Wednesday, June 1, 2011

FoodTrek: Cocktails, Dinner and Dessert at Allium and Lily

What, cocktails aren't part of the 3-squares-a-day rule? Your rulebook is broken! I had the very great fortune to not only dine and imbibe at Allium and Lily (yes, you can dine on ice cream), but get a chance to talk to owner and cuisine Jedi master Lisa Nakamura while on our visit to Orcas Island.

Dinner view from Allium on Orcas Island - shazam, right? - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Honestly, this was one of the main reasons I wanted to clock some serious mileage on my 16+ year-old Geo Prizm (neither fast, nor furious, but paid for), to have a dining experience at Allium. They've got a beautiful location, perched atop a quaint building facing the water in Eastsound, with a view that is absolutely stunning. We were lucky to visit on a weekend of sun, but even when the skies are stormy, nothing is more dramatic than Pacific Northwest skies, as they churn the clouds and spin the seas into a patchwork of whitecaps. No drama this time, though, just food, drink and a cloudless sky. We happened to come during one of their special seminars, this one showcasing the finer points of sake, as presented by Robert Ord, a wine expert who is just as well-versed on the ways of turning rice into wine. He did a great presentation with tasty visual/culinary aids, in the form of seven different flights of sake, ranging from effervescent, light Harushika Tokimeki Sparkling Sake, which was like prosecco, to complex, dry and earthy Wakatake Onikoroshi Junmai Ginjo, a sake with the name of a demon (oni), to show its flavor means business, with enough bite to define itself with a meal.

Robert Ord schools our livers on the finer points of sake - Photos by Wasabi Prime

So I totally admit to being a lousy Asian and an even more lousy-er Japanese American, as I don't really drink sake. Probably because the few times I had it in my early liver-pickling career, I overdid it, and the sweetness of sake left a less than sweet impression in my notably less brain celled-mind. Which is exactly why attending a seminar like this is a good one. Get back up on that horse, no matter how many times it's kicked you in the head. It was also an opportunity to sample small bites that Allium prepared with each sake flight. The food included lychee and goat cheese tarts on a lavender crust, salmon and red thai basil sushi, shiitake mushroom tea sandwiches, sake poached scallops with rhubarb and fennel, roasted duck on pommes anna, a guava sorbet and grapes and cheese with truffle honey. Note the theme of beautifully delicate, fresh ingredients, light sweetness mixed with earthy savory flavors -- everything designed to pair accordingly with the sake flights. And it was also a chance to preview the menu, as we had dinner reservations afterwards. This was a fantastic opportunity to peek at their "cheat sheet" of what was fresh and what to order later on.

If spring was a food, this is what it would look like - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Robert explained how despite what you see in old Kurosawa movies, the drinking of warmed sake in tiny, shallow dishes or wooden box-like cups isn't the way to go -- treat sake like wine. Its lack of sulfites and cleaner finish makes it food's best friend, pairing as pleasantly with a pizza as it does seared scallops. Serve it chilled in a wine glass, or in some cases, over ice in a highball glass, like in the case of the Hana Lychee Saketini, a light, inexpensive and fruit-sweet sake that's actually made in California. He mentioned an interesting fact that eases one's mind into choosing sake at a wine shop -- no pressure on picking the "right" one, as there's really no bad sake in America because we drink more of it than Japan. Weird, right? But because we are a more favorable market for sake, it makes better business sense for Japan to export the good stuff overseas, but then that's probably why in Japan, they tend to have a lower opinion over sake considering they're stuck with lesser quality stuff. A likely culprit over why Japan's gotten such a taste for French wines and Scottish spirits. The world's a bar and we're all just the Norm Petersons stumbling in.

Amazing food pairings with equally beautiful sake flights - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Another interesting fact learned in between our sips and tasting of lovely food was the way to read a sake label. What the heck does all this stuff mean? No one's saying you have to learn kanji -- just flip the bottle around and there should be everything translated in English, but even then, it's a lot of stuff that sounds unfamiliar. Robert helped decipher the basics behind the reading of a sake label -- typically the first word is the brewery name. If you see words like daiginjo, ginjo or honjozo, those typically mean the sake has some added alcohol to it, which doesn't ruin the quality, it's like seeing on a wine bottle that something is a blend -- you know it's not 100% of a particular grape. For sake with no alcohol added in, and it's just the rice, water, and sake-specific koji mold, you'll see terms like junmai, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo. These tend to be made with more labor-intensive processes and rice that's polished to a higher percentage to access the "sweet spot" center of starchy goodness.

From nature, to kitchen, to your plate - freshness rocks the cazbah at Allium - Photos by Wasabi Prime

After that deliciously educational session, we took a break to make sure our dog wasn't dying of heat or boredom in the car -- she was fine, napping away -- and took Indy for a short evening stroll before she got unceremoniously shoved into the backseat again when our reservation time for dinner came up. Prior to our big night out at Allium, I had a chance to chat with chef and owner Lisa Nakamura during her prep for the previous night's dinner crowd. She's an incredible person with a multi-book deal's worth of experience and culinary tales, but I think the best way to know her story and the story of Allium is to read her own words -- she put it best in her own blog, when she shared her thoughts over the creation of Allium. My personal takeaway from finally getting a chance to talk with her was that the world is much smaller than we realize, and it's less about nations and continents and more about neighborhoods and the frequency of us passing through. Lisa is from Hilo, Hawaii, the same city my dad is from, and we knew similar places and families. We both went to Arizona schools (albeit, cross-town rivals -- Go Wildcats!!). The universe works in funny ways, and I'm fairly sure I was destined to totally stuff my belly with incredible food at Allium.

Island girl Chef Lisa Nakamura brings Aloha Plenty to Orcas Island - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I saw Lisa prep the fresh spot prawns that came in the day before, as well as watch her deftly make each gigantic potato-pillow of gnocchi goodness, so of course we had to have those for dinner. The prawns were incredible -- we literally inhaled them. My heart was ready to explode from a combination of love and rich buttery goodness from all the food we had that night. I want to go into each detail of the dish, but I won't because I think the thing I love most about good food and the people who go through so much effort to prepare it is: let the seasons guide your choice. What we had here on a sunny Saturday evening in spring is different from what you'll have when you make it a point to visit Allium, and that's a wonderful thing. Working on nature's clock means nimble cooking, being able to roll with whatever fresh item jumps from the water or is pulled from the ground or a tree. Instead of cooking for people's whims, it's teaching people to eat seasonally and in turn, sustainably. The reward is heightened flavor, as food is prepared in its prime, and we gain more awareness over what we should be eating beyond basic health rules.

LIttle ice cream shop on the isle - so quaint, it hurts! Or maybe that's the ice cream headache - Photos by Wasabi Prime

My only regret -- our tummies were so full, we didn't have room for dessert at Allium, but we still stopped at Lily before our weekend was over. It's an ice cream and snack shop right below Allium -- they've got an ice cream banner hanging by their entrance, so just follow the ice cream. That's like my life's mantra. They serve Lopez Island Creamery ice cream, a locally made treat that's so rich and hateful for the lactose intolerant. But there's other treats beyond ice cream if you forgot the Lactaid -- lovely gourmet Rice Krispie balls and they even serve bento-style sushi! I know that sounds weird -- ice cream and sushi? But hey, in Hilo, the best place for shave ice/ice shave is Itsu's, a place that sells fishing equipment. Don't knock a winningly weird combination. Mr. Wasabi and I cooled our jets one afternoon with a scoop of blackberry and a scoop of amaretto cherry ice cream. I normally never got into fruity ice creams, likely because the mass market stuff is full of syrups and fake flavors, but the ice cream at Lily is the real stuff -- big chunks of fruit, and with Washington being such a berry-friendly place, you can't go wrong with any of the berry choices. The strawberry was especially fresh!
I really wish I could have lived in vacation-land forever, as it was made especially pleasant and delicious with Allium and Lily. Mahalo plenty to Lisa Nakamura and her incredible team, and arigato gozaimasu to Robert Ord for the fantastic sake presentation! And stay tuned, still have one more post about our Orcas Isle adventure, and yes, farm animals are involved. Scared yet?
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  1. We dont have time for dinner on the island (going for a wedding which will have activities that will occupy both nights we're there) but I'm so going to Lily! I love ice cream! And bento style sushi! Im so there!

    I can't wait to hear about the farm!

  2. I didn't know you were a Wilcat! I was an ASU Sun Devil (many moons ago).
    Love these pairings. I don't know that much about sake, but would love to learn more.

  3. A friend just passed along your blog - it's wonderful! I'm also from Hawaii living in the Northwest (Portland), and took a trip up to Orcas Island this summer. What an amazing place. We mostly cooked - next time I'll have to eat at Allium!


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