Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fresh in Ballard: GreenGo Food

[Note! GreenGo closed the end of August. Dylan, Heidi, and their son Cypress have packed up and moved to Mexico, where they'll run an organic farm. We'll miss them and their wonderful food but wish them luck on their new venture!] I’m passionate about good food but not so much fancy, fussy gourmet fare. Give me clean, honest, fresh ingredients produced by people who care about a quality product—artisans, really. All the better if the food is grown locally, without pesticides, in a sustainable manner that nourishes the land for future generations. Many upscale restaurants around Seattle and Portland now offer wonderful meals made with food from local producers. But where can you grab food like this on the run without overstretching the budget?

Just south of Market Street in downtown Ballard, a postage stamp-sized brick building sits alone next to a parking lot, dwarfed by sprouting condo developments. Formerly Patty Pan Grill, this spot recently reopened as GreenGo Food. (Don’t worry, Patty Pan is still at the farmers' markets.) Last week I notice a new sign on the building and walk in to see what’s up.

An attractive, wholesome-looking young couple is busy in the open kitchen behind the counter. “Welcome!” says Heidi, her rosy cheeks flushed as she looks up from tossing veggies on the open grill. A cute little boy asks me if I want to sign my name on the green post with a magic marker. (That’s Cypress, Heidi’s son.) Heidi and Dylan Stockman tell me they’ve been serving up savory food at a few farmers’ markets around Seattle and met while cooking at the late, great Union Bay CafĂ©.

“Our concept is sort of like a taco truck without wheels,” says Heidi. She mentions Skillet Street Food as an inspiration. Skillet Street’s trailer moves to a different neighborhood around Seattle throughout the week, with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, and local fare. "Our motto is fast food with a conscience." They've developed relationships with local producers and are committed to serving and supporting local agriculture.

My first take-out meal from GreenGo is their daily special—a lamb pho filled with slivered vegetables and rice noodles, served with a split side of coleslaw and herbed grilled potatoes. Dylan tells me the lamb comes from a small regional farm. While I wait, he serves up the fragrant pho in a compostable container while Heidi grills the sliced small potatoes and dishes up the crispy slaw. All for less than $8. When I get home and take my first spoonful of the pho, I’m astonished at how complex and excellent the rich broth tastes. Really. It’s sweet and spicy, with hints of lemongrass and fresh lamb. My meal is healthful, inexpensive, and very satisfying.

Last night I swung by GreenGo and had the daily sandwich special – a grilled turkey breast sandwich served on artisan Tallgrass Bakery bread, with Greenbank Farms sharp white cheddar, caramelized red onions, and sliced dill pickle and a side of vinaigrette-laced coleslaw. When I tell Heidi I’m watching my saturated fat intake, she obliges and switches to olive oil instead of butter on my bread for grilling. “Want some tea while you’re waiting?” offers Dylan. He pours me a small cup of Enumclaw oolong. Yes, tea grown in Enumclaw by Rockridge Orchards, just 40 miles or so south of Seattle in the Cascade foothills. Spiked with honey and fresh lime juice, the tea is marvelous. I’m bummed to hear they’re almost out of this season’s supply.

Of course the warm sandwich is great. I’m not sure exactly what else is added to the onions, but their savory sweetness perfectly balances with the sharp cheese. And I’m intrigued by the curl of the crispy green cabbage slaw. How do they do that? Another good meal, again less than $10. Actually it was less than $7 but I threw in a decent tip.

Yea, it’s a tough time to start a business, but with such good food for such reasonable prices, I think GreenGo Food is the perfect recipe for a recession-proof business. Head on over to Ballard if you live in Seattle, or make a special trip there if you’re just visiting. You can take your meal to go, or sit at GreenGo Food’s cozy counter and chow down. When it warms up, enjoy your fare at one of their sidewalk tables. And hey, if you try their cheeseburger made from Skagit River Ranch beef, post your review as a comment below! (I haven’t tried it yet.)

When You Go
Here's a link to their menu. GreenGo Food is open 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. so you can grab dinner on your way home from work.GreenGo Foods on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Seattle Teahouses: Zen Dog Studio—Serenity and Superb Tea

For the past few years every time I drive past the Zen Dog Studio gallery and teahouse in northwest Seattle, I tell myself I should stop and check it out. One afternoon recently, while feeling especially stressed out by an insanely busy work schedule, I finally decide to pull over and go have tea.

I’m so glad I did.

What I thought would be a quick 10-minute stop turned into 90 minutes of great tea and relaxing conversation.

This is not a teahouse where you park with your laptop, poaching free wifi while sipping tea at a corner table. Instead it’s a Cantonese-style gong fu tea tasting experience shared with the proprietor.

I walk up the steps of this charming craftsman home, pass through a bamboo portal, open the wrought-iron gate, and ring the doorbell. After a minute or so a calm, friendly gray-haired man with a fuzzy flowing beard welcomes me. “Hello! Please come in!” he exclaims. Larry Murphy is a retired architect and now nature photographer who has converted his home into a photography studio-art gallery-frame shop-teahouse. He leads me up a narrow back stairway into the warm, wood-paneled upper studio.

Instantly I feel a serene sense of light and space. Water trickles gently from a stone fountain next to a healthy green bamboo plant. Larry shows me some of his stunning naturescape photographs. Lovely long scrolls of Chinese characters hang on the walls beside the photos, inscribed with passages from the Tao de Ching.

Larry invites me to sit in a corner alcove with a view north to Puget Sound and join him for tea. He sits behind a varnished gnarled wood bench (his "alter to the tea"), and I grab a matching stool in front. Larry suggests we start with a fine silver needle white tea.

While talking about his travels in China, Larry pulls out a bag of tea from the shelf, pours some loose leaves into a lidded teacup (a gaiwan), and starts heating a pot of water on a small burner. Next he sets out two very small handle-less teacups on a wooden tray and pours the almost boiling water into the gaiwan. “I’m offering the first taste to the Buddha,” says Larry as he pours the tea out over a small ceramic Buddha on the tray.

After brewing more tea in the gaiwan and letting it steep for a moment, Larry pours some into the tiny cups. “Do you like this tea?” he asks. The light, crisp tea is smooth and soothing. We talk until we finish the first pot. Larry’s an interesting guy and attentive host. I keep on making noises about having to leave and go work, but he gently urges me “Oh, you must stay and try more tea, relax.” I learn he’s well-connected in the local community of Chinese tea proprietors and artists. I also learn he helped a young boy in China get treatment for leukemia.

Next we try a couple Chinese red teas, including Bi Luo Chun Hong, a complex, winey, and slightly sweet tea that’s only harvested once a year.

Gong fu is a ritual style of serving tea. It’s about being mindful of the process” Larry tells me. He shows me some little clay Yixing teapots that are traditionally used for gong fu-style tea. “Some say that over the years the pots become so seasoned that you don’t even need to add the tea leaves to brew a cup!” he says, “And you always have a different pot for each kind of tea.”

My heavy sighs of stress gradually diminish by the third pot of tea. I’m almost afraid to buy some to take home, thinking it can’t possibly taste as good without this Buddha man mindfully serving me in his tranquil, well-lit studio. I finally leave after buying one of Larry’s beautiful photos—a waterfall in China—which I’ve placed on my desk as a reminder to relax, breathe deep, and enjoy fine Chinese tea.

When You Go
Zen Dog Studio is on Northwest 85th Street between 24th Avenue Northwest and 15th Avenue North at the northern edge of Ballard in Seattle. Look for the red sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of the house, and park in front on the street. Don’t give up if the front gate looks closed and no one answers the door instantly. Just ring the doorbell and wait a minute. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Portland Overnight: A Quick Weekend in the City

Anytime of year Portland is a fun city, so don’t put off your weekend in town just because it’s winter. Too many months have passed since my last trip to Portland, so last weekend I dash down for an overnight. What can you do during a quick overnight trip? Plenty.

Saturday Morning
I-5 is smooth sailing when I leave Seattle at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday. I know it sounds brutal to some of you, but a morning drive is much faster than the Friday evening “slog” from Seattle to Portland along the I-5 corridor.

I’m meeting some girlfriends for breakfast at Mother’s Bar & Bistro in Old Town in downtown Portland. On a weekend morning, the line for a table can wind halfway down the block. Since I’m late and my friends are already seated, I scoot right in past the clumps of people waiting in the entrance area. With a name like Mother’s, think comfort food. And big portions. “You’ve got to taste this!” says Karen, pushing her plate in my direction. My huge bowl of oatmeal is okay, but Karen’s French toast dipped in corn flakes is what I wish I’d ordered. Sounds odd but it works—sweet, soft, yet crunchy. Becky’s frittata is cheesy and perfectly cooked. I don’t taste Kathy’s eggs Benedict, but I notice she cleans her plate.

Saturday Afternoon
Next I head to Troutdale, gateway to the Columbia River Gorge, to visit my mom. When I step out of the car, a gust of East Wind hits me. As much as I hated how the wind chapped my hands and legs walking home from school, I’m happy to feel its clarifying chill again.

Troutdale got a facelift about a dozen years ago, and now the main (and only) street through downtown has some stop-worthy shops. I duck into Troutdale General Store to grab a sandwich. The General Store serves up old-fashioned scoops of ice cream, good sandwiches, all the candy you’d care to eat and more. I even find a birthday gift for my nephew while I’m waiting for my tuna on whole wheat. Be sure to grab a latte at the in-store cafe and browse though Celebrate Me Home, a home store stuffed with oversized, elegant lodge-style furniture, cool home accessories, note cards, and fine papers.

Late afternoon I drive back to downtown Portland to check into my room at Ace Hotel on the edge of the Pearl District. I hear that the Ace is the place for hip, creative types. Indeed the clientele is decidedly sub-40 and casually chic. The high-ceiling lobby opens on one side to a Stumptown Coffee shop and on the other to Clyde Common restaurant.

Ace’s look is a blend of contemporary minimalist in an old 1920-era building. The former Clyde Hotel was stripped down and renovated in a spare but comfortable style—long hallways, mostly whitewashed walls, polished wood floors, simple but comfortable furnishing. If you’re not out clubbing all night and want some sleep, ask for earplugs at the front desk. They’ve got plenty. The pillows are also too big for my taste. When I mention it at checkout, the young concierge tells me “Next time pull the pillow out of its case and it’ll smooth down.”

Parking can problematic near the Ace if you don’t want to drop $20 for valet service. I was lucky to find a metered spot on the street a block away late Saturday afternoon and didn’t have to move it on Sunday morning.

But the best thing about the Ace is its location. Can you get any better than being just a block from Powell’s Books? Not in my book. More than one lofty source has called Powell’s the best bookstore in U.S., if not the world. I wander over and browse for a while before dinner, managing to escape with buying only four books.

Saturday Night
Since my hotel is so conveniently located, I walk the 8 blocks to meet some friends for dinner and movies at McMenamin’s Mission Theater in Northwest Portland. (I could have hopped the new street car for half the trip but I wanted the exercise.) For just $3, we get in to a double feature in this former Swedish Evangelical Mission and union hall turned cinema. Matt grabs three seats on the main floor below the balcony, and we line up to order drinks and dinner. The fare here is burgers, sandwiches, and salads. My tasty gyro sandwich is wrapped in a soft, warm pita accompanied by a good green salad. The only downside is the slow service. Larry gets his sandwich and finishes it, then my sandwich arrives and I finish it, and Matt’s burger finally arrives 45 minutes after placing his order.

After the movies we stop by the historic Heathman Hotel’s Marble Bar for drinks. This street-level space is right off the main entrance on Broadway in the heart of downtown. “Can I see a dessert menu?” says Larry, who’s struck with a late evening sweet tooth. His artfully arranged cherry chocolate confection looks exquisite and disappears fast. I sneak a few bites of chocolate.

We make our way back to Ace Hotel and hang out on the comfy sofas in the lobby, talking and sipping drinks from Clyde Commons. When I head to my room after midnight, the restaurant is still buzzing.

Sunday Morning
Sunday morning the city is covered with a thin layer of fresh snow. Thankfully it’s not enough to mess up the roads. My brother and his wife meet me for breakfast next to the hotel at Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen (where I coincidentally bump into a friend from Seattle). This classic New York-style Jewish deli is sunny and spacious, with exposed brick walls, friendly service, and fresh, oversized bagels. My poached egg is cooked just right, and the huge schmear of cream cheese served with my bagel could spread a dozen bagels.

After another trip over to Powell’s Books, I stop in Stumptown Coffee and pick up a fresh berry scone for the road. Forget Starbuck’s and their mass-produced baked goods—Stumptown offers truly excellent and freshly baked local pastries, muffins, and scones that are worth the calories. By noon I’m on my way back north to Seattle. Next time I’ll stay another night and leave more time for Powell’s.

When You Go
My single room with a private shower at the Ace Hotel is $135, which is moderately priced for downtown Portland. You can dowload a map of downtown Portland or pick up a freebie map of downtown at Powell's Books on Burnside.