While reviewing my many and varied food experiences during the past year, I'm struck by how many of them involve interactions with other people as well as with food. For me, the two go together: Food is often the organizing principle for a social occasion, whether it's a fancy meal out or simply breaking bread with friends.
Dinner in the Zoo
One benefit of my job is talking to chefs and others with a passion for food. The good news is that you don't have to be a food writer to meet and talk with chefs about their work. At Latah Bistro, you can call ahead to reserve the seats known as "The Zoo," right by the door, with a front-row seat to the action in the open kitchen. Ever wonder what chefs say to each other when they've got 10 tickets up and the place is buzzing? You'll find out when you sit in the Zoo.
I've enjoyed notable visits to the Zoo this year, sometimes with friends, sometimes traveling solo. When Chef David Blaine is manning the grill, he keeps up a running commentary throughout the evening -- and he'll toss a few tasty tidbits across the transom, too. But whoever's working, the food will be good, the company will be fine, and you'll get a behind-the-scenes view that's hard to beat.
Talking Wine at Vino!
Another highlight has been getting to know the folks at Vino! and checking out the wine tastings. Following John Allen around the shop, you'll learn more about Northwest wines and the people behind them than you'd get from months of reading wine magazines. Of course, if you're looking for true Champagne or something exotic from South Africa, you'll find it, but Northwest wines are both a specialty and a passion there.
Cupping a Cup
I had never heard of cupping coffee until I met Dave Rier, chief roaster at Thomas Hammer Coffee, on a grand tour of the company's facilities. We sat at a rotating round table -- Rier, Tom Hammer, Chris Bovey and I -- and "cupped" three coffees to check for consistency and any sign of defects. "To get the full taste you want to aerate it," Rier explained. "The sides of your cheeks and your tongue pick up different flavor profiles ... When you take it you're going to slurp it, and pick up all sensations in your mouth, then spit it back out. Caffeine can affect your judgment, so by spitting you don't absorb as much."
The company offers tours and sampling events for groups interested in creating their own name blends. (Call 535-4806 to learn more.)
Wine at Bangkok Thai
I like Thai food and I like wine, but I don't expect to find an expansive wine list at a typical Thai restaurant. But Bangkok Thai has proven to be not your typical Thai restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised to find a wine list with several regional vintages --by the glass or bottle -- and suggestions for wine pairings in the menu. I ordered one of the salads, paired it with the recommended glass of red wine, and it was sublime. And the presentation was a step above typical as well.
I'd heard about Lovitt in Colville soon after Norman and Kristin Six first opened their restaurant just south of Colville, and from my first visit this spring, I was hooked. Norman creates hearty yet simple fare, informed by classic French cooking, using mostly local and regional ingredients from small producers. Sunday brunch -- a buttery omelet, made Northwest with smoked salmon -- on the broad front porch at the height of summer is an exquisite treat. In no particular order, other delights include:
* The $2 desserts at the Safari Room mean there's always enough room (and money) to spring for dessert, whether you've had the barbecued pork or the arugula-pear-bleu cheese flatbread.
* When fighting off the inevitable winter cold, I stop by Huckleberry's bistro and take home some jalapeno chicken soup, a flavorful chicken stock filled with vegetables, potatoes, chunks of chicken breast and a zing of jalapeno.
* The Spokane Farmers Market opens in May, and the first day is always a celebration and reunion among vendors and customers alike. The first day to pick up CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes from Tolstoy Farms marks the official start of summer for me.
* The friendly folks at Chaps set a special table when I arrive with my elderly mom in tow, and barista Bryeanne starts making my double Americano as soon as she sees my car. Now that's community.
And speaking of community, my Thursday night soup group delights me weekly with friendship and support and great meals. No need to wait for the newest restaurant to open -- all it takes is hospitality, inspiration, commitment, several quarts of chicken stock and a few bottles of wine.
Here's to the delights of the year to come!