Notes from the Road: Dallas, Seattle, L.A.
Saturday, May 17, 2014
The sun was shining in Seattle. The flowers were in bloom. In clear weather, this city is almost heartbreakingly beautiful. Wandering through the Pike Place Market I came upon these flowers.
which made me think of the lovely dinner I'd eaten at Lark the night before. I've always loved Lark for its simplicity, seasonality and bold flavors, but after a particularly vegetable-deprived week on the road, the menu was a special treat. I started with some oysters, then a raw artichoke salad, the tender vegetables lightly dressed in lemon, topped with shards of Parmigiano cheese and tossed with anchovies and wonderfully crisp croutons. Then we had the most wonderful farro - each plump, nutty grain popping in my mouth until I started thinking of it as caviar of the forest. The farro mingled with fava beans and spinach, while a warm river of mascarpone flooded the middle.
We had oysters, with just a hint of yuzu. Charred octopus was just a little chewy, with crisp edges; it was enlivened with bacon and zapped with peppers. It was a perfect little meal.
The night before I'd been in Dallas, sharing a snack with my friend Dean Fearing. He liked it when I said that all I wanted was some buffalo tacos, and joined me in eating these fantastically flavorful, - delightfully messy tacos. Fearing has a big personality, and there's nothing modest about the way he mixes flavors; these tiny tacos, with their pickled onions, cheese and Sriracha really pack a punch.
But I digress. Back to Seattle. I ate nothing that wasn't wonderful while I was there. In fact, I liked my lunch at Dahlia Lounge so much that it was gone before I remembered to take pictures. When the salad came out I looked down at the plate thinking - oh the usual dull mesclun. Then I took a bite. Each one of the greens, grown at Prosser Farm, had stunning integrity. Each added its own subtle flavor. There must have been a dozen different leaves in there, from nepitella to baby lettuces and herbs, but it was an absolutely perfect expression of a Northwest spring. It was followed by salmon - gorgously fresh and beautifully cooked - that made most of the salmon I've been eating lately seem pathetic.
But despite all the great food I ate in Seattle, the biggest thrill was this:
Live spot prawns, fished from the tank and eaten raw at Taylor Shellfish in Melrose Market. There is nothing quite so subtle as these little creatures when they're eaten with nothing more than a squirt of lime. You pick up a shrimp, give the head a quick twist, then suck down the sweet, transparent meat. Spot prawns must be alive when you get them - they deteroriate with stunning speed once dead - which means them a strictly local treat. And a short-lived one: the season lasts a mere few weeks. The flavor is like nothing else I've tasted; much more subtle than any other creature that emerges from the sea.
Now I'm in Los Angeles. The trip here started with this delicious little tidbit from the Hungry Cat:
Johnnycake topped with smoked whitefish, salmon roe and creme fraiche. I could have eaten a dozen. I'll admit that I missed most of lunch, since I was giving a talk, but it made me yearn to go back.
Last night we had a party and the Guerilla Taco Truck showed up. I've gone on about how much I like these tacos in the past, so I won't repeat myself. Just let me say that they did not disappoint. And if there's a sweet potato taco anywhere on the planet that can match the one Will Avila cooks up, I'll be absolutely astonished.
We ended last night at the new Night + Market Song (Song means two in Thai) in Silverlake. It's a unique restaurant with guaranteed status as a cult favorite. Painfully bright with orange and magenta walls that vibrate until you're almost blind, it's a true adventure in eating. Chris Yenbamroong understands that he need make no concessions to the American palate. And he doesn't. The larb has liver and bile mixed in, as it would in Northern Thailand or Laos, until is musky, dark, richly funky. There's a pork blood soup served with cracklings, herbs and fried garlic that leaves your lips a ghoulish red. It's all steamy and exciting - like a trip to a street stall somewhere in deepest Thailand. But what I like best are the nam priks and the jaeows - pounded condiments of stunning complexity that you use as a dip for vegetables, for fried slices of eggplant, and best of all, for the warm balls of sticky rice that are the staple food in that part of the world.
Restaurants like this are what make food in Los Angeles so exciting. It's a chance to take a trip without needing a passport.