Friday, March 8, 2013

Cascadia Class and Market Tour

Note: this review of a market tour/cooking class was originally written in 2008 or 2009 but I just found it in draft form in the blogspot and decided to go ahead and post it though I believe the experience is no longer available.  But it was a wonderful time and I believe the write up captures the experience nicely and accurately.  Enjoy!)

It’s 11 AM, Saturday morning, peak of tourist season at a very crowded Pike Place Market. It’s swarming with people despite the fact that it is actually cool, jacket weather in July. Finally a break from stifling hot weather that has had folks planted in inertia due to the sweaty heat. Our instructions are to meet our chef at “the pig,” the larger than life size brass pig near the fish tossing merchants. This crowded spot is a favorite photo op for out of towners and little children. Being close to the fish launching spectacle (which later our chef will mention is food abuse: the tossing of fresh fish meat bruises the delicate meat) we are jostled and plowed over as people try to make their way to watch the famous Seattle sight. I am standing with my two dear friends: Judy my foody and travel friend, and Kris, our friend out visiting from Chicago. Judy and I met Kris on an olive oil tour and cooking session in Tuscany a few years back.

The “our chef” I refer to is Kerry Sear, Executive Chef and co owner (with his wife Heidi Grathwol) of Belltown’s impressive Cascadia restaurant. In honor of our cooking class mini-reunion, Judy has found this market tour/cooking lesson with Chef Sear, and though it didn’t quite measure up to the Tuscan experience, in terms of European flavor, it turned out to be every bit as informative, tasty, entertaining and fun as the classes in Italy.

Chef Sear, accompanied by his young soft spoken assistant/sous chef, James, whom Chef Sear affectionately refers to as “Jim-Bo”, ferrets his class of 11 (almost a full class: they are capped at an attendance of 12) out of the crowd. Chef Sear has arrived in his culinary whites which makes him easier to find, though he matches the picture on his website so we know we are hooking up with the right chef. Along with the three of us there are three couples and two other women. Between us we represent an array of culinary experience ranging from those who appear to know nothing more than the fact that they like to eat good food to those who can “one-up” the chef in foody knowledge. It is a nice group and the camaraderie only grows after the fine wine sampling that will take place at the restaurant later (more on that to come).

We will start with an hour or so working our way north through the market (mostly we stick to the shops to the east of the internal roadway as inside the market stalls it is way too crowded to make our way through or hear). It is apparent that Chef Sear knows most of the market vendors as they allow him to take apart a variety of produce as he talks about what to look for and how to use them. James stands by with a knife to cut into the produce and napkins for cleaning our hands up after digging in. He also has the cash to purchase some of the goods that will become part of the food prepared in class and gets to carry said purchases back to the restaurant. I wonder if he hires out!

Surrounded by an aromatic cloud of fresh dill that makes my mouth water, we learn about fresh fava beans and tomatilos. Some of the crowd passing by stops to catch an earful of this knowledgeable chef before we move on. We duck into Fero’s Meat Market and learn all about hanging beef (the necessity to have beef hanging to properly age and why it is so much more expensive, but worth the cost), free range chicken and cooking goat. The butcher tells us that though goat is gaining in popularity he doesn’t sell much as the largest market for goat meat is still to the middle-easterners and since his market also sales pork products that market is more apt to buy from a “clean” butcher.

We round the corner to a small specialty cheese counter, Quality Cheese. There he buys a small portion of Sally Jackson goat cheese which we get to sample. The cheese is rustically wrapped in chestnut leaves and is just between solid and liquid. It is so yummy we all proclaim our intent to return to buy some on our way back after the class (little do we know how our after meal fullness will work against any intentions to stock up, even on market goods).

From here we go back on the street and sample a variety of fruits from a sidewalk vendor, Frank’s Quality Produce. The Sharlin melon is the most wonderful melon I have ever had the opportunity to taste. James shells out some money for a small sack of lychee fruits which we peel and consume on the spot. This brings back wonderful memories of my childhood when my father’s graduate students would serve a dessert of canned lychees, a perfect ending to exotic foreign meals. Chef Shears suggests that these unique fruits can be peeled and frozen then plopped into a well shaken martini for a special touch. Our eyebrows collectively raise. Something about the suggestion of well blended martinis on a hot summer afternoon peaks our interest. Our adventure is filled with these kinds of tasty tips to be filed away for future use.

We duck inside to the only interior market stall we will stop at, Sosio’s Produce. Here we are told about special mushrooms (at nearly $40 per pound they are special indeed) and heirloom tomatoes. We are given a taste of nectarines that are nothing short of perfect. Perfect in texture, smell, flavor. I melt on the spot.

Heading back out into the market road we stop by the organic stand where Chef Sear shows us all about potatoes. Cutting into the small purple Peruvian potatoes, we learn about cooking purple potato salad, which kids adore, roasting fingerling options and yellow Yukons perfect for mashing. It’s a quick refresher course on selecting the perfect potato for a dish. James shells out cash for a large bunch of squash greens and lovely purple and green colored Chinese spinach which will be prepared for our meal.

Though there is obviously so much more that the chef could teach us at the market, time is running short and so we head east, up to First Avenue and walk north the three blocks or so to Cascadia Restaurant. This is my first trip into this Mecca of fine dining. The chef has obviously called ahead to let the crew know that the class will arrive soon as the final glasses of a most beautiful rosé colored sparking wine are being poured as we come through the door.

I would note that a restaurant always looks beautiful through rosé colored glasses. And being the focus of an attentive staff’s attention usually makes for a wonderful experience. The wine is a delicately mauve colored Brut rosé “Rosé d’Or” by R. Stuart & Co. (Oregon), smooth and just the right subtle sweetness. The bubbles are long lasting and festive. The fact that we have the open and spacious restaurant to our small party of 11 and beautifully appointed tables by the window only seals the first impression that we are in for a glorious experience. We are not let down.

With champagne glass in hand we are allowed to make ourselves at home to soak up the ambiance of the restaurant while finishing touches on our kitchen seating assignments are put in place. The four intimately set tables for three are perched in the sunshine which filters through the large front windows. As Belltown activity goes by on the sidewalk, our focus is on the breathtaking fused glass charger plates at our places. We remark that it is unfortunate that none of our purses are large enough to abscond with a plate. The colors of these plates are as tasty as any dish that could possibly be served on them. Beyond pastel, the blues and greens and yellows sigh in anticipation of the feast to come.

When I can pull my eyes away from the table and my lips from the glass of bubbly I look around the dining room. This place is the perfect balance of space and intimacy. Ceilings over two stories high counter the fact that this is an intimate venue. A large, old fashioned bar runs along the north end of the dining room and one can imagine the echoes of clinking ice and friendly bar banter from the evening before. At the east end of the bar, a wall of wine bottles with interesting labels (some lightly dusty) stretches the full height of the room, a library stack ladder on a track provides access for those hard to reach. A water wall/petition/sculpture separates the dining room from the kitchen and provides an added element of tranquility to the setting and hints at the marriage of fire and water taking place in the kitchen just feet away. The dining room is simply but elegantly decorated with small orchid plantings tucked into wall recesses and sophisticated wall sconces.

After a very short respite in the dining room where we wind down from the bustle of the market with our bubbly, we are led into the kitchen. A long counter with stools is set up for us along the west edge. The large open kitchen is abuzz with prep chefs and things simmering. We each have tasting plates, water, flatware and napkins at our seats along side a prep counter. Our champagne glasses are quickly refilled as soon as we sit down. In front of our places are intriguing sculptures of triangular crisps (I learn that these are toasted wedge cut tortillas brushed with black olive tapenade) perched on a generous dollop of white bean pure drizzled with chipotle oil. I am so angry with myself that my digital camera is lying uselessly uncharged in my purse: this is picture perfect.

Our fist lesson is in salt. Chef Sear passes around three small dishes of sea salt: one plain, one citrus seasoned, one seasoned with a smoky chili. We put small samples on our plates though we will not need them as everything we will try here is seasoned perfectly. When we learn that the container of salt that the chef holds up costs $85 our attention is drawn to a gentleman in the class who has helped himself to very generous piles of the sea treasure on his plate. We laugh heartily when his wife remarks that he has been put on a no salt diet at home and understand his desire to overindulge at this place. He is warmly reminded of this throughout the lesson.

We learn about the flavored grape seed oils crafted on site that are a staple to the kitchen: citrus oil, lobster oil, garlic and chili oils, among others. There is a bright pink concoction in one of the bottles that catches my eye for the beautiful color. Turns out is not an oil but a watermelon reduction that is used in pork dishes and others.

Chef Sear begins our appetizer lesson: small crisp pizzas made on thin pastry rounds, topped with a thin coat of cumin and coriander flavored Greek yoghurt, slivers of sweet onion and chiffonade of proscutto. There is one in our group who has a dairy allergy and the chef takes care to accommodate his needs with a non-dairy variation of each dish for him.

Next, Chef Sear pulls out a lovely cut of fresh tuna, removes the silverskin, and coats it in a fresh roasted grind of spices (anise, fennel seeds, peppercorns, chili powder and others). These are seared while he takes the squash greens that were purchased at the market and quickly wilts these and then coats with a generous portion of butter. We decide that squash greens must be an acquired taste as they are a bit too organic for our palates. One in our group is disappointed that these aren’t just wonderful as she has a garden full of squash greens that she had new hopes for. Ah well: nothing ventured: nothing gained. The ahi is served to us: it is magnificent. Pulled off the heat at the right moment, it is thick and dark in the middle, and creates a small yummy adventure as we bite through the crunchy spiced outer layer into the rich soft meat inside. This is definitely a dish I will recreate at home. The only downside to this experience is that there are no printed recipes though we understand that these dishes are created on the fly by a chef who is whipping out dishes from his creative head based on his feel of the crowd and the produce we have found at the market. A notepad and pen to write these ideas down is the only thing I find want of in this otherwise all encompassing service. In some ways, though, it is nice to relax and not be too focused on trying to get it all down. The “education” is more perfectly absorbed through all senses, sight, smell, sound and bubbly without trying to get it scientifically down.

Small baskets of crisply fried, lightly salted lotus root and tarot root slices are passed as Chef Kerry shows us the whole raw root. Who would have thought such tasty delicate treats could come from such homely roots?

Lastly, the beautiful Chinese spinach is quick sautéed and tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic oil. It maintains its beautiful green and purple hue and is also delicious (forgive me if I repeat the word “delicious” too many times in one story. It is the best word for so many things devoured here.) Our kitchen lesson has concluded and we are dismissed to the dining room where we have a very short wait until our lunch is served.

In the dining room we are very well attended to by Mathew, a shining representative of the restaurant’s wait staff. We are served a 2005 Malagousia (white) by Domaine Gerovassiliou from Epanomi in the Thessaloniki region of Greece. I am not a huge fan of white wine but the others at the table found it good. I opt to save my wine calories for the other courses: since it is before 2:00 PM I am pacing myself. I am also leery of Greek wine. (The worst thing from a bottle I have ever swallowed was a Greek Champagne on New Year’s Eve in Athens several years ago. I believe turpentine would have been more digestible). We are served a small salad of beautiful heirloom tomatoes and marinated Greek feta cheese with roast onion dressing. It tastes as marvelous as it looks.

This is followed by a generous entrée of grilled mahi mahi on a bed of fresh baby greens. Flavors are wonderful though I am afraid to say I have forgotten what they were. Perhaps I was distracted by the lovely glass of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (R. Stuart & Co. ‘Autograph’, 2004). Beautiful slices of sautéed golden beets perked up the plate color. Try as I might I could not get over my aversion to beets: if any ever looked good enough to eat these did. Alas, they still tasted like dirt to my unenthusiastic beet palate. But Judy, who is a beet fan, declared them yummy. Kris feels the same way about beets as I: we did give them the old college try.

The finishing phase of our dining experience was a beautifully presented individual organic blueberry tart (this restaurant focuses on organic produce) with a lemon balm syrup. This was paired perfectly with a 2004 Muscat (2004 Chapoutier ‘Muscat de Rivesaltes’) from the Rhone region. Mathew was very knowledgeable on the preparations and ingredients of all dishes as well as the wines. And cheerfully served us a fine cup of coffee to wake us up after our very relaxed, almost surreal, food experience. Chef Sear came out frequently during our meal to check on our experience and answer any questions we had about what we were consuming. He also sheepishly took credit for the nice watercolor paintings/sketches in the ladies toilet. This is a man of many talents but self understated. He answered the question of what he would have been if he hadn’t pursued a career as a chef. “Graphic artist” was his answer. This probably helps explain the well thought out ambiance that permeates his restaurant.

While the cost was towards the upper end for cooking classes in this region (almost $95 per person, including tax and service), in reality it was a bargain. Most cooking classes don’t come with a market tour and introduction to some of the best vendors in the market. None that I know of come with four bountiful wine pairings, so many appetizers and a full size three course lunch served. Chef Sear seemed as delighted to share his knowledge and kitchen craft with the group as the group was to be shared with. The dining room ambiance was more abundant than you will get with most cooking classes and the service from everyone involved was what I wish all restaurants had to offer. This is an experience not to be missed. To find out more about classes as well as the menu and more see www.cascadiarestaurant.com. Information on the market can be found at www.pikeplacemarket.org.

3 comments:

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