Dining in Seattle is surprising, especially if you come from a city such as Los Angeles or New York. Prices are reasonable, waiters are friendly, menus unpretentious and the food superb.
Perhaps the best place to experience the culinary bounty that feeds Seattle is the bustling, eclectic Pike Place Public Market downtown.
"Although lots of visitors come here, it's not a tourist trap," says Seattle resident R. Danner Graves. "A lot of local people still do their daily grocery shopping here. The produce is good, the prices are reasonable. It's a real farmer's market.
"When we moved to Seattle from the Midwest 15 years ago, one of the reasons was the food and produce. It's fantastic here."
Less than 10 years ago a group of preservation-minded citizens saved this landmark overlooking Puget Sound from demolition. Today it's busier than ever, with blocks of stalls displaying the bounty of the Pacific Northwest--cherries, tiny summer strawberries, apples, iced bins of king crab and fresh salmon. Even the "high stalls" have good produce, but the "low stalls" are the real farmer's stalls, where fruits and vegetables come fresh from the soil.
It's no wonder that amid this array of fine ingredients, some excellent restaurants have sprung up in and around the Pike Place Market.
"I moved here 10 years ago," says Peter Cipras, owner and chef of Labuznik, a Czechoslavakian restaurant on 1st Avenue just above the market. "I thought it would be a good location because of the foot traffic, but it's also nice to be near the market. They have wonderful fresh berries and vine-ripened tomatoes."
Dinner at Labuznik is worth a trip. A simple facade and a casual cafe in the front give way to a quiet, elegant dining room in the rear. Velvet-covered walls, billowing silk banners overhead and subdued lighting come as a pleasant surprise.
The food has overtones of Czech preparations, but there are differences. We ate a rich cream soup with ground veal, Bohemian roast duck with cabbage and dumplings, and a huge veal chop with a covering of fresh basil and melted mozzarella cheese.
Salads were a mixture of greens, red cabbage and feta cheese. A side dish of spinach with a cream sauce had a peppery hotness and simple sliced carrots revealed a naturally sweet freshness not often found.
The preparation and flavors were near perfect, but not until we had dessert did we realize the real potential of the restaurant. We are of the opinion that any meal is only a prelude to dessert, and although the dinner entrees were lovely, desserts were ethereal.
A rich cheesecake came with fresh blueberries and thick cream, and a frozen chocolate mousse torte revealed just how good this overworked dessert can be in the hands of a master.
Everything was fresh; the mousse was frozen just enough to hold its shape between the layers of chocolate cake. It was served with a huge dollop of whipped cream, fresh raspberries and then drizzled with bitter chocolate. Cipras' wife, Susan, makes all the desserts.
"We can get any type of fresh produce here and it is all excellent," Cipras told us over coffee. "In season we use 40 pounds of fresh morels a week, the berries are better here than anywhere else in the country and the fish are unbelievable. My mushroom man even found us some porcini mushrooms last year. We ate most of them before we could put them on the menu. Seattle is heaven for a chef."
Dinners at Labuznik should run about $20 per person, including entree, soup or salad and dessert. Pastas and lighter dishes in the cafe are about half that.
Several other restaurants in and around Pike Place are worth a visit. At the north end of the market, Cafe Sport is a real surprise. It is casual yet sylish, and the menu changes daily, governed by the seasons and ingredients.
Chef Tom Douglas has created a menu that offers such items as black bean soup with salsa and sour cream ($2.95), fresh steamed clams or mussels in ginger butter ($5.50), salmon salad Nicoise ($6.95), charcoal-grilled chicken breast sandwich with freshly made basil mayonnaise ($5.95), fresh Dungeness crab cakes with fresh vegetable ($9.95) and fettuccine with chicken, capers, olives and hot red peppers ($7.25).
Average prices for dinner are $10 to $15. The desserts are special and include a marzipan cake with strawberry sauce ($3.25).
Across from the main entrance to the market and up three flights of stairs, Chez Shea offers elegant cuisine with fixed-price dinners around $25. There is a view of Puget Sound from the windows and it is a lovely, cozy spot.
In the courtyard of the Inn at the Market, an elegant small hotel, the Dalmacija Restoran serves lunch and dinner in a light airy room with wood floors and crisp linen on the simple tables. Food is important here, and the menu reflects the Seattle regional style with some European influences.