Morning in Seattle

After a long day of flying, and arriving at the hotel at  two am Seattle time, which was five am Richmond time, I fell off to a good sound, deep sleep. Waking up to a cloud and fog covered Seattle, I trundled downstairs to the Starbucks next to and attached to the hotel. It was about sixty-five degrees, a temperature we from Richmond haven't seen in three months or more. The heat wave currently squeezing the life out of the East Coast has been grinding on, unabated, for more months than is normal, even for a climate which can be as unforgiving as Central Virginia's summer.

Sitting in the Starbucks on Queen Anne Rd., I had a cup of coffee and went through my normal set of websites, news and so on. Seattle is definitely a more dog friendly town than Richmond is. There were a number of people who were walking with dogs, tied their leashes to a pole out front and came in to get their coffee. No one walking by outside looked twice at the dogs, and they weren't all tiny little dogs. Most of them were in the medium size range and one or two were pretty large. It was nice to see how few people were afraid of the dogs, and how many people felt comfortable enough leaving their dogs out front of the place without worrying about someone trying to run off with them or provoking them somehow.

The folks here seem pretty friendly as well. Everyone we've come in contact with in the stores, eateries and hotel have been friendly, polite and seem personable. We have yet to come across anyone who has the kind of surly attitude some of the folks back home have, though we haven't been into a 7-11 or McDonald's, where the worst offenders seem to be in Richmond.

Once DJ woke up and was showered and ready to go, we made our way over to The Space Needle, to pick up the ticket book for the City Pass we got. The City Pass is a pretty good deal. You get entrance to a number of the cities attractions and paying for the pass up front saves you some money in comparison with having to pay for each attraction separately. I had no idea there's an old school  amusement park for children right at the bottom of the Space Needle, but it's there. It's pretty cool to see that stuff. There's an arcade, an old fashioned merry-go-round, bumper cars, some of those miniature roller coasters and what not. Maybe it's because that little place is one of the first things I saw, but the city seems to be an interesting mix of vintage and new. The architecture all seems to come from the sixties, the seventies or the last five years, and unlike so many other cities which seem to almost be at war with themselves over whether or not the city is going to try and hold onto it's heritage or it's going to become a modern urban paradise, Seattle seems to exist as a place at home with it's history and enjoying it's present. That is an extremely rare quality on the East Coast.

We inquired about Sky City, the restaurant at the top of the needle (we're planning to actually go to the top of the needle on Monday, when we can avoid some of the weekend crowd) and they said reservations were a good idea, so we'll call tomorrow about that. From there we headed to the Pike Place Market, probably Seattle's most well known attraction, especially if you're a fat boy in training, as I am. We were going to do the Pike Place walking tour that comes as part of the City Pass, but apparently you need reservations for that as well, which the website didn't bother to inform us. But there was a gentleman at the information center who was extremely helpful, going so far as to call the tour folks, make a reservation for us, and print out a copy of the confirmation of reservation. A definite plus, and another friendly and capable person. This isn't to say there aren't friendly and capable people back home in Richmond, but I certainly run across people who just seem too pissed off to bother on more occasions in a day than I have here in Seattle.

With the tour being put off until tomorrow, we decided to wander the Market a little anyway. And it's a good thing we did. One of the first places we stopped was a little place selling fresh fruit. Dinosaur Eggs caught DJ's eye. Neither of us had ever heard of a fruit called a Dinosaur Egg, and the friendly girl working there proceeded to tell us they are a cross between a plum and an apricot, cut a piece of one off and handed it over for us to try. Let me tell you, if you've never had one, you like fruit and you can get your hands on one, try them as soon as possible. We immediately got a Dinosaur Egg for each of us, and I grabbed a few fresh dates, something I love and rarely get a chance to indulge.

As we were wandering through the Pike Place Market, there were some street musicians playing their tunes, and crowds of people enthusiastically pushing their way down the street, buying up fresh food of more varieties than some smaller cities even contain. It reminded me very much of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but without the kind of dangerous, anything can happen feeling you get in a place which worships the Bacchanalian wonders of alcohol, sex, drugs and the wondrous heights and depths of great music. Pike Place has the same enthusiastic feeling, but a much more straightforward love is beyond that feeling. It's the love of food. Good. Fresh. Food. Seafood, fruit, vegetables, meats, all of it. This is the kind of place where foodies journey to worship in the same way the self destructive journey to the mecca's of  New Orleans and Vegas (at least New Orleans has it's own actual, organic culture, grown from a varied and interesting history, which helped produce it's incredible blues and jazz history).

We ended up deciding to have lunch at Pike Place Chowder. It's settled in Post Alley, off of the Market's main drag. Chowders and soups are their specialty, as if the name alone didn't give that away. We got a 4 cup chowder sampler, consisting of the Smoked Salmon Chowder, the Southwestern Chicken and Corn Chowder, the Manhattan Clam Chowder and the Seafood Bisque. We also got there second combo set, consisting of a cup of the chowder of your choice, a half of their Dungeness Crab Roll sandwich and a drink. Here's the thing. When I had my first taste of their New England Clam Chowder, the only thing I could think was "this is the chowder I've been waiting my whole life for." I've never had chowder this good before, and I'm a fan, so I try it if I see it on the menu in an eatery with a half way decent reputation. This was something else. The clams were perfectly done, not at all rubbery and overdone. Everything else was fresh when it went into the chowder, and you can taste it. It's been made with real heavy cream and overall, this is the best New England Clam Chowder I've ever had. I can see how they've won so many contests.

That isn't to say the rest of the chowders aren't absolutely killer, because they are. I can also say the Seafood Bisque is probably the best I've ever had. Just enough tomato, mixed with just enough cream, pepper and seafood to make it as damn near perfect as human beings can create. The Southwest Corn and Chicken is spiced just enough to set it apart from the rest, but again, you just can't underestimate the effect of fresh ingredients. It's probably not going to be for everyone, and Southwest Chicken and Corn Chowder is something I like, but it's not quite as high up there as Seafood Bisque and New England Clam Chowder, so this may just be a matter of personal preference. Don't underestimate the quality of the Manhattan Clam Chowder or The Smoked Salmon Chowder either. Both were excellent, though personally, I do like a little bit more vegetable in my Manhattan, and if I'm going to get the taste of smoked salmon, I want smoked salmon. Again, my only complaints really come back to personal preference. I can't say anything negative about the quality. The tomato base for the Manhattan pops in a way that is beautiful, and the Smoked Salmon Chowder is something I'd never had before and presented an extremely interesting flavor for a type of food I'm so used to having a completely different flavor. All in all, if you miss out on Pike Place Chowder, you should be kicking yourself.

The Dungeness Crab Roll was delicious, but I do have the feeling there are just any number of better ways to use the crab. Not to mention that when you do something as well as they do chowder, I can't really understand why you would do anything that would take the attention away from it. If they only sold the seven chowders they have available, they'd still be as successful and as well known as they are. The rest of the menu is probably very good, but I can't imagine an entire menu reaching that same level of delight.

We shuffled on over to the original Starbucks from there. At one in the afternoon on a Saturday, Pike Place was jam packed. There was nothing all that interesting about being in the first Starbucks store. But, I can say I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly we got in, ordered and got served, even though it was standing room only. The staff was friendly and fun, as a Starbucks really should be. It's good to see that even though the company has become a worldwide empire, they haven't forgotten the importance of the one little store they started from.

We made our way through the rest of the Market, checking out the variety of wares for sale. There was some great hand made stuff for sale, but neither of us really tend to buy much "stuff". It was all very cool, and I'm sure people with a little more of a yen for shopping would love it. I was impressed with and tempted by the number of handmade jams, desserts, pasta, and other food. If we had enough room in our bags to take more stuff home with us, I'd probably have bought some of that stuff to take home and experiment with.

We were both pretty exhausted by that point and headed back to the hotel for some rest. So far, we'd been walking everywhere, which is great on the one hand, because everything else is so close to the hotel. It also saves some money on cabs and mass transit. Seattle does seem to have a pretty good mass transit system, but if you can get away without having to figure that kind of stuff out on a relatively short vacation, it's helpful. Personally, I do like to go through the process of figuring through and learning mass transit systems and a city's layout, but for most people, that's probably not what a good vacation is made of.

Settling in for a rest at the hotel, we found we were just in time to catch a showing of Bad Day At Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, and Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine when they were young men. It's a good flick about a small Western town in hiding a secret in post WWII days. Check it out if you get the chance.

When we finally felt rested enough and started getting hungry we started trying to decide where to grab some evening grub. We've picked up a few different tourism pamphlets, which not surprisingly, highlight the more upper crust restaurants. Luckily for me, DJ has no more affinity for getting dressed to the nine's for a meal. It's just too much work, especially on vacation. I also haven't been able to wrap my head around the idea that my attire would have anything to do with the quality of the food. Don't get me wrong, I'm willing to pay the money for a good meal, especially if it's above and beyond good, and getting into "great" territory. I'll pay for fresh ingredients, a chef with experience and imagination and a good staff. I'm not paying for a tie. If I'm wearing the tie, I paid for it once already, I'm not paying for it again so you can convince some sucker his tie somehow makes the meal better. Besides which, the best meals I've ever had in restaurants have never required more than a pair of khaki pants and a clean shirt.

With that in mind we started going through the lists in the literature we'd picked up and comparing the one's which looked good on paper with what we could find online. We decided The Queen City Grill was the place to go, because it wasn't outrageously price, had a casual atmosphere and was within walking distance of the hotel.

I have to give DJ credit on booking the hotel. She managed to get a hotel which put us in walking distance to most of the major attractions, and Bell Town. Apparently Bell Town is center of the city's restaurant and nightlife culture. The Mediterranean Inn is a great choice for anyone who's not looking for too much in the way of luxury, but appreciates clean rooms, a friendly staff and close proximity to most of what Seattle has to offer the non-residential. If I make my way back here at some point, I will be booking a room there again.

We found The Queen City Grille with no problem (thanks to Google Maps). It's a nice little place, with simple, but well tasteful decor, there are booths with high seat backs lining the left side of the restaurant (providing privacy quite well), tables immediately on the right hand side, behind which the bar fills the rest of the place. The wait staff was friendly and attentive without been cloying, a combination I appreciate most deeply. And, since neither DJ or myself drink, it's easy to see how we might fall to the bottom of the list on a servers priorities. Our bill is always going to be lower for it, and therefore, most of them believe it's going to be a lower tip. The trick there is, both of us have worked in the food service industry, and it's not at all hard to get thirty percent out of us. Be competent and friendly and you're getting thirty percent. Go above and beyond and we'll go to forty or fifty.

I ordered three oysters on the half shell, which were fresh and tasty. Good seafood on the half shell isn't something I get very often in Richmond, and with the quality of seafood here, I couldn't pass it up. They were a good starter. For an entree, I had the Linguini with clams. It's a dish which pretty pedestrian, I know, but it's a favorite and a staple because it's good, and though you can go above and beyond to make it excellent and extra delicious, it's hard to make it terrible. I ordered a serving of the Chocolate Nemesis for dessert.

I was expecting a pretty good meal, and I definitely got more than that. I can describe the entire meal with one phrase, perfectly balanced. The clams over the linguini were cooked to perfection (something many restaurants charging a good deal more have gotten very wrong before), not dried out and tasting like shoe laces dried after a run in a river bed. The sauce was a perfect blend of garlic, tomato a slight touch of vermouth and just enough pepper to give it a little pop. The linguini was fresh and possibly hand made, and and it's flavor was clearly discernible through the delicately balanced flavor of the sauce. Not your usual linguini with clam sauce, by any stretch of the imagination. Don't sell this one short because it's a staple of nearly every mid-range menu in America. These guys managed to take something that familiar and make it their own, just enough to make it memorable, delicious and slightly surprising.

Next we ordered dessert. I got the Chocolate Nemesis, and DJ the Key Lime pie. I'm a big fan of chocolate. I adhere fervently to the idea that there are few things in life chocolate can't make a little more bearable. But this was something else altogether. The Chocolate Nemesis is a chocolate pie, more or less, but with the consistency just shy of fudge thickness. The plate is garnished with a raspberry sauce and two small tufts of fresh whipped cream, not the canned junk, but the real thing (whipped cream actually should be garnish, not something smothering your dessert, which seems to be what most establishments think). When you put a piece of it in your mouth, with a little bit of the raspberry sauce and a touch of the whipped cream, it slowly dissolves toward a more bitter dark chocolate, and sauce and whipped cream add exactly the right amount of sweet and creamy to make it perfection. As far as I'm concerned bad chocolate is better than a mid-quality dessert. This is without doubt when of the best chocolate desserts I've ever had. Again, so perfectly balanced in flavor and texture to make each bite a wonder and a pleasure. I was amazed with each mouthful. If I didn't think it would be somewhat uncouth, I'd have asked to go into their kitchen, hug the full cakes and tell them they'd brought a dimension to my life I didn't know was missing.

DJ's Key lime pie succeeded for exactly the same reasons. Key Lime pie isn't something I very often enjoy, I've had too many which were cloyingly sweet, with the consistency of hair gel. This was light, perfectly sweetened with the wonderful tang of real lime. I'm not generally a fan, but even I could tell this was a high quality version of an old favorite.

All in all, The Queen City Grill might not be breaking new ground in food creativity, but when you do the old standards as perfectly as they do, you don't need to. Everything about the meal was perfectly balanced, all of the flavors and textures screaming that the management and kitchen staff are passionate about what they do, which above all else is the ingredient you just can't substitute. I'd recommend The Queen City Grill to anyone, has just enough of everything for almost anyone to be able to find a better meal than they're probably expecting.

So far, Seattle is surpassing my expectations, and quickly becoming a destination I'd recommend to anyone looking to get away, but avoid the kind of head aches and costs associated with the bigger cities like New York, Chicago and L.A.


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