What’s that aboot?

We spent the weekend in Vancouver, Canada. I need to make that distinction, because there is actually a Vancouver in Washington State. We discovered this as we sat in the car at 6:40am on Saturday morning, trying to input a Vancouver address into the GPS to no avail. We were due at 10am to claim a ‘prize’ we won at a recent travel show. The prize – a trip to Las Vegas for two, including flights and accommodation – comes with the catch that we must endure a 90 minute timeshare presentation. That’s it. We were both adamant we could sit still long enough to claim our prize, and then have the rest of the weekend to get out into a favorite city.

Back to the car at 6:40am on Saturday: the address didn’t compute because we are actually expected in Vancouver, Washington, three hours to the south. Vancouver, Canada is three hours to the north. Bugger! We laughed about it. I had gotten up at 5:45 to shower. So there we sat – do we drive down to Vancouver, Washington (probably not as enticing as the one to the north) to keep our appointment? Or head north where we had a hotel room booked, and the expectation of a fun weekend.

We headed north. And called the timeshare people from the road.

A treat when we arrived in Vancouver was blue skies and a mild sunny day – the first I have ever experienced there. I suggested we drive up to Grouse Mountain, about 20 minutes out of the city. The drive there took us through Stanley Park,
passenger view
and across the Lion Gate Bridge.
Lion Gate Bridge
It was a busy day at the base of the mountain, which was understandable considering there is skiing and snowboarding up there, and the weather was beautiful.
The cable car ride takes 6 minutes.
Up the mountain
Man and Mountain
At the top, we walked into the bistro just as it opened and claimed a table by the window. I had never seen Vancouver from this height, as the last time I had been up the mountain (last year with Lara), it had been cloudy and rainy – and dark!
Lara and me

But Saturday was perfect and we could see the city laid out before us.
View from our table
View from our table too

We ate a leisurely – and early – lunch of burgers, and chased it down with a delicious BC Pinot Blanc. We have tried this varietal a few times now, and it is well worth a sip – or two.

Back on flat ground, we checked into the Hyatt, mooched about for the afternoon – including a trip to the hotel gym – and then headed out for an early dinner at Wild Rice. Early lunch = early dinner. We loved the food there, except the spring rolls which were flavorless and oily. We sent them back. BUT the Kung Po chicken was inspired, the salt and pepper squid rivaled that which you can get in Sydney, and the hot and sour soup was hot – and sour! Delicious. We also enjoyed that all food was brought to the table in serving dishes, so we could serve ourselves. Overall, well worth a visit, and is a runner-up in the ‘Best Asian Dining’ 2008 in Food and Wine Magazine. But seriously, the spring rolls need attention.

Breakfast the next day was a special treat. We headed two blocks away to Caffe Artigiano, where I have previously had the best coffee EVER.
Muffins and a bowl of smooth, hot, creamy coffee. Heaven.
“You brought reading material,” commented Ben when returned to the table with our coffees. The coffees were huge, and I knew we’d be there a while. WIRED for him. SELF for me. We sat, we supped, we read, we smiled at each other across the table in silence while we enjoyed our breakfast. “That as so good, I kinda want another one.” I knew what he meant. We could easily have killed another hour with another cup, but we needed to check out of the Hyatt.

Our last outing for the day after checking out, was to head to the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Vancouver Art Museum
I know Ben loves contemporary exhibitions, and they also had a Canadian Impressionist exhibit I wanted to see. The Impressionists didn’t disappoint, and there were some extraordinary pieces, but the collection became somewhat repetitive. more interesting were the second and third floors, filled with contemporary pieces and installations.

I was struck by this:
Skull 2008
It is “Skull 2008” by Kristi Malakoff, and is 12 feet tall. It is constructed of 12,000 paper flowers, which are photographs she took, cut out and then assembled onto this wall.
Here is a detail:
Skull Detail
Those flowers are 2-dimensional, even though they do not look it. It was my favorite piece of the How Soon Is Now collection. There were many that left me cold, however. And wanted to ask, “Really?” One installation was 6 panes of glass lying on the floor. That’s it. So, in the spirit of ‘art is subjective’, I created some of my own. Here are three pieces inspired by simplicity.

Going Down

Topsy Turvey Escalator

Okay, maybe I am being a little facetious, but 6 panes of glass? Perhaps it was left there accidentally by construction workers.  Someone puts a rope around it, and it becomes art.

Outside the gallery is this:
Olympic Clock
It is the Olympic countdown clock. It should say at the top, ‘this clock will self-destruct in…’, because BC – like many Olympic sites before them – is going into massive debt – to the tune of about 8billion dollars – to meet their Olympic obligations next year. I realize that because the U.S. government is throwing around figures like 782billion, that 8billion doesn’t sound like much, but it is. I do suppose that if we are still living in Seattle this time next year, it is very likely we will do our bit to help refill the coffers.

Our trip back to the United States took a bit longer than our journey to Canada – by 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is the amount of time we waited at the border.
Two and a half hours
People got out, played some ball sports, and the atmosphere was generally more festive than any other delayed border crossing I have experienced. The North Americans are a little blase about the whole border thing, I have to say. It will get more strict in June when you need more than a Driver’s License to cross from one country to the other, but my experience of border delays is ‘stay in the car, and do not make a peep’. Not so yesterday…
Ben stretching his legs.

When we eventually got up to the border, expecting to contribute to the delay for those behind us, we were waved through after a cheeky border guard asked if I was trying to smuggle in Vegemite. I played the role of the charming Aussie girl, Ben the chuffed boyfriend, and we were on out way.

Because of this huge delay, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were going to miss the start of the Oscars – the part with the big song and dance number. I am such a Hugh Jackman fan too. But no. As if by magic, out of the 100 channels we subscribe to, our TV was set the right one (ABC), so when we walked in and turned it on – about 20 minutes after it started – we could ‘rewind’ to the beginning and watch it delayed. SIGH. It was a brilliant end to a brilliant weekend.

Thank you, as ever, to my best friend, Ben, who makes sitting home on the couch as fun as a trip to another country.

Oh, and the title of my post? Just a little nod to our friends to the north. That’s what that is aboot.

Falling in Like

I took my heart to San Francisco, but I didn’t leave it there. I tend to fall a little in love with cities. There are cities that I love all over the world. I love Sydney. I love Venice. I love Prague. My love affairs in recent years have mostly been of the north American variety, and include Vancouver (very passionate and too brief), and Seattle (developed over time and rock solid). I did enjoy my brief trip to San Fran, and I can see why people would fall in love with it, but for now I will happily commit to ‘I am in like with San Fran.’

We had two days there between LA and the start of our road trip. Ben and I both know that two days is too quick for such an iconic city, but it is just our first trip there, our taster. We packed as much as we could into those days, so here is 36 (waking) hours in the beautiful San Francisco.

The Bridge Coming from Sydney, another city where the bridge is a draw card, I was looking forward to seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in the flesh, or the steel. We started to walk along the coast from Fisherman’s Wharf, a pathway that took us up steep hills, and along grey sandy ‘beaches’. When it became apparent that Ben thought we were walking all the way to the bridge (about 11 miles), and I thought we were just walking to where we could see it, we had a minor tetchy moment, and then hopped a cab. This was of great relief to me, as I was fighting jet lag and the wind was doing my head (and eyes) in. The cab took us the eight miles remaining, and we were deposited at the lookout area. They have really spent some money here! I am sure at one time, this was just a semi-industrial lump of dirt that just happened to be under one of the world’s most famous bridges. Today it is a landscaped parkland with pathways and lookouts. The Bridge itself is stunning. It is long, proud and bright burnt orange. Yep, it deserves all the hype.
Guess where
The other side

Galleries Ben and I discovered early in our relationship that we both love galleries, and we tend to enjoy the small, boutique galleries most. On the way to the bridge, we happened upon a (what is the collective noun for galleries? A ‘monet’? A ‘picasso’? How about a ‘da vinci’?) a da vinci of galleries, all in a row. San Francisco has a plethora of galleries, and the handful we visited boasted impressive artists, including Dali at Franklin Bowles, and Warhol, Picasso and Rembrandt at Martin Lawrence. But perhaps my favourite, was a smaller gallery exhibiting artists not known to me. At Dennis Rae Fine Art, an artist called Thomas Arvid caught my eye, with his photographic style depictions of wine bottles and glasses.

China Town We wanted to go to China Town for Chinese food, so we caught a cab on our first night. China Town was dead. A few stores were open, and there was only a handful of restaurants to choose from. We walked a couple of blocks, looking for recommended places, and came across a family style restaurant. It was filled with Chinese people, they were eating and they looked happy, so it was as good a place as any. Except it wasn’t. It was bad. We paid, we left, we tried to forget, and scolded ourselves for not having better directions. There are some spectacular things for sale in China Town, at shops with brightly coloured wares crammed into every space. I wanted to buy a silk purse, and maybe a paper lantern, but not then. I was not in the mood to buy something pretty.

Little Italy On the way home from our spectacularly bad dinner, we inexplicably ended up in Little Italy, which we found on Columbus Ave near Washington Square. “Let’s go in a cafe and order dessert and some wine,” I suggested, wanting to resurrect our evening. We chose Panta Rei, for no other reason than it looked warm inside, and had an Italian man sitting outside, who said “Bueno Sera” back to me. It was warm inside, and smelled delicious. We ordered cheescake and a bottle of Lapierotta Sirah, on the waiter’s recommendation. Both were incredible. The flirtatious waiter brought bread and oil when we’d finished the cheesecake, and we settled in. We took our time, and left a little tipsy as we walked hand in hand back down Columbus to our hotel.

Coit Tower On our full day in SF, we planned to go to Alcatraz. Once we’d bought tickets, we had about a two hour wait for the ferry. We wanted to go to the famous Lombard Street – the windiest and one of the steepest in SF, but we were a little far from there. A local directed us, instead, to Coit Tower, which is the highest point in SF. From where we were we climbed up dozens of flights of stairs through people’s backyards and alongside steep driveways. It was worth the climb. We paid the $5 to ride the elevator to the top – lots of Aussies and French that day. The views were incredible, and we could see Lombard Street, where we would go later that day.
Iconic view from Coit Tower
Transamerica Pyramid
Marina and Alcatraz

Alcatraz We paid $24.50, lined up, caught the ferry, and once on Alcatraz, we were free to do as we liked and could catch any ferry back that afternoon. Just as the ferry docked, Bob, a retiree with a gift of the gab, was starting his talk on famous escape attempts from Alcatraz.
Dockside Alcatraz
Bob moved the crowd of 50 a few times, pointing out various places, but the skill was in his story telling. We could just imagine the events unfolding as he described them. None of the stories had happy endings. Officially, no one escaped Alcatraz and survived. The rocks are razor sharp and the currents strong. We took the audio tour of the main prison block.
Cell Block
Jail cell
Incredible. You can stop and start it when you want. It guides you through the whole place at your own pace, and is narrated by a former warden and former inmates. I really enjoyed it. And of course, the most excruciating aspect of being on Alcatraz, is that is it SO close to SF. If the wind was right, inmates could hear the goings on of a city they could not step foot in.
View from Alcatraz

Fisherman’s Wharf We stayed right near Fisherman’s Wharf, so walked its footpaths several times. We ate twice at a restaurant called Tarantinos – once for lunch and once for dinner. The food was outstanding, and we returned for dinner our second day, as it is positioned so you can watch the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge. Spectacular. Try the chowder!

Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar There is a Tiki bar under the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. No, really. After dinner at Tarantino’s, we grabbed a cab, and headed up the hill. The Fairmont in SF is really impressive, and decorated in a Parisian style. We entered the lobby, ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ under our breaths and started our hunt for the Tiki Bar. Could a bar like this BE is a hotel like this? It just seemed so incongruous, but we went downstairs, turned a corner and there it was. We were two of 6 people in there, as it was a little dead on a Tuesday night, but we made our own fun. We ordered a cocktail for two, with enough alcohol to sedate a bull elephant.
Cocktail for Two
Cocktails for twoBen at the Tiki Bar

Lombard Street We hadn’t caught a cable car yet, so thought we could catch one up Hyde Street and then walk back down the hill via Lombard Street. The queue for the cable car was long, and we had just finished enormous Ghiradelli chocolate ice creams, so we walked up Hyde Street, which is so steep that your body is on a 45 degree angle as you go up. Paying penance for the ice cream, we grimaced at the people stuffed onto the cable car as it clanged past, “Lightweights,” I grunted. We made it, our walk up well worth it to see the novelty of a street where the footpath is steps and the street so steep that it switches back several times.
Lombard Street

A terrific city. And in the immortal words of the Californian governor, “[We’ll] be back.”
Sand and Ben in SF

Seattle Wind-up

So, now that I am back home in Sydney, I have a confession about my time in Seattle: I never went up the Space Needle. And we stayed right near it. Less than a 7-minute walk from it. In fact, it was my beacon when I navigated Seattle. I just headed towards it, because I knew I lived pretty much right underneath. But I never went up. A bit of a visitor’s faux pas, I know, but I do tend to get more from less expected adventures.

To be fair, I was told – by everyone – not to bother if it was raining. And, well, it rained most of the time I was there. The sun did come out my last full day in Seattle, and Ben and I were walking right past the Space Needle at the time, but by then I was kind of over it. Next time. Maybe.

Another confession – just a little one. I nearly hated Seattle. Well, I did hate it, for about 30 minutes on my third day there. I was meeting Ben at his office at the end of day. It was a one mile walk, so about 15-20 minutes. We were going out to dinner from there, so I was dressed nicely, and had bothered with my hair and make-up. As it does in Seattle – at least half of the time – it was drizzling when I left the apartment. No problem. I had my new compact umbrella. After I put up the umbrella, it really started to rain. I pushed on, head down, umbrella shielding me from the incoming weather front.

I was about half way to Ben’s office, when I turned a corner and a huge gust of wind lifted my hat from my head and blew it into traffic. My muffled cry of, “No!!!” was drowned out by the wind and the traffic, just as a car ran over my hat. My new, very cute, ‘I got two compliments on this hat today’ hat. Bugger! Just as I had resigned myself that my hat was gone forever, another gust of wind turned my umbrella inside out, then scooped it up, and blew it into traffic. It was hit by a truck. I did not scream, “No!”, rather various swears for which I deserved to have my mouth washed out. Bugger! At this point I had no protection from the wind and rain, and was quickly saturating.

I ducked into the nearest building, where a very nice woman showed me the appropriate level of sympathy about my hat and umbrella that had been murdered by the wind and the traffic, and about how it was summer in Sydney and NOT freezing cold and miserable, and about how I was wet through and was supposed to go for dinner. I knew I sounded like lunatic, but perhaps she just thought, “Oh, she’s an O-ssie.” Americans do tend to find us endearingly quirky.

I called a cab. If I waited for it, it would arrive in 40 minutes. I called Ben. He got a cab in minutes and rescued me. He too showed me the appropriate sympathy for someone having endured such trauma. His understanding – and the understanding of the nice woman in the warm building – calmed me. I started to dry out in the warmth of the cab, and by the time we got to where we were going, the storm had subsided. As we walked towards the restaurant, I decided that my argument with Seattle should be put behind me, and we should make up. I wanted to give this city another chance for me to love it, and in the end I did.

Cool stuff I did do in Seattle:

  • Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour from Pioneer Square. So, the short story is that Seattle was once at sea level – or slightly below – which meant the city was flooded twice a day when the tide came in. The founding father’s put into action a plan to raise the city, a feat they accomplished in only 30 years! Much of the original city still exists – at basement level – under the newer city, and for only $14 guides will take you to the underground world of Seattle. These guides not only possess the keys to the city, they know lots of brilliant stories and historical stuff, so it is an interesting way to spend two hours.


  • The Seattle Children’s Theatre. By day I am an unassuming Drama teacher, so discovering the Charlotte Martin Theatre at the Seattle Centre (a collection of arts buildings, museums and performance arenas surrounding the Space Needle) was an unexpected treat. This is where the Seattle Children’s Theatre is based. I emailed them, and one kind lady let me come and meet her. She talked me through the work they do, showed me around the facilities – “Wow!” – and invited me to watch their current production, The Never-ending Story. The organisation produces high-quality children’s theatre with professional adult actors, as well as running a diverse learning program for children ages 3 to 18. Perhaps one day they will be in desperate need for an Aussie girl with vast experience and copious enthusiasm.


  • Experience Music Project. Also at the Seattle Centre is this an incredibly cool music museum. Frank O. Gehry designed the building, which is a futuristic exploration of form and colour. It reminded me of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. And with good reason: Gehry designed that too. Inside is a mini concert hall and on the day we visited an 8-piece Jazz band was playing – part of the 2008 Jazz Festival. The strains of their music filled the giant structure and we could hear them playing intermittently throughout our visit.
    The centrepiece of the museum is a 30-foot tall sculpture made entirely of guitars – all types of guitars – forming a giant funnel – like a musical tornado sweeping through the lobby. That is remarkable enough, until you realise that some of the guitars are actually playing. If you put on the headphones at the base of the sculpture, you can hear the music being created by automated guitars suspended above your head. Other exhibits include a rock memorabilia journey through Seattle’s modern music history. I was thrown back to university days, and many a night groaning along with Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, but the roots of Seattle’s music scene are in underground jazz from early in the 20th century, much of it actually taking place in Seattle’s Underground labyrinth. My experience of Seattle’s history came full circle.


  • Uptown Espresso. I finally found a place that made brilliant coffee. On my last day in Seattle, Ben and I went in search of pancakes. Rather, we wanted a big cooked breakfast, with no thoughts given to calories or healthy eating. We did a net search, which wasn’t particularly helpful, and I was starting to get grumpy for lack of food. We decided to just head out into our ‘hood, Queen Anne. After some fruitless meandering, we happened upon an old-style diner, called Mecca Cafe. It smelled like bacon and maple syrup, so we made our way in, our eyes adjusting to the darkened room. We took a booth with red vinyl seats, and pondered the extensive menu. Exactly what we were looking for and we had nearly missed it.
    When the waitress came, with a pot of brewed coffee, and I asked about espresso, she directed me across the street, saying we could bring the coffees in to have with our breakfast. She then poured Ben a cup of diner coffee. He could have stood his spoon up in it. I offered to make the dash across the street to Uptown Espresso. I had walked past it a few times on my way back from the grocery store, each time promising myself to give it a shot when I didn’t have hands full of shopping bags. I had never made it back, until this moment. On entry, the warm and inviting smell of smooth coffee hit me like a physical force. I ordered, my latte no foam, and a soy latte for Ben. I watched the barrista make it with care and skill. I was almost in tears. I ran back across the street with both in hand, waiting to share my first taste with Ben. “I think we’re going to love this,” I said as I sat. We both tasted, we both smiled, and Ben said, “Oh yeah.” We drank in silence. The food arrived – waffles, pancakes, eggs, bacon. It was all great. We ate with gusto. Perfect. We then spent the rest of the day in the city, walking, shopping, exploring and burning off breakfast.


I also never went to the flagship Starbucks store, but I did walk past it several times, and I did stop to take a picture. Next time. Maybe.

Flying Fish

I am not a food critic by any means, and I will not attempt to become one in this post, but Ben and I have been really impressed with restaurants we have eaten at in Seattle.  And there are so many to choose from.  Ben and I are staying close to downtown, so we are spoiled for choice within walking distance – or at most, a short cab ride away.

Last night we went to Flying Fish in Seattle’s restaurant district, Belltown.  What an extraordinary meal.  We ordered carefully, so that we could share bites, and we chose a local bottle of white on recommendation of the waiter.  We know we like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs – and there were several on the menu to choose from – but we have wanted to stay true to the region when ordering wine here.  I have mentioned that Washington and Oregon do a ‘good red’, so when our waiter admitted this to us and still recommended the Washington Pinot Gris – “It partners really well with our menu” –  we agreed to try it.

We were not disappointed.  While we ate crusty bread with butter, our wine arrived, and he was right.  It was a terrific bottle of King Estate, which partnered well with the Thai crab cake I had to start, and the crispy calamari Ben ordered.  We both ‘ummmed’ as we tucked in.  We swapped bites a few times, and admitted ‘yes, you chose well too’, but ultimately we were happiest with our own selections, and we savoured them.  The portions were not skimpy, but we took our time. 

Before we knew it, and before I had a chance to find the bathroom, our mains were sitting before us.  Ben had the seared tuna and I had the mahi mahi.  I looked over at his plate with menu envy.  I took a bite of the mahi mahi and it was a little oily, and not quite what I expected.  I saw Ben’s obvious enjoyment, and put my cutlery down.  “Not good?” he asked patiently.  I have sent stuff back before, and I don’t really like being that person.  “It is okay.  I think I just ordered badly.”  Within seconds our waiter, Jeff, was by my side.  “Are you not enjoying that?”  I looked up at him, “It is just a lot heavier than I thought.  I think I just ordered poorly.”  He said he would be back in a second and he returned with the menu. 

We read it together, and yes, the fish was served with an apple butter sauce.  I guess I just thought it would be more apple than butter.  He did not hesitate and asked me to select something else.  I looked over at the tuna, and Ben offered me a bite.  It was delicious.  “I’d like the tuna please?” I asked, humbly.  He whisked the menu away with a genuine smile and went to get my tuna.  Ben kindly suggested I find the bathroom; he would wait for me to get my main, and then we could finish together.  When I got back to the table, the tuna was placed before me (it is seared for a micro-second).  Magic.  A little glitch of my own doing smoothed over within minutes, and we were off on our food Odyssey once again. 

If the wine had proved a good match for the starters, it was an even better pairing for the salty crusted tuna and risotto cake with Asian-style sauce and bok choy.  We ate slowly.  Mostly to savour the exceptional combination of flavours, but also to pace ourselves.  The portions were generous, and we wanted to finish every bite, because the food was so damned good!

We both cleaned our plates, again.

The bottle of wine was coming to an end, and Jeff poured the last glasses as he appeared with the dessert menu.  “See?” I said, looking up at him, “You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, but you are in fact the devil.”  He laughed, and recommended his favourite dessert, the chocolate grappa brownie.  Our eyes flew to the menu.  There it was, “Warm Grappa Brownie, vanilla ice cream, milk and bittersweet chocolate sauces”.  Oh my.  We chose that and the cheesecake, because we both love a good cheesecake.  Jeff returned to take our order, “We’ll have the brownie and the cheesecake – we’re just going to put them both in the middle of the table and fight it out.” 

Ben and I have been fortunate enough to have had some extraordinary meals in vast corners of the world, including Hawaii, Greece, and New Zealand, but I have to say, and I know he agrees, more often than not the desserts just do not complete the meal as they should.  We will have brilliant starters and mains, even great house-made bread, paired with terrific regional wines, but then dessert comes and it is an anti-climax.  We did NOT have this experience last night. 

The desserts arrived just as we were finishing our wine, and they looked good.  Both of us took pause to appreciate how pretty they were.  “I don’t think we’re supposed to eat them.  I think we should just look at them,” offered Ben.  I agreed, asking if he had his camera so he could take a picture of me with dessert.  He didn’t, so we turned our attention back to the table, and we got up the nerve to break the brownie.  We approached with care from both sides and dipped into the flourless brownie, soaking up some sauce and nicking the scoop of ice cream on the way to our mouths.  The ‘mmmm’s that followed were involuntary.  It was so unbelievably good.  And it was served with a chocolate/vanilla shortbread cookie, which added a whole other dimension of crunchy buttery goodness.  Praise all that is good!

We looked over at the poor cousin, cheesecake, and wondered how it could possibly compare.  But it did.  It was created with a ginger biscuit crust, served with poached pears, and throughout the filling was a cacophony of spices.  “It tastes like Christmas,” said Ben.  I just nodded and ‘mmm’ed in agreement; I had momentarily lost my ability to speak, but he nailed it with that description.  Both desserts were fantastic and we happily alternated back and forth between the two, commenting on how, at last, we’d shared a brilliant meal, complete with a brilliant dessert. 

The check came as we sat in blissful silence with two more empty plates before us.  Ben compared the desserts with his favourites ever, at Chino Latino in Minnesota, and at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney.  These two desserts were at least on par.  I mentioned that the brownie was remarkably similar to a molten chocolate pot I make back in Sydney when I have people for dinner.  “You can make something like that?” he asked incredulously.  “Um, yeah, I can,” and I promised to make it for him as soon as I am back in my own kitchen – and he is there to eat it.  I was inspired by presentation and accompaniments at Flying Fish, and it was outstandingly good, but, yes, I can make a fine dessert.

Flying Fish is the brain child of Christine Keff, who was inspired by a trip to Thailand where the menus at beach-side restaurants are simple, changeable and reflect only what is fresh that day.  Her philosophy translates in Seattle to a high-end restaurant where the complex menu changes daily to reflect the fish and produce that is fresh that day.  In fact, in researching this blog, the menu has already changed since last night – you could still get the brownie today, but even the desserts are changeable, as the cheesecake is missing.  The mahi mahi is still there, but no longer served with an apple butter sauce.  Did I do that?  Doubtful, but a timely change on the menu. 

To create a new menu daily based on what is fresh and available, is not an innovative concept for restaurants.  It is just that Flying Fish does it so well, and that the menu is highly creative, diverse and extensive.  So, next time you’re in Seattle, check it out.  Or, live it vicariously at the following site: http://flyingfishrestaurant.com/.

Bon appetit!

Seattle is the Home of Starbucks

I am naïve. No, really, I am. Until I was on my way to Seattle, where I am for the most of January 2008, I did not know that Starbucks was born here. I have subsequently walked past the flagship store – twice – and it looks very nice, but today I actually went into the Starbucks closest to where I am staying. And in Seattle, that is close, because you cannot swing a dead squirrel in Seattle without hitting a Starbucks.

Before I go any further, I must clarify two things: one is that I am a coffee snob. I like my coffee made by a qualified person – a barrista – with freshly ground, well-selected beans that are hand tamped, and brewed through a machine that is cleaned frequently to avoid that burnt taste. I like my milk to be heated to the perfect temperature, not overly frothy, not scorched, and not lukewarm. I am the Goldilocks of coffee lovers. I am painfully fussy and have returned more coffees than I have had hot dinners. Okay, an exaggeration, but only slightly. I have some favourite places in Sydney where I will drive out of my way to drink the coffee, and they take care. As a result, their coffees are hot, creamy and smooth. They look like bowls of liquid caramel, which is why ‘cappuccino’ is a colour; coffee should not look like grey dishwater.

The second thing I must clarify is a popular misconception about North Americans. Americans do like Starbucks. Well, many of them do, but on the whole Americans are not as obsessed as their northern cousins. Canadians LOVE Starbucks, like it is a form of communion, or something. In Seattle there are Starbucks stores dotted all over the city, but they are in competition with Seattle’s Best Coffee (I have yet to see if they are right, but I am beginning to think that is a weak mantle to wear), Tully’s and the Cherry Street Coffee House chains. In Calgary and Vancouver there is literally a Starbucks on every corner; every third person walking down the street carries a green cardboard cup.

Back in Seattle, today, I approached my local Starbucks with trepidation, because let’s face it, I know their coffee is not good. BUT, I was 20 minutes early for an appointment, so I decided to give them a chance to prove me wrong. I waited in line for approximately 8 seconds, and my order was taken by not one, but two employees behind the counter. A good start to the whole experience.  Now, I have been ordering coffees in North America long enough to know that a ‘flat white’, which is what I order at home, does not translate, so instead I asked for a small skim latte, no foam. No problem, I am understood and I pay the US$2.78. I do not have to wait long for my coffee, as the line formed behind me after I came in.

I am given a rather large cup, lid on, and when I take the lid off to add my sugar I am staring at anaemic froth. Confusion must have crossed my face, because the woman who made the coffee asks me if it okay. “I just get a little confused ordering coffee here,” I say with my best Aussie accent, “Is this a small?” She says it is a ‘tall’ – which is the smallest coffee on the menu board, but there is a smaller cup available. She is kind when she tells me to order a ‘short’ latte in future. Oh, how silly of me.  I wasn’t misheard, a ‘small’ is a ‘tall’. I look at the foam, “And if I don’t want any foam on my latte?” I am not being a smart ass, but there is an inch of foam staring at me. She is even nicer when she remakes the whole thing into a ‘short’ cup, but to be refunded the 33c difference between the coffee I ordered and the first coffee they made, required a manager and my signature.

At last my skim flat white – a Starbucks short skinny latte, no foam – is ready. I take the lid off, add my sugar, and taste. It is so weak, and the coffee flavour so bitter I add more sugar and sprinkle some chocolate on it. I stir it again, and take another sip. Lukewarm, and grey. Nope, can’t do it. I should have just thrown my two dollars in the bin, because that is where the coffee ends up after three sips. I truly wonder how they can mess it up – how can the coffee be burnt first thing in the morning? Surely they clean the machines at least once at the end of the day?

I peeked behind the counter to watch them make the coffee; it is all automated. They do not grind the beans as they use them, they do not tamp the grinds they need for each coffee, the system is automated. A machine makes the coffee; there is no other human input beyond the pressing of a button. And having tasted the result of one shot in the smallest cup they offer, the machine must be set to ‘weak’.  I realised it is no wonder that so many people add a flavouring to their Starbucks coffee.  It is so it tastes like something worth consuming.  It is a shame, really, because there must be staff behind that counter who love coffee and want to make something great.

This was not my first Starbucks coffee; I have had it before, several times. And each time I hope to be pleasantly surprised; today was no exception. I just wasn’t, and life is too short to drink bad coffee. It is too short for other things too, like finishing boring books, but that’s a whole other discussion. I still plan to go to the flagship store at the Pike Place Markets. I am curious now, to see if they have barristas or automation.

One last thing: I had coffee at a Cherry Street Coffee House the other day – on Cherry Street, so perhaps the flagship store of that chain – and it was good. I will go back before I leave the city.

Okay, and just one more last thing: Caffe Artigiano is a small chain of coffee houses in Vancouver, and their coffee is outstanding. They can actually claim to have the best baristas in Canada from 2003-2006 (Canadian Barista Championship) AND they can make a flat white to cry for (although it is called a ‘latte, no foam’). I had one 6 days ago and the sweet, smooth memory lives on.