au marché: pike place market

While preparing for my recent trip to Seattle, I started having "fish fantasies". There I'd be, in a yellow rain slicker, steaming cup of coffee in hand, hanging with the Pike Place fishmongers at 5am. pikeplace_1

Needless to say, my co-travelers weren't having this. But I did motivate them to head to market around 8:30, on a surprisingly sunny day, with the promise of coffee in their near future.

pikeplace_2 For all my fantasizing, I really didn't know what to expect. I knew they might throw fish, a quirky gimmick I'd witnessed in the opener for Seattle's Real World. Given the market's tv-ready renown, I assumed I was walking into a relatively delicious tourist trap.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3vcGax9ojE

First, let me attest that throwing fish is a pretty efficient way to move the product. When we arrived, there were very few other onlookers, so we got to chat a bit with the 'mongers about their fish flinging style. They also let us taste their smoked salmon (I hate this "word", but mouthgasm seems an appropriate descriptor), and sold us a bit of salmon jerky for the road, while I wantingly eyed the king crab legs.

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As impressive as the fish was, the biggest surprises at Pike's were the flowers and fruit. Generously bursting bouquets of cabbage flowers sold for the New York price of a bad bunch of dyed carnations. The range of local,  vividly-hued produce was also impressive, especially the iconic-ly tart local citrus: satsumas. We were also seduced by one vendor's chili-spiced spin on huckleberry jam. In short, the whole market was a series of sensory revelations.

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If I did have one critique of the market, it would be this: when the other tourists did arrive, few of them seriously shopped. It's hard to support a market on tourism alone, and you could hear it in the mongers' banter. "Step right up, anyone with money." "Someone here who actually wants to shop?"

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It killed me not to have a kitchen. Next time I go to Seattle, I'm cooking for myself.

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eater's digest: pike street fish fry

A few months back, I headed west - Pacific Northwest to be exact - to check out the locavore food culture of eclectic Seattle, WA. The ingredients I found there surpassed every expectation, from sweet-tart satsumas to incomparable smoked salmon. But my first edible stop on this city tour wasn't a colorful market. It was a fish lover's greasy spoon.

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Far from the waterfront stalls of the Pike Place market, the similarly named Pike Street Fish Fry is a dive-y bastion of pescatarian nostalgia. This "chipper", like the nearby Elliot Bay Book Company, remains the kind of spot that locals still haunt, undeterred by the accolades that further expose it to the masses. When we arrived for lunch on a Friday afternoon, it was quietly bustling, hawking greasy wares from a simple open kitchen. Overhead, a blackboard menu listed: battered & fried, grilled, sandwiches and sides - plus the option to "slap anything on the menu on a roll" for an additional dollar.

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Here, there are no standard "fish and chips" - you order by type of fish. We opted for fried cod, calamari and fish tacos. The tacos and cod initially seemed greasy, but one bite of the moist and flaky flesh revealed a light breading that puffed crunchily away from the fish. The fried calamari was an equal improvement on a classic: tender, freshly-caught squid that couldn't have been a further cry from the frozen, heavily-breaded version which frequents too many appetizer menus.

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As we dug into our fish, dashing malt vinegar over our salt-and-peppered fries, we struck up a conversation with a pair of locals. One, taciturn, deplored the number of overrated restaurants in the city. But this, this was his spot. Understated pleasure, pommes frites-style dipping sauces (try the lemon aioli or chili mayo) and self-serve soda fountain included.

Pike Street Fish Fry 925 East Pike Street Seattle, WA 98122 (206) 329-7453

eater's digest: new york city wine and food festival, part 1

This weekend, I had the pleasure of covering the New York City Wine and Food Festival for Honest Cooking. From wine tasting in the chic boutiques of the Meatpacking District to a hands-on oyster shucking lesson at the Standard Biergarten, it was a dynamic, whirlwind tour of the New York City food scene.

If there was one highlight out of the many events I attended, it was - without a doubt - Morimoto's "Rock & Roll", a sushi and karaoke soiree at the Harvard Club. Upon arriving in the ivy league digs, I was immediately struck by the incomparable decor. Taxidermy of all shapes and sizes (including an imposing elephant head), dim-lit chandeliers and dark wood paneling bedecked the cavernous hall where the city's best sushi chefs were already busy at work.

Having been to a number of tasting events, I know the food can range from utterly disappointing to extraordinary. Raw fish is one of my favorite ingredients, so I was a bit anxious to sample the chefs' small bites.

Happily, I can report that every bite stood up to the challenge. At $150 a ticket, the event - whose proceeds benefit the hunger-relief programs of Food Bank For New York City and Share Our Strength® - seemed a bargain, and I would readily recommend that any fish lover jump on the tickets the next time this sushi party rolls around.

Here are some of my favorite bites:

I've had sepia tagliatelle before, at Txikito in Chelsea (one of my favorite restaurants). Marea's take was distinctively fishier, but enjoyably so, and the "pasta" was cut a bit thicker. But unlike good Italian pasta, the texture wasn't al dente - in fact, it was surprisingly tender for cuttlefish. Overall, a bite that redoubled my interest in dining at this highly praised restaurant.

If nothing else, Esca deserves an honorable mention for this simple, fish-forward dish. Sardines are a hard sell, and it was an excellent opportunity to present them - in their highest quality - to a crowd of eager pescatarians. It wasn't the most impressive dish of the night, but its subtlety would not have been lost on a true fish lover.

I'll admit, I had actually not heard of Blue Ginger before tasting this dish. But out of everything I ate that night, this hamachi sashimi was one of the most interesting dishes. The spicy seasoning was an unexpected twist, while the crispy rice was a pleasant textural contrast with the sashimi.

Corton's dish had so many layers of unexpected flavor, it was mind boggling. Yet, somehow, they all went together really nicely. The thinly sliced, slightly smokey fish was an exciting match for the bold broth - a surprise that definitely merited a second bite.

I love ceviche, and I have been hearing raves about La Mar's distinct Peruvian style. The texture of the fluke was absolutely stunning, as was the shockingly bright, pop-in your mouth citrus. Coupled with a few al dente vegetables for textural contrast, this dish was an absolute stunner.

This fruit and fish combo quite literally blew my mind. A just-sweet enough peach sauce, clean snapper slice and smokey spike of citrus. It was a combination that should have overwhelmed the fish, and it didn't. Which officially makes Crave Fishbar the restaurant I want to check out the most after this outstanding city sushi tour.