If normal means staying within sight of Seattle, this past weekend was my first normal weekend in a long, long time. The highlight (besides gardening in the sushine all day yesterday) was a quick trip to Bainbridge Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle.
Our first stop was The Living Room, a new wine bar on Bjune Drive. If IKEA designed a wine bar to sell its products, it would look just like this: clean, modern lines, fun lighting, gorgeous place settings, etc., but almost completely devoid of the character one might hope for given the place’s namesake. The deep leather couches are as inviting and soothing as any living room couch should be, but it’s hard to feel like you’ve just popped by your neighbor’s house for a quick sip when you’re staring at artless walls and an unimpaired view of what qualifies on Bainbridge as a strip mall.
My glass of wine, however, a Finca de Arantei Albarino singing of peaches and citrus, was fresh and light and summery, and somehow that and the Portuguese red my husband was swooning over both worked with a big slab of flatbread topped with fontina, caramelized onions, thyme, and truffle salt.
Thus fortified, we ambled down to the marina and poked around a bit before settling in at The Four Swallows, a restaurant in a little yellow house up the hill on Madison Avenue that reminded me of Abbicci. Now this is a living room.
There we met Jose, the polite and affable server who represents, to me, all that is good about career waiters. He had style. He shuffled in and out like a male geisha, relaxed but purposeful, conversational but never intrusive, and by the time our wine was poured I knew I needed his help ordering. I’d been waffling between the Penn Cove mussels in a sherry, leek, tomato, and smoked paprika cream sauce and the beef carpaccio, a perennial favorite of mine. But when I asked him for advice, he skipped the first two courses on the menu all but shouted “order the pasta pomodoro!”
It sort of surprised me – I mean, I don’t typically avoid Italian options at the bottom of an otherwise fairly Northwestern menu, but I certainly don’t gravitate toward them. So we decided to share the carpaccio, which was the same alluring combination of soft, clean-tasting beef, excellent olive oil, truffle salt, and Parmesan cheese that caught my palate’s attention the first time I ever had it, at Sweet Basil. I also ordered a shaved fennel and artichoke salad, and the pomodoro, because Jose had seemed so earnest in his recommendation.
The salad, a tangled nest of white flecked with chervil and parsley and doused with a perky lemon vinaigrette, also carried the slightest hint of truffle oil, a successful way of grounding what might otherwise be a dish with only high, bright notes. Also nicely balanced was my husband’s salad, a rather ordinary combination of pears, Point Reyes blue, candied pecans, and greens, done uncommonly well.
Jose’s suggestion was the best of the night: the pomodoro was a far cry from the anemic, thick, pink sauce I’ve unfortunately come to associate with some simple Italian classics. He delivered it with the little bow he seemed to use every time he left the table. A big scoop of cool, creamy mascarpone cheese balanced the pomodoro’s earthy, spicy tomato sauce. I twirled spaghetti and scooped up pine nuts and slurped sauce until I had not a square centimeter of space left in my belly. For hours afterward, it was as if someone had smashed a garlic clove and rubbed it over every surface of the inside of my mouth. I loved it.
We ended (somehow) with a vanilla panna cotta with fresh strawberries, delicious and soft-textured but served in a wine glass, which (to me) sort of skips the magic of how a panna cotta that’s been successfully eased out of a form can be so perfect and linear and yet so jiggly at the same time.
As we walked back to the ferry through the rain, realizing we’d just been on a date, I couldn’t help but wonder what the mussels might have tasted like. Last night I made my own version, which were surely quite different from The Four Swallows’ but will have to tide me over until I can get back to Bainbridge. Closed and raw, the mussels barely fit in my favorite pan, which meant that when I took the top off after steaming them for a few minutes, they all opened and expanded at once, carrying bits of bacon and onion and parsley with them as the whole pile grew up and almost over the sides of the pan. Here are the stragglers:
Mussels with Smoked Paprika Cream
Recipe 113 of 365
Look for big Mediterranean-style mussels; it’s fun to use their shells to scoop up the rich, creamy broth left at the bottom of the bowl. Serve the mussels with plenty of good, crusty bread and a simple green salad. Two and a half pounds of mussels makes about six appetizer servings, four dinner servings, or an all-out mussel feast for two. (You can guess which one we did.)
Make sure you have a pot with a tight-fitting lid before you start.
TIME: 20 minutes
2 slices bacon, finely chopped
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 – 2 large clove(s) garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon pimenton de la vera (smoked Spanish paprika)
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 pounds large mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Note: “Debearding” a mussel is simply removing the little black hairs that sometimes protrude from the flat side of the shell – these are what the mussel uses to attach itself to its underwater habitat. To do it, just grasp the strings (technically called byssus threads) between a thumb and forefinger and pull.
Heat a large soup pot or a 3-quart high-sided sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the bacon and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, or until the bacon begins to crisp. Add the onions and season with salt and pepper, and cook another 3 minutes, stirring. Add the garlic and the paprika, and stir until all the onions are coated with the paprika.
And the wine and bring the mixture to a simmer over high heat. Simmer for a minute, stir in the Dijon mustard and the cream, and season again with salt and pepper, if necessary. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and cook for about 5 minutes, or just until most of the mussels have opened. Transfer the mussels to a big bowl with a slotted spoon, discarding any empty shells or mussels that fail to open, pour the sauce over the mussels, and sprinkle the parsley on top. Serve immediately.