-long to-write list!

Because I’m such a fan of celebrating the story, and history, behind the food, I was jazzed to see that the article gave some solid attention to restaurants that have stood the test of time, going back even 100-plus years with Maneki (which I’m embarrassed to say I have never been to!). A few dozen other restaurants are featured in other benchmark categories, such as 30+ (including Ray’s Boathouse) and 20+ (Rover’s among them). Then still a few more pages of quick-hit highlights of the year, from “most convincing argument that cauliflower is not a vegetable” to “best $11 you’ll spend on dinner in Seattle.” Sorry, I’m not giving everything away. You have to flip through the magazine to find out all the gems of the year.

Funny to see what the husband of current food editor, Alison Austin Scheff, has to say in a sidebar titled “Married to the Job.” My own dining cohort (for nearly 25 years now) has waxed on occasionly about the joys and challenges of being married to a food writer. But never had an opportunity to have a public platform for his perspective. Maybe I’ll let him make a guest posting one of these days. But–for the most part–I’m pretty sure the scales weigh more to the positive. Even if some evenings he’d rather pick his dining destination. Which is often home.

Way to go, Alison (and your cohorts). I know from experience what a big job that annual issue is. This one is a winner.

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Dinner Out: Spinasse

Interestingly, it was Bob’s idea that we go for the menu degustazione on Saturday night. He’s definitely not a picky eater but for health reasons has to be a little selective about what’s on his plate. Maybe he was just feeling indecisive. Or adventurous. Or maybe this was just one of those rare occasions when literally everything sounded good.

I was surprised by the suggestion, but it only took a moment for me to agree. Usually when a marathon meal is in the cards, it’s something you plan ahead for (i.e. light lunch, long walk).  In fact, we’d kind a pre-functioned a bit already, which I’d have skipped had I known. We had a few bites at Ethan Stowell’s brand-new Anchovies and Olives, opened the day before, just a block away. More report on that later, we need to go back for a broader menu tasting. But the raw mackerel with toasted pine nuts, sliced radish and tiny beet sprouts was outstanding.

So what the heck. We took a deep breath and got ready for a sampling of everything on the menu at Spinasse.

It was kind of a last-minute decision, this dinner out. I had, of course, been wanting to get there for months, soon as I began to hear friends try to find superlatives to describe their meals. One more pal raving last week got me to stop whining and get over there. A lucky Saturday afternoon call secured 2 spots at 7:00 that night. No recession signs here, the place was packed and bustling, loud in a convivial sort of way.

The communal table setting can make conversation with your partner across the way a little challenging, but it all works out. And no chance you won’t have at least some interaction with folks next to you. In fact, it was sometimes hard not to pipe up with our neighbors as if we were dining partners. The husband sitting next to me ordered a martini with Aviation gin and was telling his wife that he thought it was from Oregon. It was everything I could do to not lean over and confirm that indeed it’s from Portland and wax on about the great gin and my friend Ryan, who’s part of the team behind it. (I just noticed that on their new site, the story behind Aviation cites “a small tiki party in West Seattle” as part of the early history of this Northwest gin. That little party was at my house!)

Under “menu degustazione” on the menu, it says “everything – $75 per person.” And they do mean everything, aside from the contorni (vegetable sides), one of which was part of an entree anyway.

The seven antipasti selections came on three narrow oblong plates that sat like hash marks between us. Artisan salami with roasted leeks, simple as it was, was a favorite of us both. The salad with chicories, pheasant and walnuts was a winner too. And while I do not (typically) like beef tartare, the carne cruda Piemontese was heavenly: rich but mild, pure and simple. But the vitello tonnato, anchovies with green sauce and egg yolk, farro with yellow foot mushrooms….nothing was anywhere near a dud.

Then followed the three pastas of the night. I’ve never had a finer, more delicate pasta than the tajarin al ragù, whisper-thin strands tossed with a simple meat ragu. And the ravioli with nettles and ricotta, tossed with sage butter and toasted pine nuts–amazing. Not that the maltagliati with chickpeas and prosciutto was a slacker but the other two prevailed. In fact all three were delicious leftovers a couple days later. There was no way we could clean these plates and make it through the next and final round, our secondi.

The pork sausages with lentils and lacianato kale were–yet another–highlight of the evening. Simple, homemade sausages burst with unadulterated pork flavor, the earthy accompaniments an ideal foil for the sausages’ richness. And braised duck leg fell from the bone with the slightest touch, tender and delicious, served with juniper scented savoy cabbage.

Ok, so dessert actually isn’t included in the degustazione either. And it shocked me that I felt like a little bite of something sweet after such a grand parade of delicious Piemontese dishes. Spinasse deserves an extra gold star for having something as simple, and small, as brutti ma buoni (which I’m pretty sure translates as “ugly but wonderful”) available. The delicate hazelnut meringue cookie–which seemed mostly hazelnut, just enough meringue to give some structure–could not have been a more ideal finale for this wonderful meal.

Cascina Spinasse on Urbanspoon


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Cheers to Zoë

I tuned in to In the Kitchen with Tom and Thierry for the first half hour of the radio program (710 KIRO Saturdays from 4:00 to 7:00) this past Saturday, before I joined them for the second half hour to talk about all things bourbon. In that first segment, my chef pals Tom Douglas (Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen, Lola, et al.) and Thierry Rautureau (Rover’s) were chatting about where they each had eaten this past week, regaling us with discussion about an amazing meal at Spinasse and a blow-out dinner at Canlis. I think it was Thierry who mentioned he’d been to Zoë, and the two chatted for a bit about it being a restaurant that they don’t get to but once every couple of years, though always enjoy when they do. We can all name a few restaurants like that, can’t we? Just not enough nights in the month to get to favorite spots that have been around a bit longer, places lower on the radar simply by nature of the newsy new places on the scene. For me, such spots would include Stumbling Goat, El Camino, Monsoon, Chez Shea.

But for me, Zoë is different. I still remember how wowed I was when the Belltown restaurant first opened in 2000. In fact, I named chef/owner Scott Staples a “Chef to Watch” in the 2000 Seattle Magazine restaurant issue, citing that his move from Third Floor Fish Cafe in Kirkland to Seattle’s thriving restaurant scene was one of the more anticipated openings that year. From the first bites of his grilled romaine salad with apple, bacon and blue cheese, pan-seared sweetbreads, salmon with lentils and brown butter, house-smoked hanger steak — my husband and I were both big fans. And it’s a place we return to 4 or 5 times a year, which is pretty regular for us. Never a disappointing meal on any visit.

When an out-of-towner food lover asks for restaurant recommendations, Zoë is always on my list, usually prefaced by “Want to know where Seattleites go for a casual, contemporary, delicious meal?” It may not be as high on the national radar as are other favorites like Lark, Steelhead Diner, Crush, Tilth. Or Staples’ own newer Quinn’s, opened on Capitol Hill, which is great too (I wrote about Quinn’s amazing wild boar sloppy joes for Maxim magazine’s Food Awards this August). But for my money, Zoë is one of the most reliable, enjoyable, delicious and very “Seattle” restaurants in town.
Restaurant Zoe on Urbanspoon

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Dinner at Poppy

It took a few moments for Jerry Traunfeld’s answer to sink in. Not quite two months? Is that really all the time that Poppy‘s been open? The smiling, but clearly tired, chef and owner of this hot new property on Capitol Hill assured me it was true. And he surely would know. I guess that’s one quirk of a restaurant that’s had as much anticipation as this one–from its first twinkle in Jerry’s eye dating to his departure from The Herbfarm in early fall 2007. The name, the location, the demolition/construction of the new space, the menu development…we’ve been along for the ride following all the strides toward this momentous opening. Makes it hard to forget that the just-opened restaurant hasn’t actually been opened longer.

In part, it’s because we know we’re in such good hands with Jerry. While the place certainly does deserve the break-in period any other new restaurant does, this chef hits the ground running after such a stellar run at his longtime Herbfarm post. Soft-spoken and low-key despite his high profile and national regard, Jerry seems very much to let his cooking speak for him perhaps more so that other chefs of his caliber. He presents himself with a quiet confidence that plays well on the plate.

Or platter, to be more accurate. Poppy’s MO follows that of the thali–an thaliIndian presentation of small dishes of different flavors, colors and textures that contrast and complement each other. It’s rather like a tasting menu that you get all at once, so you can bounce back and forth between dishes as so inspired. The selections change daily, each with a theme. It was “a thali for a new puppy” on Friday night (or new rescue dog, as the case may be!).  Eight of the ten dishes were set, including celery root pear soup, green goddess beet salad, cilantro naan and cauliflower with apple, dill and currants. The last two dishes–BC scallops with cider sauce and peanuts, and wagyu beef cheeks with toasted nut sauce–could be swapped out, one or both, for leek porcini and chestnut blintz, or chanterelle and sweet potato gratin. Between the four of us we tasted everything and pretty much everything sung strong with amazing flavors, distinctive textures, wonderful variety. And for a flat $32, it was a great value–both in terms of quantity and panache. We were full enough that one scoop of malted milk chocolate ice cream sufficed, deliciously so, for dessert.

Our dinner Friday night had started of with cocktails and snacks. To sip, we tried three: the Papi Delicious (a savory take on the margarita, with red bell pepper and jalapeno), the Pearaway (aquavit with belle de brillet pear eau de vie and dry vermouth) and Six Twenty Two (rye with amaro nonino, rhubarb and bitters). All were layered with great flavors, interesting, clever. Alongside we snacked on spice crispies (puffed rice with nuts), eggplant fries with salt and honey and a little delicate tart of leek, taleggio, Asian pear and tarragon. It’s was off to a great start within moments.

I love the new-meets-old interior, with the original high brick walls exposed and simple, contemporary furnishings. And Jerry managed to work a small herb garden into the plans, lovely, lush raised beds just outside the back door. You can take the chef out of The Herbfarm, but you clearly can’t take the herb farm out of the chef. Now, his menu may feature plenty of interesting fresh herbs but is also infused with a wider world of culinary influences, more spices, less fanciness, perhaps a little more simple purity at the core of the flavorful fare.

Poppy on Urbanspoon

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