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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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June 24, 2008 8:20 AM

What I did on my not-quite-summer vacation, Part One: NYC

Posted by Nancy Leson

I had a "blogmare" on the last night of my not-quite-summer vacation, involving a broken camera and a deadline. Apparently, once you've got a blog, especially one that comes with a steady paycheck and paid vacation -- as I so fortunately do -- everything and anything becomes "material": even that vacation. Which started on June 6th when I flew out of cold, dreary Sea-Tac at o'dark-thirty, arriving in NYC where the thermometer was inching toward 100-degrees.

Landing at JFK, I grabbed an un-airconditioned cab before arriving at the Empire Hotel, sorely in need of a shower and a cocktail so that I'd feel refreshed in time to make an 8 p.m. dinner reservation at Anthos -- the modern Greek place vying for "Best New Restaurant" at the 2008 James Beard Awards. Those awards, not incidentally, were set to be held across the street from the Empire at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, where, two nights hence, I chronicled Seattle's wins (and losses) from the comfort of . . . "Live, From New York! It's Nancy Leson's New Office!":

About that hotel room: Upon opening the door to the first room I was given, I immediately noticed that it stank of mildew and I called to ask for another. (Before you say, "Everyone's a critic!" know that the carpet was soaking wet thanks to a drippy air-conditioning unit: my socks were soaked!). Once moved, showered and refreshed, I retired to the lounge in the Empire Hotel where I showed my age by quietly singing Joni Mitchell's "Raised on Robbery" ("He was sitting in the lounge of the Empire Hotel, he was drinking for diversion, he was thinking for himself. . ."). There, I was quietly appalled to see the tattoo on the nape of the pretty young bartender's neck, which bore the less-than-welcoming sentiment, "#$@! you" -- spelled out by her tattoo artist.

I'm certain that Joni Mitchell -- profiled in "Girls Like Us," one of the many books I read while on vacation -- would have had great fun writing a lyric for that jaw-dropping body art. And if I were to write my own version of her song, I'd find a way to "out" the Empire's bartenders for putting something other than cachaca in their caipirinhas, a regular occurance I overheard them discussing within obvious earshot since, apparently, they pegged me for a suburban housefrau from Red Bank, who wouldn't know her Hendrick's from her schmendricks.

Then off I went to dinner, where I was joined by my friend Providence Cicero. There, our absolutely wonderful waiter, seen below serving dessert with his vivacious vogueing table-attendant, burst into a version of "Younger Than Springtime" while charming another group of guests seated nearby (Bartlett Sher! Bring this guy to Seattle!):

We were soon pegged as food fanatics when he wondered aloud whether we were "James Beard people." What made him think so? He explained: We were among the very few customers who knew that a "ramp" -- among the ingredients in our fabulous $65 prix-fixe tasting menu -- wasn't an ADA-approved part of the lovely new restaurant's construction. And also because we were overjoyed at the prospect of a meal that started with raw meze and moved on to soft-shell crab, smoked octopus and grilled rabbit. Here are a few photos of other courses from that dinner (they offer two choices for each prix-fixe course, and we shared): Greek risotto, roasted black bass, glorious little veggies in a Staub pot:

Unfortunately, Anthos did not win the award for "Best New Restaurant" -- but it's highly recommend nonetheless, should you find yourself in NYC. We were so full after dinner, we thought we'd take a bike ride, just to get a little exercise:

On Saturday, I tooled around the Upper West Side, window-shopping mostly. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this place:

I mean, cheese and antiques? It was my dream come true: a store that sold ripe cheeses and fabulously funky old kitchen equipment. (I very much wanted an antique bread board, but I was already spending a bundle, and vacation had just begun). Then, I found another place that, like Maya Schaper Cheese & Antiques, had my name written all over it:

Rather than fight the crowds for a smoked fish platter at Barney Greengrass for lunch, as I'm wont to do on a Saturday in NYC, and because it was so darned hot, I kept my eyes open for a sushi bar and found a little slip of a place called Raku It's Japanese II. Check out this lunchtime sushi-for-two special, which cost something in the vicinity of $30:

Eventually, I made it back to the hotel, hoping to rest for a couple of hours till dinner.
Staying at the Empire certainly had its fun moments. Because it was the hotel-of-choice for Beard attendees, you never knew who you were going to run into. Saturday was a veritable whirlwind of activity, and before I could get through the front door, I ran into this young miss, name of Loretta (though you can call her "Etta"), turning some heads as see-food on her visit to the Big Apple.

It seems like only yesterday when Loretta was a tiny tot whose favorite dish, "My Kid's Oodles of Noodles," made its debut on her parents menu at the original Dahlia Lounge. She just graduated from high school, and was having entirely too much fun in NYC where her dad, what's-his-name, was spotted on the street, exhausted, having just returned from a trip to (as he joshed) "the Big & Tall Shop":

Throughout the weekend, every time I got within 10 feet of the hotel lobby, I seemed to run into someone from the Great Northwest. Including "Best New Chef"-nominee Gabriel Rucker, owner of Portland's Le Pigeon -- perhaps the most exciting restaurant I've eaten at this year:

And here's Cathy Whims from Nostrana, arriving with some Oregon-grown perishables she'd be serving at the gala awards reception:

Cathy was one of several Oregon chefs invited to cook for the Sunday-night apres-awards crowd, representing "Artisanal America," the gala's theme this year. Missing in action from that list were any Seattle chefs (huh? what's up with that?), but partiers did get to taste the wares of Greg Higgins (of Higgins), Stepanie Pearl Kimmel (Marche) and Marco Shaw (Fife).

And look who else was hanging at the Empire: Jean Nakayama, owner of Seattle's 103-year-old Maneki, whose International District restaurant was being feted -- in film and on stage -- as one of Beard's "America's Classics."

I'd been keeping an eye out for Jean since I arrived, and when I asked her what she'd been up to, she told me she'd eaten at a Japanese joint where she paid $25 for a bowl of soba noodles with a side of tempura -- which would have cost $7.95 at Maneki. "Even the Japanese tourists were complaining!" She also regaled me with a tale of her run-through at Avery Fisher Hall. "Gosh!" she said, clearly awed by the rehearsal. "The big gold screen they do the video on -- it's huge! My face is going to be plastered up there!" She wasn't kidding, either, as you can see from my photos below, taken during the Maneki "America's Classics" presentation at the awards ceremony Sunday night:

And yes, that's "Sex and the City's" Kim Cattrall with Bobby Flay, on the stage with our girl Jean who told the crowd of culinary luminaries she hoped Maneki would stay open "another 100 years." And here she is in the reception hall, minutes before accepting the award. She looks pretty calm, doesn't she? I'd pay big money to see her wearing that dress when she's keeping the crowds at bay in the reception area at Maneki on a busy Saturday night!

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Back to the "vacation" part of my vacation:

Because I had so much fun at Anthos, and because I didn't want to spend a fortune eating in New York (as I too often do), I thought I'd check out co-owner/chef Michael Psilakis's far less fancified Greek joint, Kefi. I had dinner there Saturday night with my cousin Dan, who, in the great New York tradition, is both an actor and a barista. And despite the fact that he's my mother's cousin's son, he looks like he could be my brother. Am I right or am I right:

Kefi (soon to move to larger quarters), offered terrific food and service as well as a darling little bar. What's more, dinner for three, with a multitude of dishes plus two bottles of wine and a tip, cost less than $150. Which, by New York or Seattle standards, was a steal considering how much we ate. Including these deliciousities -- stuffed cuttlefish and lamb chops:

Sunday was the "Big Day," and after having lunch with my cousin's kids (at home: their mom, Marie, laid out a very nice spread), I went back to the hotel to get ready for the awards show. And on my way to Lincoln Center in my black-tie finery, I ran into this vision in black, "Best Chef: Northwest" nominee Holly Smith:

The Beard Awards started with a bang. As I was standing on the red carpet along with this handsome fellow. . .

. . .a thunderclap rumbled and attendees hurried into the event hall to schmooze before the show. It was here that I found Best Chef nominee Jason Wilson of Crush, with his wife, Nicole:

And Ethan Stowell (Union, Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf) with his wife, Angela:

Here's Maria Hines of Tilth, with her friends Sue McCown (left) and Michi Suzuki (right):

And the gang from Canlis, brothers Mark (left) and Brian Canlis (second from right) with David Kim and Kellie Sholdt, nominated this year for the third time for Outstanding Service:

I was happy to see former Canlis wine director and master sommelier Rob Bigelow, now strutting his wine-savvy-stuff at the Belaggio in Las Vegas:

And the Beard Awards wouldn't be the Beard Awards without award-winning chef Thierry Rautureau, Rov(er)ing around in his famous hat:

Thierry could be heard in the auditorium, screaming "Tom Douglas!" when his radio-show buddy's name was called as one of the nation's Outstanding Restaurateurs:

And though Tom didn't win the award, he still left with a prize: his wife and business partner, Jackie Cross:

The big win for Seattle went to Holly, seen here on her way up to the stage to receive her medal from NY chef Tom Colicchio, before taking the mike to say kind words about her staff at Cafe Juanita:

Later, off stage, she looked relieved (and a wee bit lit -- but wouldn't you be?):

Three hours after the awards ceremony began, the winners had all been announced, folks were parched and starving, and I made a beeline for the hotel, to pound out some copy for and Monday morning's local section, missing (waaaaah!) much of the food-focused festivities. Before I left, though, I stopped by this table to say a quick hello to my friend Mourad Lahlou, whose Moroccan-accented fare at Aziza, in San Francisco, makes his restaurant a "San Francisco treat":

And as I was running for the stairs I ran into this famous gent, below. "Monsieur!" I said, asking him if I might shoot a photo. He said, "Non!" then handed my camera to one of his friends, insisting (bless his Gallic heart) we pose together:

By the time I returned, the party was winding down, the working chefs and awards attendees were trading "after-party" addresses, and, in search of sustenance I found some outrageously delicious "leftover" Puerto Rican roast pork, which tasted much better than it looks in this photo:

And then I went across the street to Bar Boulud, where Daniel Boulud was throwing a big party downstairs in celebration of "Rising Star Chef" Gavin Kaysen's win that night, and where Tom Douglas and his Seattle posse sat drinking wine, sharing desserts and catching the late-night breeze at several big sidewalk tables:

I sat down and felt right at home in the City That Doesn't Sleep, chatting with (prior) James Beard Award-winning chef, Eric "ET" Tanaka, who'd broken his arm playing basketball:

And with Tom Douglas Restaurant-managers Pam Leydon and Patty Jacklin (seen here with restaurant kingpin Drew Nieporent in the backgrond). Turns out Pam and Patty were staying in "my" stinky, wet-carpeted room. The very one I vacated on Friday. (Nice work, Empire Hotel! Next time I'm definitely staying at the Michelangelo!):

And if that wasn't "small world" enough, when I finally called it a night and made my way back to my room (one of 413 in the hotel), guess who'd been staying right-next-door all weekend? Jean Nakayama, with whom I shared a celebratory split of Veuve Clicquot procured from my mini-bar. I'd show you the photo of the two of us, celebrating Seattle's presence at the Beard Awards while dressed in our nighties, drinking Champagne out of tumblers at o'dark-thirty in NYC, but I failed to take it. And if I had one to show you, and I posted it here, it would probably be 100 years before Jean ever showed me to a table at Maneki again.

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Posted by CindyW

11:15 AM, Jun 24, 2008

Enjoyed reading this immensely. While you were gone, I realized just how much fun it is to read your blog every day. I'm glad you're back! :)

BTW, I'm taking a quick trip to Portland and then over to the Columbia Gorge this weekend (cousin's wedding and then some fun in wine country). I've sent the URLs of those Portland restaurants to my sister, and we're going to spoil ourselves with at least one night of grand food.

Posted by sailcocktail

2:34 PM, Jun 24, 2008

Wow, great storytelling. Thanks!
About the time you arrived in NYC, I was getting ready to see the M's take on Boston at Fenway (and one of their rare wins, no less!) You certainly went home to brutal weather. Highlight of our trip to Boston was having Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger prepare our dinner (the tasting menu, natch) and graciously serve us our amuse as well as insist on having one of his staff take a photo of the three of us together. Really sweet guy, and the food was marvelous.

Posted by Seattle Local Food

3:46 PM, Jun 24, 2008

I'm envious that you got to have smoked fish at Barney Greengrass! Sounds like a good trip.


Posted by Kairu

4:35 PM, Jun 24, 2008

Sounds like a fantastic trip! I'm really enjoying reading all the details (and seeing all the photographs) of your experience. I'm so glad you're back; I've really missed you.

Posted by TattoedBartender

12:27 PM, Jun 26, 2008

First, I’d like to say that I am the bartender with the tattoo that so appalled you, and I highly resent your suggestion that my tattoo implies I am unwelcoming to guests. Had you a valid complaint about my customer service skills, perhaps the correlation between the two may have been a reason for you to mention my tattoo. But since you were reviewing the hotel, and I see no mention of my service at all, I see no reason why my tattoo need even be considered for your story. As it was, I normally keep my tattoo covered with make-up, not because the hotel requires it, but because I think it is the professional thing to do in a workplace setting. What more than likely occurred is that you saw me before I had applied my cover-up. An unfortunate situation in this instance, since you jumped at the chance to gratuitously mention it, possibly to make your story seem more interesting than it really is; which says a lot more about you, than it could ever say about me.

As for the caiparinhas and what you overheard goes into them; I created the cocktail you are referring to (The strawberry caipirinha) and I created the drink with GIN and NOT cachaca, for a lighter, smoother cocktail.) And as per the original menu, which I also designed and printed, the gin that went into the cocktail was Plymouth gin and NOT Hendricks. Apparently you don’t know as much about gin as you’d like to think you do.

The hotels newly printed leather bound menus are out-sourced and the drink calls for cachaca due to a typo. When the new menus were typed up the person assumed that because the drink was a “caiparaina” that it would automatically contain cachaca. There was aslso a typo concerning our Pear Martini as well. So, It’s not that we are switching out the liquor, is that we are making the Strawberry caipirinhas and Pear Martinis as the cocktails were originally designed. So in the future when you are curious about what we are doing regarding our cocktails and their liquor, it might be better for you to stop eavesdropping, and ask us directly instead; we would be more than happy to lay all your misconceptions to rest.

Posted by stein

2:30 PM, Jun 26, 2008

When you have F*** You tatooed on your neck you need to learn to roll with the punches a little, don't you think?

Posted by shorefam

2:47 PM, Jun 26, 2008

Yep. And if you're going to call a drink a caipirinha, it's a little weird to get all huffy at people for expecting it to have cachaca. Especially, um, when your own menu says it does.

Posted by Devils Advocate

4:14 PM, Jun 26, 2008

I happen to think the bartender was right when she stated that since the reviewer was not reviewing her or her “service skills” that she should not have mentioned her or her tattoo in the article. It was a bit sensationlist on the reviewers part.

And I believe the reviewer implied wrongdoing on the bartenders part in the “switching of liquor” comment. And all the bartender did was clarify that the menu had a “typo” and she was making the drink using the original ingredients to the cocktail "she" had created. I wouldn’t be any more pleased than she if you not-so-subtly accused me of something like that.

Posted by stuey

8:40 AM, Jun 27, 2008

Why shouldn't the reviewer mention anything and everything she saw and experienced in a particular venue? To call her observation and reporting of a rather provocative tattoo on one of the barroom personnel sensational is unfair. What if the bartender had "said* the words tattooed on her neck and the reviewer reported it. Would that have been sensational. I think Nancy's observation of the tatto is completely legitimate.

Posted by Maureen Clancy

11:12 AM, Jun 27, 2008

No one tells a story quite like Nancy!

I, too, attended the marathon of eating, drinking and schmoozing that calls itself the James Beard Awards, and I assure you Nancy captured the TOTAL scene.

She also brightened up that scene with her own inimitable humor, wit and iconoclasm!

Posted by BrianW

9:26 PM, Jun 29, 2008

Fun reads! I have had ramps in West by Gawd Virginia before. A town there has a Ramp Festival and has now for 70 years. I haven't been but I'm told that it's a male-bonding kind of thing... the menfolk all cook up a mess o' ramps in big pots outside, eat 'em, and stink so bad that the womenfolk won't let them sleep inside again for several days.

Brian W
George School Class of 19x6 (Go Fighting Quakers!)

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