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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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April 16, 2008 2:25 PM

One Pot, lots of coffee people, Eritrean food and a couple of new restaurants

Posted by Nancy Leson

The invite came from the folks at Caffe Vita. Yeah, yeah, I know: I've mentioned them twice in recent posts. But what I've never mentioned before -- via print or post -- is One Pot, the communal dining experience and the guy behind it, Michael Hebberoy. I will not bother going into the dirty details of Hebberoy's life (it's already been done here, and here and here).

But I will tell you this: the guy's now associated with Caffe Vita, taking his One Pot overseas. He's traveled with the Vita guys to Guatamala, Brazil and most recently Ethiopia and brought back what he's found, politically speaking (cut the snark!), sharing his insights at One Pot events here in Seattle.

How could I say no to an invitation to dinner with the "famous" young un-restaurateur plus a close-up look at Vita's Capitol Hill roasting plant and warehouse? I couldn't. So, last night I joined about 70 invited guests, mostly Caffe Vita wholesale customers, to see what all the yakking's about.

When I first walked into the warehouse, stacked around the perimeter with bags of raw coffee beans, people were milling around, chatting eachother up, drinking Ethiopian beer and honey wine. I made my way out back onto the loading dock, where the cook from Hidmo-- a Seattle restaurant specializing in Eritrean cuisine -- was cooking lamb in one pot.


Then I went back in, realized I didn't know a soul, and decided to talk to these guys, below, because they looked nice:



Sometimes it pays to talk to strangers, because besides looking like nice guys, they also gave me some news I can use: They've leased the old 1200 Bistro space and plan to re-open it as Pike's Bar & Grill sometime in June. That's Mike Johnstone on the left and Charlie Harris on the right. Charlie's a cook, Mike's a software guy, and they've been planning to open a neighborhood restaurant for several years. After looking at lots of possible venues (they live in Burien), they leased the former 1200 Bistro, which has seen its ups and downs since it was sold last year.

Mike and Charlie are very excited about being on Capitol Hill, in part because it has such a vibrant gay community and in part because they're convinced tout le Hill will want to come for brunch and check out their amazing French toast (Charlie's been perfecting his recipe for a year). And then they asked me if I wanted to see their card. Like a dope, I thought they meant their business card. But instead they proudly pulled out their brand-spanking-new domestic partnership card. Loved that!

After a while, everyone was invited upstairs for a "cupping" -- to sample some of the farm-direct coffees from Ethiopia. Usually, cuppings are held weekly as an educational tool for Vita's 70 employees. But this one gave restaurant clients and wholesale coffee buying customers an opportunity to taste new coffees they may soon be selling. There were folks here from (among others), All City Coffee, Downtown Cups and the Rocket Bakery in Spokane. A fellow name Mason Sager showed us how it was done.

I had several photos of people sipping coffee from spoons, but my hand was so shaky (I'd been subsisting on coffee all day, having flown in earlier from a trip to California) the shots are too blurry to post.

After that, we had a chance to see Keith Jaeger (who's been roasting coffee here for nine years) run the big roaster adjacent Vita's flagship cafe:



He said it takes about 15 minutes to roast 80 pounds of Ethiopian beans: Here's the raw material:



Eventually, we all sat down at long candlelit tables set up in the warehouse:



Here we watched a slide-show of the trip to Ethiopia, "the birthplace of coffee," photographed and narrated by Brian Wells, owner of Tougo Coffee in the Central District. He was clearly wowed by what he saw there, and I was impressed with the exquisite beauty of the people he photographed -- many of them young women who sorted coffee by hand, and children who transported sacks of coffee to and fro.

Afterward, Hebberoy discussed One Pot, his association with Vita, the history and politics behind coffee farming in the countries he's visited, and his status as an amateur when it comes to coffee (he cedes that expertise to Mike McConnell and the Vita crew). He made a point of saying that, despite what Brian had shown us, Vita never buys beans from growers who hire child laborers.

Then Hebberoy introduced us to Rahwah Habte, owner of Hidmo, who talked about life on the chaotic border between Eritrea and Ethiopia and her family's immigration to Seattle in 1985. She charmed us with a story about how, after moving here, her mother served all the kids American cereal: in one big shareable bowl.



Then she discussed dinner, explaining how we'd be dining family-style from platters of meat (lamb and chicken), vegetables and lentils, tearing off pieces of spongy injera (the pancake-like bread made from Ethiopia's staple-grain, teff), used to scoop up our food in lieu of utensils. She brought 25 serving trays with her. Here's what we ate (Delicious!):



But first we had to wash our hands. Hebberoy assisted:



The One Pot experience is about eating as a community, something we don't do much of compared to other countries, if you don't count Thankgiving and Passover seders, says Hebberoy. (And notwithstanding those community tables at restaurants all over Seattle, says me.)

Well, we certainly ate communally last night, where I enjoyed meeting (and sharing food with) the strangers seated near me, including Rod Neldam, owner of Wedgwood's Grateful Bread and The Grange Cafe in Duvall. And Karen Laurie, who owns Cafe Lulu, near Greenlake. Here she is, seated across from Kent Bakke, who sells coffee equipment and single-origin African chocolate and cacao, and who I haven't seen in about 14 years (he used to take care of our espresso machine when I worked at Saleh al Lago):



After dinner, I had some hand-roasted Ethiopian coffee, made by Radwah's sister, who's a program director at U-Dub, seen here in traditional dress ceremonially making coffee:



And then I had a chance to chat with Hebberoy (who's as charming as everyone who says he's charming says he is), because I'd heard he was opening a fish joint in the little space between Moe Bar and Neumo's -- formerly home to the dearly departed Belgian fries-shop, Frites.

Hebberoy is consulting on this project, the soon-to-open Pike Street Fish Fry, in partnership with Mike McConnell and Jerry Everard. Like Frites, it will cater to the late-night bar-scene crowd with stand-up counters, though you can get the full menu at Moe Bar. The specialty is not "fish 'n chips" as we know it, he said, but a changing array of seasonal seafood (including halibut, skate, oysters, Spanish mackerel etc.) served with a variety of house-made sauces like preserved-lemon aioli. Hebberoy says the food will "be good for the drunk kid, and fine for the foodie" and that Monica Dimas, who's cooked at Campagne and Le Pichet, will run the kitchen. Here's the shop (there were some canning jars set up along the kitchen counter) photographed late last night after I left One Pot. Coffee-fueled, well-fed and educated about the politics of Ethiopian coffee and a couple of new restaurants, I was exhausted. Time to go home and try to get some sleep!

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