As a rule, I do not eat North Atlantic lobster in Seattle. While Seattle is known for great seafood, it is nowhere near the North Atlantic. Having grown up in Northern New York, having spent a week almost every summer on the coast of Maine, and having eaten lobster from Maine on almost every childhood birthday, I am more than fond of lobster — I am intimate with it. There is nothing like eating a freshly boiled lobster in a lobster pound on a lobster pier on Maine’s Mount Desert Island when you know that it just came off of the lobster boat tied up to the pier. You just don’t get much fresher than that, and lobster doesn’t taste any sweeter. And frankly, that is the way we like our seafood in Seattle — right off of the boat when we can get it. So the idea of eating lobster that has been shipped across the continent, especially when we can get local Dungeness crab, a similarly spectacular crustacean, holds little appeal to most of us here. Let’s just say this ain’t a good market for Red Lobster.
So the question is begged, why, for the love of Mike and all things holy, does one of Seattle’s premiere seafood restaurants, Waterfront Seafood Grill, spend the whole month of November every year celebrating what it calls “Lobsterpalooza”? The simple answer may be that the Mackay family has ties to a lobster boat in Maine, which they do. But still, a lobster party in Seattle?
Waterfront Seafood Grill, one of the Mackay family of restaurants that includes the famous El Gaucho steakhouses in Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, and now Bellevue, Sea Grill in Tacoma, and Troiani, the company’s Italian restaurant, in Seattle, is, for my money, the company’s most spectacular restaurant location and facility. Located on Pier 70 on Seattle’s waterfront (I bet you already have made the connection between the location and the name, haven’t you), Waterfront boasts sweeping views of Elliott Bay, Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. A diner at a window table can watch the ferries peacefully come and go as they eat, and in summer, diners can eat el fresco out on the end of the pier. The dining room is enormous and wide open. Full, it hums without being too noisy. A huge bar, which offers both spirits and shellfish, runs along the entire length of the dining room on the north side of the pier, and a cheesy, and almost disturbingly well versed bar piano man cranks out everything from show tunes to annoying Billy Joel songs (as opposed to his other song) to the Led Zeppelin classic, No Quarter, which on one visit absolutely forced me to request Free Bird, which he also knew. (Honestly, cheesy or not, this guy is entertaining, and Billy Joel or not, he will not ruin your meal.)
The long, narrow kitchen is open to the dining room, so patrons can see the action there if they desire, and the dining room is also decked out (sorry) with seafood appropriate, and tasteful, sculptures and artwork, as well as some of the coolest pinecone looking shades over the hanging lamps. And like every Mackay restaurant, you can get a dish set on fire at tableside — a true Beavis and Butthead moment at a swanky and un-cheap destination restaurant. But I recommend saving your personal fire experiences for El Gaucho, which offers lamb on a sword or bananas Foster, to Waterfront’s flaming options, as theirs are desserts — desserts that are more show than treat. Instead, enjoy the spectacle at someone else’s table. We got to see it four times on our most recent visit the night before Thanksgiving, and the place was pretty quiet. And, of course, like every Mackay restaurant, service is exquisite.
But let’s get back to this lobster business. Honestly, as far as I am concerned, there are not many folks around the Northwest that have the slightest clue what to do with lobster, and that is just as well, as eating it here begets one heck of a large carbon footprint. That said, if you’re gonna serve it, you’d best know your way around it as well as Waterfront’s Executive Chef Peter Levine. Levine apparently spent enough of his youth in Maine to develop a profound respect for these succulent crustaceans. He understands rule number one is that lobster is the star of whatever dishes it is part, it should not have its delicate, sweet flavor overpowered by other ingredients, and it should not be overcooked. He also understands how to keep dishes simple. The result is that the Lobsterpalooza 2008 menu was stocked to the gills (again, sorry) with one home run dish after another.
Levine’s lobster roll ($15) was gutsy given the sacred status of this dish in Maine. While most people may think everyone eats lobster right out of the freshly steamed shell in Maine, the truth is they more often eat it in a roll. Even McDonalds serves lobster rolls there. They have developed their very own roll for them — a variation of a hot dog roll with the slit on top instead of on the side. And even though Levine did gussy this one up a bit (he added, eek, lettuce, and he used both butter and mayo), it was still nothing short of wonderful, sweeping my heart back to Kennebunkport, where I mooned the Bush compound after a roll at The Clam Shack. (Just to be clear, Maine purists eat their rolls with just lobster meat and either mayo or butter.) And don’t let the price shock you too much. They actually cost that much in Maine, too.
As for the Lobster BLT Salad ($18), lobster and bacon is, quite simply, a heavenly combination — the light sweetness of the lobster contrasted against the smoky saltiness of the bacon. Arugula in place of lettuce paired with roasted tomatoes provide a perfect balance to this salad, and Levine wisely went light on the dressing — basil aioli — instead of clobbering it over the head with something like gorgonzola, which I have unfortunately experienced before. Again, simple, with flavors that celebrated the lobster instead of domineering it.
Like Levine, I have done time in Boston. In fact, I spend more time there than any other place I have never lived. One of the great dishes of North Boston, which is home to Boston’s Italian community — and Paul Revere, sometime long before the Italians moved in — is lobster ravioli. Lucky for us, Levine brought it with him. Lobsterpalooza’s Lobster Ravioli ($28) was to me good old comfort food. These tasty pasta pillows of lobstery goodness were dressed in a light butter sauce seasoned with saffron, shallots and basil and adorned with crayfish tails and sweet peas. While not the star of the show, it was mighty satisfying.
Grilled Red Snapper ($38) might beg the question, “what is this doing on the Lobsterpalooza menu,” until, that is, the plate lands in front of you. First off, it really was red snapper, something not easy to come by around here, where we commonly call rockfish “red snapper.” It is not. Red snapper is an Atlantic fish, once the king of fish in Florida before it got all but wiped out by over fishing some 30 years ago. It is making a comeback now, and thus it is somewhat available, though, like the lobster itself, it does come with quite a carbon footprint. Still, red snapper — real red snapper — is a delicately delicious fish that takes as well to aromatic Cuban seasonings as it does to, well, Levine’s treatment of it during Lobsterpalooza. Like lobster, it’s flavor demands center stage, lest it be crushed under the strength of other overbearing flavors. Here, it was simply grilled, and perfectly cooked, then laid over a stew of lobster, bacon and porcini. It was both beautiful and wonderful, and it carried my heart back to Key West, where local fishing boats catch it and its cousin, yellow snapper, for local restaurants that serve it up simple and fresh.
I might have praised the divinity of that snapper, had we not had set in front of us a plate of Roasted Lobster Tails ($69) as well. This dish was the true showstopper. These perfectly cooked lobster tails arrived atop a bed of a water chestnut, bacon and scallion relish and drizzled with miso lemon butter. Again, Levine balanced all these flavors perfectly to accent, not bury, the sweet, beautiful flavor of the lobster. And if you are like me, you think of a roasted lobster tail as an overcooked, rubbery thing doused in over-browned butter and lemon. Fear not. This dish will restore your faith. The tail meat was still almost translucent, cooked just enough, and not a smidgen too much. I worry I sound like I’m having an affair with Levine or on the take from Waterfront when I gush this profusely about a dish, but this one was indeed divine, and my companion and I found ourselves saying “amen” with every bite. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, but if you have that kind of money to blow on dinner, why not blow it on a dish that will have you saying “amen”?
Okay, I need to come clean with a full discloser here. I got to enjoy Lobsterpalooza courtesy of Waterfront Seafood Grill as part of a complimentary media dinner. That said, I still speak from my heart here. I have received free media meals and not written about them. I have no vested interest here, save eating good food and telling my friends about it.
Some more housekeeping. Obviously if Lobsterpalooza is a November spectacle, you should not expect to find any of these items on the regular menu outside of that month. I don’t think the Mackay folks expected immediate press gratification from this freebie. But they got my attention. I have been a fan of Chef Peter Levine before now, but this media meal really showcased him at his best, and that is the point. Go to Waterfront for its reliable menu standards, expertly prepared by Levine and his crew. Better yet, turn that menu over and check out what Levine has concocted special for that month. It is these special menus that allow Levine’s culinary artistry and skill to truly shine.