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Sated in Seattle

14 May 2004 by JR
Seattle has bequeathed the world more than its fair share of
modern icons: Boeing; Microsoft; Starbucks; Amazon and Costco
are the most obvious. But as in so many other regions, money
and expertise in one field have led inevitably and probably
less profitably to the fields of food and wine.

The wine club at Boeing was one of the first to lead the way
when several of its leading members decided to put pastime
into practice - Cadence, Nota Bene, Austin Robaire and Willis
Hall wineries were all founded by ex-Boeing employees. But in
two other instances the professional and scientific training
which two individuals received courtesy of Boeing has now
produced more highly distinctive, inexpensive food and drink
outlets.

The first, and probably the place I would like to start every
day, is Café Vivace up on Capitol Hill, which is in my
opinion the finest coffee bar in the US and owes its unique
character and the quality of its coffee blend to the obvious
maniacal determination of its founder, David Schomer.

Schomer trained originally in Boeing's quality control
department but then decided to apply the same professionalism,
combined with obvious innate but until then latent, passion to
coffee. Trips to Italy led him to appreciate that the best
blends incorporate a per centage of the less expensive and
often overlooked robusto beans; his technical background
allowed him to strip the renowned La Marzocco coffee machines
and crank them up even further to meet his demanding
specifications; and his experience in quality control has led
him to imbue his baristas (and those whom he has trained are
known locally as Schomerites) with the same commitment so that
they roast, grind and tamp your coffee to his specific
instructions (and anyone wanting to follow suit should get a
copy of Schomer's book, Perfect Espresso, from
espressovivace.com - and I do hope many restaurateurs will
avail themselves of his accumulated coffee wisdom).

Having spent more on his book than several, excellent coffees
I headed down the hill for another gastronomic experience
courtesy of Boeing. But this time the consequences of
Armandino Batali's travels for the company, particularly
sojourns in Spain and Italy, have had enormous implications on
restaurants as far afield as New York.

Armandino is the father of Mario Batali, currently New York's
most exciting chef at Babbo and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, and it
was during their European tours that father, son (and daughter
Gina who now works with her father when not holding down a
'virtual job'in the locomotive division of GE) developed their
passion for the pig and all its products. As a result, when
Armandino retired five years ago he underwent a short course
at the Culinary institute of America and then opened Salumi,
to sell his own hone cured salami and prosciutto.

With a genial grin that belies his age, Armandino recalls
their first day's trading. "We sold two sandwiches and thought
we had done pretty well." Today, over 200 customers a day pile
into their tall, narrow slice of a shop for sandwiches, his
lamb prosciutto (of which he claims to be the only prducer in
the world) and any form of charcuterie from the pork which he
processes in the scrupulously clean plant he has built at the
back of the shop.

And on Friday nights the communal table in the shop becomes a
restaurant serving a seven course Italian dinner for a maximum
of 14 when Armandino is joined by his still sprightly 68 year
old sister Isolina, known as Aunt Izzy, who takes centre stage
and rolls what are considered to be the city's best gnocchi.
(Sadly, these dinners are booked a year in advance!)
Currently, Armandino is also digesting USDA legislation to
enable him to sell wholesale but he has reservations about
dealing with chefs, "They're all cranks," he explained.

The city's most striking contribution to food is Pike Place
Market where growers, producers and food retailers stand next
door to some excellent eating places most notably The Crumpet
Shop, where the crumpets are almost as good as my mother-in-
law's; the Market Grill which serves toasted halibut
sandwiches next to fishmongers displaying whole 35lb specimens
recently caught off the coast of nearby Alaska; and the
authentically French bistro, Le Pichet.

The revival of Seattle's downtown coupled with the proximity
of the city's baseball and football stadia as well as the
brand new Symphony Hall have all been good news for the city's
restaurateurs most notably Tom Douglas, Seattle's most
successful chef/restaurateur, and the hugely popular Wild
Ginger which six months ago opened a jazz bar, The Triple
Door, underneath.

Douglas runs three restaurants, Palace Kitchen, Etta's Seafood
in the market and The Dahlia Lounge which he also designed to
great success so that it exudes an air of a bygone era. Its
red leather banquettes and booths recall the film LA
Confidential although the lampshades in the shape of multi-
coloured fish relate immediately to the waterfront nearby.

So too does the menu which boasts a host of seafood dishes,
most impressively a really well cooked pieces of wood roasted
wild salmon, crisp salmon skin with escarole and salted
potatoes. Cleverly, the first courses also include a seafood
sampler, a combination of the six first courses each served in
a small bowl sitting on a bed of ice within a larger, round
bowl. This presentation was only spoilt by too much ice
underneath which numbed the flavour of the more delicate
items. And my only disappointment came with the dessert menu
which promised the world's finest crème caramel but
failed to deliver.

A crowded Dahlia Lounge with a busy bar close to midnight
should have prepared me for dinner at Wild Ginger but as I
walked into this hugely popular restaurant at 1930 which can
serve over 1,000 a night my jaw just dropped. Every table was
taken, every seat at their teryiaki bars was occupied and we
felt privileged to be escorted upstairs to one of their
private dining rooms which are so popular pre-Christmas that
they can be occupied by three different parties with the
earliest sitting down at 1530.

The diverse origins of the principal chefs - Vietnam, Canton
and Indonesia - were only matched by our waiter who hailed
from Tipperary, Co Cork and who confessed that the
professional highlight of his career had taken place a
fortnight earlier when Dave Crosby (of The Byrds and Crosby,
Stills & Nash) had sung 'It's a Long way to Tipperary' after
dinner.

For us he explained that the essentially spicy nature of the
chefs' food had been toned down for their customers' American
palates which accounts for the fact that we found most of the
dishes hot rather than intriguingly complex. But as a place to
have fun, and probably to be an investor, Wild Ginger is hard
to beat.

Seattle may not yet have left quite as distinctive a stamp on
the food world as it has done so successfully with coffee but
in a city whose local newspaper runs a regular feature
entitled 'Practical Geniuses of Technology' this is surely not
likely to be too far in the future.

Café Vivace, 901 East Denny Way, 206-860 5869,
Salumi, 309 Third Avenue South, 206-621 8772,
The Dahlia Lounge, 201 Fourth Avenue, 206-682 4142,
Wild Ginger, 1401 Third Avenue 206-623 4450.

* American readers can avail themselves of the new season's
wild salmon via www.freshseafood.com in Seattle who ship fresh
fish by overnight air express anywhere in the US. Equally
delicious are the hand dipped caramels topped with grey sea
salt from Fran's chocolates,  www.franschocolates.com

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