RN74

Been a while since I’ve done a restaurant review. Since having the young’in we don’t get out as much, and when we do, we’re usually looking for a sure thing rather than take a chance. Last night was a special occasion, and we decided to try out RN74, a relatively new downtown place that had gotten multiple favorable reports from friends.

We were there relatively early, on a Saturday night. The bar was already pretty full, though the dining area was empty. The space is pretty cavernous and as it continued to fill, the noise levels increased accordingly. The atmosphere is semi-train station inspired including an old style rotating board listing the most recent wine purchases. That sign is a feature that they are proud of, but it is mostly annoying. It is loud and they like to feature very expensive bottles that have been purchased. Sort of the equivalent of being allowed to drive your Maserati to your table, too ostentatious for my taste. Similarly, the seating is arranged to make sure the diners can see and be seen. Sitting at a table in the center of the room, I felt much too much on display. It was not comfortable.

The servers and wait staff were excellent: friendly, helpful, and courteous.

The menu is small, not tiny, but you may want to make sure there are options for everyone in your party. I had a couple tough decisions to make since there were multiple things I wanted, but my wife ended up ordering multiple appetizers and sides to make her meal.

I ordered their take on an Old Fashioned for my pre-dinner libation. Not my usual cocktail. This was easily the best version I’ve had. I would definitely order that again.

I ended up doing their pre fixe menu since everything I wanted from the main menu was represented there. Our first course: cauliflower velouté for me and beet salad for my wife were both very good. For my main, I had the Lamb Shank cassoulet which was also very good. My wife had the goat cheese toasts and french fries. The goat cheese toast was ok, if not anything special. The fries were inedible, drowning in salt. We ended up sending back the fries, basically uneaten. Here was one break in their staffing. When the person clearing the table (not the waitress) asked if we were enjoying the fries, as they were the only think uneaten on the table, we replied “no.” That never made it back to our waitress, so we were not offered an alternative.

For desert, my wife opted for the Petit Fours, while I got the Sticky Toffee Pudding. The Petit Fours were horrible. Really bad. We sent them back completely uneaten. The Sticky Toffee Pudding was middling at best, mediocre.

To the wait staff and restaurant’s credit, they didn’t charge us for the things we did not eat, but even so, this was a fairly pricey meal.

All-in-all, RN74 was an uneven experience. The highs were high and the lows were low, but the highs were not transcendent enough to justify their price tag or outweigh the lows. Will we return? Unlikely. Maybe for a drink in the bar. There are enough good options in the neighborhood in and below the price range of RN74 with better atmosphere. So, we will probably not get around to returning.

If you want to check it out yourself: get a booth, not a table; stay off the sides of the menu; and have desert somewhere else.

RN74 on Urbanspoon

A Kettle of Fish (Vancouver BC)

Reading the reviews of this restaurant, I was unsure what to expect. It sounded like it was decorated like an antique store. The food decent, but not amazing; uneven and over-priced.

I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. The atmosphere was indeed distinctive and unusual, but not overbearing. The dining room was open, light and inviting, the bar cozy and dark. There were certainly some antique touches and lots of big plants, but it felt more like the Palm Court at the Plaza in New York or the Laurel Court at the Fairmont in San Francisco rather than your great grandma’s dining room.

The food was also better than expected. My seafood fritter appetizer had been allowed to go cold in the pass-through and was not impressive, but my dining companions’ fried oysters were hot and quite good. However, my halibut main course was cooked perfectly; the inside tender and the outside with a nice thin crust. The others had the Salmon and also enjoyed their meals. For desert, I had a coconut pudding that was a bit sweet but which I had no problem finishing.

The service was good, attentive, but not overbearing. The staff friendly, but not obsequious. The prices were a bit high, but not unreasonable.

I think that this would be a good restaurant to try when looking for something a little different, something unique.

A Kettle of Fish on Urbanspoon

Homegrown Sustainable Sandwhich Shop

I’ve tried a few different sandwiches at Homegrown since they opened. I like their concept and I want to like their food, but every time I’ve been underwhelmed and felt a bit ripped off.

This week, I tried their Po’Boy. For over $10, I got two tiny pieces of fried fish with a little spicy mayo on a roll and a tiny bit of over-spiced slaw in a cup. The fish seemed fresh, but was relatively tasteless and the tiny swipe of spicy mayo didn’t help much. The fish portions were small enough that there was an ocean of bread left over on the small roll it was served on.

Yesterday’s experience has been fairly representative of the food there. I’ll add that I usually take out rather than eat there. At lunch time the place can be quite busy and it is organized rather poorly since there isn’t a place to wait and not be in the way. So you often get a gaggle of people standing in the areas around the tables or where you order and pick up the food getting in each others way.

Homegrown seems to be succeeding, but I’m not sure it is because of their food or their concept. If they cut their prices by 20-30% and reconfigured their space a bit, I might like this place a lot better. You can certainly eat better for the same amount of money without having to look too far and that is what I will continue to do.

Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Chez Shea

Chez Shea dining room.
Chez Shea dining room.

For years we’ve stood waiting at Matt’s In The Market and pondering what was behind the door at Chez Shea. We knew that it was supposed to be nice, but we never got around to eating there until recently. We were pleasantly surprised at the size (it is quite small and cozy), the environment (similar to Matt’s old vibe when it was smaller, but more romantic) and the staff (friendly, but not to the point of being annoying). I was very happy that I didn’t feel out of place wearing a suit, the other diners (for the most part) were dressed for special occasion meals as opposed to the shorts and t-shirts you sadly see too often in high-end restaurants around here.

The food was good with some touches of excellence, but not enough to be a draw on its own at this price range. If you are into “Big Flavors”, you can skip Chez Shea. The food was fairly subtle but solid; tasty, but not overpowering. Two elements of what I ate remained with me (admittedly these were the biggest flavors in my meal): I had a Hamachi Crudo which came with some sliced Jalapeno that added an interesting kick to an otherwise bland dish; and a Muscovy duck that was prepared two ways, one of which was a Confit Crepinette that was simply amazing.

The menu is fairly standard high-end northwest cuisine: seasonal, fresh ingredients, featuring seafood and northwest game. The menu itself was a little small, but it was ample enough that we were able to find good choices for four courses each. As with many higher end restaurants, the portions are smaller, but we didn’t leave feeling hungry. If we’d skipped a course, we might have left seeking some extra food though. The wine list was good as well, but not extensive.

Overall, we liked Chez Shea, but probably more for the atmosphere than the food. The food was good enough that we’d definitely consider it again for a special romantic dinner, but not so good that we’re already planning our next visit. I would definitely like to come back and try the Bistro some other night. It is even smaller than the restaurant and may be a great “date night” destination.

Chez Shea / Shea's Lounge on Urbanspoon

Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro

Bennett’s has an interesting concept (from their website):

At Bennett’s we are committed to serving pure, all natural, additive free food. You won’t find artificial preservatives, colors or sweeteners. No flavor enhancers, hydrogenated oils or processed foods. What you will find, are the freshest most authentic ingredients we can offer.

Most of our ingredients are deeply rooted in the Cascadia region – an area extending from northern California to southern Alaska, and the coast to the continental divide, taking in Washington, most of Oregon and Idaho and part of Montana

For the modern foodie, this is very attractive: Slow Food, sourced locally, organically grown. An interesting concept around the quality of the ingredients doesn’t make for an interesting restaurant, however, unless they can back it up with the quality of their cooking. Bennett’s, for the most part, delivers. Our party of four was unanimous on our appetizers and deserts, all quite good. The entrees themselves were somewhat less consistent. I had a razorclam linguine (razorclams being fresh and available that day). The linguine included some cooked greens that were flavorful, but overwhelmed the rest of the plate, the clams themselves contributed little to the dish. Also, it was served luke warm. The rest of my party was happy with their entrees, although the small portion sizes were commented on.

The one serious issue with Bennett’s is that it has a bit of an identity crisis. The environment feels like a nice family restaurant. It has a bar area that runs into the restaurant. On a Saturday night, there were as many families there as there were couples. The ceilings are high and the lights are bright. The room isn’t large, but in tone it feels more like the Five Spot than Rover’s, including the volume of the conversations in the room. This is not a bad thing in itself. As we were there with our infant daughter, it actually felt comfortable, like we didn’t need to worry about disturbing other patrons. The service isn’t formal, although it isn’t completely informal either. The food itself is more formal in presentation, portion-size and pricing. Our 3 course dinner for four including wine came to around $50 per person. So, you have formal food and prices and informal ambiance; hence, identity-crisis. I’m not the first to point this out, this is a consistent issue in their other reviews.

Based on the pricing and the quality of my entree, normally I would suggest avoiding Bennett’s; but I like their concept, and my other courses and the rest of my party’s meals convince me that I shouldn’t judge them too hastily. Another comparison worth making would be Tilth, their ideolical peer in Wallingford. I can’t make that comparison yet, but I hope to soon.

The question is “Is Bennett’s worth the trip?” I’d say, if you like Slow Food without the pretention and you have that kind of money to spend on a good meal (that isn’t a special event), yes. We will be returning. If our food is at least as good next time as it was this time, Bennett’s will certainly be added to our collection of eateries worth visiting.

Bennett's Pure Food Bistro on Urbanspoon

Update – April 18, 2009
We returned to Bennett’s for a brunch last weekend (and a second opinion). Again, I thought the food was a bit uneven: the french toast was amazing; the salmon benedict, less so, but not horrible. The breakfast prices were much more reasonable though, $8-$12 for an entree. The second opinion is about the same as the first. With the more reasonable prices, we will definitely return for brunch and will hope to find other dishes as awesome as the French Toast. We will probably return for another dinner as well, but I don’t know yet if this will become a regular occurrence. We’re still figuring this place out.

More Seattle restaurants should have dress codes

I have often complained about how I have dressed up for an expensive meal and been disappointed to be seated next to someone in casual or extremely casual attire. How that takes away from the experience. It could be my age (I’m much more sensitive to it now than I was when I was younger) or it could be my mid-westerness conflicting with the devil-may-care attitude of the west coast. Maybe I feel this way because I work in an industry where casual dress is the norm and so wearing a tie feels special to me.

You want a good meal to be an experience. Restaurants work hard to create an appropriate ambiance. Allowing diners to diminish that can pollute the memory of a special evening. I started thinking about this again when I read Adam Roberts’ Anti Dress-Code Manifesto and the response by Frank Bruni in the New York Times. You can tell that I found myself much more in line with Frank Bruni rather than Adam Roberts.

I’m not suggesting that all nice restaurants have dress codes, but there are several which are trying to provide a special atmosphere where I think it would be appropriate. Maybe we would choose one restaurant over another for a special occasion because we’d know that if we wanted to dress up, we wouldn’t feel out of place.

Boulangerie Nantaise

I’ve had their pastries several times over the years. They are decent. Not worth going out of your way for, but perfectly reasonable if you are peckish as you pass by. Today, I was there near lunch time, so I decided to try one of their sandwiches. Big mistake. I got two thin slices of ham and some old chese along with a single slice of lettuce and little bits of leftover tomatoes. The crust of the bread was so tough that eating it made my jaw sore. The primary taste of the sandwich was the bread and the cornichones which was the only thing they weren’t stingy with. For $7. Next time, I’ll walk the three blocks to Macrina instead of wasting my money there.

Boulangerie Nantaise on Urbanspoon

Canlis

Canlis is a Seattle institution and one of the most famous restaurants in the city. It is also a bit of an enigma, in the way that many fine Seattle restaurants are enigmas for someone who grew up far from the west coast. The enigma is the informality mixed with formality. Time and time again, I have put on nice clothes for an intimate dinner at an expensive restaurant only to be seated next to someone in shorts and a t-shirt, or to be confronted with a waiter who wants to be part of the dinner conversation. This would be perfectly reasonable in many restaurants, but not one that costs over $100 per person, in my opinion.

Canlis has a reputation as one of the more stuffy restaurants in Seattle, proclaiming on their website:

Canlis is a fine dining restaurant. Most men feel comfortable in a suit or sport coat. They are not required, but they are encouraged. Certainly, casual attire (jeans, tennis shoes, short sleeve shirts) is not appropriate. The golden rule: there is no such thing as overdressed!

I was heartened by this, and looked forward to our meal there. Of course, because this is Seattle, the restaurant does not enforce this policy and so, in my suit, we were seated next to a party of people in jeans and casual shirts. Luckily, the balance of people’s attire in the room was more on the formal side, so I did not feel too out of place although I was dressed more formally than anyone else in the restaurant under 60. I did feel somewhat overdressed.

The atmosphere does lend an air to the stuffyness: It does feel like a formal restaurant. The staff is numerous and well dressed, the decor is tasteful. When you pull up, a valet rushes to your door. You are greeted as you enter and your coat is whisked off your back and put away.

This formal atmosphere was fairly destroyed, however, by the wait staff who were overly friendly, made mistakes with our order and made some fairly large blunders for a restaurant proclaiming itself as a fine dining establishment. Twice a course was served when one of our party was not at the table. This might seem like a minor complaint, but it is the kind of thing you don’t expect in a restaurant like this. There were a lot of small things that really destroyed the atmosphere: food was served to the wrong person; one server kept bumping a person at our table while serving another table; one of the items we ordered was forgotten by the server and then delivered after the course was complete. You could pardon these kind of mistakes in a lesser restaurant. We certainly haven’t experienced this very often in this price range. Other “formal” touches were there: napkins were replaced whenever someone left the table; silverware was exchanged at the end of each course.

One other thing was just odd. There were a lot of families with small children there. I have nothing against this, but I’m not used to seeing it in this kind of establishment. Especially in these kinds of numbers. There was even a crying infant there. I love children, but it really does take away from a high-end meal to see a child pretending to play the drums with his silverware at the next table, or to hear a child screaming.

All of these minor quibbles (and they are minor taken individually) could be excused if the food was exquisite. The food was quite good. Of my whole tasting menu, I had only one complaint: my scallops were not cleaned adequately; there was some very unpleasant grit as I ate them. However, they were cooked perfectly, so that is a minor complaint. The whole menu was quite good and was certainly equal to other restaurants in its price range.

Overall, I have a hard time recommending this restaurant. I think it would be a great place to bring an out of town relative if you want an interesting view and your guest is enough of a foodie that you want to skip Cutters, Salty’s or Pallisades. Beyond that, I don’t see a real reason to go there again. The food is good, but there is better in the city at the same price or less. The atmosphere is nice, but not an attraction in itself.

Going out for really high-end food should really be a treat. It should be an experience that you want to savor, to remember fondly. It should make an event extra special. Life is too short and money is too precious to feel like you’ve dressed up for nothing and thrown away huge amounts of money on a meal that was not worth it.

I didn’t hate Canlis, but I didn’t love it either; and for food at this price, it means I really can’t recommend it.

Canlis in Seattle

coffee is good for you!!

BBC News – Daily caffeine ‘protects brain’

Coffee may cut the risk of dementia by blocking the damage cholesterol can inflict on the body, research suggests.

The drink has already been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, and a study by a US team for the Journal of Neuroinflammation may explain why.

A vital barrier between the brain and the main blood supply of rabbits fed a fat-rich diet was protected in those given a caffeine supplement.

UK experts said it was the “best evidence yet” of coffee’s benefits.

Crofton on Wells (Chicago)

Excellent food, excellent service, nice atmosphere. I have nothing bad to say about this restaurant.

how boring

The fact that this scores only 8% better than the not-very-good Grand Lux Cafe means that people have no taste. Although the lines at the Cheesecake Factory already make that clear.

Crofton on Wells in Chicago