Monday, August 6, 2012

FoodTrek: Thinking Outside the Happy Hour Box

You're familiar with this situation, no doubt, getting together with friends after a particularly rough day of work, wanting to reward yourself with something tasty and a frosty beverage (or several), but being faced with the same list of uninspired places you always wind up at every week. Throw down the gauntlet, have your Network moment and say you're mad-hungry/thirsty and you're not going to take it anymore!! How about being creative with your after work gatherings?

A cute little slider that is delicious and all about the bun, at Pop Kitchen + Bar - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Summer is the perfect time to incorporate events with food and drink. Along with scheduled events all over the city, there's no reason not to wander about and enjoy the fact the sun doesn't set until after nine p.m. for a few precious Pacific Northwest months. I spent an early evening walking around Seattle Center, enjoying the fact that it wasn't pouring rain. The Needle is celebrating its golden anniversary this year and there's some new things like a glass sculpture garden by Chihuly set up around the base of the Needle. The inside food court also underwent a major facelift, with new places like Skillet Street Counter opening up, if you're meandering about and are suddenly struck with a deep desire for bacon jam. Hey, it happens. There's also Experience Music Project and the mini Science Fiction Museum that's also housed within. It's a pop culture extravaganza, and while I didn't feel like wandering through a museum, I was still hungry and glad to see that Pop Kitchen + Bar, located right in EMP, was open with tasty snacks on its menu. It's a full restaurant that serves everything from fresh-baked pastries at 10am, sandwiches for lunch, and a hearty happy hour menu -- you don't need to have visited EMP, they're just housed in the same building. Pop's happy hour runs from 4-7pm. The bar area itself is tiny, maybe ten seats, but they serve HH specials in the dining area as well, which is a nice thing -- so many other restaurants don't do this, which is disappointing when their bar seats maybe five people. Pop loves its hungry after work crowd.

Bar snacks against a backdrop of rock n' roll and aliens from outer space - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Their bar menu items range from $5 - $7, nothing outrageous considering the tourist-heavy area that the Seattle Center is. The hidden find aspect of Pop anything coming from their ovens, whether it's the bread used for their sandwiches, giant cookies or fruit-topped cupcakes. Chef Erin Cameron makes the goods from scratch; I was told she was at Macrina Bakery, which is a pretty nice pedigree, and the proof is on the plate. Sliders are always an easy thing to share with friends, but it's unusual to just focus on enjoying the bread, which I did for at least one of the little guys -- the buns have a lightly sourdough like bite, crisp outer shell, and spongey, tender crumb. I couldn't resist deep fried goodness with their thick-cut house made potato chips, with a Ranch dressing type seasoning and herbed dipping sauce. The killer dish was their fried pickles. I know this is popular in other regions, but you just don't see it everywhere here and more to the point, they're not always done well. It's hard to get the perfect balance of breading and the fry time to ensure that the outer layer is crisp, but the interior retains its briny flavor. I've had burned fried pickles more often than not, but these were crispy bites of heaven. I know it's an unusual place to just drop by -- I don't know a lot of offices close by to where you'd just happen to walk by Pop Kitchen +  Bar, but it's summertime, there are concerts at Key Arena, and there's nothing worse than being stuck with buying a soggy overpriced pretzel at the concession stand and corned with an $8 beer. If you're going to be at the Key, make time to hit Pop Kitchen + Bar during their happy hour before your date with the mosh pit.

Bright bites and don't forget the fried pickles - Photos by Wasabi Prime
When it comes to mixing business with pleasure, I can't think of a better event than Foodportunity. Keren Brown organizes these great mixers at Tom Douglas's Palace Ballroom a couple of times a year -- now in Portland, too -- where restaurants offer sample bites, there are often guest speakers, and it's just a good opportunity to meet new people or put a face to a Twitter name. It's primarily food/wine bloggers, but the event attracts so many people from different industries and it's open to everyone, so don't feel like you need a blog to go. I've gone to about three of these now, the last one in June being the third, and I can honestly say most, if not all of the different bloggers, writers, photographers, chefs and anyone I've been lucky to make a connection with on the food/wine scene, has been through Foodportunity. Chances are, you've probably Tweeted or become Facebook friends through a lot of the people prior to the event, and ignoring Mom's advice to never talk to strangers, the virtual connection becomes very real and wonderful as a result of these mixers.

It's OK to have dessert first at Foodportunity - Photos by Wasabi Prime
 Oh yes, and did I mention there's food?? For the price of an affordable meal (tickets are $25 when you buy them in advance, $35 at the door), you will sample savory and sweet bites from as many as over twenty different restaurants and bakeries in the area. It becomes your new list of must-go places, with samples to try so you're inspired to go to these restaurants. I keep telling friends they should buy tickets when the next Foodportunity is announced -- it's probably the most fun food party you can go. I tend to by myself, there's enough familiar faces to where it feels like a food high school reunion, but I encourage anyone to track down the next Foodportunity, grab a couple of friends, and buy tickets with the plan of eating very, very well for the night.

Savory bites of heaven on a platter - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Some of the restaurants in attendance at the last Foodportunity included Lark, RN74, Dinette, McCracken and Tough, Palisade, Tulalip Bay, Copperleaf and Ray's Boathouse. Plus bakeries like Trophy Cupcakes, Wheatless in Seattle and sweets from Chocolopolis. I loved being introduced to Tabby Cat Pickling Co. and meeting their cool owners and the notion of a pickled beet brine martini. It's better than professional networking events because it's not sales-y or full of douchey "that guy" personalities. People are sincere at this event. Most of the people there have day jobs that aren't in the food industry, so you're getting a crowd of people who truly love to be there, and the energy reflects that. Even if this isn't a weekly thing to hit when you're done with work, do a little planning and skip the tired sports bar hangout with your pals and suggest Foodportunity instead. Your tastebuds will thank you for it.

Salmon sous vide and grilled toasts with a summer salad? This puts your happy hour to shame - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I had the opportunity to attend two of the Iron Vintner Challenge rounds this summer, which was redonkulous-fun. And yes, that's a real word. Put on by The Willows Lodge out in Woodinville -- The Wood-Hood as my goofy friends and I often call it -- it's like Iron Chef, but with winemakers cooking up secret ingredients in a set period of time. If you're going to be having wine and food after work, may as well make it dinner and a show, especially if you live out in that area, as I do. Three years and running, Iron Vintner Challenge is a popular event that sells out fast, so get your ticket buying skills ready for next year. The IVC winner of 2012 has been crowned -- Morgan Lee of Covington Cellars won, if you didn't already hear. I wasn't able to make it to the final winemaker dinner, but just seeing the preliminary rounds is fun enough, plus it's for charity, so not only is it a good cause, you can tell the government it owes you for drinking wine. I was able to capture many frantic photos of the bracket round when Morgan Lee of Covington went up against Ross Andrew Winery for an epic crab battle. In between all that, I managed to have some tasty wine and tasty bites from  Chef Bobby Moore's menu, which even when there's not a mad cooking battle going on, the Fireside Cellar at Willows is one of my favorite after work hangouts.

Food, wine, celebrities - just another day in the Wood-Hood - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Yes, you may indeed get a rare glimpse of celebrity! Actress Josie Bissett was there to cheer on the winemakers and was kind enough to pose for a photo with Chef Moore. This is why famous people are famous -- they are uncommonly good looking, no? And when you have a professional looking camera, you feel a little less weird about taking people's photos since it's large enough to hide behind. But of course, the real star is the food, which was expertly prepared and a panel of judges had the tough task of picking a winner among dishes that ranged from giant crab ravioli to a crab salad in cucumber rolls. It's not a typical way to spend an evening after work, but if you get together with friends to watch a game, there's no reason not to shout and holler it up at a wine event, especially when rabble-rousing is encouraged.

Crabby crustaceans, to those about to be eaten, we salute you - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I hope this post has inspired you to think outside of the typical happy hour box, seeking out new places and things to do, as you raise your glass to the workday coming to a merciful end. Trek onward, Happy Hour Explorers, and discover new paths the celebrate the fact you're not sitting in a cubicle anymore!

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