July 17, 2009
Eatless in Seattle – Hell Yes – more often than not applies to dining in Seattle. Dreadful to be sure considering Seattle is a place of more culinary opportunities than those endured by many other spots such as Fargo, North Dakota or Death Valley. To the West, the Pacific rolls uninterrupted to Japan with whales moving North, then South in relative peace. To the East, you’ll find some of the most fertile farming grounds anywhere. Up North, BC and Alaska provide the freshest seafood in the World. South of Seattle, markets from Astoria, Oregon to California’s Napa Valley to Chile’s regions X to XII supply everything a chef can dream about, only an airplane ride away.
Midtown Seattle,you find many of these products at Pike Place Market. You might get bombed by flying Sockeye salmon straight from Bristol Bay or an 85 pound King salmon out of Kenai River. Veal sweetbread, Cajun sausage, giant octopus and obscene looking geoduck clams are yours at quite a reasonable cost.
You name it, Seattle has it. Lacking are Chinese penis restaurants proudly serving goat’s penis, bull’s penis tip, deer-penis juice or donkey vulva with a sauce choice of lemon and soy, chili and soy, and a sesame-seed paste. These special treats require a trip to Beijing. Less risky, chocolate versions of the above are available from the local erotic bakery right here in Seattle.
Other absentee culinary experiences include meter-sized Danish smoked in-skin eel, Canadian baby seals, NYC subway rats, bats, camels and Southeast Asia poodle stews, all hard to find in Seattle’s neighborhood groceries or local farmer’s markets. Local organic, wholesome, green places such as Whole Foods prefer to sell seeds and nuts rather than net caught tuna and North Atlantic cod. The latter two are, of course, on all endangered lists for one or another reason.
Seattle may be, or was, more famous for music than for extraordinary culinary experiences. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Corbain, Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Fats Navarro, Kenny G or Marc Seales famously beat out local chefs such as Ba Culbert of Tilikum Place Cafe, Tom Douglas, Robin Leventhal or Ashley Merriman. Truly famous chefs such as the “F” word Gordon Ramsay or Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck, the Soup Nazi and Paul Bocuse seem to have no interest whatsoever in Seattle.
No Michelin stars hang by the doors of Seattle diners. Top 50 restaurant lists never mention Seattle. Still, Seattle has the ever popular Dick’s Drive-In burgers where the Deluxe version sets you back a little over two bucks or as little as a buck+ for the Regular kind. Happily, Seattle still has some of that laid back atmosphere.
To many, Seattle dining means heading to ancient places such as the Spice (sic) Needle Revolving Restaurant, aka “Eye of the Needle”, straight out of the World Fair of 1962. The menu changes at the speed of molasses flowing down a ten story wall. I visited the Space Needle “Revolutionary dining atop Seattle” in 1976 with no urge to return. The Canlis (“cooking with abandon or not at all”), a nearby dress-up joint, celebrates 55 years of fine dining. For 15 years, Canlis was only a few blocks away from my home. I never went there since dress codes don’t thrill me. $72 Australian lobster or the American tenderloin at about the same price don’t really fit my wallet. I never figured out if or when they were in a state of abandon sufficient to peel the onions and cross the carrots. You better call ahead to find out the state of abandonment before you decide to try them.
The all night 13 Coins is the veteran where the menu is straight out of 1970. French Dip, Eggs Benedict, Chicken Liver Saute and Steak & Pan-Fried Oysters can be had for a modest investment at 5 am if it so pleases you. Try the Banana Cream Pie for dessert.
The Metropolitan Grill is another fast route to coronary troubles that will delight your surgeon far more than you. One frightening offer is a 38 oz Prime Porterhouse for $69. Add the Béarnaise sauce at a reasonable four bucks. A side order of Twice Stuffed Potatoes might calm that tummy so depraved of saturated fat. Try the Surf and Turf at $82 or the Châteaubriand for Two weighting in at 115 bucks. Ain’t America great? Your leftovers would feed a Sudanese family for a week or two, you bastard.
Hurricane Cafe, 5 Spot and 5 Corner Cafe have been around forever. All three are relatively merciful on your wallet but remain just as deadly. Extra charges might apply if you drop dead while on the premises to pay the cost of stuffing you into an XL size doggie bag. 5 Spot provides eternal weekend breakfast queues possibly easing the exposure of last night’s lovers to each other (“what’s your name again?”). 5 Corner Cafe, where no one cares to know your name, serves a killer grease burger at 3 am or 3 pm, your choice. Absolutely no personal checks, you dumb shit. As to the Hurricane Cafe, a recent review states that “the food is always half-assed, but who gives a fuck? It’s 4:00 a.m. and you want to eat”. Indeed so.
Ivar’s Restaurants feature perhaps the best known chef, folk musician, maverick, major drunk and general legend – Ivar Haglund, by now dead for 24 years but still kicking and still beloved by all. You find Ivar’s name on various Seattle waterfront eateries. That alder smoked “Indian Style” coho salmon was enjoyed by your grand daddy, daddy and will likely be around for whoever survives Global Warming, Korean missiles or the GM bailout. A $25 bargain.
The Paul Allen monstrous Seattle Center creation serves little food as far as I know. In my book, this pile of colored sheet metal is known as Paul’s UpsidedownTesticles. The Experience Music Project is about as popular to most of us as, well, the mere thought of Paul’s UpsidedownTesticles. See the nearby pictures. Decide for yourself. Moreover, featuring Bing Crosby in almost the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Queensrÿche and The Pudz is odd even by the standards of a Seattle suffering acute depression derived from a heritage of long, howling winter storms at Lofoten, Norway. Paul’s pal Bill Gates is arousing twin mini towers for his and Melinda’s foundation across the street that seem to fit the testicle idea quite well. Look for yourself.
Skipping EMP, try out the slightly psychodelic Seattle Center ‘s Center House. Eat there if you dare from an abundance of odd little stands in the house’s shadowy corners. The culinary experience is quite overshadowed by the free for all action on the Center Stage and Dance Floor. That’s right. No charge for trying out Participatory Folk Dancing, Square Dancing, true Ballroom Dancing or plain old rollerskating. You might enjoy the Tuxedo Junction Band (“Stardust, Begin the Beguine, You Gotta Be a Football Hero, That Old Black Magic and Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye”), the Microsoft Orchestra (“String players at any level are always welcome”), Peace on Earth, Womanipura with Mind Craze, Lelavision “Physical Music” or the Magic Mystery Show. And you though there was no Culture in Seattle.
Other Seattle notables include eateries that are cute, popular and heavier on marketing than on salt and pepper. You go there to be seen by envious neighbors, thumping your nose at furious exes and (unwittingly) at IRS agents. Dahlia’s, Etta’s, Wild Ginger, Sorrento’s and The Herbfarm are a few examples of such wonders. You won’t be disappointed unless your neighbor in raging madness drives over your dog after watching you and company break out the third bottle of 1966 Dom Pérignon ($1,200 or so). The ex calls you back to court with sudden proof of that secret Bermuda account of yours. An enraged IRS suddenly sticks its nose into that business meeting at Seattle’s premier strip club Lusty Lady, “where everyone can see your heels”. You watch it. Your credit, marriage or worse might suffer.
I happen to live downtown Seattle, quite close to the Space Needle. Apart from that “Revolutionary dining atop Seattle”, there are some 10-15 restaurants of various kinds within a block or so. One is the 5 Corner Cafe mentioned above where you might find me very late when the drunks have collapsed, vanished and quieted down. Seattle outlawed serving booze after 2 am which is a good thing indeed.
There are Greek, Italian places, Mexican and American fast food, a wine and cheese place, a French organic bakery called Boulangerie Nantaise run by a delightful lady from Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc, France. I might be there having a light breakfast with an espresso or two. The Shallot Bistro is the best of several Asian outfits. The local sports bar is doing whatever sports bars do now that the Sonics are gone. Sadly, no Norwegian, Zulu or Romanian affairs are present so far. In all fairness, some of these places may not tickle yours or mine tongue but it’s nice to have them around.
A few blocks away, the Belltown nightlife district beckons the innocent suburbanites to occasional shootings, frequent drug trafficking, bloody noses, hot spots, loud music, drunk kids and one of the best of jazz clubs – Tula’s. Tula’s isn’t famous for their menu but feature mostly local talent of great ability at very reasonably prices, compared to the better known Jazz Alley which isn’t known for great food either. At Tula’s, tell Michael I sent you as you settle down a foot or so from the stands of the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, some 16-18 strong of considerable db’s, Greta Matassa, Jay Thomas, Susan Pascal, Hadley Caliman, Kelley Johnson, Beth Winters and many more. Believe these guys are good.
Closer to Lake Union, there is the Swedish Club. The famous Swedish pancake breakfast is presently on hold but will apparently return in September, lingonberries and all. With luck you may share the breakfast with a hearty dose of folk dancing. I visited the place in 1975 and haven’t returned. But that is just me. I never warmed up to polkas, lutefisk or cod roe cakes. In any event, the Northwest heritage of Swedish loggers and Norwegian fishermen is deader than all-you-can-eat salad bars, karaoke and turtlenecks.
Ballard isn’t what it used to be. The last Scandinavian restaurant is now Indian. The Armani suits infested the place, Rolexes, BMW’s, Hummers and Blackberries are everywhere as are personal trainers, nannies and investment crooks. The last Scandinavian food store closed its doors recently, perhaps to be replaced by yet one more organic juice outfit.
Fremont is a lost Seattle soul. Once hip and funky, condos, giant Getty’s and Adobe office complexes dragged that neighborhood down to become your average Redmond or Silicon Valley trash can. On the culinary side, a not bad Greek stalwart named Costas Opa is still operating with very reasonable prices. Service used to be a drag but might be better now. A decade ago, I ran a business down there. Costas fed me more often than not together with the legendary Red Door Alehouse, now displaced to an undisclosed location by Suzie Burke, Land Baroness or Goddess of Fremont, aka the female Godfather of Fremont. She owns just about everything in the area, including the Red Door Alehouse. She wanted another million condos where that poor tavern happened to do business. We all know who’s the boss down there. Condos up, tavern gone.
Tilikum Place Cafe
Now, let’s get to the point of this little message to all of you around the globe. Eatless in Seattle? Not so. Late in 2008, a new place opened up in my neighborhood after what seemed to me and my neighbors to be years in the making. My hair guy Kevin shared some pre-opening rumors, being next door at the Sublime Place. Taped up windows added to the mystery. So and so mentioned some sort of bistro was coming to town. Then it opened – Tilikum Place Cafe.
On the second or third day of the opening back in the very last part of October, I tried them out. Duck Confit, it was. Terrific. The the mussels appetizer followed, oddly off the menu nowadays. Outstanding. I’ve been back once or twice a week ever since. You’ll find me at the bar counter, the guy trying to look like Hemingway with zero luck. I’ve spent more time there, lately, than with this blog, perhaps to the relief of many. My budget may be bruised more ways than one, but so be it. Don’t get me wrong, the Tilikum Place Cafe is a bargain compared to, say, Canlis.
I’ve been through their tiny Spanish sardines, Alaskan char from way north, sturgeon, salt cod and mussels. I had rabbit, duck, pork, beef and all kinds of salads and veggies. Desserts such as homemade ice cream and truly made-to-order strawberry shortcake caught my sweet tooth. World class coffee that is as superior to the Starbuck’s junk as Google stock to the Lithuanian Lita. Dutch babies, smoked paprika butter, special this and that. Spirits galore. The menu is short and to the point. The dishes are unique partly because Ba and staff makes just about everything fresh to order from scratch, creating distinct taste clusters played off against each other. Or something like that. The pate isn’t bought from some sweatshop slaughter house in Bronx or Shanghai. It’s coming to you fresh from the Tilikum Place Cafe kitchen at 407 Cedar Street, Seattle.
My dad’s gold standard for food was boiled pig parts with boiled potatoes. Anything different was treason punished by his plate thrown across the dining room. If that’s your game, then perhaps Tilikum Cafe isn’t for you. The Tilikum Place Cafe culinary experiences are neither ordinary nor short lived. You really can’t put a label on the place. Some things come close to being vegetarian but meat isn’t lacking. Other dishes are hearty, most are on the light side. Some of the prevailing opinions pin a European label on the place but that works only if you don’t know what European cooking is. For instance, not even Ba seems to go for the braised cow’s lung in tomato sauce that the Italians love. Few Parisian chefs offer buffalo burgers but Ba does. Suffice to say that the style of the Tilikum Place Cafe is the style of the Tilikum Place Cafe. Enough said.
By now, the place has been reviewed and dissected by newspapers, bloggers, the “neighborhood business guides”, know-it-alls and word of mouth to universal acclaim. You look it up. Real critics already picked apart every menu option so I won’t. Blessedly, the business seems to boom now after some gloomy, rainy days this winter and Spring. That’s good because I would very much regret if they went away. Know that Japanese saying? “Do the right thing long enough and you will succeed”. Add a qualifier such as “if you have what it takes” and the Tilikum Place Cafe qualifies royally.
Over the months, like any regular, I got acquainted with owner/chef Ba Culbert, her business partner Paul Dormann and the staff that one reviewer described as “flying around the tables like humming birds”. After all, there are only some ten people on staff so the flying might be called for. I’ve witnessed the back breaking effort required to make the place a success. I’ve seen the artistry of creating world class dishes. The kitchen is open. Seeing Ba and the others in action makes you realize that this kind of cooking is art.
Here is my second point. I don’t really go back to the Tilikum Place Cafe because the food is great or I happen to like the people working there. I go there because the place makes me feel good. It’s one of those personal things. Most of us have retreats, memories or places, occasions or people that we cherish. Our comfort zone. The security blanket. A picture of mother, the cat or Michael Jackson. Some adore a bottle of Armagnac a day, others live to climb Mount Everest or raise ants. A few smoke BC Bud, smuggled in by someone’s grandmother in a 1930s handbag. Some obsess over Italian shoes, recently married Robert Redford or UFO’s. A hair blown breed needs that Hummer, a next-generation spouse and a lakefront property to feel properly comforted. In my case, I head for the ambiance of a neighbor eatery.
Here’s to people, their fallacies, blemishes, talents and occasional heroism. Sarah Palin, the astonishing narcissism of a not quite sane quitter. Ann Coulter, the modern day Goebbels. George W. Bush, criminal and failure. Michael Jackson, the medical wonder who finally lost the magic. Muhammad Ali, the wonder who has yet to lose the magic. Boris Yeltsin, the winner, dead drunk or not, currently simply dead. The senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and dog catchers caught with their pants down or pocket books open. The CIA torture specialists. Pratibha Patil, Asif Ali Zardari, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu, almost all with thumbs on the big bang button. Corrupt bankers. The drug cartels, OPEC and Iranian strongmen. Mother Theresa and Gandhi heroics. The sad hysterics of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Neighbors riding 200 db motorcycles at 4 am. Horatio Hornblower, Homer Simpson and Forest Gump. Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Terrorists, the Religious Right and the Arrogant Left.
So many get their moment of fame but with little to show for the effort. Here is part of the reason: none of these cats above made art, or at least not art of lasting value. Thus they disappear as time passes – there are exceptions but not many. On the other hand, the few that do produce lasting art will themselves last. That’s why I write about artists. Fellow photographers include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, the Westons, Robert Mapplethorpe or Jeff Wall. Here you’ll meet Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag and Georgia O’Keeffe . Geniuses, from Picasso, Gustaf Mahler, Miles Davis and Mozart to da Vinci, frequent these pages. As a contrast, monsters such as Mao, Hitler and Stalin lurk behind the scenes, together with scores of other political rascals.
Art is good because it survives no matter what. Stuff such as democracy, human rights, the Beatles, Antarctic krill, polar bears and ozone layers come and go. So do birthdays. El Niño follows La Niña, making water flow this or the other way across a vast Pacific Ocean. The Big Bang and Black Holes are irreversible but when did you last worry about that? Now check out the Bach Concertos ignored by dead, forgotten despots. What about the cave paintings in France and elsewhere that are still alive after 35,000 years? The liturgical songs by Hildegard of Bingen are with us after 850 years. Mozart was belittled by some emperor or another (“Too many notes, my dear Mozart”) but who is laughing now?
Consider the string quartets coming out of Auschwitz some 55 years ago after their creators joined untold others inhaling Zyklon-B gas. You get my point. People come and go. Art remains. One day the bomb may drop or global temperatures might hit a hundred or more degrees, shutting down that last CO2 spewing smoke stack. The concertos, rock paintings, Bruno Walter recordings, Thriller albums and Star Wars DVDs will still be there, somewhere under the debris of human bones.
This blog and Tilikum Place Cafe aren’t likely to have a major say in the end of the World or the start of a new Paradise. Perhaps we’ll leave some trace somewhere. For now it’s a matter of strawberry shortcake and a tracer of Armagnac served with the World’s best coffee. So say hello to Ba and the Tilikum Place Cafe is where “everybody knows your name”, or at least my name. It’s a neat place. Go there. Tell Ba I sent you. Here’s how: Tilikum Place Cafe. Facebook is a lively source for Ba and the Cafe. Enjoy. Do fly in from Zagreb, Paris, Hanoi or Bellevue if necessary. It’s worth it. Try the Spanish sardines.
All the best,