Twenty-seven hours of gastronomical fantasy

Here is a short list of foods, most of which (in their most “gourmet” preparations) I would consider outrageously rich, exorbitant, perhaps unsustainable, caloric, and/or worth obsessing over or possibly (at times) avoiding entirely: fois gras, truffles, lobster, game, rare/exotic fruits, heavy cream sauces.

These are foods whose allures I habitually claim immunity to, but when given the option of actually eating them, repetitively and in mass quantities, I always indulge. They are my fantasy foods. An incomplete list, to be sure. You must have yours.

In the last twenty-seven hours, I have eaten: fois gras, fresh Burgundy truffle, lobster, elk loin, possibly a full pound of chocolate, two croissants, soft culatello, quince prepared three ways, homemade pasta, farro risotto, creme brulee, fresh macaroons, Seattle’s best baguette, and many varieties of good wine, including more than a few sips of champagne (2 kinds), ice wine (2 kinds), albarino, gruner veltliner, pouilly fuisse, pinot noir, syrah, oloroso sherry, and port.

And yes, actually, I will be skipping lunch today, because I’ll probably be having pizza for dinner. I am currently in a state of gustatory and digestive shock.

Woah, you say. Back up.

Yesterday, my cell phone’s worst alarm tone ripped me out of bed at 5 a.m. I’d placed it across the house so that my ass had to physically leave the bed to turn it off, and as I stumbled through the dark toward the noise, it occurred to me that “5 a.m.” probably doesn’t sound like a good way to start any fantasy.

In the moment of heightened silence following my successful alarm diffusion, I remembered why I was awake: I’d be spending the day baking with William Leaman at Bakery Nouveau for an article I’m working on. Then my husband and I would spend the evening at Salish Lodge & Spa, a forced attempt at true relaxation that happened to coincide with the introduction of Chef Roy Breiman‘s new fall menu. So yes, it was to be a sort of gastronomical fantasy day, all in the line of duty.

But back to the alarm clock, and my very first evah trip to West Seattle (I know, it’s embarrassing, but it seemed far away). When William unlocked the door for me, it took my brain a minute to switch from the pre-dawn laziness of California Avenue to the bakery’s effervescent productivity. There was the expected nasal assault, butter and yeast and toasted flour and oh my goodness what is that? flying up my nostrils at Mach 10. There were pastries going in cases, everywhere, ovens opening and closing, good smells being produced in mass quantity.

I spent the day “helping” (making chocolate, baguettes, croissants, and sandwiches) and learning about the bakery, an experience probably skipped (wrongly, if you ask me) in those “100 things to do before you die” books. And more importantly, I spent the morning tasting: buttery, crackling “plain” croissants (“plain” seems like an absurd adjective; they are anything but), adorable chocolate tarts, his famous macaroons . . . in other words, I spent seven hours in my own little heaven, working alongside a world-renowned baker without any of the permanent responsibilities his real employees face, and with a constant, delicious stream of baked goods and coffee products shuffled to my side. Caloric, caffeinated bliss. I think I heard my car actually groan when I got back in.

But instead of heading straight home to decompress and research the symptoms of chocoholism, I got in the car, picked up my husband, and we headed straight east on I-90 to Salish.

We were thinking so hard we were steaming, I think. The air in my side of the car was swirling with chocolate science and oven technology and sourdough prefermentation techniques, and Tito filled his side with the details of his hectic grant proposal cycle.

As we climbed toward Snoqualmie Pass, I wondered if we could do it, if we could really let go for a few hours and silence our souls like we’d planned. There’s something a little oxymoronic about driving 30 minutes away to seclude oneself and relax: it does the job (at least, the waterfalls cascading into the hot tubs at Salish’s spa – no talking allowed! – successfully drowned out our own thought faucets), but it eschews the root of the problem.

But no matter. We were there, and it seemed like the wrong time to question our work habits.

We drank champagne. We hit the spa, then the restaurant. Dinner was lovely.

No, wait: Dinner wasn’t lovely. Dinner was incredible. Based on the opinions and suggestions of Idon’tknowwho, I’d shuffled Salish’s restaurant into the category of old school, fuddyduddy fancy restaurants who use traditional French service as an entry point into a higher echelon of cuisine, but fail to back the service (and its commensurate price point) with a cuisine that really evolves with today’s diner. I envisioned a perfect caesar salad, or perhaps a delectable wedge of iceberg. I imagined steak with perfectly garlicky mashed potatoes and haricots verts, cooked just au point and served elegantly, with a robust red wine served by a man who would never ever serve red wine with fish.

But the only thing that matched my imagined version of Salish’s dining room was the cheese cart (which, sadly, we never even touched – but the cheese section at a Seattle-area Whole Foods is probably a decent approximation).

First it was just a swallow, a baby quenelle of house made fois gras, on a tease of a toast round, with a drizzle of herb oil and a few drops of huckleberry gastric. Tasty, but not wild. Next, my favorite: a quince trio, astoundingly sweet for a course at the beginning of a meal, but somehow daring and challenging. On the left, a “panna cotta,” really a clove-spiked quince cylinder with the consistency of applesauce. On the right, a sliced, poached quince napoleon, filled with a goat cheese-truffle mousse. And front and center, a hot quince consomme shot, garnished with a filo crisp with hazelnut praline butter. Paired with two different ice wines, this course was like realizing we’d sat for a different (but better) movie (you know, when you walk into the wrong theater at a multi-screen cinema). A respectable surprise, it put us off balance and assured us that there would be no sole meuniere.

The third course signaled the official start of dinner; we received a cylindrical tangle of flavors that I wanted to blanket as Spanish but knew I rightfully couldn’t. Served in a giant shallow bowl: Marcona almonds, preserved tomatoes, light lettuces, in perhaps a sherry (and was that thyme?) vinaigrette, encircled by a mini-moat of Xeres reduction and topped with three thin slices of intense cheddar cheese. With it, the sommelier poured a Californian Albarino, Spanish-influenced but not really Spanish, like the food. It was cutting and steely on my tongue, a perfect way to simultaneously bring out the cheddar’s flavor and clean its fat from my taste buds.

Next, we got a plate of Salumi culatello curls, with a bunch of other things that faded in favor of the pork (and this was a good thing).

Then there was lobster, and Tito fumed about how this poor animal was flown in from Maine when there are such wonderful things to be found in the waters nearby, but he couldn’t help himself; it was rich and perfectly poached, perched atop long truffle-flavored macaroni, one circular fresh Burgundy truffle slice, and a stew of fresh edamame and truffled cream. At the beginning of the meal, he’d told Salish’s sommelier, James, that he preferred red wine over white, and James had decided to play with him, frequently offering him one white choice and one red for each course. For the lobster, Tito had two glasses in front of him, and James was right: the Pouilly-Fuisse slammed the pinot noir in flavor and appropriateness. Tito drank the white with the lobster but finished the pinot, for good measure. But it was too late; James had noticed that he’d finished the white first.

By then we were five courses in, and (probably obviously) getting drunk, and although we’d signed up for a tasting menu, we weren’t sure how long it would last or what was coming next. We were plied with a too-grainy apple sorbet, and we sat, sort of stunned, as someone lit a blaze in the fireplace next to our table. I was grateful for the break.

Then there was elk loin, which Tito loved but I was too full to appreciate. It was drizzled with a huckleberry reduction of some sort, and accompanied by what we were told was a chai-spiced farro risotto. I picked up on a mouthful of oregano along with the plump, chewy grains, but no chai. I might have been thankful; I’m not sure.

And as the dessert rolled in, I realized I’d overdone it, I’d eaten myself clean out of an appetite. (I know, this is usually how it works, but I’m usually pretty good at saving the appropriate amount of room for sweets.)

Chef sent out three creme brulees; there was a passion fruit, a mango, and a coconut. They were creamy and rich (though perhaps slightly underbrowned for my taste; I like my brulees to require a full spoonal attack), but these variations on my favorite dessert just languished in front of me, challenging at me like three half-eaten eyes with an air of approbation. You? Not eating us? My, you must be full. Quelle surprise. The rest must have been good. I sipped my sherry.

Finally, a plate of varietal chocolates from around the globe arrived. It was chocolate at its best: melted, neatly tempered, and re-cast into miniature bars with Hershey-style imprints. Enjoyed with a Barnard-Griffin Syrah port. I think.

Somehow, we stumbled to our room (read this month’s Seattle Met for more on that; Kimberly Brown Seely describes the rooms perfectly) and slept soundly.

By the time we got drove back into Seattle this morning, leaving our $22 (!) huevos rancheros platter mostly untouched, my husband was late for work and we both eased the thought faucets back on. Mine started with a drip. It went

quince?
William
bakery
pizza
stinky dog
farmers’ market
Elk in Washington?
Sunday’s dinner
Venik
fundraising
recipe

Now I’m at Herkimer, inundated by the smell of roasting (or perhaps scorching?) coffee beans, and it’s like the whole thing never happened. I never accidentally gathered up all my favorite foods and ingested them in one day, never spent a full hour wondering if I really should just go work for William, making chocolates, never drank champagne in a hot tub overlooking Snoqualmie Falls at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Or wait, did I?

It occurs to me that my most memorable meals haven’t necessarily been those with the *best* food, but those that most effectively interrupt my pace of life. The combination of the bakery and Salish gave me both sides, but maybe what I’ve eaten in the last day or so isn’t as important as what I’ve let go. Either way, it was quite a good lot of fun.

Bakery Nouveau in Seattle

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2 Comments

Filed under review, travel

2 responses to “Twenty-seven hours of gastronomical fantasy

  1. Pingback: 279: Game Hens with Cranberry-Mustard Stuffing « hogwash

  2. hot tubs with ceramic heaters are the best and they are safer to use too because the heating element is fully enclosed ;~-

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