Given my level of music geekdom, it's a bit insane that I don't make my way to Seattle more often.
That came into focus on a recent visit, my first in more than a decade. And I don't have ignorance of the place as an excuse--I lived in the area in the summer of 1993, right after graduating from the U, and visited a couple times after that, most recently when the Experience Music Project opened in 2000 and I covered it for the Salt Lake Tribune. Other than the omnipresent traffic I remember from living as a Seattle couch surfer and Mt. Rainier National Park lackey 20 years ago, I have nothing but fond memories of Seattle. And yet, I still never bother visiting.
With a two-day trip on the books, I did a little advance planning to hit some familiar old haunts and tourist must-sees--hello, Pike Place Market--but let some random circumstance take over at times, too. And Seattle is the kind of town where it's easy to let that happen. Plenty of neighborhoods scattered throughout Seattle can offer all the bars, restaurants, cultural sites and natural beauty to make for a satisfying weekend.
I spent mine based downtown, in a relatively cheap hotel, the Executive Hotel Pacific, roughly two blocks from the train line that delivers visitors landing at Seattle-Tacoma Airport at one of several stops northbound through the burbs and the city. Something I didn't remember--how easy it is to navigate much of what Seattle has to offer via public transport and short walks. Between the tight city blocks and presence of water taxis, light-rail and a monorail left over from a long ago World Fair, there were no cars or cabs necessary for my quickie weekend.
Rocking out and getting "cultured"
The rock 'n' roll geek portion of the trip started right away, with a Yo La Tengo concert at the Showbox at the Market. The venue sits a mere block from Pike Place Market, and holds a special place in Jet City music lore, thanks to its decades open as an entertainment spot where performers ranging from Al Jolson and Mae West, Duke Ellington and Muddy Waters, The Police and The Ramones all made noise in the past. The current lineup is similarly all over the map, and worth a look any time you're in town. It's a one-level room that occasionally has all-ages crowds divided from the bars running along either side of the place as you face the stage. The sound was excellent, and the drink prices not too heinous, considering the captive audience.
Another highlight for the musically inclined is the Experience Music Project, a rock museum built by Paul Allen and located at Seattle Center near the Space Needle. The Frank Gehry design is appropriately funky from the outside, and inside hosts a serious of multi-media features that still seem pretty fresh 13 years after opening.
The EMP has expanded into other realms of pop culture through the years--current exhibits include "Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film" and "Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic," two shows full of movie props, video clips and interactive activities that are only loosely related to rock and roll.
"Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" was the show that drew me to use some of my valuable, brief stay in Seattle inside the EMP. Tracking the roots of Nirvana's breakthrough from indie-rock punks to mainstream popularity--and showing how the rest of the world reacted to the "Seattle sound" of the early '90s--the show has a lot to offer those of us who were unrepentant fanboys of the Lollapalooza generation. The Nirvana show only has a few weeks left, but another show detailing Jimi Hendrix's explosive London years stretches out longer, and a brand new show opening June 15 offers exciting possibilities: "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power."
During my visit, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a free entry day at the Seattle Art Museum, offering my companion and I a chance to check out the massive space downtown on the fly between other activities. The highlight for me was Fifty Works for Fifty States, a show culled from The Dorothy and Robert Vogel Collection that was famously documented in a film about the two average New Yorkers who collected an amazing array of art through the years. That show runs through Oct. 27.
Another show featuring masks from the Nuxalt Native American community of the Northwest is also worth your time; it runs until July 14, and has some amazingly vibrant artifacts on display.
Eating ALL the Seafood
That was essentially my plan, but a bit of chaos and unpredictability led to my dining at an utterly random assortment of restaurants during my brief stay. And for the most part, that worked out A-okay.
First stop was Sazerac, a casual joint next to Hotel Monaco Seattle, in downtown, and across the street from my hotel. I walked in and almost immediately recognized the man greeting folks as they walked in the door as Art Cazares, the long-time manager of Salt Lake City's Bambara who has been in Seattle for a couple years now. After chatting with Art, I delved into some blackened Idaho catfish (because where ELSE would you want your catfish from?). It was served with lemony mashed potatoes and some jalepeno-lime brown butter, and while it was tasty and not outrageously priced at $18, it had nothing on the Medjool dates served packed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon--$7 during Sazerac's lengthy Happy Hour--or the roasted organic beets. The drink specials during Happy Hour were good, too, with well drinks for $3 and local microbrew pints for $4, and thanks to running into Art, I walked out with some homemade cookies still warm from the oven, gratis. Thanks, Art!
Our pregame meal for Ya La Tengo came via a little Italian join in the Belltown neighborhood called La Vita E Bella. How Italian? There was a guy with an accordion who thankfully drifted to the opposite side of the place shortly after our arrival; a little accordion goes a long way unless you're at a zydeco show. A decent-sized wine list, friendly waiter, classic Caesar salad and penne puttanesca pasta dish made with a plum tomato sauce, kalamata olives, capers and parmiggiano worked out fine for rock and roll sustenance. Had it been a bit warmer, the streetside dining would have been great.
A quickie breakfast at Tulio, an Italian place in a nearby hotel, got our Saturday morning off and running with the basics: hearty strips of bacon and cage-free eggs, some rosemary potatoes, and a frittata full of grilled veggies, fresh herbs and goat cheese washed down with some excellent coffee--naturally--made for a fine morning feast.
Far better, and most unexpected, was a taco lunch at El Puerco Lloron, a little room tucked several levels down in Pike Place Market that's been open 30 years now. In essence, we're just talking souped-up street tacos, but they were awesome. We sampled carnitas, chicken and (my favorite, probably because we don't see them in SLC) Tacos de Marisco--fresh grilled Red Snapper tacos that were the one dish from the weekend I can't stop thinking about. All were served up with pinto and black beans, cabbage, onions and tomatoes. We added some chips and a few of their different salsas from the salsa bar, and bottles of Pacifico. Naturally.
The final stop of the culinary run through Seattle came at Von's 1,000 Spirits, a self-labeled "gustobistro" downtown that has two unique aspects that I can totally get behind. One: They certainly live up to their name--the long restaurant boasts a ridiculously long and beautiful bar packed with all manner of high-end spirits, including their own house-made vodka, tequila and gin. And two: Von's 1,000 Spirits uses the house sourdough starter to create all manner of dishes filling its menu, from the pizza crusts to burger rolls to pasta. I've been to a few places that specialize in sourdough pizza, or sourdough pancakes, but I've never been anywhere so dedicated to the sourdough cause throughout its menu.
That doesn't mean everything we ordered had a sourdough component. That is, unless they slipped some into my martinis made with the Von's "Sanctified Vodka." I'm pretty sure they didn't, and I'd order that vodka again no problem.
We sampled the 21 Club Cod Cake appetizer, a dish that turns fresh-caught wild Alaskan cod into Maryland-style cakes, served up with a chili slaw, pickled vegetable salad and spicy aioli. The cod cake itself was somewhat forgettable, but the accompanying slaw and veggies were excellent, and they adorn many sandwiches on the menu.
For our main dishes, we dug into the Lardon and Apple pizza (pictured above) at the recommend of the manager, and it was a good call. Lardons, if you don't know, are small cubes of pork fat, and combining them with French Ewe Roquefort cheese, apple slices and dried local cranberries made for a distinct and flavorful pizza, despite a crust that could have used a bit more time in the oven. No such complaints are coming about the sourdough pasta served with rockfish. The sourdough gave the pasta an uncommon flavor, and the fresh fish helped me at least feel like I was taking advantage of our oceanfront mini-vacation.