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A Fab Five Seattle-side

by Elaine Sosa

Okay, so you're visiting Seattle. What are you going to do? Admit it, your list looks something like this:

1. Pike Place Market
2. Space Needle
3. Nordstrom
4. Starbucks
5. Looking for Ken Griffey, Jr.

There's nothing wrong with your list. All of the selections are uniquely Seattle, although it's safe to say that hometown favorites Nordstrom and Starbucks have widened their reach. What you need to know is that there's a whole lot more going on in the Emerald City and its environs, especially if you're a foodie. On a recent visit, I set about in search of the culinary highlights of the great Northwest and found everything from incredibly aromatic herbs to the ultimate dessert wine.

Start your journey at Chateau Ste. Michelle Vineyards & Winery in Woodinville, a half-hour drive northeast of Seattle. Wine in Seattle, you say? Well, not exactly. Chateau Ste. Michelle produces a number of wines in Woodinville with grapes from the Columbia River Valley in south-central Washington state. It all started when Fred Stimson, a lumber baron, moved to Woodinville at the turn of the century to escape the "hectic pace" of 1895 Seattle. Newly a gentleman farmer, Mr. Stimson built a manor fit for a king and hired the esteemed Frederick Law Olmstead (responsible for New York's Central Park) to plant the gardens. Mr. Olmstead also planted a few vines up front, mainly as a decorative touch. Today, the property is the headquarters for Stimson Lane, the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and a host of other small vineyards. The ample grounds are the setting for a series of outdoor concerts during the summer featuring the likes of Tony Bennett and Ray Charles.

And what of those grapes? Well, they're grown in the Columbia River Valley, an area of near-desert conditions in central Washington which averages only three to five inches of rain a year. The warm summers (17 1/2 hours a day of sun in June and July), followed by cooler fall weather, make for ideal growing conditions. The folks at Chateau Ste. Michelle are also quick to point out that their growing region, at 46 to 48 degrees latitude, is in line with another highly regarded parcel, the Loire Valley of France. Equally nifty, believe it or not, was the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, which spewed liberal amounts of potash, nitrogen and phosphorous on the soil, making it even better.

A tour of Chateau Ste. Michelle (pray that the encyclopedic Earl Strei will be your guide) is a crash course in Winemaking 101. Wear a heavy sweater (it's cold inside) and be prepared for some intense wine aroma. You'll learn about the winemaking process step-by-step, from the picking of the grape to the role of yeast in fermentation and the advantages of French oak vs. American. While the winery tour is a great reason to come to Chateau Ste. Michelle, the best reason is the tasting that follows. You'll get to sample four different wines and judge for yourself the merits of the great Northwest grape. The tasting begins with a little wine etiquette (sniff, swirl and sip), at which time you'll be reminded that the first sip doesn't count, since it's meant to cleanse the palate. You'll proceed from whites to reds, and if you're very lucky, the last vintage to kiss your palate will be a Chateau Ste. Michelle 1995 Late Harvest White Riesling. This fruity dessert wine is sweet perfection. The good news is you can take some home with you, since the gift shop is your last stop on your way out the door.
Chateau Ste. Michelle Vineyards and Winery
14111 N.E. 145th Street
(206) 488-1133

If you meander along Highway 202 south of Woodinville, you'll wind up in Fall City in less than an hour. Unless you have relatives in town, your reason for coming here will be to visit The Herbfarm, the baby of Ron Zimmerman and his wife, Carrie Van Dyck. This place is herb heaven. Back in 1974, Zimmerman's mother, Lola, wound up with a few extra chive plants from her garden. She parked them in a wheelbarrow out front and posted a "for sale" sign. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, nearly 700 herbs and perennials are grown on this working 12-acre farm. Not all of them are edible, though. While many are used for cooking, some are medicinal, others are for crafts and a handful are meant for Fido. You can buy many of the herbs and herb-related products at The Herbfarm's gift shop, but that's only the beginning. You can tour the gardens, take a cooking class and even dine at the top-rated restaurant, where the bounty is fresh from the restaurant's kitchen garden. Are you thinking cottage industry? A fair statement, especially when you consider that there's a 48-page catalog which sums it all up.

The best time to stroll through the gardens is during the spring and summer, when they are in full bloom. Pause at some of the themed gardens (Shakespeare garden, thyme garden, fragrant garden), pick a leaf (the lemon verbena is terrific -- just smell it!) and revel in this festival of the senses. The ample greenhouses are chockful of herbs and plants, and the kitchen garden is an informative culinary tour. If you want to put some of your newfound knowledge to the test, an award-winning list of chefs teaches cooking classes year-round.

The highlight of a visit to The Herbfarm, if you're lucky, is a meal at the restaurant. Why is luck involved? Well, the restaurant only seats 34, and they only take reservations two days a year, in April and August. Alternatively, you can call on Fridays after 1 PM and hope to snag a cancellation for the following weekend. Chef Jerry Traunfeld, a former executive chef at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle and pastry chef at Stars in San Francisco, presides over the mealtime magic. Traunfeld enjoys the challenge of preparing one special meal for a small number of guests every evening. "People come in here with huge expectations," he says. "You have to deliver." Once here, you'll get a nine-course dinner (maybe a six-course lunch in the summertime) which is both themed and memorable. Only regional foods are used, and the menu is changed weekly so as to stay current with the seasons. Wine is included, and owner Zimmerman loves to match the food with the appropriate Northwest wine.

The menu one recent evening was titled "The Witch's Brew", and for good reason: it was on Halloween! The costumed diners started their meal with "Creatures From the Sea," a fennel and crab salad with chive oil, a Quilcene oyster gratin and a stuffed mussel with cilantro pesto and a red pepper sauce. They moved on to the "Jack-o'-Lantern with Prawn and Pumpkin Bisque" accented with wild cauliflower mushrooms and followed it with a "Breast of Muscovy Duck" with a quince sauce accompanied by a hedgehog mushroom and onion timbale, Anna Ozette potatoes and autumn vegetables. Dessert was "A Halloween Toadstool," a poached pear with a hazelnut mousse and a chocolate-hazelnut sauce. I haven't included the whole meal, but I think you get the picture: dining at The Herbfarm is an event.

While the dining room isn't likely to get any bigger, the owners are considering adding a country inn to their property so that diners won't have far to travel after their five-hour meal. If you have any other good ideas to share with the folks at The Herbfarm, send them an e-mail at herbswa@aol.com. They'd love to hear from you. (Sally's Place was saddened to hear of the closure of the Herbfarm restaurant due to a recent fire. This article was written before the tragedy and we all hope the restaurant is soon to rebuild -- especially after reading such a glowing review)
The Herbfarm
32804 Issaquah-Fall City Road
Fall City
(206) 784-2222

Heading back to Seattle, treat yourself to a visit to Pike Place Market, the heart and soul of this vibrant city. The market is a feast for the senses, a place where you can buy flowers, homemade jams and jellies, handmade children's clothing, arts, crafts, a t-shirt or two and over fifty different kinds of potatoes. And that's just the beginning. Opened in 1907, this is the oldest continuously operating farmer's market in the U.S. Started as a depot for farmers to sell fruits and vegetables, fishmongers and others quickly sought a piece of the ever-increasing action. Designated a historical district in the mid-70s, the market, which consists of the main arcade (enter under the clock) and a handful of nearby buildings, today looks better than ever.

While it can take days or weeks to check it all out, you'll thank me for sending you to the following spots. Read All About It, an international newsstand right up the street from the clock, carries newspapers and magazines from New York to Nome (Rome, too). It's a great place to grab some reading material to go with your coffee. Be sure to notice the Market Clock, a favorite meeting place for Seattleites and visitors alike. This neon ticker has been lighting up the skyline since the 1920s. Pike Place Fish, located directly under the clock, is the home of flying salmon, so to speak. The friendly fishmongers found here carry on a continual patter as they heave fish to and fro. Their pals, who were swimming only moments earlier, are shipped around the country. Cafe Counter Intelligence, across the street from the main arcade and up a creaky flight of stairs, is a narrow, colorful space which is as clever as its name. Don't be put off by the pink-haired, heavily-tattoed waitress -- she'll still make a mean cup a joe for you and all the old-timers on hand. The nibbles are tasty as well. Down the street on charming Post Alley, Sisters is a bright, open space ideal for a midday bite. Sample one of the inventive focaccia-bread sandwiches at the small counter. Cinammon Works works awfully well for a post-lunch sweet treat. Their sugary cinammon rolls can be smelled a block away. For those who'd prefer a leisurely lunch, consider the Copacabana Cafe, a second-floor aerie across the street from the main arcade. This Bolivian restaurant serves family-style food, and the paella is a winner. More sweet treats can be found at Le Panier, home to warm French breads and beautiful pastries. Thoroughly decadent is Dillettante Chocolates, tucked away in the cozy courtyard of the Inn at the Market. Take away a few truffles and a wish that these folks will soon come to your hometown. After this food feast, you just might be thinking about recreating some of these goodies at home. If that's the case, wind up your visit at Sur La Table, gadget heaven for wannabe Julia Childs. Whether it's a teapot or a picnic basket, it's prettier in here, and that's half the fun.

A thorough review of Pike Place Market is bound to leave you aching for a rest. And what better way to decompress in Seattle than in a cafe? It will not escape your attention in this coffee-crazed town that everyone seems to be carrying a paper cup around, usually filled with some very aromatic brew. We all know that Starbucks is the undisputed king of coffee in Seattle, and you don't have to go very far to find one of their trusty storefronts serving some very reliable java. Less known is that there are a number of thoroughly unique cafes scattered around the city.

Names, you say? Start off at Torrefazione Italia in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Located on Occidental Avenue South, a cobbled pedestrian mall lined with leafy trees, the cafe is a charming oasis in this busy city-center district. Admire the gleaming red roaster and the rotating artwork, then order a cup of coffee which is among the strongest, yet most flavorful, in town. The coffee is served in beautiful Italian majolica cups, a nice touch. Grab a madeleine and lounge for a while at one of the many outdoor tables.
Torrefazione Italia
320 Occidental Avenue S.
(206) 624-5773

A few blocks from Green Lake, a recreational paradise frequented by sporting types of all ages, is the Honey Bear Bakery. It might be more bakery than cafe, but in this case that's a very good thing. The Honey Bear has a woodsy, delightfully Northwestern feel to it, and probably the best baked goods west of the Mississippi. Cakes and pies, muffins and scones, brownies and blondies. Have a piece of whatever pie is available and wash it down with the excellent coffee. If you're like me, you'll go for seconds.
Honey Bear Bakery
2106 N. 55th Street
(206) 545-7296

Blessed with great pedigree, the Cafe Allegro has been in Seattle's University District since 1975. It was founded by Dave Olsen, who may have started small but ended up pretty big. Olsen is now Senior Vice President and chief coffee buyer at Starbucks. No matter, he left the Allegro in good hands. Current owner Nathaniel Jackson hasn't changed much in this cafe which is home to students and coffee-lovers alike. The Allegro feels like the ultimate coffeehouse, thanks to great light, comfortable seating and an always-interesting crowd. Oh, and the coffee, still a Starbucks blend, is perfectly brewed and just the right accompaniment to the nibbles at hand.
Cafe Allegro
4214 1/2 University Way, NE
(206) 633-3030

Finally, as a first-rate foodie, you should make it your mission to find the best places to eat. Seattle may not be New York or San Francisco on the culinary map, but it does have some very good things going for it. The local bounty, whether it be king salmon, Ellensburg lamb, meaty mushrooms or one of fifty different kinds of potatoes, is unique, substantial and delightful. Many of the city's young chefs are taking full advantage of the foods of the region and creating simple, inventive dishes which are a pleasure to behold and consume. And you don't need to find "Northwest cuisine" to take advantage of the Northwest attitude, a laid-back, friendly disposition common among Seattleites and a treat for visitors. So...where to go? The following are three of my favorites. If you don't agree with me, well, you can always go to New York.

Your first stop is at Labuznik, an Eastern European restaurant opened by a chatty Czech, Peter Cipra, nearly twenty years ago. Chef Cipra's first Seattle restaurant was named Prague, so you know this fellow is proud of his heritage. He's a hard worker, too, doing all the prep work, as well as the cooking, five nights a week. The menu lists many old-world favorites like the svickova with dumplings, marinated beef in a vegetable sauce accompanied by the lightest possible dumplings. You can also prod the waiter to bring you an order of chicken livers in a light madeira wine sauce which are creamy goodness. The specialties of the house are on the meaty side, but not necessarily heavy. Try the veal chop, which is roasted with cracked pepper and comes to you moist and tender, or the rack of lamb, a perfectly-cooked piece of meat roasted with garlic, cracked pepper and mustard. Possibly the best part of the meal are the side dishes: a more-sweet-than-sour red cabbage and ever-so-lightly-creamed spinach. "What we offer is dependability," Cipra notes, "no searching on the menu to determine what's good." Far too modest, dear sir. What you offer is a feast.
1924 First Avenue
(206) 441-8899

Next stop on the tasting trail is at the Dahlia Lounge. Owner Tom Douglas may feel like an Asian chef trapped inside an American body, but he does remember where he's from. "You won't confuse us with Manhattan or L.A.," he points out. "We're Northwest in attitude and in service." The Dahlia is also solidly Northwestern in its use of fresh local ingredients, continually searching out small local (often organic) producers who can deliver the best in everything from mushrooms to lingonberries. One look at the menu, though, and it's apparent that Douglas is also out to have a good time in the kitchen. Why else would he offer "My Kid's Favorite Oodles of Noodles with butter and cheese?" Although I'm a kid at heart, I suggest you start off with the seared Barbarie duck foie gras with wild mushrooms and a huckleberry glace. Follow it with a hearty salad, something along the lines of the sauteed veal sweetbread and baby artichokes with capers and balsamic vinegar. Then try and decide between Tom's fresh Dungeness crab cakes with vegetable chips and creole mustard and the cumin crusted halibut with an autumn squash tamale, sweet peppers and cilantro creme fraiche. Hint: the fish is sensational (the cumin crust is inspired) and is beautifully paired with the rich, semi-sweet tamale. Flip a coin between the coconut cream pie and creme caramel for dessert.
Dahlia Lounge
1904 Fourth Avenue
(206) 682-4142

You might be groaning at this point, but make one last stop. It's worth it. Go to The Painted Table, located in the Alexis Hotel. Chef Tim Kelley has been in the kitchen for the past two years and before that, he spent seven years working in New York City. "The strength of Seattle cooking is that chefs don't compete here like in New York," he says. "In New York, they're all copying each other. The lack of competition means better food." What kind of food? In Kelley's case, vegetables. "I like to play with vegetables," he continues, and you can't help but think he sounds like a kid in a candy store. Make that a kid in a vegetable garden. Kelley doesn't mind playing around with, say, beets, and trying to figure out how he can prepare them in a unique way. Then he'll go ahead and add a unique ingredient, perhaps horseradish, to see where he can take it. Have you turned up your nose yet? Hope not, because the result of this play date is a horseradish-crusted salmon served with sprouts and turnips and resting on a silky-smooth beet jus. It is absolutely perfect. You might want to start your meal with the Peruvian shrimp cocktail, three jumbo prawns resting on a medley of diced cucumber, boniato, egg, peanuts and feta cheese, along with red and green peppers, tomatoes, peanuts and fresh mint. There's a lot going on here, but it all tastes wonderfully fresh. The menu, from top to bottom, is fresh, flavorful and yes, fun. Like Kelley himself.
The Painted Table
1007 First Avenue (in the Alexis Hotel)
(206) 624-3646

It only stands to reason that you will need to rest after all this food (and wine), and the good news is you won't have to go very far. Foodies are well-served to spend the night (or two or three) at the Alexis Hotel. Located in the heart of downtown Seattle, this elegant hostelry is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although it's played host to captains and kings, it doesn't feel stuffy, and that's a good thing. There are over a hundred rooms to choose from, nearly half of them suites, and my advice is to live a little and get a suite. The accommodations are smart, spacious and cater to your every whim. Along with your suite, you'll get a complimentary continental breakfast, the morning paper (four to choose from), use of a private steam room (it's divine), a well-equipped fitness room and an evening spot of sherry. There's more, but do you really need more? In addition to being the home of The Painted Table, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Alexis invites you to have coffee or cocktails at The Bookstore Bar and Cafe and get royally pampered at the Alexis Aveda Spa. As if all this wasn't enough, the hotel's staff is efficient and unbelievably courteous.
Alexis Hotel
1007 First Avenue
(206) 624-4844

Now tell me, do you really want to go home? I didn't think so. I hear that Microsoft is hiring.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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