November 30th, 2009

I drank the Pacific Northwest

OK, I get it. After my first visit to Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR, I get why I’ve never met anyone who has said of either city, “I just had to get out of that hellhole!” The people are friendly, the mood is casual, the roads are civil (no one jaywalks!), the cultural scene is vibrant, and the weather is … well, a bit warmer in winter than New England. Most important of all, the bars and restaurants are tops.

Me (left) at Tavern Law with Leonora and Paul Clarke, and Jamie Boudreau.

Me (left) at Tavern Law with Leonora and Paul Clarke, and Jamie Boudreau.

Honestly, about half the reason I took this trip was to go to the ZigZag Cafe and to meet the inestimable Murray Stenson, who has tended bar in and around Seattle for more than 30 years. The thing about Murray, the reason why his fans include the arbiters of the cocktail and bar renaissance in addition to legions of regular customers, is that he combines the chops and charm of an old pro with the mixological enthusiasm of today’s cocktail geek — all in a manner that comes across as completely genuine and welcoming to all.

Murray and his co-worker Sabrina Ross at the ZigZag.

Murray and his co-worker Sabrina Ross at the ZigZag.

And it’s not like Murray’s the only talent on the ZigZag team. The place as a whole — its dark-wood bar anchors a contemporary-looking restaurant — radiates an easygoing hospitality, and co-owners Kacy Fitch and Ben Dougherty and the rest of the bar staff turn out expertly made drinks with often rare ingredients. A couple of the cocktails Murray made for me involved Giffard products from France, which are generally unavailable in the States: Mangalore liqueur (made with cardamom and other spices) and macadamia-nut syrup. Then there was the pre-Prohibition bourbon. Oh, and something special that caught this Bostonian’s eye: on the ZigZag’s cocktail menu was the Bohannon, created by our homeboy Casey Keenan.

I visited several other Seattle bars, including:

Jay Kuehner in perpetual motion at Sambar.

Jay Kuehner in perpetual motion at Sambar.

Sambar – Thanks to Charles Munat for insisting on driving me and Paul Clarke out to Seattle’s Ballard-Fremont neighborhood to experience this smart, little cafe connected to Le Gourmand restaurant. Bartender Jay Kuehner is well respected for mixing some of the most creative and tasty cocktails in the city, and he is a sweet guy to boot.

Keith Waldbauer tries to set fire to Vessel.

Keith Waldbauer tries to set fire to Vessel.

Tavern Law – Part contemporary saloon, part speakeasy (the speakeasy is upstairs behind a semi-hidden door). Bartender Miles “Scrappy’s Bitters” Thomas mixed me a couple of refreshing drinks from the old school — the Kemble House (orange gin, dry vermouth, Fernet Branca) and the Rose Cocktail (dry vermouth, kirschwasser, bitters) — which I enjoyed in the company of Paul Clarke and his wife, Leonora, and Jamie “the man, the legend” Boudreau, who is between bartending gigs at the moment.

Vending-machine art at the Hideout. Abu-Grape "Follypops."

Vending-machine art at the Hideout. Abu-Grape "Follypops."

Plus … the artisanal cocktail bar Vessel, where Keith Walbauer’s mixture of bourbon, Pommeau de Normandie, Benedictine and Fee’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters was inspired by Misty Kalkofen‘s Fort Washington Flip; the hip, den-like Rob Roy, where I said hello to Anu Apte, who just started the Washington State chapter of LUPEC; the Hideout, which lives up to its name and where you can get a good cocktail and admire (and purchase) cool, local art; Spur Gastropub, whose creators are also responsible for Tavern Law; Bathtub Gin, a narrow and cozy speakeasy where Marley Tomic-Beard, formerly of Eastern Standard, now tends bar; and Brouwers Cafe, a beer bar with an impressive list of Belgian and northwest U.S. brews. Finally, I must mention that I stayed at the historic Sorrento Hotel, which itself has joined the Seattle cocktail scene with its Drinking Lessons led by some of the country’s top bartenders and drink historians.

After a pretty ride to Portland on Amtrak’s Cascade line and a brief gawk at beautiful, old Union Station, I made a beeline to Clyde Common in the Pearl District (one of those industrial-turned-artsy neighborhoods). It was happy hour, and bartending/mixology blogger, Repeal Day impresario and international playboy Jeffrey Morgenthaler was helming the bar. Twenty-somethings who were attractive in an approachable way filtered in for what appeared to be a continued sampling of Morgenthaler’s cocktail menu, with solid stuff like the Bourbon Renewal (Maker’s Mark, lemon juice, cassis, bitters) and the Norwegian Wood (Krogstad Aquavit, applejack, Cinzano Rosso, yellow Chartreuse, bitters). A “European-style tavern” — think northern European in design — Clyde Common is a jewel in Portland’s considerable culinary crown, with its pronounced focus on local ingredients and simple preparations.

Norwegian Negroni at Beaker and Flask

Norwegian Negroni at Beaker and Flask

Another such jewel is Laurelhurst Market, a butcher shop that expanded into a hip steak house in the Laurelhurst neighborhood (a little ways across the Willamette River from the Pearl). There’s a fine bar program here, too, and I had a Swoon cocktail — applejack, lemon juice, egg white, burnt chamomile syrup — before digging into my steak frites.

A quick cab ride got me over to Beaker and Flask, which has no sign and appears to occupy a building that was once a show room for cars or home appliances. It sits on an elevated spot, and its large windows offer a great view of the city lights across the river. Bartender David Shenaut, who also pulls shifts at the Teardrop Lounge (see below), made me a tasty Norwegian Negroni with Krogstad Aquavit, Cynar and sweet vermouth. Then, what with Blair “Trader Tiki” Reynolds walking over and introducing himself to me, we decided to do something experimental with falernum, Irish whiskey, egg white, bitters and I honestly don’t remember what all else. It was interesting, though.

Daniel Shoemaker at the Teardrop. Dig the fat necktie knot.

Daniel Shoemaker at the Teardrop. Dig the fat necktie knot.

The Teardrop Lounge is one of those must-visit bars for any cocktailian visiting Oregon. They make a lot of their own ingredients, including tonic water, liqueurs and bitters. The space, with its large, oval bar, is like a shrine to the artisanal cocktail, and the bartenders dress sharply. I was happy to see dry-humored Daniel Shoemaker, whom I had met at Tales of the Cocktail, again on his home turf.

It's a beer store. And a beer bar.

It's a beer store. And a beer bar.

After all that cocktailing, man, was I thirsty for a beer. Luckily, Portland can satisfy those cravings and then some. On my last night I pub-hopped from the venerable, English-style Horse Brass Pub (terrific mix of British, European and Northwest brews) to Belmont Station (a no-frills beer bar that grew out of a kick-ass craft beer store) to Prost (new and a rarity in the States — a contemporary beer bar focusing on German beer and cuisine; great stuff) to, finally, Cassidy’s — a 30-year-old saloon-style bar that attracts industry types late-night after their shifts. Given Cassidy’s reputation, what choice did I have but to end my Northwest bar hop with a Rainier tall-boy and a shot of Fernet?

Thanks to all my friendly Northwest guides for a fabulous time!

Nightcap at Cassidy's: Fernet with a Rainier back.

Nightcap at Cassidy's: Fernet with a Rainier back.

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13 Responses to “I drank the Pacific Northwest”

  1. Sara

    Fabulous post. I was in Portland last April and also visited Clyde Common and Teardrop. So much fun, and amazingly delicious.

  2. Tina S

    I’m DYING to get out there! Thanks for documenting your romp. Looking forward to attempting to replicate it :)

  3. Nick

    I was in Seattle a couple months ago, and as I had arrived a day before my hiking buddies, I had no idea how to spend a Friday night.

    Scott Marshall recommended I go meet Murray, and I must say, that guy rules.

    At the end of the night, he handed me a $20 to give to whoever was working the bar at Drink next time I go in. I haven’t been there in a while, but if any of those guys are checking in, one of you has a random tip coming your way.

  4. ljclark

    That is awesome, Nick. Murray is famous for his $20 goodwill messages.

  5. Jonathan

    Love the post — and envy the tour de force it sounds like the trip was — PS the Rainier Tall Boy and Fernet pic is just awesomeness

  6. Jeffrey Morgenthaler

    It was a rare treat having you out here, Lauren. Please come back and see us any time.

  7. ljclark

    Careful what you wish for, JM.

  8. hubert

    As a former Seattleite, your story and pictures brought back fond memories…Spur was my favorite among favorites in Seattle, although I would have happily moved to Portland for Teardrop…Crush was also doing great things with cocktails with some help from their fantastic kitchen…Murray and all those other great bartenders notwithstanding, Jamie B really deserves credit for opening the eyes (and taste buds) of Seattleites to the possibilities of mixology when he opened Vessel… my personal brush with greatness was being a “mule” to transport bitters from John Gertsen (then at 9 Park) to Murray at Zigzag…

  9. Alcachofa

    I was a huge fan of Vessel when I visited Seattle. In part, I think, because I had never heard of the place. I was just walking by and said, “this place has potential.” And it was awesome. Seattle is one of the VERY few cities where something like that could happen.

    Sadly, Murray was not working when I visited Zig Zag. :-( Crush was on my list, too, but couldn’t make it.

  10. Jon from NH

    Actually, one of my college roommates lived in Seattle for a few years, and did actually say “I have to get out that hellhole!”. Then moved to Austin. Go figure. Some people just really need sunshine I guess.

  11. ljclark

    Thanks for chiming in, hubert — love that you were a bitters mule! Alcachofa, I wish I could’ve visited Vessel and all these other places multiple times. Instead I got enough of a taste to want to go back at some point. Jon, I can always count on you for weighing in with a contrarian view. Guess I have to put Austin on my trip list.

  12. Tony Harion

    WOW! What a trip! My mouth watered!
    I hope I can stop by a few of these places on my next trip to the US.
    Maybe after tales next year!
    Cheers,

  13. Lindsey

    So glad you have a great friend that insisted you visit Sambar!! Such an amazing little bar attached to the wonderful and never disappointing Le Gourmand! I’m a Seattleite born and raised and I find the best restaurants and bars are outside of downtown Seattle…the ones where you feel like you walked into your parent’s house–super warm and welcomed from the door :)

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