About 15 years ago, I worked at a company whose offices were in downtown Seattle. Every once in a while we'd go somewhere for a department lunch. A couple of times, that place was the Dahlia Lounge.
I still remember the Tuscan bread salad I had for lunch the first time I went there. At that time, the Tom Douglas restaurant empire consisted of Dahlia Lounge, Etta's and the brand new Palace Kitchen.
It says something about a restaurant (and a dish) when the food and the experience stays with you for 15 years.
In recent years, Douglas has become synonymous with the Seattle restaurant scene. His stable of restaurants now numbers ten, with inspirations ranging from Italian to Greek to American to Asian.
As my life changed and my employment took me elsewhere, I had fewer opportunities to patronize his establishments. As I watched more and more restaurants open, I started to worry that perhaps he was stretching himself too thin.
But as the years passed, the award nominations kept on coming. And so did the wins. In fact, in 2012, Douglas won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. So, I thought, things must be going pretty well.
I watched enviously as new restaurants opened and I didn't have the time to go to them. Then I got laid off from work. A personal setback, yes, but this meant that I could start catching up on some serious eating.
One of the first things I did was go to lunch at Brave Horse Tavern with my wife. Because I could.
Its location, amid the new buildings (and the Amazon campus) in the South Lake Union, is uber-urban and potentially very busy. The last time I'd passed the place, this past May (on my way to another Douglas establishment, Serious Biscuit), it was packed with hungry workers from the area. Which is why we showed up for lunch at around 11:15am. We were having lunch there, damn it, and we didn't want to stand in line to get in.
After some debate over the menu, we decided to get a couple of snack plates and split the burger. This way we could maximize our experience.
Since I didn't have to work after lunch, I decided to imbibe. I admit that my head was turned by the fact that, on that day, they had 4 ciders on draft. Draft cider, people! You don't get that very many places in this town.
I drank a locally produced ginger apple hard cider by Schilling (Auburn, WA) that was delicious and very gingery. Perhaps a little more gingery than I was wanting on that day, but I would definitely drink it again.
Our snack plates came out first: house made smoked bologna served with Beecher's Flagship cheddar, peach mustard, pretzel chips (also house made) and slices of apple. This collection was served on an artfully charred slab of wood. The presentation was really quite beautiful for such homey food.
Don't let the term homey fool you. By that I mean a richly flavored, satisfyingly smoky, crunchy, chewy, tart, sweet plate of comfort. If I was by myself and looking to grab a light meal, I'd get that plate again in a heartbeat. I might add a little salad, I might not. It was a perfect little world of its own.
The second snack plate was a basket of fried cheddar cheese curds (this time Wisconsin cheese, for some reason). Very yummy, though the fried cheese didn't really hit a home run. It was the dill pickle tartar sauce that hit it out of the park for me. Thick, vinegary, redolent with dill. I would have (and I think I did) licked the little dish it came in after I finished eating the remaining sauce with my spoon. It was everything tartar sauce should be. It more than made up for my mild disappointment at the little pool of oil at the bottom of the empty basket after we'd finished the cheese bites.
We were still munching on our snack plates when our burger arrived, already cut in half. We had mentioned to the our waitress that we were sharing the burger, but were still pleasantly surprised that they'd cut the burger in half for us.
I have to mention something before I go into the burger itself. I love the fact that it doesn't come with sides. You order fries or whatever separately. And the burger was a reasonable size. It wasn't the size of a human head. It was a perfect sized portion of everything on a bun. If I was to order it on my own, I wouldn't have to hurt myself to finish it. THANK YOU!!
Now, how did it taste?
It was pretty damned perfect, if you ask me.
We had the beef chuck burger with bacon and smoked blue cheese. The burger was juicy, the lettuce crisp, the smoky burger sauce a great replacement for ketchup (I don't really like ketchup on my burgers. I loved this sauce), and there were dill pickles (maybe house made, though I don't know for sure...they weren't bright green like the kind you get from the grocery store.) and mayo to round out what was between the buns.
Everyone has different opinions about what should go on a burger. This was my perfect combo.
It was messy and drippy and soul-satisfyingly good. It might actually be the best hamburger I've ever eaten. And I've eaten a lot of burgers in my day.
We ended our meal with something that made me nearly cry with joy. A warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie (baked to order according to the menu). Really, how could we not? It's a warm chocolate chip cookie, for crying in the night! A WARM CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE! It, too, exceeded our expectations.
We felt so comforted and cared for by the time we left. We walked out into the warm autumn afternoon happy to our soul for our time at Brave Horse Tavern.
While we can't go every week, we will definitely be back soon! The first thing on my list for that visit is the bacon spiked deviled eggs.
So back to my apprehension that perhaps the restaurateur was spreading himself a little thin. I'm not apprehensive anymore. Douglas and his staff really seem to have their collective shit together.
I actually had the pleasure of meeting Chef Douglas a number of years ago at a season preview for the Broadway at the Paramount Theatre series here in Seattle. He and his team provided food for the reception.
I told him how much I enjoyed his food and asked him, essentially, why he was at the preview. He excitedly led me from the stage into the house to show me the seat he sponsored. He loved the opportunity to help support the theatre community.
Several years later, he was at the Shoreline Central Market promoting his new cookbook, cooking and serving at the demo kitchen in the heart of the produce and meat sections. But he wasn't just there promoting himself; he was promoting local food, local sourcing and the store itself.
So not only does he seem to have a golden touch when it comes to developing new restaurants and menus, he is also a really nice guy.
It's that in addition to the kick-ass food that keep me excited about his establishments. And why, come hell or high water, I will have that goat cheese fondue that was on his Facebook page a few weeks ago.
As I reviewed the list of restaurants for this entry, I noted that of the 10 listed in the Wikipedia article, I have actually eaten at seven. I'm not as behind as I thought I was. But I still have meals to go before I sleep.