Tasting with Tom

It always thrills me, even several years into this job, to jump up from my keyboard and dash over to the Palace Kitchen to taste the next new menu designed by Tom Douglas for our upcoming show at Teatro ZinZanni.

At least this time I’ve eaten lunch first so I can truly concentrate on the actual flavors of the dishes instead of trying to mask my obvious starvation. Everyone at these tastings always takes delicate discerning bites, just one or two and then deliberately lays down their forks.

Tom has designed our menu since we reopened in Seattle back in 2002. Our creative team gives him details about our show’s themes which he takes into consideration when he creates our five course meal. It’s a such critical part of the whole evening’s experience at TZ so we try to give him as much information as possible. Many audience members have suffered from bad rubber chicken at other dinner-theatre establishments and we often get surprised and always positive feedback after these crusty critics come to our tent.

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Photo by William Anthony

But anyone who is familiar with any one of Tom’s five restaurants knows that our menu is bound to be good, flavorful and fresh. One of Tom’s fundamental philosophies is to only use the best available in-season fresh local ingredients. I never realized what a true champion of this culinary creed he was until I followed him around Pike’s Place Market on a photo shoot with a couple of our clowns. The idea was to show him shopping for the upcoming menu. The outpouring of genuine adoration from the vendors rivalled the clowns antics for Tom’s attention as we made our way from the statue of the pig up to the north end of the stalls. Butchers, vegetable and fruit vendors, fish mongers – all treated him like some kind of minor royalty.

“Tom has done a lot for us,” said one local organic farmer. “He’s put many of us on the map.”

Today’s tasting is particularly important. We’re about to reopen our tent at our new location on Mercer Street at the end of November. After a hiatus of several months during which we’ve been busy with construction, we’re itching to get back in business in time for one of our busiest times of the year: the holiday season.

I’m late today. There’s weather, Seahawks game traffic and a train all conspiring to keep me from getting there on time.

I arrive to find Carrie Carlsteen our head chef seated opposite Markus Kunz, our managing director and Annie Jamison, our executive director. Carrie who looks well rested and refreshed after several months of traveling and visiting family, is flanked by Ken Brown, our dining room manager, and Kaycee Bernier, our bar manager. All three have been with TZ since the beginning.

Everyone is huddled over two white plates. They are earnestly examining the proposed starter, a mouth-watering amuse-bouche of fresh buffalo mozzerella topped with an olive and fig tapanade. There’s a serious discussion about crackers going on when Tom swoops in with two steaming bowls of butternut squash soup.

“People love squash soup,” he declares. “You can drizzle this with creme fraiche if you want,” he looks at Carrie. “I’ve tossed some roasted pumpkin seeds with herbs and sprinkled them on top.”

Tom is a big bearlike man with an impish grin and a permanent twinkle in his eye. He moves and talks very fast. I’ve learned to be really prepared with my questions because I know we’ll only get a few minutes to grill him on his preparation.

The soup is heavenly. It’s straight-up comfort food but complex with a perfect combination of spices.

Next comes the salad course. Roasted honeycrisp apple with a crust of porcini mushrooms nestled in a bed of tossed mache. In the center is a dollop of chevre cheese. The whole thing is sprinkled with roasted hazelnuts.

“Will people know what mache is?” asks Kat Uzzelle, our sales director. We decide to describe it as “lightly tossed mache greens.”

“Baked apples are perfect for the holidays. And it’s not always expected as part of the salad course.” Tom breezes past.

Tom cooks with his longtime associate Shelley Peterson. The Palace Kitchen is his culinary workshop, his preferred playground. The whole place centers around this idea.

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The entrees come out fast and furious. First there’s the vegetarian option, a Moroccan medley of curried roasted vegetables, chickpeas and dates served on a bed of roasted tomato puree and topped with fresh green beans and spoonful of Greek yogurt. Again sprinkled with nuts – this time with marcona almonds. It’s visually delightful but it tastes even better than it looks.

“I taste honey on the dates,” says Carrie. “What a great contrast with the flavors of the curry.”

Our vegetarian options tend to be imaginative and highly flavorful, not to mention substantial – this is not your basic pasta tossed with butter and parm.

Next comes the grilled Artic Cod. It’s smeared with a plum jelly and served with a side of tabbouleh – mint, diced dried apricots and whole wheat berries.

“There’s something about wheat berries that makes me think I’m doing something healthy for myself,” says Tom.

“This is the entree selection for those people who are thinking their way through the holidays,” says Ken. “My mouth is happy but I don’t feel stuffed.”

Indeed the lightness of the fish enhanced by the plum jelly is complemented nicely by the freshness of tabbouleh.

Finally there’s the New York Steak seared on the grill and served with a shallot mustard sauce and mashed potatoes.

“The hearty choice,” says Tom. “Here, try it with this red goat horn pepper relish. The peppers step up the flavor of the beef.”

Discussion ensues about how to serve the relish. Should we offer it as an option and have a server come round after the plates are set or should it be on the plate in its own ramiken?

I am scribbling furiously while trying to take a third nibble of beef, this time with the red pepper relish. He’s right: now it’s all about the meat.

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Photo by William Anthony

“After a meal like this, you must have something triple chocolate for dessert,” announces Tom. “Here’s a cake Pierre made over at the Dahlia Bakery. I love watching him spray these – he does six at a time.”

Tom sets down a round six inch cyclinder of dusted chocolate cake. The top is decorated with a flourish of ganauche that reminds me of a mouse, but this mouse’s tail is made from drizzled caramel.

“There’s a little toffee in the layer filling.”

Now everyone’s careful restraint is abandoned as the forks clink gleefully against the dessert plates.

At 4:30 p.m. I stagger back to my car and then back to my desk to write up the menu and zap it out to all concerned. Carrie must review it carefully for accuracy while she makes adjustment once she sources all the ingredients. Kaycee translates it for Christene Larsen, our wine goddess, so she in turn can select the perfect wine pairings for our signature wine flights. Ken will drill the wait staff on ingredients and offer suggestions for preparation so that waiters and clowns alike can serve the food swiftly. (Ice cream, we discovered the hard way, flies off plates during our Chaos act. Not good.) Kat will email the menu off to clients interested in potential buyouts. Me? I’ll get it ready for posting on the web and sending as press release to the food media.

And Tom? He’s off on his next adventure but he’ll check back in on us a couple times. We’ll have several more inhouse tastings before opening night.

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