At some point during the eight or nine years I’ve lived here, I fell in love with Seattle's deep purple and green palette, so different from the brick reds and taxicab yellows of New York City; a world away from Boulder’s cerulean dome and post-snowstorm white. This place is undeniably damp, though, and called the Emerald City for a reason – the vines and creepers would dismantle the Smith and Columbia Towers in a matter of geologic moments were they not cut back often. But as we near the Solstice and have enjoyed two sunny days since, I don’t know, mid-February? instead of Emerald City, Jet City, or Rat City, “City of Skies the Color of Old Sheets and Wet Newspaper” might better capture my rain-fatigue. There is light in the sky until after10 pm right now – we really feel the planet wobble up here – but instead of long shadows and hours of apricot twilight, the days end with a pearlescent glow: the sky a worn blue duvet, the sun a dying flashlight held up behind it.
There was a recent day of sunbreaks and temperatures in the high 60s that we celebrated with another wonderful dinner in the Crown Hill garden: whole chickens split Argentine-style and grilled (they looked like unzipped suitcases, or some odd species of reptile; the ribcage looked like the roof of a monster’s mouth), a simple salad of tomato and cucumber, a torn hunk of warm baguette with butter and I couldn’t resist putting a dollop of mayonnaise on my plate. We built a fire in one of those iron contraptions they sell at Fred Meyer, and angled the picnic table out of the smoke but close to the warmth, which made all the difference. After dinner we enjoyed strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, straight out of the oven, with vanilla ice cream and a small, strong cup of Italian-roast decaf. The sky dimmed and finally darkened around 10:30 and there was a sense of satisfaction derived not just from the delicious simplicity of the meal, but also from being outside and wringing every last drop of light from the day.
In a month, as the days begin to shorten again, we’ll have summery weather. Better for everyone if we just tuck the memory of last year’s scorching June away and go back to the Seattle mantra that the sun will come back after July 4th. Okay, that’s fine. But while the rest of the country is beginning to see the first of the summer produce hit the market, I’m propping up the new Menu with ingredients either frozen in the fields last year or shipped from warmer climes. While I love a little whimsy in my food, I think irony has an unpleasant aftertaste and avoid using it; the unintentional irony of having such flavorless pickings to choose from when designing a menu based on abundance and bursting sweetness is especially bitter.
I think a large part of my impatience with this damn rain comes from the radical shift in Process that we began last winter when we changed the restaurant’s menu format from an exploration of the foods found in wine regions around the world and became a Seasonal American Grill. In the past three years I’ve Cheffed at the Hi-Life, I’ve brought up menus featuring foods from Argentina, Paris, Greece, Barcelona, the Pacific Northwest, Northern Italy, the Côte d’Azur, the Columbia River Valley, and Texas…. South Africa was conspicuously absent from the international wine region roster because no one wants a soggy newspaper-wrapped packet of fried calamari and chips. Also, Malay curries are muddy, and springbok is wicked tricky to source up here. In December 2009, following the sea change of two American menus in a row, we opened “Winter.” “Spring” ran from early March to late May, and “Summer” opened last Wednesday. You can guess where we’re going next, but I'm not ready to start writing "Fall;" I want to eat, drink and breathe Summer for at least a day or two before the lid comes back down.
The predictability of the new menu cycle is a fundamental difference in the game – menu development used to mean a few weeks of library visits, poring through regional cookbooks, a good amount of time spent online, many, many rough drafts of menus that had a seasonal bent on the regions’ food, and then a bit of a sprint near the end as we worked out the recipes, plate costs, verisimilitude and executability of the dishes in the real world, on the real Line. And then as soon as one menu was up, the cycle began again, starting with trying to figure out a wine region to “visit”, knowing that New Zealand, Chile, Lebanon, Stellenbosch, Upstate New York and the Rhine Valley were all off the table.
Leaving that rigmarole behind greatly simplified the menu development Process, but there was a new crop of challenges, foremost among them was that we were trying to test dishes that were wrapped around food that hadn't grown yet, let alone ripened and come to market. My first version of Serrano Stone Fruit Salsa featured Chilean nectarines that had all the flavor and juice of a jiffy-pack padded envelope. Pretty colors, though. A little cider vinegar and brown sugar, along with the Serrano’s clean hot bite, some diced red onion and chopped cilantro brought me within hailing distance of a flavor profile I could use. The next time I made the salsa, the only fresh stone fruit I could get my hands on was a white peach from, again, Chile. The flesh of the fruit was touchingly green, heartbreakingly tart, and had the snap of a Granny Smith. Difficult to imagine a fruit more different from the juicy, sensual succulence of a high summer local peach. I caught some deserved flak for even trying to use the South American fruit. So, until I start receiving the Good Stuff from Eastern Washington, I’m using frozen fruit from last year’s local harvest. You win some, you lose some.
A seasonal menu means also that we are more at the mercy of the elements. A windstorm wiped out a field of asparagus. The rainy weather in California means spot mold on the mesclun. Peppers and tomatoes are triple the price they will be in August as the Market struggles to supply the demand. Onions, onions, the very definition of cheap food for serfs and peasants, leapt from $12/50lbs to $50/50lbs. The ebb and flow of product and prices determines what I can or cannot put on the menu, or what I can perhaps only use for the hot minute the product is available: ramps are here and gone in a flash, sea beans and fiddlehead ferns are fun to feature, but I can’t order enough to meet the volume of the restaurant were I to put them in some sort of Summer Dish. I want cherries and apricots, but this rain is pushing the product later into the season.
Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced when we switched from regional to seasonal menus was the struggle to write the food. Writing a regional menu was always a bit like an exercise in pastiche we did in creative writing classes in high school – by writing in the style of Steinbeck, or Hemingway, or Bradbury, the young writer became acquainted with Voice, and once you can hear Voice, the path to finding your own is much clearer. Not necessarily easier, but clearer. Same rules apply to copying paintings, just brushstrokes instead of words. So, back in 2008, when confronted with a French menu due in two days, I needed only to use a French voice and zee food followed obediently. Now, after paring down the many voices that went into the Winter menu, refining and strengthening the notes that ran through the Spring menu, the Summer menu sounds like a cheerful, well-orchestrated chorus, the voices of Sous Chefs and supervisors ringing through as well as my own. And, as I watch customers knock the rain from umbrellas, strip off sodden hats and Gore-Tex coats that really should be in storage by now, and sit down to a summertime dinner of corn, peppers, watermelon, crab, and stone fruits, I can’t help but feel pleased that in a city with such a constant pitter patter of chefs’ voices, I can look out into a dining room filled with people listening to ours. Almost as nice as a sunny day. Almost.