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The Seattle Times Pike Place Market


Thursday, March 25, 2010 - Page updated at 03:56 PM


A restaurant critic's Market memories

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Perhaps you were lured to the Northwest by Bill Gates, Howard Schultz or Jeff Bezos, whose Promised Land of job opportunity came with stock options and "golden handcuffs." Maybe you were drawn by those other local luminaries, Douglas fir and Juan de Fuca, whose invitation to join them in the great outdoors could not be ignored.

Me? I was wooed here by Bill Frank, Jack Mathers and Sam Lee, denizens of the nation's oldest continuous farmers market. I've stayed, in large part, because food is my life, restaurants my livelihood and Pike Place Market my Mecca.

Like millions of others, I was introduced to Seattle as a wide-eyed tourist. Our matchmaker was my best friend Abbie, a Seattleite-by-way-of Florida who'd drag me down to the Market each time I'd come to visit, just to see me gape at the colorful cornucopia.

She'd take me to Bill Frank's Place Pigalle, home to the most romantic bar in town, where we'd sip cocktails, eat steamed mussels and wonder if we'd ever find true love. Long before we found it, we'd ogle our favorite fishmonger, big-blue-eyed Jack Mathers at Jack's Fish Spot, where we'd stop for cioppino or fish 'n' chips.

When it came time to return to Anchorage — my latest in a long string of adoptive hometowns — she'd bid me farewell with crisp fried chicken from Sam Lee's Chicken Valley. That welcome gift came in a brown paper bag scrawled with the admonition, "Don't eat that nasty airline food!"

For all the changes I've seen in and around Seattle in the past two decades, the Market — its people, its places, its lease on my heart — still stands the test of time.

Memorable perch

In the late '80s, I was an unemployed waitress renting a little house above Lake Union. I'd drive down to the Market early in the morning and watch the world go by from my Post Alley perch at Stewart Brothers Coffee. Stewart Brothers eventually morphed into Seattle's Best Coffee, now part of the corporate umbrella of Starbucks. I can still have a latte there, but I can't have lunch at Café Sport — one of first places I went looking for a job.

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At this health-club adjunct just north of the Market proper, a young cook named Tom Douglas was garnering raves for his creative take on Northwest cuisine. Years later, Douglas bought the restaurant, reintroducing it as Etta's Seafood, where his menu still touts the ham-stoked black-bean soup that was my standing order at the Sport.

I soon snagged a job at Umberto's, an Italian restaurant in Pioneer Square. But when I wanted Italian food, I'd head back to the Market. There, one of its greatest attractions lay in wait: The Pink Door's fun and funky rooftop dining room. I swear I can still taste the antipasto I had on my first visit, and smell the scent of the Frangelico I sipped while watching a harvest moon hang over Elliott Bay.

Later, I moved on to work at Green Lake's Saleh al Lago, where the Who's Who of Seattle came to eat. Among them was Louie DeLaurenti, whose specialty-food store was my go-to joint for Italian meats, cheeses and pasta. Though he's since sold the store that bears his name, it remains my Market must-stop for everything from salumi to mozzarella to San Marzano tomatoes.

After a tough night waiting tables, the Market was where I headed to unwind. My destination was the bar at Campagne, regularly packed with industry professionals on a busman's holiday, where I'd treat myself to a late-night nosh in a lounge overseen by owner Peter Lewis and his general manager, Bryan Hill.

One night the door opened and a cheer went up for French chef, Thierry Rautureau, just in from Rover's in Madison Valley. Not yet known for his hat, he greeted his cronies while I sat nearby with mine eating pate de campagne prepared by chef Tamara Murphy.

Those were the days, my friend. The days before Campagne begat Café Campagne; before Murphy and Hill left to open Brasa in Belltown; before Murphy's sous-chef, Jim Drohman, took her place in the kitchen; and before Drohman opened his Parisian-styled bistro Le Pichet, just off First and Virginia, leaving his kitchen in the capable hands of his sous-chef, Daisley Gordon — whose bar menu still touts that country pate.

In those days we knew Le Pichet as the Kaleenka: a veritable doll house of a Russian cafe that cornered the Market's market on borscht and pelmeny. Today when I need a Russian food-fix, I've got other Pike Place Market options. Like Piroshky, Piroshky — where I happily wait in line for sweet and savory baked goods. And Cafe Yarmarka, where potato-and-cheese pierogies can be savored at the counter, or taken to-go.

I also went to the Market for the big splurges. When an old friend visited from California, she wanted to take me somewhere special. I chose Chez Shea, known for its fabulous prix-fixe seasonal menus — an anomaly, then. Where better to show off my city and my Market? We ordered champagne, reminisced and ate in a style to which I'd later grow far more accustomed.

Other side of table

When I graduated from journalism school at UW, the tables turned and I became a writer, reviewing Chez Shea in 1995 after it annexed a sexy little sibling, Shea's Lounge. I profiled it again 10 years later, after Sandy Shea sold the place to the current owners — who've kept its charm, and her name.

One of my earliest reviews took me to 20-year-old Il Bistro, tucked away in the alley a stone's throw from Rachel the Pig. I marveled at its longevity then, noting that few restaurants of its tenure "are still packing them in and pouring it on like Il Bistro." I can say the same about that Market mainstay a dozen years later.

You can still order Il Bistro's "famed rack of lamb," as I described it long ago, though you'll no longer find "bartender extraordinaire" Murray Stenson working the Bistro's bar. Murr the Blur has since moved down to the Market Hillclimb, where he practices alchemy with alcohol at the Zig Zag Cafe.

When I married a decade ago, I turned to the Market for provisions. Before packing out-of-town guests on a 90-foot sailboat for our "rehearsal dinner," we made a stop at World Class Chili, where chili-meister Joe Canavan sells his fragrant wares by the cup — and the gallon. We bought six of the later, with variations in meat and heat, enjoying it (along with a warm Seattle breeze) on a memorable three-hour tour.

A year later we had a son, a Market-loving chip off the old block. He's learned to (shhhh) feed the pigeons at Steinbrueck Park, stop at Cinnamon Works for a gingersnap cookie and belly up to the counter at Oriental Kitchenette, where his "aunties" Lila and Joy hook him up with his Filipino favorite, chicken adobo.

Much has changed for me since I made the Market my own. But in all the ways that count, the Market hasn't changed at all.

Bill Frank recently celebrated Place Pigalle's 25th anniversary by selling it. Yet on a recent evening, I went back for a meal as fine — and romantic — as ever before. Jack Mathers is still selling fish at Jack's Fish Spot, his big blue eyes now obscured, as mine are, by reading glasses. And when my pal Abbie comes to town next month before leaving once more for Saudi, I plan to pay a visit to Sam Lee, buy a bag of his fabulous fried chicken, and send her off with a delicious Market memory in hand.

Nancy Leson:

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