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Get a taste of the Pacific Northwest as travel editor Sandy Lang and contributing photographer Peter Frank Edwards comb the area’s markets, farms, coffeehouses, and trendsetting restaurants
Not to be overwhelmed by all the possible sights and activities in such a city, it seemed the thing to do in Seattle was to allow food to be our guide.
Within an hour after our plane flew over the still snowcapped Cascades and touched down in Seattle, we were walking down the steep streets to Pike Place Market to skirt around the men tossing fish up to be weighed, wrapped, and iced for customers (we’d watch that spectacle more intently later on) and follow the walkway to Place Pigalle, a narrow café nearly hidden on the backside of the landmark market. From a table by a window, we watched a rainstorm bring a wash of gray across the Puget Sound and drank a couple glasses of Washington State red—I don’t remember the vineyard, but I know it was fine, perfect even, with a plate of smoked tomatoes, Alaskan halibut, and a vinegary red potato salad. (With Seattle being set so far up the coast, Alaskan fish are considered local/regional here, and the marinas are lined with Deadliest Catch-style boats and stacks of huge iron crab pots.)
This was a good start. I’ve spent time in San Francisco and visited Vancouver but had never been to this Northwest city, where the rugged mountain-meets-the-sea landscape has given rise to Bill Gates and Microsoft, to Jimi Hendrix and his psychedelic guitar riffs, and to the coffee world domination of Starbucks. So on a late winter Friday, we’d made the eight hours of flights (one connection), not only for the Pacific scenery and the cool vibe, but to taste some of the freshest food to be found in the country these days. At least that’s what I’d heard—that in Seattle, the farm-and-sea-to-table scene is tremendously rich, sometimes trendsetting.
Not to be overwhelmed by all the possible sights and activities in such a city, it seemed the thing to do in Seattle was to allow food to be our guide. We would let the smell of coffee and the clink of wine glasses lead us through this unfamiliar city that’s smaller in land size than Charleston, but with even more water in its boundaries, which are dotted with islands and traversed by ferries and are home to seven times as many people.
All that said, it may not make sense what we did next after Place Pigalle, which was to go back up the hill a few blocks to our room at the sleek Hotel Ändra to meet friends and walk to the Seattle Super-Sonics game (our basketball-loving friends had tickets). In Key Arena, we’d try to stay awake from the effects of the flight and wine, while the home team came nowhere near winning and the crowd was most lively when the dance squad took over the court during time-outs. On the walk home, under the glowing Space Needle—a remnant of the 1962 World’s Fair, still with a restaurant atop—and the raised track of the monorail, we hatched a plan for the next day. We’d start early at the University District Farmers Market, a weekly “farmers only” market in Seattle. (The permanent, three-block-long Pike Place also includes crafters and restaurants.)
The next morning, the city felt barely awake when we were up before 8:00 to go to the Saturday market. “Yeah, café insomnia—everyone gets up late because we drank so much coffee the day before,” a Seattle friend tells me. It’s easy to get into the coffee drill. For me, one morning it started with the café au lait at Le Pitchet, a magnifique Parisian-style café, and on another, my first of the day was a warm doughnut and coffee from Top Pot Doughnuts & Coffee, a two-story glass-walled monument to coffee and doughnut-making. Then, each day, there’d always be a second cup, somewhere.
Back at the farmers market, we walked outside on the corner lot where farmers set up temporary stands. There were local tulips in every color, soaps in scents such as eucalyptus and lavender, fresh-made pasta, whole chickens, pies, breads, sausages, and wine. There was hot cider made from Washington apples, fresh milk, and goat cheese made yesterday and displayed next to pictures of the goats. One of the cheeses was made to complement a locally brewed beer. At another booth, a man in an apron ladled steaming soup into small paper cups, offering samples of oyster stew or a puréed squash. We got to talking with him—his name was Vincent Felice—and he said we could easily find the farm up near Woodinville where the greens, carrots, and other vegetables for the soups were growing. At the booth for Sea Breeze Farm, I bought a small jug of milk from a young man named Ed, who told me that he was from Montana and he sometimes visits an aunt and uncle in Charleston. He invited us to come see the five young calves he’s rearing at the Vashon Island farm.
So, upon leaving the farmers market, we mapped out another adventure. I knew I’d wanted to get on a ferry in Seattle, and with the mention of Vashon, I started to firm up that island as our destination. Meanwhile, there was Ballard Avenue to walk along, with its hip and artsy shops, giant record store (Bop Street), and wine bars. I’d read of this neighborhood’s Swedish heritage, but we found only one Scandinavian shop, Olsen’s (worth a stop for the salty licorice), along with a few historic markers. However, there was the modern library with grasses growing on its arched green roof and the locks that allow boats to pass between the freshwater lakes and the Puget Sound without saltwater endlessly flowing into the lakes—both sights reminiscent of Sweden.
We also spent an afternoon going up to Woodinville, stopping at 21 Acres, and passing the Château Ste. Michelle and Columbia wineries before pulling in at The Herbfarm restaurant for what was to be a three- to four-hour, nine-course meal of Washington State and Northwest foods. Along with the two dozen or so other guests that night, we began with a casual tour of the herb garden next to the villa-like restaurant. Besides seeing and sniffing the pineapple sage, rose geranium, and sage we’d be tasting in the recipes later, we were also introduced to the farm’s resident pair of pigs. Then we walked inside to an elegant, but very comfortable, dining room set with silver, china, crystal, and heavy linens. We sat at the Euro-style community table next to a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary and a mother with a daughter who’d just earned her doctorate. With a view of the kitchen and the team of chefs in toques and coats, we sat as the courses arrived: poached Pacific sole and leeks; wild steelhead with salsify and carmelized onions; housemade cheeses; and even a housemade root beer, all accompanied by wine pairings and live music strummed by a Spanish guitarist.
The next morning, we sat on the aqua-blue benches of a very tidy ferry boat and glided on the less-than-20-minute ride to the mostly rural island of Vashon. (If you’ve ever read The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald’s account of city-girl-turned-farmer’s-wife, this island is where the chicken farm tales were set.) On our half-day trip, we made stops at the century-old country store, where the coffee roaster whirred and spun beans downstairs; at the groovy and delicious Monkey Tree vegetarian café and bakery; and at DIG Floral & Garden, a funky plant nursery that also interestingly sells modern Danish lighting and minimalist furniture as well as pottery and tableware.
That night, back in Seattle, we double-checked driving directions for a little restaurant I’d heard about called Tilth. A week before the trip, I’d booked a reservation for their weekly Homage to Local Producers dinner, for which the fixed menu is announced a couple days before, based on what local and regional produce is available. (The producer being recognized was Bluebird Grain Farms, growers of organic farro, rye, wheat, and flax.)
The tiny restaurant is set inside a house outside of downtown Seattle—with a beauty shop to one side and an insurance agency on the other—so I figured it would be low-key. And it was, but somehow, between the day I made our reservation and the night we arrived for dinner eight days later, Tilth had been discovered on the national food scene. We walked in to see a photocopy of a Frank Bruni write-up in The New York Times putting the kitchen on his list of the top 10 new restaurants in the country. One day later, The Seattle Times announced that a James Beard Award was likely for the chef-owner Maria Hines.
At least four times during our Tilth meal of sea scallop soup, slow-roasted short ribs, polenta cakes, and a crème fraîche sorbet with cracked wheat, eager parties of two or three came to the door. The would-be diners would stand just inside the front room—the only dining room of the house-turned-restaurant—but there was no seating without a reservation. The availability must already be limited for this weekly dinner, and then, with the sudden media attention,each meal had become that much more precious.
After the hostess turned one couple away, the young man made a last, wistful scan of the dining room before slowly turning and walking out. I was actually kind of moved, but not so much I’d give up my seat. Instead, I had to raise my glass to Seattle, which has both elevated its local food scene and brought it closer to the people. From where I sat at that moment, I guess you could say that I was as happy as a customer at Pike Place watching her iced fish being thrown. And I wasn’t about to go anywhere anytime soon.