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Category Archives: Hot Spot restaurants and bars

When traveling to Spain try the Mussels in Valencia

Order Valencian Mussels and a glass of wine in one of the city’s oldest restaurants

When I walked into the dark, small corner bar I smelled wood. Old barrel wood that gave life to wines and vermouths. Once inside I sat on a high bar stood surrounded by wood barrels and took a deep breath. I’d been walking for a couple miles throughout Valencia, Spain, and had a hankering for mussels and a cold, crisp glass of white wine. So what better place to go than one of the oldest restaurants in Valencia, Casa Montaña, which opened in 1836.

Valencian mussels are available during the summer months. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Valencian mussels are available during the summer months. Photos by Christine Willmsen

As the waitress and even the menu described, these aren’t your average mussels and nothing like the typical mussels we find in the United States or in the Seattle area where blue or bay mussels, also known as Foolish mussels, are glued to rock beds.

Valencian mussels also known as clochinas are available only from May to August. When I opened the bowl, steamed poured out and small orange mussels appeared. The mussels were briny, fresh and dense, packing a flavor punch unlike their meatier sisters and brothers on the coast of California. I appreciated the fact that the dish was no frills. Just mussels in a bowl for about $5.50

That’s what some of the food in Spain is like – simple. While the country has a reputation of modern cuisine, with layers of flavor that often look like a masterfully painted plate, other restaurants and bars like Casa Montaña let the fresh food shine.

imageI sipped a glass of dry Albariño and nibbled on goat cheese with carmelized peppers ($2) and Txistorra red sausage ($2.50) for the finale of my lunch.

Casa Montaña is open most weekdays and Saturday from 1-4 p.m. and 8-11:30 p.m. I hope when you’re trekking through Spain you’ll think of this little bar as a place to stop at in Valencia.

Cheers

Christine

 

Harvard bound with new restaurants and recipes for you

The Solo Cook will cook and eat her way through Boston

I'll be walking by this statue of John Harvard every day.

I’ll be walking by this statue of John Harvard every day.

I have amazing news. I have been chosen for the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard. What that means is that I get to take a much needed mid-career break from the newsroom and embrace being a student again in Cambridge. With 23 other fellows from around the world, I will soak in all the information I can this upcoming academic year through classes at Harvard, MIT and Tufts as well as collaborate and bond with the other journalism fellows. I’m honored and grateful to be part of this prestigious program.

Most say it’s a life-changing experience. I welcome this adventure with my mind, body and spirit, knowing that time away from work as an investigative journalist will be transformative. I ask that you come along for the ride as I continue to write about recipes perfect for one, restaurants and bars that are hot spots and gardening tips.

Boston rivals Seattle with amazing sushi restaurants

Smoked sea urchin and quail egg with Osetra caviar

Smoked sea urchin and quail egg with Osetra caviar

After I interviewed for the Nieman Fellowship, I decided I needed to treat myself to an amazing dinner. I thought, hey I am in Boston for two days so why not enjoy a fantastic meal regardless of if I get the fellowship. I chose Uni, in the Back Bay neighborhood and located in the Eliot Hotel. Under the leadership of Ken Oringer, this small, pricey sushi restaurant takes bold, creative steps that play with your palate. Each of the courses had the freshest fish and unique presentation and ingredients.

These photos best explain the amazing experience I had at Uni, and I have no doubt I will visit again.

Cheers

Christine

Scallop, Candied Bacon, Maitake Mushrooms, Chinese Chives

Scallop, Candied Bacon, Maitake Mushrooms, Chinese Chives

Lubina (Bass, Spain) Green Charmoula, Sultanas, Preserved Lemon Gremolata

Lubina (Bass, Spain) Green Charmoula, Sultanas, Preserved Lemon Gremolata

Chef Tony Messina is the mastermind behind the combination of flavors

Chef Tony Messina is the mastermind behind the combination of flavors

Chef Tony Messina sears the foie gras for this spicy tuna dish.

Chef Tony Messina sears the foie gras for this spicy tuna dish.

Spicy Tuna & Foie Gras Tataki with Cranberry, Goat Cheese, Black Walnut

Spicy Tuna & Foie Gras Tataki with Cranberry, Goat Cheese, Black Walnut

Best Happy Hour Tacos and Margaritas In Seattle

El Borracho in Ballard Delivers $1 Tacos

Tacos at El Borracho are just a $1 each during happy hour. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Tacos at El Borracho are just a $1 each during happy hour. Photo by Christine Willmsen

When you need a break from a dreary work day, El Borracho Taqueria is the Hot Spot I recommend that is a great place to grab some cheat eats and drinks for a 4-7 p.m. happy hour Monday through Friday. With the design of the room and the large rectangular bar at 5465 Leary Way, it’s simple to spark up conversations with others sipping their margaritas.

It's easy to have a couple margaritas when they are only $4 each. Photo by Christine Willmsen

It’s easy to have a couple margaritas when they are only $4 each. Photo by Christine Willmsen

There is a vibrating energy in the room, with tables packed with people laughing and chatting. It’s easy to embrace its motto “El Take it Easy,” after ordering a homemade margarita aptly named El Cheapo for just $4.  But the crowd pleaser at El Borracho is the $1 taco. I recommend the cochinitas pibil tacos made of orange achiote pork with pickled red onion and the carnitas tacos, both packed with flavor. If you’re downtown, El Borracho has another Hot Spot, located at 1521 1st Ave., between Pike and Pine streets.

Cheers

Christine
El Borracho Taqueria y Cantina on Urbanspoon

Dinner at a San Francisco restaurant worth the hefty price

Benu – an Asian-influenced restaurant takes me on an 18-course food journey

Salmon with cherries and sour cabbage. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Salmon with cherries and sour cabbage. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Rarely am I speechless. Rarely can I find the words to describe food. But when I stepped into Benu, a restaurant that combined Asian flavors with European techniques, I immediately knew it was going to be a rare experience. After attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in San Francisco, I needed a food fix. Benu, located in a historic building in the SOMA district, only took reservations. But like most journalists I had to try to get in, and so I walked to the restaurant and asked if they had any cancellations.

Cooking staff at Benu create 18 course dinners. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cooking staff at Benu create 18 course dinners. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Keep in mind most places like this offer fine dining and a price fixe menu but they don’t cater to just one person. There is no bar or lounge and no solo seating. But the Benu manager said “let me see what I can do.” While I thought there was no way I was going to get into this coveted 3-star Michelin restaurant, the staff whispered back and forth for several minutes.

Soon, and to my surprise, I was whisked to a table, set for one in a dining room with dark wood and grey and black walls. Only a few simple art pieces hung on the walls ensuring there would be few distractions from the food experience. I bubbled with excitement not just because I got a seat at this restaurant, but because I was going to be there for hours. Yes – hours of pure indulgence, because what awaiting me was a theatrical performance of service and food presentation.

I wasn’t intimidated by the price – $195, but I had to pace my stomach. Why? Because 18 courses awaited my taste buds. Some of them were just bite-size explosions of flavor but others were substantial portions on the plate. Knowing the price tag, I savored every bite.

A night full of unexpected flavors colliding

Quail egg, potage, ginger for the first course. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Quail egg, potage, ginger for the first course. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I’ve been to several high-end restaurants with interesting combinations of flavors, but rarely have I had an experience like Benu, where I couldn’t find words to describe the food. After several courses I realized I was tasting food that this Midwest girl had never had before, so there was no frame of reference to convey flavors, ingredients and spices.

Luckily staff was there to assist in describing the ingredients and how they were prepared by Chef Corey Lee and his team. While each of the 18 courses was unique, there were several standouts that showcased the chef’s creativity and skill.

The night started with a thousand-year-old quail egg, potage with ginger that had an undescribable yet enjoyable flavor with a silky texture.

The beggar's purse of treasures from the oak combined earthy flavors. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak combined earthy flavors. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The surprising dish of the night was the “beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak,” a pouch of earthy juices and flavors that combined truffles, mushrooms, egg yolk and Iberico ham that melted on the tongue. They presented this on a glass disc that was flipped into different shapes as the courses progressed. Often times the food appeared to be floating above the plate.

 

 

Nestled in a fish boat, salmon roe, eggplant, buckwheat and perilla resembled an abstract painting more than another course. The buckwheat cracked with a crunch like cereal in my mouth.

A hearty helping of wild summer salmon with cherry and sour cabbage, reminded me a bit of the Northwest. The salmon was cooked perfectly to medium rare and the cabbage provided a contrasting texture.

The fragile lobster coral xiao long boa melted in my mouth. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The fragile lobster coral xiao long boa melted in my mouth. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The lobster coral xiao long bao was memorable with its feminine paper-thin pockets of pillowy liquid lobster broth disintegrated in my mouth instantly, with no need to chew.

And then there was what I like to call – lick the bowl moment – when I sipped the faux “shark fin soup,” with dungeness crab and Jinhua ham custard.

 

 

Faux shark fin soup with Jinhua ham was rich, silky and aromatic. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Faux shark fin soup with Jinhua ham was rich, silky and aromatic. Photo by Christine Willmsen

An unidentifiable smell hovering below my face, with the broth having numerous ingredients including chicken, garlic, ham, ginger and carrot. But the texture of the Jinhua ham had a remarkable, creamy texture that I’d not experienced. The server said they finely grade the ham from eastern China while it’s still frozen to create the texture. In the end out of courtesy for other guests, I refrained from licking the bowl.

 

 

Rely on Sommelier to choose your drinks

Chocolates hidden in wood boxes surprise the guests. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Chocolates hidden in wood boxes surprise guests. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I stayed away from adding the beverage pairing for an additional $150. Instead, I relied on the sommelier to choose just a couple of beverage pairings that would last the evening and hold up to multiple courses.

I started with a glass of Chablis for the first few courses, then a bone-dry Junmai sake with flavors of lychee and unripened Anjou pear. I completed the night with a Pinot Noir to match my salmon, roast quail and braised beef.

The night ended with a server opened and spun wooden boxes in different angles to offer hidden chocolate desserts.

Not once during the evening did I feel uncomfortable sitting at my table alone. I walked out of the restaurant with a dreamy smile and a bulging, satisfied stomach. The exploration of flavors was worth the price.

Cheers

Christine

Benu on Urbanspoon

For the best Caribbean sandwiches in Seattle, eat at Bongos

Adiós Paseo’s, Bongos Caribbean Cafe has a sandwich worthy of a cult following

Bongos offers sandwiches and Caribbean plates that are hefty and tangy. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Bongos offers sandwiches and Caribbean plates that are hefty and tangy. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Enough whining about Paseo’s. For me, Paseo’s was never a religious experience like so many others claimed when the doors abruptly closed. It’s time for you to move on to my favorite Hot Spot, a hidden spot that offers Caribbean sandwiches and plates that I think are BETTER than Paseo’s. Yes, I said it.

My critique of Paseo’s is that its sandwiches were too wet and messy, with the ingredients often sliding out of the bun and landing on the saturated paper before you caught them in your mouth. The problem – you couldn’t enjoy the combination of flavors with each bite. It just wasn’t worth the long wait that took up half of your lunch hour before you’d even placed an order. The media craze when Paseo’s closed was over the top with television coverage, numerous newspaper stories and blogs describing eaters coveted the restaurant and mourning its closure.

Even before Paseo’s closed in Fremont and Ballard neighborhoods about a month ago, I had found my favorite hot spot this summer called Bongos, at 6501 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle.

Bongos is a causal joint full of character and color. The restaurant is actually a food truck connected to a building right off Aurora Avenue, across from Green Lake. Step inside for a sandwich and be surrounded by bright colors or sit outside on patio chairs in the sand once summer returns.

I ordered the 1 a.m. sandwich, that costs $8, and plunged into the large saba roll with citrus braised pork, ham, swiss cheese, cucumbers, cilantro and stone mustard aioli. The sandwich is loaded with flavor, tender pork and the crunch of cucumber.

But if you want to order the total package, I recommend the BART, which is technically not on the menu. It’s a combination of the Desi and the 1 a.m. sandwiches. It’s named after Bart, a pastor who orders the combination of two sandwiches during his weekly visit to the restaurant. Each bite has a hefty amount of pork and ham with pickled jalapenos and banana peppers that are tamed by cucumbers and carmelized onions.
Quench your thirst with a bottle of pop, beer or cider and then let the owner tell you about his world travels.
I recommend maduros, ripened sweet black plantains, as a side if you have a large appetite. The staff is friendly and helpful.

Open for lunch and dinner everyday except Mondays.

Paseo’s is set to reopen soon with a new owner, but I say forget about it and embrace Bongos. Compare them and tell me your favorite.
Bongos on Urbanspoon

Cheers

Christine

 

Joule Restaurant offers modern Korean cuisine

The persimmon salad is full of surprises as a starter. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The persimmon salad with bitter green and sesame yogurt is full of surprises as a starter. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Joule Restaurant is Asian fusion at its best

Cold-smoked tofu with Asian mushrooms is a star on the menu. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cold-smoked tofu with Asian mushrooms is a star on the menu. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Don’t take my word for it – okay do – but just look at how packed Joule restaurant is every night and you’ll know why I keep coming back to this fantastic fusion restaurant that is my new Solo Hot Spot.

This unique restaurant shares space with The Whale Wins at 3506 Stone Way N., Seattle. As you walk through the front door the hallway literally separates the two chic restaurants. To the left you will find Joule encased with windows. The menu is diverse, with an emphasis on beef.

Top dishes to try

My favorite two dishes are the cold-smoked tofu made in-house and the duck pastrami with rice. The $9 tofu is silky, firm and smoky and the Hon-shimeji mushrooms add a nuttiness and earthiness to the soy vinaigrette.

Watch cooks by sitting at the chef counter. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Watch cooks by sitting at the chef counter. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The $14 duck pastrami satiates the tummy with fried rice and pickled currant. The Seattle Times’ review states the kalbi-marinated steak is a must-order.

Sally up to the chef counter, where there’s no reservations needed and is a perfect perch for a single person. Or if you are feeling social, try the communal table. The closer I am to seeing the food prepared and watching the talented chefs the happier I am as a diner at a restaurant. There’s something about watching chefs like owner Rachel Yang work their craft that totally relaxes me. In this case I’m mesmerized by this open kitchen because the staff executes each dish flawlessly and effortlessly. The team functions like a well-oiled machine, quietly humming as they cook dish after dish with ease.

Duck Pastrami with fried rice is decadent, comfort food. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Duck Pastrami with fried rice is decadent, comfort food. Photo by Christine Willmsen

At the counter you don’t feel alone and often you can spark up a conversation with the chefs or others sitting there. Yang and her husband Chef Seif Chirchi also own Revel restaurant, in the Fremont neighborhood and plan to open a third restaurant in Capitol Hill.

Cheers

Christine

Joule on Urbanspoon

A Great Sushi Happy Hour

Happy Hour Sushi for those on a budget

Large chunks of sashimi at Kozue restaurant make this the perfect quick dinner spot for one person. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Large chunks of sashimi at Kozue restaurant make this the perfect quick dinner spot for one person. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Kozue Japanese Restaurant is my new hot spot for singles to visit. This sushi restaurant not only has a great happy hour, but fresh fish at reasonable prices. Sometimes I just need my fix of sushi and want a place where I can grab sashimi, rolls and sake – and that’s why I love stopping in this little Wallingford restaurant, at 1608 N. 45th St., Seattle.

My go-to salad at this restaurant is the seaweed salad for $3.75. Photo by Christine Willmsen

My go-to salad at this restaurant is the seaweed salad for $3.75. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The Kozue happy hour, 5-9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-6:30 p.m. on Friday and 3-6:30 p.m. on Saturday includes sake and rolls for $3 each.

Nibbles like the spinach with salmon skin, spicy tofu and spring rolls are also just $3. Other items on the menu that I recommend include sake sashimi (salmon) and unagi (freshwater eel).

Don’t forget to order the Black cod’n Tofu, which is two Japanese-style kabobs with tofu and black cod or the Tuna Poki Salad with avocadoes, each just $5.50.

Thanks to my friend, Athima, I discovered this hot spot that I think you’ll want to try too.

Cheers

Christine

Kozue Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon