Tag Archives: eating out

Dining out: an exercise in risk management

In economics class, we’ve been discussing measured risk, and it hit me how much dining out really is a risk.

When I was a kid, we had a list we went through when we were going to eat out. Let me rephrase that: I had a list, and I recited it until everyone could reach a consensus. (Yes, I can still recite most of it; no, I won’t recite it for you.) Even with that list, it usually ended up with us going to one of four or five places pretty regularly, because we knew they could please everyone.

cevicheYou probably have a handful of favorites as well, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So do I; Harbor City is a house favorite for dim sum, and I know many of the Tom Douglas menus inside and out. You know you will get what you feel is a decent value for your money and time, so you keep going back. I can go into Palace Kitchen on any random day and be almost completely certain people will have a good time, and that has a lot of value when I’m deciding on where to take a group.

Going to a new restaurant is a risk – it’s why we all look to reviews, Yelp, Urbanspoon, that one friend who seems to know about every restaurant in town. And it makes us more frustrated when a restaurant with rave reviews sucks, because we tried to place a value on it before experiencing it.

That being said, getting a second opinion can be rather helpful, especially when trying to please a group with a new place. It’s that they tend to be used as a crutch, with the reviews almost treated as gospel. That’s a bit unnerving when people who don’t say much besides “YEAH TACOS!” are the ones writing a chunk of the comments.

egg-groupPop up restaurants are an even higher risk. Like the omakase option at sushi restaurants, where the chef does whatever they want, one night only restaurants or pop-ups are a gamble that the chef, when left to their own imagination, will still make things you want to eat. Most of the events in Seattle involve either established chefs or chefs associated with established restaurants to reduce the risk of getting a bad meal somewhat (Chef Robin Leventhal at ONO Project; JAM with cooks from Cuoco and Brave Horse Tavern).

On top of it, they’re more expensive, because the chefs are buying smaller quantities or have to deal with event fees. So, most people avoid them, so say they’re for the rich, the die hard food enthusiasts.

Don’t be those people.

chicken-parmIt’s rather awesome to see what a chef will do when allowed to run free with ideas. Going to pop ups has introduced me to new ways to use almond butter in desserts, people I would have never met otherwise, ingredients I might not have tried on my own. (I had baby octopus with nori puree the other day; that was a new experience.) And because it’s new, I’ll remember it more strongly, good or bad, which helps expand my food knowledge and skills.

If you’re concerned about costs, look for non-fancy options, or when restaurants host recurring small events that don’t match their standard menu. Sitka and Spruce does taco nights that are apparently killer. Find the pops ups where you can order a la carte. Some are even just desserts or street food. (Dorie Greenspan does a cookie pop-up; I’m rather jealous that I can’t hop over to NYC on a whim.)

When it comes to food, there is always risk. We might as well have more fun with it – and if it’s bad, that just means we’ll have some crazy stories to tell.

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Dishcrawl review, part I – the food

So on Tuesday, Anne and I trekked out to Ballard to join the group of Dishcrawl for a night of culinary awesomeness. The concept is simple: four restaurants, four different bites, all within a few blocks of each other. It’s a great excuse to try out some of the better spots in a neighborhood. I’m going to review three of the places – BalMar, Volterra, and La Isla – as I had to leave early and missed out on killer gelato.

BalMar does a great job at setting the mood for small talk. A lovely, darkly stained bar is hidden behind small tables, and candles are everywhere. There’s an area upstairs – where Dishcrawl smartly had us sign in – for parties and events with plush leather seats and stools.After we went downstairs to start the evening, one of the co-owners came out and introduced herself. She then talked about how most people come to the 6-year-old Ballard institution for the alcohol, and she was visibly excited to show us what they could do.The first course of the evening was macaroni and (Tillamook) cheese with fried onions and three petite spanikopita. The macaroni sauce was mild and creamy base with a hint of spice, and was topped by a sharp cheddar crust. The fried onions and crust were the best part of the dish, savory and spiced just right. They served the dish in a ramekin; I think it would have been even more glorious in a shallower dish to let that crust take center stage.

The spanikopita were lovely – and, frustratingly, the only item that focused on leafy vegetables the entire evening. (I find myself lately wanting more kale and less beef in my dinner options.) But they were great little bites, with the phyllo shattering nicely and contrasting with the spinach and occasional morsel of cheese.

Volterra has ambience, but in a different way than BalMar, all pale tiled floors and dark wood. The room we ate in was their main dining room, with larger tables so we could socialize with other members of the group.

The chef came by to introduce the meal: polenta with a bolognese sauce and shaved parmigiano-reggiano cheese. The polenta was a creamy, well-executed bowl of winter comfort food, with a rich sauce that worked amazingly well, especially with the provided bread. But there was a lot of it, so I mainly ate slowly and talked to my tablemates.

La Isla
By the time we got to La Isla, we had just had a very large quantity of carbohydrates, so I was a bit nervous – my stomach was already threatening to explode.

There was no assigned seating area here; instead, we sat along the bar, which, combined with the music loud enough to drown out quiet chatter, made group socialization difficult. (Anne and I ended up by ourselves in one section opposite the rest of the group.) The servers brought out chicarrones de pollo, small bites of fried chicken, and carne frita, a mini pork rib with shredded onions.

I admit, I tried only one bite of the chicken, which was mainly grease. I am not going to judge La Isla’s food based on this, and feel it deserves a second chance.

After the food arrived, I realized it was nearly ten, so I called it a night and took a cab home. Next time I’m in Ballard, I need to return to D’Ambrosio Gelato, the scheduled fourth stop on the tour.
(Full disclaimer: I won two tickets through KristinPotPie. Chris bought a ticket to join in, but later called in sick.)
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