Monday, March 8, 2010

FoodTrek: Belltown Dinner and Drinks With Ventana and Rob Roy

It was a day of celebration last week, as the grey skies magically parted and this strange, brightly-glowing orb appeared out of the newly-cleared blue skies... oh yeah, I remember what that is -- THE SUN! The Magic 8 Ball said All Signs Point to Yes and Seattle pulled out all the stops on this red letter day, as it happened to be the monthly meeting of LUPEC Seattle, which also means, it's the Wasabi Prime Magical Mystical Edible Drinkable Neighborhood Tour, which included a visit to Belltown's Ventana for an enriching meal and conversation with their talented chef, Joseph Conrad, and craft cocktails at the retro awesomeness that is Rob Roy, to finish off the night with the LUPEC ladies.

Rob Roy in Seattle - where awesome cocktails live. Photo by Wasabi Prime 

For March, this Magical Mystical Edible Drinkable Tour was centered around the Belltown neighborhood, which sits not far from the Space Needle, for those unfamiliar with the Seattle area. Generally a bit of a yuppie haven, with its scattering of new condo buildings filled with young professionals and the latest cool sushi bar that will most likely change its name five times in the span of a year, there is the occasional oasis of calm that offers a relaxing cocktail and a fresh bite to eat. Along the north end of First Avenue, aptly named and situated in the perfect spot to catch all the light of even the most dreary of days is Ventana. I was fortunate to be invited to talk with Executive Chef Joseph Conrad and sample some of the items on their menu.

Comforting gnocchi with a rich mushroom and crab soup, thanks to Chef Joseph Conrad - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Greeted by Manager Armin Moloudzadeh, he artfully poured one of the signature cocktails, the Pom Pom, a pomegranate themed drink that uses prosecco to make the fresh pom seeds dance in the light. Walking through the restaurant, the space was literally aglow with the light of the afternoon sun. The large windows overlooking the Sound make Ventana one of the most picturesque places to enjoy a meal, and a prime spot to watch the sun sink down and count the stars as the evening skies appear. Since it was cocktail hour, I was able to take a photo of their take on the dirty martini, the Dirty Parisian, using spicy cornichons to add a savory kick. Something noteworthy about their drink menus is that they feature Chef Conrad's own artisanal flavored sea salts, Secret Stash Sea Salts, on cocktails like the Sultry Dog (their version of a Salty Dog), and the house bacon Bloody Mary, featuring the infamous Bakon Vodka. Spread along the rim of these drinks, the distinct flavors of chipotle and chorizo are infused in the different sea salts, adding a flavorful kick to the cocktails. Made in small batches right in Ventana, Chef Conrad's gourmet sea salts are incorporated in the food and drinks on the menu as well as used across Seattle in other restaurants and bars.

Who's dirty? The Dirty Parisian with spicy cornichons, guilty as charged - Photo by Wasabi Prime 

This attention to ingredients is a focus Chef Conrad places upon all the menu items at Ventana. We discussed at length the importance of freshness in food and letting the seasons dictate how a menu is continually developed; he has a clear objective to not only create good food, but to educate diners over the value of self-awareness when it comes to eating. The menu at Ventana is regularly updated every three weeks and the ingredients are seventy-five percent local, taking advantage of the rich variety of resources in the Pacific Northwest region. They are taking their devotion to locavore dining to the next level, as starting on March 18th, every Thursday they will be serving a special market fresh dinner, where every week will be different. Channeling the bedazzled power of Iron Chef's Chairman Kaga and his secret ingredient challenge, the dinner menu for Thursday nights will be unknown even to the kitchen until they see whatever the freshest items are in the Market that morning. Performing an edible waltz and allowing the seasons to lead, this places valuable trust in the kitchen team to craft a meal using only the freshest ingredients -- it's a dining movement that will hopefully only continue to catch on.

The menu at Ventana is a who's-who of local ingredients as well as popular favorites. Different creatures of both land and sea meet up with market-fresh greens and earthy mycological delights. I sampled a rich maitake mushroom soup with hunks of dungeoness crab, topped with an elegant crab flavored foam. The sweetness of the crab and the creamy, ruddy flavors of the mushroom were a nice balance, a bit like a Pacific Northwest answer to a traditional lobster bisque. Signs of a sunny spring may be here early, but cold weather favorites like the pecorino and potato gnocchi with sweet caramelized turnip, crispy ribbons of pork trotter, in a foie gras brodo make one happy for a return of rainy comfort-food days. Richly flavored dishes like these make Ventana a lovely choice for occasion dining and the flavors have a familiarity so the food remains approachable with an easy willingness for patrons to sample new things. Chef Conrad went into detail over a whimsical addition to the happy hour menu, describing house made pork shoulder sausages in fresh baked buns, dressed with exotic fare like kimchee and wasabi mustard (you had me at wasabi). Look out, gourmet hamburger/slider trend -- artisanal kimchee wasabi hot dogs are just around the corner!

The view from Ventana is stunning... and delicious. Photos by Wasabi Prime

As the sun slipped away in the fading light, I departed the light-filled space of Ventana, destined to return soon, and walked to the cozy mood lighting of neighborhood bar, Rob Roy to join the March gathering of LUPEC (Ladies United in the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). Located up one street on Second Avenue, it's been one of the new craft cocktail darlings of Seattle, with owners Zane Harris and Anu Apte at the helm, garnering a lot of local and national attention, as their cocktail mixing talent is Epic. Keeping with the ecclectic interiors that include a stuffed and mounted javelina head, Rob Roy is like a hipster-friendly Playboy era lounge, with its black leather couches, tufted paneling and its signature slate wall behind the bar. It's a place that could have easily attracted the likes of the late Hunter S. Thompson, going on an all-day cocktail binge, getting smashed, and most likely firing a few rounds into the javelina head before muttering something about Bat Country. In a word, Rob Roy is awesome.

If you post an invite on Facebook and have Goldfish crackers, they will come. Photo by Wasabi Prime

The March gathering of the Seattle LUPEC chapter had the distinction of being sponsored by the good folks at Domaine de Canton, an aromatic ginger flavored liqueur with hints of vanilla in cognac. The bottle design is quite unique and people have no doubt seen it alongside other popular specialty liqueurs like St. Germain or Creme de Violette. But how to serve such a uniquely-flavored spirit? The Masters of the Cocktail Universe at Rob Roy, Anu and Zane, waved their Hawthorne strainers in the air and shouted I Have the Power, creating a special menu of drinks for the LUPEC meeting, featuring Canton. The drinks were the following: the Canton "Negroni" (Canton, Campari, fresh orange juice, dry vermouth, on the rocks), Ginger Persuasion (Canton, Aquavit, lavender honey, strawberries, bitters, sparkling pinot noir, up), Canton Swizzle (Canton, Dark Rum, Pineapple, Orange, Lime, Falernum, crushed ice), and To LUPEC With Love, Bryn Lumsden (Canton, Rye, fresh lemon juice, maraschino, egg whites, fernet, up).

Shaking things up with Canton at Rob Roy - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The cocktails were perfumed with the Canton ginger flavor, playing nicely with the citrus hints in all the drinks. I tend to prefer less-sweet cocktails, but all the creations for LUPEC were perfectly balanced creations, keeping the flavors true to the nature of the different ingredients and playing with textures like the creamy egg white foam or the little fizz of the sparkling pinot noir. I find that the things I enjoy are less a single flavor or type of drink, and just learning to simply say, I want a good cocktail, and being blessed with talented bartenders who understand what it means to make a well-balanced drink.

I got a beverage here, man! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Both Ventana and Rob Roy have a similar benefit, in that they are places where you can feel comfortable walking in and letting the people in the kitchen or behind the bar lead you towards the right decision. Whether it's letting the seasons determine what fresh ingredients are at their peak, or giving the mixologist carte blanche with preparing your drink, it's a nice feeling to know your palette is so well taken care of and yet another reason to be thankful for yet another great food and drink neighborhood like Belltown.

Much Wasabi Thanks to the whole team at Ventana and Tamara Wilson PR for extending the invitation to visit for dinner and not only bend everyone's ear, but break it off from chatting with you guys for such a spell -- what a great treat that was! As always, super-duper thanks with a drink umbrella on top to Rob Roy for hosting, the ladies of LUPEC and MC/Queen Bee Wendy Miller for organizing another great meetup. Looking forward to April!

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  1. I'll keep that fresh baked cookie thing in mind for the April LUPEC! It was good to meet you, and the feedback on Ventana is a great thing (as I have often walked by and wondered why it's so empty).


  2. Wasabi, you're so lucky! you always got invited to cool restaurants. It's really impressive that Ventana will decide what to serve for the Thursday night based on what kind of fresh ingredients they can find that morning. Must be very challenging to come up with new menu every week.

  3. Nice! Wish I could have been there to enjoy those tasty cocktails with you. I'm totally fascinated by the egg white tops in various drinks. I'll definitely be trying that on Tokyo Terrace sometime soon.

  4. Last week had some amazing days and I wish I had spent them eating and drinking at these places. I can't wait to try them out...thanks for reviews.


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