2010's Worst Meals

Shrimp cheesecake and other dubious failures.

George Orwell was one of the world's first, best modern food writers. Before any of us were doing any of this—running around from restaurant to restaurant, writing about the potatoes, the steak, and the smirk on the maître d's face—Orwell had already written the story that we'd all be chasing forever: Down and Out in Paris and London, which, among other things, detailed his time as a plongeur and cook in the restaurants of Paris.Yes, he would go on to be known for many other works (though neither its setting or its author are American, I still consider 1984 among the greatest of American novels, simply because it continues to come terribly true every day), but Down and Out was his first book, his introduction to the world at large. He wrote about food and its preparation with no illusions and no agenda; about the long hours, crushing pressure, filth, and abject poverty of those who labored nightly to make dinner for strangers. He was a vicious critic of the things he saw, a blunt stylist, and a joyous bum once he had a bottle or two in him.He could also be a completely miserable bastard, as evidenced by one of his more endearing quotes: "Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise."That's one of the two things Orwell and I have in common. First, we both spent some time washing the dishes of the rich. And two, we are neither young nor foolish. All of a year's best moments come at the cost of suffering through the worst. No one but a certifiable loon expects otherwise.So, while last week was spent looking back on 2010's comforts and joys, this week is the bill I paid for those fine times: my worst food moments of this past year.Pagliacci, February 10Too bad about that pasta, though: baked penne dressed in a tomato-and-cream sauce that tasted of neither, with five cheeses that combined all the savor of dry Parmesan out of a shaker and smelled, all together, like a foot. Dull, bland, soggy, and affectless, it was the kind of thing anyone might make when either too lazy or too drunk to core a tomato without hurting themselves.The only fun we got out of it was searching through the oozing sauce for the "fresh" basil promised by the menu. Laura finally found one wilted little leaf and held it up proudly, as though she'd discovered buried treasure.In this modern age—when everyone travels everywhere and, often as not, finds that the foods of their homeland have beaten them to wherever it is they finally land—the first taco, the first pizza, the first bowl of pho or udon or borscht can often make or break a person's opinion of a place. I'd gone to Pagliacci (4529 University Way) looking for pizza, and, thankfully, found one that, while not brilliant, was at least serviceable and rich with local history. The pasta, on the other hand, made me wonder if anyone behind the counter would've been able to find Italy on a map.Ivar's, February 10Ivar's has some history in this town: 70-odd years of it, to be exact. So why in all those 70 years couldn't someone figure out how to make a decent fish fry? One that didn't just lie there on the plate, blanding itself to death? The wild-caught salmon with herb butter, the goat-cheese-and-Portobello-stuffed chicken, the napoleon on the apps menu—all these were warhorse dishes 15 years ago. Serving them today comes off as a combination of deliberate anachronism, blind kowtowing to the culinary appetites of Midwestern sightseers, and always making sure there's something on the board that Grandma will be willing to eat before taking her bursitis medicine.As with Pagliacci, Ivar's (1001 Alaskan Way) was one of the first dozen or so restaurants I hit shortly after arriving in Seattle. I'd gone there in an attempt to get a feel for the city's edible history—to taste for myself what it takes to survive seven decades in such a competitive environment. Unfortunately, I found out.But a funny thing happened to me between last winter and this one: I actually came to appreciate the convenience and consistency of Ivar's fish bar down on the waterfront. While there's still nothing available solely on the regular dining-room menu that would make me want to waste an afternoon under Ivar Haglund's roof, I did find myself occasionally hauling up in front of the take-away counter to order some deep-fried-anything to go. The fish, the prawns, the fries—none of them are the best examples of their particular form, but they are consistently decent and fast, and relatively cheap.Roti, April 21I'd ordered potato vara and had gotten mashed-potato dumplings (which I expected), patted down with flour (which I also expected), then deep-fried for an hour and covered with a dusting of pencil shavings and salt (which I hadn't really been looking for at all). The chicken pakora was an odd departure from the norm, not so much dipped in chickpea batter and fried (as is the custom), but lightly floured and then . . . served, near as I could tell. The thin strips of white meat were weirdly gritty, kissed in passing by a sprinkling of Indian spices having all the weight and passion of a smooch from someone's aged aunt, and then served with a salad straight out of a Midwestern Lutheran potluck.Because I am a classless savage, I like my pakora dipped in a little tamarind chutney. And maybe that would have improved mine, had Roti's handmade version not somehow tasted like the base for a ketchup, plum sauce, tomato, and tamarind smoothie.Roti (530 Queen Anne Ave. N.) was a place I expected to be great because of the background of the owner/chef (Davinder Kohli, who made his bones in hotel kitchens in New Delhi) and the house's commitment to getting whole spices (less a grace note to the Indian canon than the core of its existence) into the pantry straight from the source; to making the naan from scratch and cooking it to order; to working from traditional recipes only and refusing to cook down to a clientele who might be unfamiliar with methi chicken, onion bhaji, potato vara, or dum aloo. But in the end, nearly everything that came out of the kitchen was a disappointment. It wasn't that the food failed because of unusual choices or complicated spice architectures, or because my palate wasn't prepared for Indian cuisine in its rawest form, but simply laziness and carelessness in the kitchen—one galley sin that will always be unforgivable.Emmer & Rye, May 19Great cuisine, like great art, is born of stress and rigor and pain. It requires training. It can't be done at all without some basic understanding of the interplay among meat and heat and knives and fire. But a slow kitchen, a quiet line, a cook not working with six hands at once like Vishnu in a canvas jacket? That's a kitchen, a line, and a cook not being pushed to brilliance. Just as a diamond can only be formed under phenomenal pressure, so too a great Bolognese. The reason Seth Caswell's pasta onstage [at the Paramount, during SW's inaugural Voracious tasting event in April] was so much better than the one served in his dining room at Emmer & Rye had nothing to do with ingredients, prep, or style, but everything to do with stress, pressure, and the absolute terror of fucking up in front of a thousand people at once.The meals I ate at Emmer & Rye (1825 Queen Anne Ave. N.) were not really ones I'd list among the year's worst; it was the experience that bothered me. Emmer & Rye was one of the most highly anticipated openings of the year—a carefully designed restaurant in a beautiful location bossed by a blooded chef who was bringing in local, seasonal, high-quality ingredients and who really knew how to use them. I went in with my expectations high, and was ultimately left wanting.The room was cold, the menu uninspired, the food missing that ineffable, overwhelming, small degree of uniqueness or vitality that sets apart a mediocre dish from a truly excellent one. Nothing I had there during my review meals ever lived up to the hype. I haven't been back since May, but still hope that one of these days I get word from one of my trusted sources that Emmer & Rye has turned the corner. It's a place with all the potential in the world. But, at least at that moment, that was all it had: potential.The Original Philly's, September 22Standing in the heat of the counter area at The Original Philly's, I could smell the waves of scorched onion, char, burned meat, and sour fryer oil rolling out of the overworked galley like the tide. Things were backed up. Half the menu, it seemed, was sold out. My order was behind a half-dozen others­—both to-gos and eat-ins for people who had to brush the trash off tables with their arms before they could sit down—and the whole kitchen, wide open to the public eye, was a wreck.When eventually my name was called, I took my bag outside and unwrapped my sandwich—still hot, which was a good sign, but bleeding grease through the white paper wrap it'd been mummified in. I peeled it like a banana, folded down the edges of the paper, took a bite, then spit out my mouthful of sandwich onto the broken gravel of the parking lot and cursed loudly. I hawked and spit again. I wrapped the remains of that terrible excuse for a cheesesteak—that sin against nature, that half-charred, desiccated, onion-stinking, cheese-gummed, already-wilting-from-the-nasty-grease lump of paper-wrapped shit—and three-pointed it into the nearest trash can. It was, without a doubt, one of the worst sandwich experiences I'd ever had.Worst. Sandwich. Ever. The only good thing that came of my trip to The Original Philly's (3019 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.) was that it inspired me to head down to Pioneer Square to check out the new location of Tat's Deli shortly after its opening. There, I had sandwiches that were as good as Philly's were terrible.Seatown Seabar & Rotisserie, November 20In the great and glorious restaurant world list of Shit That Should Not Be Done, a shrimp cheesecake is way up there. It might not be at the very top of the list, but it's close. Shrimp cheesecake is the kind of idea that could only come from a Big Shot Chef or a staff so strained and scratching for something original—some seafood idea not already being humped to death by lesser mortals in this seafood-heavy town—that they over-reached the bounds of the sane and rational and thought to themselves, "Shrimp cheesecake . . . No one's tried that in a while."And do you know why no one's tried that one in a while? Because it involves putting shrimp on top of a fucking cheesecake. And I have to wonder how, in the middle of the menu-planning session where that was proposed, its mere suggestion didn't set off someone's internal alarm; that someone didn't stop and say "Now wait a minute here. Has anyone considered that shrimp cheesecake might not taste very good?"Don't get me wrong. I liked Seatown (2010 Western Ave.) a lot. I gave the place a mostly glowing review, loved several of the dishes I ate, and had a great time sitting at the bar, eating potted tuna and crab stew and watching Pike Place Market empty out for the night.But I also had one of the worst single dishes of my year there: the shrimp cheesecake. And the only thing that saved Seatown from getting publicly mocked for offering such a disaster of a dish was the fact that, just hours before my review went to press, I learned it had been pulled from the menu. Which in retrospect gave me an entirely different view of the place: that of a good operation capable of recognizing its mistakes and fixing them. If only that trait were universal, lists like this would no longer exist. jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

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