At a time when it seems our president is trying to make as many enemies as possible, it occurred to me that now is an excellent time to make more friends. I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone convince me that I should be afraid of anyone without a really good reason, and the color of their skin, their religion, who they love, or the fact that they are desperate for a better, or safer, life for themselves and their families is not a reason at all to fear someone, let alone a really good reason. Some of the most wonderful experiences of my life have happened because I have ignored someone else’s fears and decided to go to that place — to meet the people there anyway. From the south side of Chicago to the 69th Street Station in West Philly; from Rosedale, Mississippi to Central Kentucky; from the South Bronx to Macon, Georgia, I have had people tell me I should be afraid — that I shouldn’t go there — and I went anyway, only to enjoy some of the richest experiences of my life.
Now, our president wants me to fear anyone from six predominantly Muslim countries for no other reason than he says so, and, I guess, because these countries lack Trump hotels. He wants me to fear undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and he calls them rapists and murderers without foundation. He wants me to fear refuges fleeing their war-torn homelands in places like Syria, Somalia and Yemen because they are Muslim. He wants me to fear these people and more without a really good reason, while he wants me to trust him without a really good reason either. But I prefer to subscribe to the sound words of the man who pulled us out of the Great Depression, won WWII and invested in America’s infrastructure on a scale the likes of which we had never seen, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Not just a timeless quote, these words represent a way of thinking that is a polar opposite to what we see coming out of Washington, DC at present.
Instead of succumbing to fear of these people, then, why not embrace them? Why not befriend them? Why not reach out to them, like good neighbors, and share with them, learn from them, and enjoy them? What have we got to lose, but a few more enemies? And one of the best ways I’ve found to make friends over the years is to break bread with people. Few things are more powerful bridge building tools than food, and where there are immigrants, there are not only new foods to be tried, but also new friends to be made.
My friend and neighbor, Chef Tamara Murphy, had expressed a similar feeling in a New Year’s resolution in the Seattle Times at the beginning of this year in which she said she would like to “experience at least one new ethnic restaurant per month, and get to know the owners and learn more about their food.” So I reached out to her to see if she wanted to join me in exploring the immigrant communities in the Seattle area. Our first adventure was on Friday, February 24, 2017, to a restaurant in a Somali immigrant community in the city of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. This would serve as the genesis of my series here, called Making Neighborhoods, because after all, that is what are doing.
Executive Chef Peter Levine of Waterfront Seafood Grill, on Pier 70 in Seattle, is once again offering his annual March celebration of all things crabby with his 2010 Cult of the Crab menu. This year, he has chosen to focus on sustainable crab fisheries for his menu, including Northwest Pacific Coast Dungeness crab, Maine Peeky Toe crab, Maryland lump and soft shell Blue crab, and King crab from the Barents and Bering Seas and Japan’s Hokkaido Bay. “People don’t realize that seafood is one of the last hunted proteins on the planet,” said Executive Chef Peter Levine. “Through our sourcing, we can bring in wild seafood that has been sustainably harvested and guests get to experience all the rich flavor of a wild product.”
To showcase the 2010 Cult of the Crab menu, Chef Levine invited a bunch of us food writer types for a fun evening of hangin’ with our peers (on a pier, no less) and sampling five courses of his special crab menu — on the house, mind you, as a matter of full disclosure.
We started off with A Little Fancy Crab Louis, a lovely little salad that was at the same time both crabby and eggy, as it should be. Chef Levine always impresses me with his innate ability not to overpower delicate flavors like crab and lobster with other ingredients and sauces, and this dish is a classic example of that. Sure, the egg that is standard to a Louis stands out, but it does not get in the way of the star of the dish, the Dungeness crab. Indeed, all the elements of this dish get their fifteen minutes of fame without blocking the camera shot of the others.
The second offering of the evening turned out to be my favorite: Crab & Sweet Pea Panna Cotta, or as Chef Levine liked to call it, Peas & Carrots. In this dish, a sweet pea panna cotta (essentially the Italian form of flan, sans all those eggs the Spanish use) filled with Dungeness crab and topped with Peeky Toe crab is surrounded with a drizzle of spiced carrot broth and accented with fried taro root chips. Besides being drop-dead gorgeous, this dish presented a wonderful collection of balanced contrasting flavors. The bright sweetness of the peas in the panna cotta paired beautifully with the briny sweetness of the crab, and the smoothness of the panna cotta further balanced the delicate texture of the crab. The spiced carrot broth played off of the pea panna cotta like, well, peas and carrots. And the two taro chips simply added an extra little visual component that amusingly made the dish kind look like a rabbit’s face, which is fitting for peas and carrots, right?
The Dungeness “Banh Mi” Sandwich seemed to be the favorite of many of the other food writers around the table, as well as Chef Levine, though just to prove I am a free thinker, it was not mine. Dungeness crab, pickled daikon and carrots, head cheese, cilantro and jalapeno mayo wedged between a chewy banh mi roll comprise this dish. And while I like the idea of it, and I didn’t dislike it, I found that the wonderful flavor of the Dungeness crab, which is truly one of the greatest flavors on earth, was kinda lost amongst the other flavors here, in stark contrast to what I am used to from Chef Levine. I hate to pick on a dish my buddy actually favors, especially when he feeds me a lot, but hey, I promised you my honest opinions here in spite of the fact that my meal was bought for me by the place about which I am writing. And again, this dish by no means sucks. I just personally like to have the star ingredient be the star ingredient in all the dishes on this menu. Sue me.
Chef Levine knows I loves me some of his ravioli, and his Maryland Blue Crab Ravioli did not disappoint. Fish off, it is lovely, isn’t it? Shaved asparagus and butter braised leeks give it a freshness, while lemon-zest gives it a, well, zestiness. The crab within and atop the ravioli present their briny sweetness pleasantly amongst the buttery, peppery sauce and zesty, sweet accompaniments. Honestly, a serving of that panna cotta and this ravioli, and I would be a happy camper. (Lucky for me, I got all the other dishes, too!)
Our final dish of the evening was the Maryland Soft Shelled Crab. Served pan-fried over a salad of green beans, cucumber, almonds and shaved fennel, I found this dish to be a bit of a throw-back treat to my college days in the Mid-Atlantic. There is just something wonderfully primal about eating a crab in its entirety — legs, body, face and all — and you do that with a pan-fried soft shelled crab. Most people are probably used to getting crab this way in a spider roll at a sushi bar. Of course, those are not Maryland blues. They’re from who knows where, or how they’ve been harvested. But these Maryland beauties have a special sweetness to them, especially when they are shipped live, overnight, from the East Coast, like these suckers were, that you just don’t get from their frozen, over-harvested Pacific cousins. Mind you, I still had that feeling that this crab would be better between two slices of white bread with some mayo, like how we eat them in the Mid-Atlantic, but I did love this dish.
Ben Fleck is the resident lounge pianist at Waterfront Seafood Grill, and he adds to the stellar atmosphere of the place. Sure, Waterfront has great views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound, service that is unrivaled in Seattle, a beautiful, open dining room tastefully decorated, and stuff that gets set on fire at your table side, not to mention (though I’m going to anyway) a general manager, Chris Sparkman, who owns Sparkman Cellars in Woodinville that makes brilliant wines. But having Ben Fleck there cranking out tune after tune, from the 1920s to 2010, just puts a smile on my face every time I go there. And the piece de resistance for me was when I heard him first play No Quarter by Led Zeppelin. That elevated him to god status in my book.
Again, Chef Peter Levine is a buddy of mine, and he feeds me. But trust me, he feeds me well. Hey, you might not want to buy a used car from a guy with that disarming a smile, but let him cook for you any day.
We take our seafood seriously here in Seattle, including our fish and chips. Fortunately for us, so does Pike Street Fish Fry (925 E Pike Street, Seattle, (206) 329-PIKE). Indeed, these guys are so serious about their fish and chips that I found myself asking, after first experiencing their fare, if I had really ever had fish and chips before?
Pike Street uses batter some might liken to tempura, while others might recognize it as a more classic English style. What it is not is crumby, which tends to be a signature batter style here in the Northwest, and it is not panko-y — that flaky Japanese breading that sorta shatters all around you. Pike Street’s batter leaves its fish with a crisp, slightly (though not unpleasantly) shell that keeps the fish beautifully moist while serving as a vehicle for the salt and seasonings applied after the frying process. The result is a heavenly fish fry that leaves any of the various fish varieties from which one can choose as the star of the show.
Fish offerings on Pike Streets menu vary with the seasons. If you stumble in during our local sturgeon season, I highly recommend it. Sturgeon is an ancient fish with flavor-rich oily flesh that can live in both cold fresh and ocean waters. But it is only available for short periods each year. While it might be overpowering for some folks who like their fish mild-flavored, for those of us who like a fish with flavor that bites back, like black cod, king salmon, mackerel, etc., sturgeon is to die for, and given that I have not seen another fish fry using it makes it an even greater treat.
True cod is the standard fish for fish & chips here, and just about everywhere. It is a milder fish with a lot of moisture to its significant flesh that takes well to breading and seasoning, but freshness is paramount. There are those in Seattle who use their fryer to maximize their income on their retail fresh fish sales by selling it as fish & chips just before it “goes off.” That is not the case at Pike Street. Their true cod is wonderfully fresh, delighting your taste buds with its light, moist flavor contrasted against the crispy, seasoned batter and salty, crunchy pommes frites (um, those are fries, or chips, folks… and frankly, unless you operate a French, Belgian or Creole restaurant, please just call them fries. Enough with the frites already).
OnPike Street’s March 2010 menu, you will ling cod (not the same as true cod), coho salmon (which means it’s wild, as the bastards haven’t figured out how to farm-raise it yet), halibut (another Northwest fish fry mainstay), catfish (um, not local) and a few none fin fish options. They have also expanded their menu to include grilled items (for wusses who worry about the health effects of a good fish fry), sandwiches (made from anything on the fryer or grill menus), some veggie and vegan options, and a variety of sides that can be, well, slawed or battered and fried.
The highest-priced menu item weighs in at a mere $11, so consider this a “cheap eats” kinda place. Just beware of the fried slice of lemon that accompanies each fish & chips order. Even if you are a fan of lemon, it’ll curl your face inside out!