Travel Diary: Low-Key Sojourn in West Seattle

Seattle: The Space Needle. Pike Place Market. The Monorail. SAM, MoPOP and the Experience Music Project. But on a recent trip we found those iconic spots are only one side of the city's story—literally.

West Seattle makes it easy to
travel with pets.

It had been years since we'd ventured up north, but I'd been wanting to visit my friend and cookbook author Cynthia Nims, having been titillated by the beautiful shots she'd posted on Instagram from her walks through her West Seattle neighborhood. We set a date for a road trip north, and she suggested The Grove West Seattle Inn as a centrally located (and pet-friendly) spot to stay. It's a classic mid-century, two-story motel built for the flood of tourists that came to town to attend the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Even better, its rates were easily half of what we'd find downtown.

A peninsula separated from the downtown area by the Duwamish Waterway on its eastern flank and the Puget Sound on the north and west, hilly West Seattle is primarily residential, populated by almost one-fifth of the city's residents. Much like the east side of Portland, it's connected to downtown by a bridge and has thriving, active neighborhoods with busy shopping and dining areas. It's chock-full of locally owned businesses, and includes many parks with sweeping views of the water.

Smoke is the byword at Lady Jaye.

From Cynthia's photos, though, I was particularly drawn to the beaches that wrap around its rolling hills (top video). The paved, beach-side pathways allow bike-able, pedestrian-friendly access with spectacular water views, and the broad avenues sweep along them are lined on the other side with restaurants, bars and shops.

With Cynthia's list of suggested restaurants, most of which were a ten-minute-or-less drive from our digs, we chose the well-reviewed and promising-sounding Lady Jaye Smokehouse & Restaurant for dinner our first night. Promising a butcher shop, whiskey bar and barbecue, with an intriguing cocktail menu and reasonable prices, it was an easy pick. (The owners have also just opened a bakery-and-sandwiches spot called Little Jaye in South Park's Cloverdale Business Park.)

Luna Park Cafe is a West Seattle classic.

We got a table in the front window overlooking the busy sidewalk—the people-watching was excellent—while we perused the menu and I tried not to chug my mango shrub after the day's drive. Most of the mains came with a choice of three sides, so when their justifiably notorious Prime Bugogi Short Rib (above right) arrived on a platter with a huge pile of fries, watermelon salad and another pile of blistered shisito peppers, I was suitably bowled over. Dave's choice of the Smoked Pork New York was equally impressive, with three thick slices of meat, meltingly tender and luscious along with the requisite sides.

The evening was cool and clear, and I was determined to head to Alki Beach on the peninsula's northwestern side to catch the last rays of the sunset as it dropped into the Sound. Plus it gave us the opportunity to walk the dogs before collapsing into our beds (video, top).

Beignets well worth the wait.

Somehow by the next morning we were hungry again and decided to drop by the West Seattle landmark, the Luna Park Café with its eclectic 1950s-inspired decor that looked like your grandparents' attic (plus maybe their storage unit) had exploded inside. The retro diner menu is classic, with items divided into "piles, hobos, scrambles and omelettes"—basically homefries topped with eggs, homefries mixed into eggs (basically the same as a scramble) and homefries inside an egg wrap, respectively. Clever, and also well worth a visit.

Dinner was taken care of by an exclusive invite to dine chez Cynthia with her husband Bob in their mid-century home with, as Cynthia described it, "a million-dollar view…from the driveway." So the by-now-drizzly afternoon beforehand was spent napping and reading until it was time to head to their place.

Support local even when traveling!

The next morning we emerged from our room with the dogs for their morning walk and right across the street from our motel we saw a sign saying "FRESH BEIGNETS" in front of a nondescript warehouse. This deserved investigating, so I approached the plastic-flapped entrance to Jet City Beignet and rang the bell. A sign taped to a stand read "two for $6," which sounded like a deal. I ordered from the nice young woman who popped out, and a few minutes later the pups and I—Dave's lactose intolerance prevented him indulging—were munching on a box of the hot, fresh, crunchy pastries. (Never fear, Dave got his pastry at a coffee spot nearby.)

Find stellar brews and pub fare
at Elliott Bay.

The 2.5-mile trek from home to the West Seattle Farmers Market is Cynthia's regular workout on Sundays, and we'd arranged to meet and tour the market, then head to the nearby Elliott Bay Brewing Company for lunch with our husbands. A bustling market equivalent in size to our own Hillsdale market, it's always a delight to see a community come together over local food.

The guys were already well into their pints by the time we tore ourselves away from the market, and Elliott Bay proved its bonafides, to me, at least, with an extensive selection of its own organic beers—now sadly lacking in PDX brewpubs—and some of the best pub fare I've had in recent memory.

Silas and his friend Bruun Idun.

More rain was forecast for most of our last day, but we were intent on making a pilgrimage to Lincoln Park' for a hike and a visit with Bruun Idun, its resident troll, part of the Northwest Trolls: Way of the Bird King project, a series of giant hand-built troll sculptures by Danish environmental artist Thomas Dambo:

"At night there was a storm, there at the beach where she was born
And Idun felt a feeling wrong, and so she walked there in the dawn
And on her flute, the magic horn, a tune so passionate and strong
She played for them an orca song
To ask them where they all have gone."

The LOVE rock is a local landmark in West Seattle's Lincoln Park.

The other must-see before we left was to the renowned LOVE rock that Cynthia has immortalized on her blog.  She describes it as "the letters L-O-V-E spelled out in some manner of mostly-beach-collected materials," once including a green apple Jolly Rancher.

Myriad trails run through the park, some well-marked and some not, but there is always the water on the west and the street on the east, so it's difficult for even my directionally challenged self to go astray. A long waterside beach with idiosynchratic driftwood "sculptures" scattered along its length with a paved walkway running next to it, this is a spectacular park and even has its own public outdoor saltwater pool open in the summer months.

Discovering this other, much more low-key—and less expensive—side of Seattle was a delightful, eye-opening experience, and with downtown only a few minutes' drive across the bridge, we'll definitely be returning. Thanks, Cynthia—you truly are the "unofficial Walking West Seattle ambassador"!

Seafood Queen: Cynthia Nims Brings Her New Shellfish Book to PDX

Cynthia Nims is a prolific author. The list of books she's written would take up most of the space in the cupboard I've dedicated to my whole cookbook collection—don't ask where I keep the stacks of other cookbooks that have yet to be shelved. In total, her work is a comprehensive overview of the bounty we Northwesterners enjoy, a celebration of the seasonal riches harvested from our rivers, our forests and our oceans.

There are Nims' recent single-subject seafood books, including Crab, Oysters and her latest, Shellfish. Then there are the Northwest Cookbooks e-book series (Crab, Salmon, Wild Mushrooms, Appetizers, Breakfast, Main Courses, Soups, and Salads & Sandwiches); plus the dear-to-her-heart Salty Snacks and Gourmet Game Night. Personal note: I've been angling to visit Nims in Seattle to get a tour (and maybe a taste) at her period-perfect Lava Lounge where she spins recordings—only vinyl, my dear, please—serves cocktails and runs a board game emporium for friends.

Like many of us in the food writing world, it wasn't her automatic career choice:

"Cooking has been under my skin for as long as I can remember, inspired by the sheer pleasure of cooking with my mom and big sister. I mastered the canned-pear-half-with-cottage-cheese-tail bunny salad, subscribed to Seventeen magazine for the recipes, and had my high school third-year French class over for dinner, which included a soupe à l’oignon that began with beef stock made a couple days prior."

A math degree with an eye toward becoming an engineer was scuttled after Nims attended the stagiaire program at La Varenne, which culminated in receiving the school’s Grand Diplôme d’Etudes Culinaires. She's cooked for Julia Child and the Flying Karamzov Brothers, beginning her immersion in the subject of seafood, appropriately, at Simply Seafood magazine. Nims has taught classes and co-authored, edited and contributed to dozens of publications, including the highly lauded series Modernist Cuisine.

You can meet this culinary wonder woman this weekend at two events in Portland where she's bringing her new book, Shellfish: 50 Seafood Recipes for Shrimp, Crab, Mussels, Clams, Oysters, Scallops, and Lobster, to Flying Fish on Saturday, July 23rd, from 1 to 3 p.m. Nims will be in the Chef Shack alongside Chef Trever Gilbert, who's featuring the book's Harissa Roasted Shrimp, Carrots and Radishes. Then she'll be demo-ing a couple of recipes at Vivienne Kitchen and Pantry—in their Secret Bar, no less—on Sunday, July 24th, from 3 to 5 p.m.

If you want to get a taste of just how fabulous this book is, try her simple (and seriously divine) Grilled Clam Pouches with Bay Leaf and Butter (photo above right). I made them just last night and after his first bite, Dave said, "This is going on the list for camping."

Grilled Clam Pouches with Bay Leaf and Butter

Fresh bay leaves really stand out in the preparation; dried leaves won't offer as much fragrant flavor. A rosemary or thyme sprig in each packet, or a couple of fresh sage leaves, can be used in place of fresh bay. And you can't go wrong with just buttter and clams on the grill, either. I use 12-inch wide aluminum foil; you can use larger and/or heavy duty foil if you like.

The packets make a good serving vessel perched on a plate for casual dining. You can instead transfer the clams and buttery cooking juices to shallow bowls. These lighter portions are ideal as an appetizer, followed perhaps by other items destined for the grill while it's hot.

Makes 4 servings.

2 lbs. small to medium live hard-shell clams, well-rinsed
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
8 fresh bay leaves, divided
Sliced baguette or other bread, for serving

Preheat an outdoor grill for medium-high direct heat.

Cut 8 pieces aluminum foil about 12 inches long and arrange them on the counter stacked in pairs for making 4 packets.

Put 1 tablespoon of butter in the center of each foil packet. Fold or tear each bay leaf in half which helps release its aromattic character, and put 2 leaves on or alongside the butter for each packet. Divide the clams evenly among the pouches, mounding them on top of the butter and bay and leaving a few inches of foil all around.

Draw the four corners of the foil up over the clams to meet in the center and crimp together along the edges, where the sides of the foil meet, so the packet is well-sealed. The goal is to create pouches that will hold in the steam for cooking and preserve the flavorful cooking juices that result.

Set the foil packets on the grill, cover, and cook for about 10 to 12 minutes for small clams, 12 to 15 minutes for medium. Partly open a packet to see if all the clams have opened, being careful to avoid the escaping steam; if not, reseal and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Set each pouch on an individual plate and fold down the foil edges, creating a rustic bowl of sorts to hold the flavorful cooking liquids. Or carefully transfer the contents to shallow bowls. Serve right away, with bread alongside, discarding any clams that did not open.

NOTE: This recipe works well in the oven, too. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Use a broad, shallow vessel, such as a large cast-iron skillet or a 12-inch gratin dish or similar baking dish. Add the butter pieces and bay leaves to the dish and put in the oven until the butter has melted. Take the dish from the oven, add the clams in a relatively even layer, and return the dish to the oven. Roast until all, or mostly all, of the clams have opened, 12 to 15 minutes. Spoon the clams into individual shallow bowls, discarding any that did not open, then carefully pour the buttery cooking liquids over the top.