2801 E. Cherry St., Seattle, WA 98122
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Desserts Ethiopian Izakaya Japanese Vegetarian Yogurt
"Apart from the natural acclimation (read: potential indigestion) a body may need at first to the unusual but excellent spices, it is unforgettably wonderful. And affordable."
For foodies, there is perhaps no greater sin than to waste meals in a different city eating the same things found conveniently at home. Thus, rather than focusing on the superb crab and steak meal our family enjoyed at Chandler's Crabhouse on Thanksgiving, complete with a stunning Eggnog Creme Brulee, our fourth and final discussion of Seattle looks at three culinary offerings you just can't find in Western New York. They have nothing to do with one another, save that their local unavailability is a blight on Buffalo - a sign that this region's restaurants are, quite possibly, stuck 10 or more years in the past.
Ethiopian restaurants are never in the best parts of a given city. As the old, not especially funny joke ("Why bother? You'll be starving when you leave.") suggests, immigrating Ethiopians come from a country best known for its poverty, and rarely have the cash to buy homes or start restaurants in the suburbs. But they arrive in the United States possessing knowledge of an absolutely superb indigenous cuisine, which we've invariably found worthy of seeking out whenever we've visited a major metropolitan area. There always seems to be a "Little Ethiopia" with a cluster of similar restaurants, and there are always some that are locally known to be better than others.
While in Seattle, we visited Ras Dashen, which we'd heard good things about. And we were almost entirely delighted. Our $26 meal was a small, filling feast of items served traditionally on an oversized communal plate, atop a piece of injera (aka injira), a spongy soft bread-like crepe that absorbs the flavors of the meats and vegetables on top. As is customary, Ras Dashen provides a basket of injera - here, made fresh on site, though served at room temperature rather than warm as is our preference - and we used torn-off pieces of the oversized circles to scoop up bite-sized quantities of items for consumption. Our plate contained the spicy dish Tibs, served here in a bright red sauce with our choice of lamb or beef. We picked lamb, and complemented it with Kitfo, a pile of modestly drier ground beef, which defied convention by offering enough flavor to rival the Tibs it had been paired with for $15. Side, half-sized portions of Fosolia - a collection of sliced, sauteed string beans, carrots, and caramelized onions - and spinach-like collared greens called Gomen, were added for $3.50 each to the plate, accompanied for free by a lemon-flavored small lettuce and tomato salad.
To condense an hour-long meal into a sentence, these items couldn't have been better combined for two people. As there's no silverware on the table, we tore slices of the injera off, alternating between bite-sized portions of different meats, savory, bitter, and sour vegetables, sipping drinks to freshen our palates. The injera - nicknamed "spoon" by a friend - acts like an ever-present, neutralizing pita, giving the tongue a buffer before the flavors hit. Those flavors, offering the strength of Indian dishes without the heavy sauces and curries, have become some of our favorites.
More importantly, though Ethiopian food isn't exactly new to the United States, the experience of eating it is literally exciting and fun; apart from the natural acclimation (read: potential indigestion) a body may need at first to the unusual but excellent spices, it is unforgettably wonderful. And affordable. We'd come back to Ras Dashen any time, and will be dreaming that such a place comes to Western New York in the near future; if nothing else, it would have the Ethiopian market all to itself.
Red Mango was a different story. We've previously discussed our love for the new Italian-style frozen yogurts found at coastal restaurants such as Yogurtland and Pinkberry, and Red Mango is without question the fountainhead for the recent surge in such places. It started in Korea, offering a couple of unique, creamy flavors - plain, and green tea - along with a collection of fruits, cereals, and other toppings that helped the stagnant frozen yogurt business surge into stunning popularity. Starbucks bought in, the ice cream-only Cold Stone started to offer yogurt, and several different yogurt-only companies started to expand all over the world with gold rush pacing. Red Mango was the first outside of the United States, but Pinkberry was the earliest to stake its claim here, and shamelessly ripped off Red Mango's concept to do so.
There is, however, a major difference, and one that we did not totally appreciate until we visited a Red Mango in Seattle. Red Mango sucks. More specifically, its frozen yogurt - if you can call it that - is bad enough that we would never have been excited again about this dessert if we'd tried it at one of this chain's locations. Yogurtland's best plain and fruit flavors are tart, with a slight, addictive sourness that evokes the flavor of unfrozen yogurts and blends perfectly with added fruits. Pinkberry's fewer flavors tend to be sweeter and less tart, but still are in the right general category. Red Mango's even more limited choices, with only vanilla and green tea yogurts, plus a seasonal pomegranate flavor that didn't appeal to us, were hugely disappointing.
We were so stunned by what we received at the first Red Mango location, a large, expensive ($8) bowl of almost sacchrin-sweet soft-serve, that we went to another location to see whether the product was uniformly bad. It was. To its credit, Red Mango topped the first, large "yogurt" bowl so generously with pineapple, blueberries, and raspberries that the items fell out on delivery; our second, more cautiously ordered small bowl with only pineapple and blueberries ($5) was for better or worse more reasonably proportioned. But the core of each dish, the cream, was awful - we wanted to stop eating it before our first large-sized bowl was finished, and took no joy in discovering that the second location's smaller bowl was similarly poor. It was a cold, sad awakening to the reality that Western New York has a better chance of getting a poor substitute for Yogurtland - something less tasty, with less variety, and higher prices - than the real thing.
There were other meals in Seattle: mediocre-quality Vietnamese and Hawaiian-style Japanese items inside the International District's Asian supermarket Uwajimaya, and at another location, Kiku Sushi, a memorably good lunch of tonkatsu curry and kitsune udon - a Japanese vegetarian soup with sweet, sliced, flat tofu and thick noodles, named for the foxes it was said to have been prepared for. But these items weren't really worthy of note. It was our meal at Ginza, a Japanese izakaya in Bellevue (103 102nd Ave SE; 425.709.7072), that really thrilled us.
We've visited izakayas in Japan and California, and fallen in love with the concept, believing it to be the next big wave in cooking. An izakaya is, at least by name, a sake shop, and its fare is inappropriately, only half-accurately described by some as "bar food." But it is better understood as the Japanese take on Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum: small plates, ordered in concert, letting you try safe, inexpensive samples of different things that might interest you. The bar food description does them a disservice in that the dishes they serve from huge menus are actually more elegant and interesting than what you'd find at most full-service places, albeit smaller and not intended to be eaten alone.
Ginza's "Special Menu" is literally packed with izakaya fare: there are roughly 100 different items to choose from, not including the standard menu's more traditional Japanese dishes. Thus, this is a place where you can find marinated, deep-fried Pike Eel served alongside pork sausages, baked duck with wasabi, and sauteed enoki mushrooms with butter. Or you can order sushi, teriyaki, or tonkatsu. Our small group ordered big: the deep-fried squid legs ($4.25), broiled beef short ribs ($5.25), tea leaf roasted pork belly ($5.25), those enoki mushrooms ($4.50), cucumber with special miso ($3.95), broiled eggplant ($4.95), a grilled small sardine sheet ($4.25), and seafood spring rolls ($4.50), plus sushi. Too much sushi.
We were stuffed before the pork belly - a plate of sliced, subtly tea-flavored pieces of pig - arrived, salty and conspicuously fatty, each bite demanding but also preventing another. It was an unusually overpowering item in a culinary genre known for delicacy. As with most izakaya meals, the emphasis at Ginza was on simplicity of cooking: most izakaya menu items are prepared with five or fewer ingredients, their emphasis on rendering the flavors of food "authentic." But they are not all, or even mostly, the same five items with modest twists.
Even in the eight dishes we ordered, we were floored by the juxtaposition of temperatures, textures, and flavors. The slightly cooked but refreshingly chilled fresh cucumber slices balanced a plate of Kentucky-style fried, juicy pieces of squid, as well as crispy blankets weaved from paper-thin sardines. Steaming hot, butter-watered thin mushrooms emerged juicy and stringy, almost spaghetti-like, from a foil wrapper, while an upside-down cup-shaped bit of eggplant that was nearly meat-like in texture and umami, served with three crispy shrimp chips as a garnish. You needn't be a vegetarian to appreciate these items; even carnivores would love them. Other than the dissolve-on-your-tongue shrimp chips, these dishes were rarely surprising - we've had many of them before - but they were unwaveringly delicious, items that would be comfort foods had we been born or raised at the right time in Japan. The only exceptions were the plate of two sliced seafood spring rolls, which were nothing that you couldn't get at any neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and the beef short ribs, a decidedly unvarnished Japanese take on the more flavorful Korean dish kalbi. Both were still tasty, but we wouldn't waste an izakaya visit on them.
"Wasting" an izakaya visit is, as the opening of this article suggests, something close to sinful mostly because Western New York is so far from offering anything like this. These days, our Japanese restaurants seem to be run mostly by Chinese, and their menus, rather than challenging our palates, seem to be cloyingly similar to the ones of twenty years ago. In Japan, some people may visit their favorite izakayas and order the same several dishes, with the same drinks, again and again. But at least they have izakayas, which - if they are as marvelously diverse as Ginza was on our visit - could easily offer 30 completely different meals before a customer needed to repeat items. Western New York needs one, run authentically, right now. Life is too short to eat the same meal over and over again, and Buffalo needs every bit of help it can get in expanding its residents' dining options.