Monday, January 31, 2011

Exploring Seattle: Columbia City Afternoon

Sometimes I like to play tourist in my own city and stray into districts beyond my normal haunts. How about you?

With our plentiful hills, ridges, lakes, and Puget Sound creating natural boundaries, Seattle’s varied geography divides the city into distinct neighborhoods with unique flavors.

I haven’t been to Columbia City in a few years, and today I’m lured there by Columbia City Bakery and the novelty of riding our new light rail line. Seattle is a latecomer to light rail compared to über-progressive Portland. But the first link in our light rail system makes it much easier and quicker to get to south Seattle without battling traffic on I-5.

It’s a classic rainy, gray Northwest winter day when we catch Link in the downtown Seattle transit tunnel. After we emerge from the tunnel and make a few stops, the route takes an eastward turn and rises to an elevated guideway before plunging into a tunnel through Beacon Hill. Great view of downtown.

After only about 10 minutes, we hop off at the Columbia City station on MLK Way. It’s a 3-block walk to the core Columbia City business district. Oh well. I wouldn’t live here if I couldn’t handle walking in the rain.

Columbia City lies in one of the more ethnically diverse parts of Seattle, Rainier Valley, and started “gentrifying” over a decade ago. It was a big deal when the Starbucks opened here, and they even brought in Magic Johnson for the grand opening. Since then, the main two-block stretch of businesses has morphed and is now lined with hip eateries and pubs, gift shops, an art gallery, an indie bookstore, meat shop, and of course that fabulous bakery. In the summer the local farmer’s market draws fans from around the city.

We wander past La Medusa, the first destination restaurant to open here, but it’s not open for lunch. Julie suggests Geraldine’s, a busy, warm diner-type spot, but I’m craving Asian, so we end up at The Spice Room, a Thai restaurant.

We’re enveloped in a sleek, modern, dimly lit setting inside the Spice Room, which seems more suited for an evening out than a lunch break. Our food is good, but to be honest, ever since I had Thai food in Thailand, American Thai restaurants pale a bit in comparison.

We start with fresh veggie spring rolls, nicely presented, and then split a very spicy green papaya salad and a chicken garlic stir-fry with veggies and brown rice. After tip, we each spend a little over $17. (More than I’d really like for lunch, but next time I need to pay attention to the prices on the menu, not just the food.)

Across the street, Tuttabello’s Pizzeria is packed as we walk past. Same with Geraldine’s.

Inside the Columbia City Gallery, the brightly lit whitewashed walls are a welcome contrast to the gray afternoon. Instantly I see about 10 things I’d like to take home. This gallery has an eclectic offering of paintings, mixed media, ceramics, prints, framing services, hand-crafted jewelry, and lower-priced, artsy knick knacks for easy gifting.

For things African, Baol’s African Imports is a cozy, narrow shop stuffed with wooden masks, baskets, beads, and more. This neighborhood, after all, is one of the more African-American in Seattle. We pop in and pop out, overwhelmed with the quantity of merchandise in here.

Of course I have to spend time in the Bookworm Exchange, the neighborhood indie bookstore. Tall shelves are lined with used and new books, and I see some great deals on recently released, slightly used books. It’s with considerable restraint that I walk out without a book purchase. Too bad I didn’t buy anything because I just read that the owner is considering closing in a few months due to slow sales.

“Is it bakery time yet?” I ask Julie as we near the end of the business strip.

Yes, ‘tis bakery time. Even on a damp winter day, people are willing to eat at the sidewalk tables because the Columbia City Bakery is packed and hopping.

Good bakeries make me happy. Everybody seems happy in this good bakery. Beautiful cookies, pastries, cakes, pies, cupcakes, sandwiches, homemade granola, crostini, interesting artisan bread…oh my!

We split a poached pear/frangipane tartlet, which we both ingest quickly. But not without savoring the crumbly buttery crust and perfectly poached pear topped with crunchy toasted almonds. For the road I grab a refreshingly small chocolate chip cookie and a peanut butter thumbprint cookie stuffed with raspberry jam. These small treats are exquisite, as expected.

Within a couple hours of our arrival, we’re ready to head back north to downtown. Lucky for us, we only have to wait about 3 minutes for the next train.

When You Go
Columbia City lies about 5 miles south of downtown Seattle, east of the Beacon Hill ridge that lines Interstate 5. Besides the places I mentioned, for nightlife, try Lottie’s or the Columbia City Ale House and then catch a movie at the historic Columbia City Cinema, “Seattle’s Coolest Neighborhood Theater.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Classy Cooking Classes in Seattle: Seasonal, Healthful, and Tasty Fare

Who doesn’t want to eat more healthfully?

Okay, not everyone. But if the proliferation of year-round farmer’s markets and organic food here in the Pacific Northwest are indicators, a lot of us are embracing cooking and eating better.

I’ve taken a couple great cooking classes recently in Seattle’s Ballard community that featured seasonal, sophisticated, and surprisingly easy-to-prepare dishes. Creamy parsnip soup, sautéed kale, roasted veggies with spicy yogurt sauce, and more.

Since I’ve been working lots of overtime the last couple weeks and will be for a few weeks more, I’m cheating a bit with today’s post. Read about the classes in my 101 Things to do in Ballard column in the Ballard News Tribune.

When You Go
The classes I took were through Dish It Up on historic Ballard Avenue and Olaiya Land Catering at Delancey restaurant on 70th Avenue Northwest just north of Ballard High School.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Portland’s Lan-Su Chinese Garden: Serenity in the City

Can’t we all use a little more serenity in our lives?

In Portland’s Chinatown near the Willamette River, Lan-Su Chinese Garden is a perfect place to unplug and contemplate the nature of beauty, harmony, or maybe even a cup of fine tea.

Historic Chinese artist and scholar Wen Zhengming couldn’t have said it better, about 500 years ago:

Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic. Truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest.”

Here on the east side of the Pacific Rim, Lan-Su was built by Chinese artisans from Portland’s sister city in China, Suzhou. In fact, the name Lan-Su is derived from Portland and Suzhou. Nifty, huh?

Lan-Su claims to be the most authentic Chinese garden outside China, although to me it seems very similar to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver, B.C.

Lan-Su replicates a classic Chinese garden of a wealthy merchant or scholar from about the 16th century. Life was very different back then, of course. There was lots of contemplating going on, along with poetry, games of wit, calligraphy, meditation, storytelling, and lofty discussions.

Chinese gardens are carefully designed to engage all your senses through the use of architecture, specific plants, texture, scents, and sound. As I stroll through the garden on a chilly but clear winter morning, my eyes rest on small details, like how the edge of a roof pierces the sky, tiles with lovely Chinese characters, or the curl of intricately decorated roof tiles.

Pathways lead into courtyards that lead into covered walkways that lead into open rooms and more. Today I don’t have the time to linger as I’d like, but I absorb as much as I can on this quiet morning.

Inside the replicated scholar’s study, glowing hand-painted silk lanterns float above the room. Since there’s no heat in here, it’s actually warmer outside in the sun.

For us tea lovers, though, a real highlight of Lan-Su is the Tower of Cosmic Reflections. As I enter this light, warm two-story teahouse run by the Tao of Tea, I get a whiff of fragrant tea.

“Help yourself to a taste,” says the server. On the front counter is a pot of Taiwanese osmanthus oolong tea beside small tasting cups. This amber tea is slightly floral, smooth, and wonderful.

I can’t stay as long as I’d like today, but this teahouse is a treasure. This garden is a treasure.

Go get serene.

When You Go
Okay, so this is a place to get serene. But there’s also a lot going on at Lan-Su. Classical Chinese music is performed in the teahouse regularly. Tai chi classes are offered. A photography exhibit of images taken at the garden is on display when I visit. Click here for a list of events. Better yet, become a member and get their newsletter.