Rich Listowski’s Halibut, Rice with a Little Heat, a Little Cool, at Seattle’s Baroness Hotel

June 15, 2013 – The Baroness was quite a lady in her day.

Designed by architect James Schack in the Art Deco style popular in the early part of the last century, the Baroness opened its doors as an apartment hotel on Seattle’s First Hill in 1931. Several wealthy families had built mansions in the First Hill neighborhood in the 1880s and ‘90s.  By the 1920s, however, the area was becoming known as a medical center with several hospitals opening their doors, including Virginia Mason in 1923.

Schack’s distinctive Art Deco designs are still evident today in the elegant old lobby, in the terra cotta designs scattered above several of the external windows and in small touches throughout the apartments and rooms on the hotel’s six floors.  The neon sign announcing the “Baroness Apt. Hotel” has clung to the corner of the building since 1938.

Not much is known about Ludwig Stark and John Armin, the original owners.  Harold Steiner bought the hotel in 1969 and his family managed it for the next four decades.  It was known as a respectable apartment hotel with many residents living there for years.  The elder Steiner personally visited estate sales to purchase most of the paintings that decorate the first floor walls.

The venerable old building was called to a higher purpose when it was purchased by Virginia Mason Hospital in 2006.  Since that time its main function has been to house patients coming to Virginia Mason for treatment.   Many of those patients are Alaskans from the southeast part of our state.  Residents of Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan often head south to Seattle rather than north to Anchorage for medical treatment.  One day I met a couple from Eagle on the elevator.  Eagle is up north near the Canadian border.  Up there where the mercury has been known to drop to 60 below zero on a winter day.

The Baroness has been a home away from home for thousands of people arriving hopeful that their health would be restored.   Many have recovered and returned to their homes to resume their lives.  Others have been less fortunate.  Through it all the staff of the Baroness Hotel has earned a reputation for compassion.  For doing all they can to assist each guest through what can often be very difficult times.

My friend, Rich Listowski, is one of the success stories.  His kidney transplant was successful.  His life has been restored to him.  He walked out of the Baroness with a bounce in his step.

I had volunteered to spend a few days during his recovery to help in whatever way I could.  Fortunately by the time I arrived at the Baroness he was toward the end of the recovery period and was doing fine.  My job became simply to be nearby.  And to accompany Rich to a few fine restaurants to celebrate the beginning of this new and improved chapter in his life.

As good as the restaurants were, however, by the time the weekend rolled around we were ready for food less fancy.  Rich wanted to rest, watch Phil Mickelson’s valiant but doomed attempt to win the U.S. Open and cook some halibut in the small kitchen of his apartment at the Baroness.

Rich cooks halibut about as well as it can be cooked and I told him so.

“I guess that means I’m cooking the halibut,” he said.

“Guess so,” I replied.  But I said I’d come up with a side dish.

The trick to cooking halibut is keeping it simple and moist.  It has a wonderful, mild flavor of its own that needs little help.  Tending it carefully so that it doesn’t overcook and become dry is critical.  The flesh should be, Rich says, between opaque and pure white.

For a side dish I wanted something that had a little spice, maybe a little tartness to counter balance the mildness of the halibut.  I came up with rice with jalapenos and a lime juice-based dressing.  A nice combination of heat and cool.

Rich Listowski’s Halibut

(Serves two)

2 halibut filets with skin on, 8  oz each

Juice of ½ a lemon

6 tablespoons salted butter

A healthy dose of lemon pepper

Preheat the oven to broil.

Place the filets in an oven proof dish.  Spread each filet with 3 tablespoons of butter.  Squeeze lemon juice over the filets and sprinkle generously with lemon pepper.

Broil the filets for five minutes with the skin side up.  Turn the filets over and broil an additional four minutes with the skin side down.

Rice with a Little Heat, a Little Cool

2 cups cooked white rice                                              6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 jalapeno, sliced with seeds attached                         1 tablespoon honey

12 cherry tomatoes, cut in half                                      1 teaspoon cumin

1 avocado, cut into ½ inch pieces                                 Juice of 2 limes

3 green onions, sliced thin                                             Salt & pepper to taste

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Saute jalapeno over moderately high heat in one tablespoon of olive oil until it begins to soften, about three minutes.  Add the tomatoes and cook until they begin to soften and break down, two to three minutes.  Add the jalapeno and tomatoes to the rice, along with the avocado, green onions and cilantro. Salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well.

Make a dressing by whisking together the remaining olive oil, honey, lime juice and cumin.   Taste and adjust sweet or tart as necessary.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour dressing over the rice and mix well.

Bon Temps!

Voula’s Offshore Cafe

June 15, 2013 – The hospitality at Voula’s Offshore Café in Seattle extends to the sidewalk.  They set up a tank of coffee out there with a supply of big, navy-style mugs for guests waiting for tables.  And make no mistake about it.  You will wait.  They open at 8:00.  My friend, Rich Listowski, and I showed up around 10:00 for breakfast.  There were several people standing around on the sidewalk.  We put our names on the list hanging by the door and helped ourselves to coffee.

It was a beautiful day.  Voula’s is located across the street from the boatyards of Lake Union, one of the many lakes in and around Seattle.  They were all gouged out by the Vashon Glacier 12,000 years ago.  The Native American people of this area, the Duwamish, called this one Small Lake.  It was Thomas Mercer who named it Lake Union in 1854.  He had a vision of a system of canals connecting all the lakes around Seattle to create an open waterway to the Pacific Ocean.

Voula Vlakos came more than a century and a quarter later.  She opened Voula’s, her son Nikos told me, in 1982.  Nikos and his brother, Sikey, were headed to college and trying to find jobs to make the money to pay for it.  Voula said she would open the restaurant and they could work there to pay for their education.

That was 31 years ago.  Nikos and Sikey are still running the restaurant.  Nikos said their mother doesn’t work much in the cafe anymore.  But, he said, she shows up from time to time just to make sure everything is as it should be.

“I’m flying to Ketchikan tomorrow,” Nikos told us when he learned we were Alaskans.  He said he was going fishing for king salmon.  He goes to Ketchikan twice a year, he  told us.  This time of year for king salmon and in the late summer or early fall for silvers.  He knows about fish and when they travel.

Our wait wasn’t long.  The coffee they provided on the sidewalk was excellent.   Before I had finished the first cup Nikos was showing us to a center table in the restaurant.  Once inside I ordered a second cup.

Voula’s offers American breakfast and lunch fare with a Greek flair.  I was tempted by several of my favorite breakfast meals on the menu but when I saw the sign behind the counter proclaiming the day’s breakfast special I was hooked.   Rich ordered his favorite breakfast, biscuits and gravy with a slab of ham on the side.  I love biscuits and gravy, too.  But I can get that in most any restaurant.  I’m not sure I’ll ever see a special called “Who’s Your Daddy?” again.  Gotta try it.

The dish set in front of me was a superior variation on Eggs Benedict.  A creative and imaginative version of an old standard.

In place of the traditional English muffin base there was a wedge of jalapeno and cheddar cheese cornbread.  And that’s something that’ll tug on the heart strings of anyone southern born.

The usual Canadian bacon was jettisoned in favor of a few thin slices of brisket that Nikos and Sikey smoke themselves.  More Greek influenced than Texas style brisket in both taste and presentation.  It was fork tender and added a depth of flavor well beyond that of the traditional Eggs Benedict.

The two poached eggs were the only nod to tradition on the plate.  Even the Hollandaise which dressed the dish was lightly spiced with a touch of barbeque sauce.

The slight heat of the jalapenos.  The cheesy cornbread.  The smokiness of the brisket.  The bit of sweet from the barbeque sauce flavored Hollandaise.  Wonderful.

So who’s your daddy, Eggs Benedict?  I think you know.

The Metropolitan Grill

June 13, 2013 – Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill could be the setting for a scene from the Great Gatsby.  Tuxedos and white jackets scattered throughout the restaurant.  Dark wood and green velour.  Some of the booths had heavy green privacy draperies making us wonder what might have gone on once the curtains were drawn.  A picture from the 1920s.

The music set us more in the era of the Rat Pack.  It could have been any time from the ‘40s to the early ‘60s.  Big band jazz.  Every other song was Sinatra.

Sinatra probably dined at the Metropolitan Grill.  Most everyone famous who comes to Seattle winds up there sooner or later.  The walls are covered with celebrity pictures.  The first one I saw was a shot of Don Rickles.  On this night they would have to be happy with my friend Rich Listowski and me.

The brass plate on the wall next to our booth had the name of a senior officer of a major bank engraved on it.  I wondered what would happen if the guy actually showed up while we were having dinner.  Would we have to get up and move?

Rich thought probably so but, he said, “He should have to pay for our dinner.”  Sounded reasonable to me.

The Metropolitan Grill’s claim to fame is the best steak in Seattle.  They’re probably right.  They have seafood.  Most nights they offer the freshest of Alaska’s salmon and halibut.  But they’re all about steaks. 

They know how to treat a prime piece of beef.  In fact, their beef goes far beyond prime.  All the way to wonderful.  They offer Wagyu beef, steaks cut from the Japanese breed of cattle known for the extensive marbling of the meat.  Kobe, one of the regions in which Wagyu cattle are raised, is the best known variety in the U.S.

Such fame doesn’t come without a price.  At the Metropolitan you can pay as much as $135 for a single steak.  We opted for entrees that were simply excellent rather than Wagyu amazing.

I ordered the Grill’s 2nd Avenue Cocktail before dinner.  A variation on a martini, the cocktail is made with Tanqueray 10 gin, Cocchi Americano and a bit of Peychouds bitters.  Cocchi Americano is an aperitif wine that has been made in the Asti region of Italy since 1891.  The addition of the wine and bitters lent a slight sweetness to the gin that was quite pleasant.  A nice cocktail to sip while waiting for dinner to be served.

We shared a plate of calamari for a starter.  The lightly breaded seafood came accompanied by sweet cherry peppers and a saffron roasted red pepper aioli.  The peppers had a bit more heat than expected and I welcomed it.  The spiciness added zest to the mild taste of the calamari.

Each of us ordered a cup of lobster bisque and we were both glad we did.  It was the most amazing part of the meal.  Graced with a touch of cognac and topped with a bit of crème fraiche, the bisque was astonishingly rich.  Awesome.

After his years of deprivation, Rich was hungry for pork so he ordered the pock chop.  I was in a steak house.  I wanted beef.  I asked for prime rib.  Rare.

Since prime rib is really a roast asking for it rare can sometimes be problematic.  Usually it’s no more than medium rare.  But this was, after all, the Metropolitan Grill.  They brought me a slab of prime rib that was rare.  Classically rare.  Cool red center.  Not sure how they did it but I wasn’t about to complain.  With fresh horseradish, steak fries and an incredibly delicious plate of mushrooms, it was a terrific meal.

Scott and Zelda Fitzegerald would have enjoyed themselves, though they no doubt would have had more than one 2nd Avenue Cocktail.

Sinatra and his entourage would have been pleased.


June 12, 2013 – Rich Listowski can eat again!

My friend from Juneau got the shock of a lifetime seven years ago after a routine physical exam.  He got a phone call asking him to come back to the doctor’s office.  On his return he learned that the tests had shown, and additional tests confirmed, that his kidneys were in trouble.  And so began a years long regimen of carefully counting protein so as to avoid stressing his weakened kidneys.  He lived largely on yogurt and corn flakes, saving up his meager allowance of protein for special occasions.

Then on Mother’s day of this year there was a medical miracle at Virginia Mason hospital in Seattle!  Rich got a kidney transplant.  Life has begun anew!

A six week recovery period was attached to the surgery, which he has spent at the Baroness Hotel on Seattle’s Capital Hill, directly across the street from the hospital.  His two sisters and a brother-in-law took turns staying with him in Seattle.

I also volunteered to come to Seattle for a few days to help him out but by the time I arrived toward the end of his stay his recovery was nearly complete.  At this point he can out walk me.  So my mission of mercy has turned into a few days for a couple of old friends to hang out and explore some new restaurants.  And what could be wrong with that?

Rich’s baby sister, Nancy Van Naarden, who lives with her husband in Indiana on the outskirts of Chicago, was still here when I arrived.  Rich wanted to take her someplace special for dinner on her last night in Seattle.  I suggested RN74, one of Chef Michael Mina’s restaurants, which opened in Seattle about two years ago.  Good choice.

With his business partner, tennis great Andre Agassi, Michael Mina heads up a restaurant empire with some 17 restaurants scattered over eight states from coast to coast.  Though he was born in Egypt, Mina grew up in Ellensburg, Washington, so it’s not surprising that he chose Seattle for one of his two RN74 brands.  The other is in San Francisco, another city of which he is fond.

We found Seattle’s RN74 to be humming with life when we arrived.  Crowded but not so much so that the staff couldn’t find a table for us in a prime location.  Noisy with the chatter of friendly people but not so much so that we couldn’t have a conversation at our table without raising our voices.  Lots of smiles and laughter.  It was catching.  It was fun.

I watched a conversation between the maitre d’ and a chef.  They were both laughing.  The chef had a piece of paper stuck to his forehead.  No one but me seemed to notice that the chef had a piece of paper stuck to his forehead.  He turned and went back into the kitchen, still wearing the piece of paper.  As the maitre d’ walked by our table I asked her why the chef had a piece of paper stuck to his forehead.  She laughed and said some of his friends were there and had sent a note to him.  He had said he didn’t have time to respond at the moment and stuck the paper to his forehead.  RN74 really is a lot of fun.

Mina expresses his commitment to using locally produced products in his restaurants whenever possible.  That even goes for the cocktail menu.  While Rich and Nancy opted for red wine, the cocktail I ordered was made with rye whiskey distilled in Woodinville, Washington.  Mixed with Peychauds bitters, a little maraschino juice and just a touch of absinthe, it was a tasty though powerful cocktail.  Stimulating and delicious, it was sufficiently strong that one was plenty.  Just enough to encourage the appetite.

Rich and I shared an order of escargots to start the meal.  They were brought to table with half sporting a garlic herb butter and the other half a tomato herb butter.  Both were appetizing, with the dressings presented subtly so as to enhance rather than overpower the delicate flavor of the small crustaceans.

While Rich and Nancy both ordered halibut and pronounced themselves happy with it, the black cod caught my eye.  Black cod is a fish that I have always found to be especially delicate and moist.  It seemed like the thing to eat in a Seattle restaurant just a few blocks from salt water.

The black cod came swimming in a pool of broth, accompanied by shrimp dumplings, baby bok choy, mushrooms and a few thin slices of radish.  Delectable.  The fish was perfectly prepared, moist and meltingly light on the tongue.  The bok choy was so fresh it could have been picked immediately before taking its place in the dish.  The dumplings and mushrooms chewy, meaty and satisfying.  And the broth.  Oh yes, the broth!  I will admit to finishing the broth with a spoon.  It was that flavorful.

I stepped out onto the sidewalk to take a phone call.  When I returned Rich and Nancy had ordered beignets for dessert.  And that was ok with me.  While RN74’s beignets aren’t the light, airy wonders of the Café du Monde in New Orleans, the grand cathedral of the beignet, they were a satisfyingly full-flavored version of the French doughnuts.  Even better, they were accompanied by a butterscotch sauce with just a touch of Macallan 12 year old scotch.  When I had finished off my share of the beignets, I again reached for the spoon.  The sauce, like the broth of the black cod, was that good.

Rich can eat again.  His baby sister’s last night in Seattle.   It was a grand celebration.