A certain Seattle fair trade chocolate-maker has cozy ties to Ben Affleck. Affleck is known as much for his political activism as he is for his acting, directing, producing and “interesting” reveals on the state of his marriage to Jennifer Garner. More on Affleck and Theo Chocolate in a bit.
During the Bay Area’s first dot-com, dot-gone boom in the late Nineties, I used to visit Seattle a few times a year for event work, often squeezing in a day or more with my family tribe up there. When my last box of pens, light-up balls and other dot-com collateral was safely shipped back to Silicon Valley, I’d hightail it to the Seattle ‘burb of Mukilteo, which looks over the Puget Sound, to rest and hang with my young cousins. The routine at my aunt and uncle’s home revolved around delicious home cookouts that reflected the local bounty—things like planked salmon (a fish that, ironically, my Uncle “Kiwi” avoids, after decades of professional sea fishing) and crab with some fresh, seasonal vegetables. Red Hook beer, made locally since 1981, was the house beverage of choice.
There were restaurant adventures, too, mainly to family-friendly Thai or Mexican joints. Aunt Kelly, who had worked in the hospitality biz, told me all about chef Tom Douglas as we noshed at his Dahlia Lounge--even today, Douglas remains a prominent Seattle chef and restaurateur, cookbook author, spice rub line and all. Once this branch of my family moved to New Zealand, where my uncle is from, the frequency of my Seattle trips tapered off...almost completely. I was therefore very excited to return to Seattle recently to explore and eat. While I did find myself pining for folks who now live on the other side of the world, the city was still its welcoming and occasionally drizzly self. Here are food-centric spots that caught my attention:
Ben Affleck is working with Theo Chocolate to create some rather good chocolate bars, via the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), which aims to help farmers in Africa's Eastern Congo. Affleck founded ECI and took a hands-on approach and inspected cocoa beans with Theo Chocolate CEO Joe Whinney. The Theo tour in the fun and funky Fremont neighborhood is a must-do and tour guests get discounted pricing on many sweet treats in the retail space. Sample, see, smell, and learn about chocolate in a historic 28,000-square-foot brick factory that in recent years housed the Red Hook Brewery and up until 1941 was home to the city’s electric trolley fleet. I liked the set up of the color-coded, hour-long tour, which made for an easy-to-follow visit of a site that is gearing up to make nearly six millions pounds of chocolate annually.
Collections Café at Chihuly Garden and Glass
Both the Collections Café and sister restaurant Sky City show their affinity to Slow Food Seattle through the quality of food preparation and ingredients as well as through the wine and craft beer lists. Sky City offers a memorable meal and spectacular views atop the Space Needle, yet it is spendy and more of a special occasion spot.
Downstairs near the Chihuly Garden and Glass space, the daily menu efforts of chefs Ivan Szilak and Jeff Maxfield at Collections Café are gentler on the pocketbook. Dishes served in a space that is directly nestled under the Space Needle include crispy Beecher’s cheese curds (made nearby) with bourbon tomato jam, salmon shrimp cakes, and the dish that got Szilak his job -- chicken paprikás. Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose world famous glass work and Americana collections can be viewed at the museum, is known to stop in regularly for the burger with red onion jam, bacon, Beecher’s Marco Polo and peppadew aioli. I grew up collecting stickers, dolls, and books—so the arrangement of collections (accordions, corkscrews, radios, etc.) under glass and hanging in the restaurant kept my attention. This is museum food, but the cooking and menu show a flair and variety that is worlds away from limp institutional fare. For summertime, chef Szilak plans on serving a Bourbon Ice Cream Coke Float for a decidedly adult dessert.
The Whale Wins
This is the newest restaurant from Renee Erickson, who has been cooking for over fifteen years and first broke into the culinary scene via her Boat Street Cafe and Kitchen. Renee has received accolades for her growing mini-empire of tasty restaurants that include Narwhal, an oyster mobile food truck. The James Beard Awards have come a-callin’ and Bon Appétit gave Erickson’s The Walrus and the Carpenter oyster restaurant a spot on its “20 Most Important Restaurants” list. One of the adorable factoids about Renee is that her mother, Shirlee, is involved with Renee’s Boat Street Pickles’ production.
Over lunch at The Whale Wins that included views of the treasured wood-fired oven, Renee told me this about Seattle’s culinary state: “I feel very lucky to be here. In the past six to seven years, the area has exploded. We have ‘the best of’ wine, cheese makers, cheese, everything.” (Renee’s wild huckleberry Eton mess dessert could easily be a contender for that “best of” list.)
Matt’s in the Market
The “fishwiches” from Matt’s in the Market (includes killer views of the Pike Place Market) came highly recommended. Matt’s has expanded the restaurant seating area and serves six sandwiches daily, three with meat. While the falafel with pork cheeks sounded interesting, I was there for the fish. My steelhead fishwich with bacon, guacamole, miniature greens, and spicy aioli on brioche bread was a tad messy but worth the effort. Customers at the bar were enjoying a Mexican Fernet breakfast martini. The room with a view includes jovial staff in an open kitchen, big windows and fresh floral accents.
Food writer Amy Sherman pointed me to the Tom’s Big Breakfast at Lola, saying, “It might change your life.” Lola is a Tom Douglas restaurant gem in Belltown, the kind of place for a "power breakfast,” going by how many folks were there in business suits. For the uninitiated, Tom’s Big Breakfast has Mediterranean octopus with Florina peppers, onions, bacon, cilantro, and garlic yogurt. Octopus for breakfast? Sure, especially when it is tender and flavorful octopus cooked to perfection. The Big Breakfast also has eggs served sunny side up with toast. Another morning menu must is the donuts to order, which arrived in a paper bag that was shaken at the table—all the better to coat the donuts with sweet sugar that is only enhanced by seasonal jelly and vanilla mascarpone accoutrements. And yes, this Tom’s Big Breakfast is best shared.