Federal Way chef, Shawn Kuo, is not fucking around. A Korean chef with a background in French Cuisine making American sandwiches and Chinese Food in a convenience store off the 99 highway. Strap in America…
Birthday dinners, specifically mine, are what I look forward to every year, because I’m a millennial and I’m all about making memories.
My lovely wife has tolerated my snobbiness and allowed me to plan part of my birthday weekends since we started dating. She knows, as long as I have good food, I am a happy camper.
This year, she asked if I wanted to go to Portland for the weekend so I Googled, “Chef’s tasting menu in Portland”, before I gave her the yay or nay. After coming across Willow, I noticed that they offered a six course tasting menu for a meager $50. To be honest, I was immediately skeptical and didn’t bother looking any further at the time. You have to understand, after happily splurging $170 of my fantasy football winnings on the Kaiseki dinner at Chef Shota Nakajima’s, Naka (now reopened as Adana) and experiencing the $120 per person Chef’s Counter meal at Scout that my wife, (I’m sure, happily) paid for, for my birthday gift last year, the food snob in me figured that there was no way that Willow would live up to a couple of my most memorable chef’s tasting meals. Definitely not at a $50 price point. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that you HAVE to take a payday loan out to experience a great meal. Trust me (Donald Trump voice), I frequent a taco truck located next to a swap meat on a highway where the Green River Killer used to pick up his”dates”; (Tacos El Maestro in Tukwila, WA. – Get the tripe tacos and a side of grilled onions. You’re welcome!) I’ve also spent more money during happy hour at Applebee’s….Don’t judge me.
What I’m trying to say is that Willow shouldn’t have been half as good as either Naka or Scout, but after seeing mostly positive reviews online, and positive feedback from my Portland native boss, I decided that Willow is where I wanted to dine.
Space is very limited for the 6:00pm and 8:30pm slots, open from Wednesday through Saturday, so reservations for at least a couple of months in advance are highly recommended for the 11 seats available at the chef’s counter during each session. We made reservations about a month and a half in advance and lucked out by snagging the last two seats for Saturday’s 6:00pm dinner.
After heading down to Willow (located in Southeast Portland) and making our way upstairs in the converted home, we were greeted by Chef John and directed to our seats at the chef’s counter.
The intimate counter setting allows you to see all of your courses being carefully prepared to the tune of Chef Doug’s playlist in the background, which makes for an awesome experience throughout the meal.
There are three beverage pairing options for very reasonable prices, $25 for wine or beer and $22 for the non-alcoholic pairing. We opted for the beer pairing which helped cool us down in the midsummer heat. The pours were very generous and complimented each dish perfectly. We noticed the other beverage pairing pours were very generous as well. These guys are definitely not short changing anyone. Chef John’s knowledge of each drink pairing was particularly impressive as well. He doesn’t skip a beat.
The highlights of the meal were the wagyu culotte (top sirloin), which was sous vide to an exceptionally tender and juicy medium rare, served with peaches, tomato and feta. The albacore belly was poached perfectly and the watermelon float with buttermilk ice cream was a delicious take on a fun summer favorite.
After finishing off the last bite of our final course, we were offered coffee and caramels to end our evening in the living room. Listening to Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli” , buzzing on the beer pairings, I wondered again why Willow only charged $50 for their menu. I would have paid double for the meal without hesitation. That being said, I am definitely not complaining about the price point since it means that I can enjoy dining there more than once a year.
Chef John and Chef Doug were an inspiration to me. They are making exceptional, locally sourced food experiences accessible to the working class people like me. People who truly appreciate food.
A big thank you to my wife for allowing me to make memories with you on my birthday 🙂
Find out more about Willow at this link.
I’m sitting in a train station food court with a Styrofoam cup in front of me, and the buildings are different and the sky is different, but I am myself and my feet are on the ground and time ticks onward. The people threading around my table, beneath these old wood beams, are Tacomans, as are the construction workers banging away outside and most of the people in the train hurtling into Freight House Square from Seattle. I am a Tacoman..
My flight back from Switzerland was uneventful, which is exactly what I’d hoped for, given the debacle on way in. No pseudo-strokes or wheelchairs. No dirty hospitals or IV bags. Just smooth sailing over calm skies as Iceland stretched out beneath us in all of its fjord-y wonder. Deep black rock, milky blue water, snow, snow, snow. The adventure of travel had worn off on in that crowded, but orderly, Basel airport and by the time we were wheels down in America, life had taken on its quality of being checks on a list and steps in a plan. Get the bags. Check. Pick up the car. Check.
We collected a thoroughly happy dog from his dog sitter and we assured our neighbors(whom we had forgotten to tell we were leaving) that we had not died quietly in our house, and that we would do something about the dandelions ASAP. We ogled over the lovely photos from my parents as they continued gallivanting around Europe, but for us, the trip was over. The excursion concluded. The quest completed.
With one exception.
One week before, when I stopped by Roger Martinho’s kiosk to pick up the macarons that I would be taking with me to France, I asked him if there was anything that he wanted me to bring him back. A souvenir? Something he missed? He could think of only one thing.
“This,” Roger says, “This is France.” And he motions at the cup in front of him, the muted crackle of bubbles against Styrofoam. He takes a sip and I watch it hollow out a space in him.
“I’m back,” He says. “It’s like I’m back.”
He is not back. Around us, the food court moves in its gouts and spurts of busy people, beneath the neon lights of this odd little station so far away from hospital wineries, and black burgers and pale wieners.
And yet, as I swish my foreign drink and breathe its breath out through my nose I know exactly what he means. This taste of Ricard, will forever be a bookmark for me, same as the smell of schnitzel and the sound of old church bells. A placeholder for the rest of my life for standing barefoot in front of a hospital in the sunshine. For cool blue light on sandy white buildings. For bawdy laughter in a rattle trap van with good, good people. A chapter in my story about the first time I went to Europe, and the adventure that followed.
Rain settled over Basel, rattling on the rooftops and running down the buildings. The morning had been full of little pragmatisms (a trip to the drug store to preempt the flight the next day, a quick breakfast, some packing) and midday found us slipping up Steinenvorstadt in search of what else but food. Melissa and I planted ourselves at a place called Kuuhl behind some smoky glass streaked with rain. Kuuhl makes pasta dishes assembly line style. Scoop of this, pinch of that, hands working knives behind the counter, reloading containers as they emptied. I found myself at the register with a bowl full of elbow macaroni coated in a rich cheese sauce, run through with seared pork and chunks of hearty potato. Just the kind of thing you want to shovel into your steam engine on a cold and rainy day such as that. We shoveled and shoveled and the fires got hot and the pistons got moving and Melissa and I went thundering out of that place with exploration in mind and everything was perfect and everyone was happy.
We walked to the Munsterplatz on its perch above the Rhine as the rain drummed on our borrowed umbrella. The Munsterplatz, or Basel Minster, was built and rebuilt between 1000 and 1500, first in a roman style and when that was destroyed in an earthquake, a Gothic style cathedral. We stood in the courtyard of it watching the river run its muddy way through the city center beneath a chalk and charcoal sky.
Down an alley with a stream running between the stones of it, peeking in windows at shops with exotic goods. We crossed a bridge into the northern part of town and stood at the center of it to watch a boat ferry people across the brackish waters, towed between the two points on an ancient looking cable. The only sounds were of rain in all its voices, pinging off of metal, whispering through leaves, cackling on pavement as we walked the north bank, taking in architecture, inspecting artwork. I took a brief break from my blissful introspection to be ridiculous:
And then we continued on our way. Mom and Dad met us as we closed the loop back at the Munsterplatz, and so we started the loop again, down the alley, over the bridge, to the north bank. The chill stopped us this time, halfway between the two bridges, drove us into a coffee shop. 6 out of 10 doctors prescribe Italian hot chocolate for chronic dampness (the other 4 doctors are paid off by the cider industry), so we filled a prescription and dunked a Belgian waffle in it. The hot chocolate was thick and rich and not overly sweet and it filled the crevices in the waffle which then filled the crevices in us and everything was perfect and everyone was happy.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in our hotel bar, snarfling up caipirihnas and people watching. Middle aged men in Basel were a particular point of discussion. Most of their hair was hip, their clothes well fitted, their styles cultivated. Very few had the stateside look of having been dipped in glue and catapulted through a Walmart. We drank our drinks and pontificated and then night fell on the city and it was time for our final dinner together.
Where do you go on that last night, with the hours ticking down to zero and a thousand mile wedge coming to tear you all apart? Do you find the most authentic place in town and wait in line for the most European experience there is? Do you wallow in decadence at the fanciest restaurant in the area? Do you get so drunk that they have to wheelchair you onto the plane in the morning? The answer, for us, was that it didn’t matter, as long as we did it together. On that final night, we walked into a hole in the wall shawarma place where the seats were aplenty and the cashier looked happy. We filled our bellies with shawarma and we filled the dining room with laughter. The lights were too bright and the food was mediocre, but we were together and everything was perfect, and everyone was happy.
Our fear of commuting into Basel turned out to be mostly misplaced. Sure, there were some wrong turns and a few confusing signs, but we glided into a parking space in the city center without a curse or a threat of violence. The Munsterplatz stood guard along the river, which ran lazy on that sunny day through the center of the city. Alleyways snaked between the buildings, tributaries to catch the stream of tourists like ourselves and carry them past shops and eateries. When we’d finished parking and gotten our stuff over to our rooms, the sun was falling behind the clouds hanging dark and ominous in the distance and we were feeling peckish. Our hotel looked out over a courtyard bustling with people from here and from other places. Neon signs and light rail cars. Cabs along the curbs. It was no Eguisheim, bigger, more developed than that, but it didn’t have the grit of Strasbourg either. It was just different, and I found it pleasant in its newness.
We gathered around beers on the outdoor seating of a place called Kohlmann’s as bodies began to trickle into the square from a nearby college, talkative and jovial and electric with teenage energy. Dad and I ordered bone marrow and more beer and we were quickly acquainted with one of the painful realities of visiting Switzerland vs. living there. The bone marrow was about $17.00 American and the beers (which had been $5 in France and Germany) ran something closer to $12. The higher wages and quality of living that come with residency here make things like that negligible, but it was startling at first for us. Fortunately, the cure for sticker shock is alcohol, and we set about treating our conditions. Students flooded past us in the honey light of the afternoon and the bone marrow came to the table in all its rich, buttery decadence.
Evening found Mom, Dad and I gathered in the hotel lobby, with machinations on dinner. Mel wasn’t feeling so hot, so she stayed behind, left the bloodhounding to us. A set of coliseum steps led down into the town square from our hotel and I don’t recall a time when we walked past them and didn’t find them crawling with youngsters mid snack, or deep in the throes of people watching. This night was no exception, and as we wove our way through the throng, we passed a boy and girl mashing something spectacular into each other’s faces. Flatbread folded over something meaty and cheesy. Arugula peeking from the top of it.
“What is that?” I asked Dad.
“Ask them,” He said.
But considering our rudimentary linguistic skills, neither of us was confident that we could get the point across without accidentally soliciting one of them lasciviously or insulting some distant relative. Since stairs aren’t the funnest place to get beat up, we wiped the drool off our lips and eased out into the orderly fray of Basel on a Friday night.
Earlier, I called the streets we walked alleyways, because there weren’t any cars in them, but these were no narrow back of house spaces with dumpsters in them. Restaurant patios jamming with people lined the sides. Walls of people 20 bodies wide moved in either direction through the center, lights from the buildings playing on their faces. All around us, the smell of food. We went door to door, reading menus, peeking into dining areas, moving along.
“What sounds good to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“ Me neither.”
Which was just a lie. We all knew exactly what we wanted and we weren’t looking at menus to see what they had. We were looking to see if they had what we needed. We passed collared shirt restaurants and cargo short joints. We passed wood fired ovens and made to order pasta and all kinds of perfectly respectable establishments, winding up and down these alleys with the current of people. We had almost given up on the fleeting obsession that gripped us all back on the steps of the town square, when we rounded a corner and into the back of a line, snaking away from a single window. To the left and right of it, hunched over the curb, leaned up against the building, draped over tables, people inhaling flatbread sandwiches.
We stuck to that line like moss on a rock in our stream of people in the dark and we followed it to dinner.
“What can I get you?” The woman at the window asked.
There was a mound of dough in front of her. A spatula in her hand.
“Hm. What’s the thing? What’s your specialty?”
She, smiled, nodded, pulling dough off the mound.
“I’ll get you the thing,” She said, and she got me the thing.
She rolled the dough out onto a grill top, steam rising up off it into the night. Ran it flat with pin and got up underneath it with that spatula, one motion, scrape lift, whap, golden brown dough facing up now, other side sizzling. While it sizzled she smeared the browned side with a soft ricotta cheese, began laying prosciutto in it. Handful of arugula, then she knifed that spatula up underneath it, levered the whole thing over on itself and it was off the grill top into a paper sleeve. The thing. I had the thing. I paid her a some of money and I joined my parents at the table that they’d floated to with their “things.” The bread was crispy on the outside, but doughy at the center and ricotta played very well with the proscuitto, thin and salty and chewy with fat. The arugula gave it a pleasant texture and a metallic zing. We ate quietly in the semi-darkness of this new city as clouds that would bring rain tomorrow morning crept in front of the stars. We had come to Basel searching for a pleasant end to a mostly pleasant day, and as it turned out, Basel had just “the thing” we were looking for.
“Get the fuck out of the way!”
“Yeah, fuck that dude.”
Wheels banging on the cobblestones, rocking like a ship breaking up on reentry and all the while, I’m in the navigator seat, pointing at turns, tapping through maps, cursing at strangers. Strasbourg out the windows of our van like a half timbered Mario Kart level, vehicles screaming out of alleyways, pedestrians lunging out from behind cars. When we finally emerged from the fog of battle, the freeway was sliding beneath us and the sun was out and we were breathless.
“How far is it to Basel?” Dad asked.
“About 2 hours.”
“Ugh shit,” he said, and a silent nod passed through the car. A nod of sweaty heads and worried brows. Were we really ready to try and navigate another city right now? Did we want to try to have to park this rattletrap in a new country with new pedestrians and new street signs?
The gas tank on the dash blinked empty and we collectively decided that our resilience
had bottomed out as well. We pulled into Comar, puzzling our situation over while the car guzzled gasoline and when we pulled away from the pump we felt no closer to an answer. All along the hillsides, skylining against the crystal blue, castles stood bristly and exotic to our American eyes.
“I wonder what’s over in that area,” Dad said, mostly just to fill the silence.
“Let’s go see,” Mom said. A considerate silence followed and then there was tapping and scrolling and yelping and suddenly we were off the beaten path and off the path to feeling beaten.
Eguisheim is a swirly snail shell of a town. Half timbered houses from the 10th century huddled around a steeple at the base of a hill topped with castles. Vineyards stretch out away from it, down the olive green hillside, beneath a pale blue sky. We parked on the outside of the town, left our jarringly modern van with its backup cameras and satellite radio sitting beside a curb that had been there for centuries. Prehistoric birds circled on six foot wingspans, bony dinosaur legs tucked up underneath them, javeline beaks swiveling back and forth, scanning. We followed the winding streets and an alluring smell to the center of town. Restaurant Kas’Fratz drew us to her and we were seated at a table outside in the sunlight. My eyes snatched up a menu item that checked all of my boxes. Fried potatoes: Check. Cheese: check. That’s pretty much all my boxes if I’m being honest. In the interim between ordering food and eating it, when there is nothing to do but sit and wait, we did just that.
The ancient birds clicked their gutteral clicks in their massive nests on all the building tops and the village streets were filled with the subdued tinkering sounds of a small town doing small town things. Scraping at a gutter, water running in a sink. The occasional shutter of a camera, clink of a glass. No cursing, no honking, no white knuckles on a steering wheel. If we were starting to feel like we’d made a good decision coming here, the arrival of lunch drove that nail home with a flourish.
What I’d initially mistaken on the menu for fried, cheesy potatoes with ground beef mixed into them turned out to be a perfectly prepared cheeseburger with fried potato patties for buns.
Where have you been all my life? The potatoes were perfectly seasoned and the crisp on them added a texture that many burgers are missing. The cheese held what could have been a real mess together and the meat was earthy and rich.
I got up into that meal. Fingers were licked, and beer was glugged and happiness was abound.
Those birds in their bushy nests stopped regurgitating into each other’s mouths, looking down on me, thinking, that guy is a disgusting eater.
We spent the next couple hours there, winding through the streets looking at knick-knacks in shops and inscriptions above doorways. We basked in the sunlight and smelled the flowers and when the time finally came to fire up the rattletrap, we were ready. We were rested, we were energized, and most importantly, we were well fed.
Check out Restaurant Kas’Fratz facebook here.
Standing on the balcony of our hotel, looking down into streets of Central Strasbourg, almost free of cars, almost free of people. The sun hung orange and heavy in the cloudless sky and Melissa lay out on the elegant bed behind me, trying to sleep off the stress of the drive in. On the street beneath me, a four man police patrol in riot gear threaded their way along the sidewalk, peeking into alleys, routing homeless people off of benches and away from garbage cans. Another four man team passed them and they all nodded to each other and continued on their way. I felt the contrast between Strasbourg and Baden Baden acutely at that moment and part of me longed for the coziness of that quiet German town. This a dangerous spiral to fall into as a traveler. Looking back over your shoulder wistfully, when you should be hopefully looking ahead. You can’t compare cities, any more than you can sunsets or excellent cookies, and trying to do so just takes you out of the moment and leaves you frustrated. Nobody falls into a death spiral on purpose, though, so I stood there on my balcony looking down on this new place sighing bad vibes out into the afternoon air until there was a knock on the door. I opened it on Mom.
“We’re going to do something cool,” She said. “Wanna come?”
The Strasbourg Hospital was built in 1395. Because of the medicinal value of wine during that time, it had a cellar in the basement where they stored the wine that gave to their patients. That cellar is still in operation to this day. It produces 150,000 bottles of wine each year and houses over 40 ancient barrels of the stuff, at least one of which dates back to 1472. We walked to it in the stagnant sunlight, doing our best not to be the suicidal pedestrians from our earlier drive. Slipping through the throngs of people, hearing Russian and German and French and Spanish all gurgling past us, babbling brook. We found the hospital through a wrought iron gate. The cellar down a flight of stairs. Cool air wafted through the place. The kind of chill you associate with cellars. The kind of damp and brick construction as well. We handed Euros to a woman at the front desk and she handed us listening devices, which were shaped like an old TV remote with a speaker phone on one side of it. Mine lights hung from the ceiling joists, covered in their ancient spider webs, growing their ancient mold. Wine casks the size of VW’s hulked behind massive iron bars with dates embossed on them. 1576, 1624. Unfathomable times that put America in a weird perspective. This place had beverages older than our country. It’s booze from 1796 wasn’t ready yet. What made us think our nation was? We wandered through this underground maze of history, learning about the medicinal uses of wine and the dissections that used to occur down in the place before the Inquisition and we unwound a bit down there. surrounded by ancient booze and the macabre, a PBS voice in our handset, murmuring factoids at us.
When we’d finished our tour, we went searching for libations of our own, moving with the masses between the buildings, soaking in the sights and sounds. Strasbourg hot potatoed between Germany and France for centuries and you can hear it on tongues and see it in the half timbered houses. Smell it in the cooking smells and taste it in the food. We sat on a French speaking patio, drinking German beer watching crowds shuffle past us, headed somewhere. We wouldn’t know where until the beers were gone and the tab was paid. Freshly oiled on hops and malt we coasted between two buildings and another Notre Dames leapt out at us. It did so the way the one in Reims had and ,again, I found myself absolutely transfixed by the grandeur of it. Rising from the city floor like the wrath of god itself. Excluding the shock value, though,the similarities between this building and the one in Reims were few and far between. Strasbourg’s Notre Dames was prickly and intricate. Absolutely bustling with busy little images, topped with a green roof that resembled oxidized copper. This building was different from ones we’d seen before. Different as the cities that built them. But no less beautiful.