Travel: Ale and oysters: twin peaks of the Emerald City: Seattle, in the American Northwest, is the latest gastronomic capital of the New World, says Michael Jackson

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The Independent Travel
THIS obsession with the Emerald City began more than a dozen years ago. It started, like most of my love affairs, with a terrible thirst for a beer. But that soon gave rise to an appetite for oysters, to be followed over the years by innumerable steaks of alder-smoked salmon, with pine-kernel risotto and wild mushrooms, rounded off with a few chocolatey biscotti with espresso (arabica species only, possibly variety typica, I would guess grown in the Celebes, aged for two years and given a 'full city roast' - about 18 minutes).

When it began, the choice of ale was Rainier or nothing. The Olympia oyster was just beginning its revival after being over-fished, and Cafe Allegro was the only place in town for a decent espresso. Today, there are nine or 10 breweries in the metro area, 50 or 60 oyster growers in the bays, more salmon from the Columbia River and Alaska than you can shake an alder twig at, and 1,000 espresso machines to get the adrenalin pumping.

For those with a taste for such pleasures, Seattle is a wondrous place, keeper of all the best fashions. A bumper sticker demands 'Save the Ales', despite the fact that a new one is announced every month in Vince Cottone's beer column in the daily Post- Intelligencer (the 'P-I'). Another reveals, 'The World is my Oysters'. A third proclaims that the car is 'Powered by Espresso'.

Seattle is the newest gastronomic capital of the New World, the place in which to eat and drink the future and discover that it works. It is heaven for those who like wheat beers, porters and stouts, as well as oysters, scallops, crab, lobster, salmon and halibut, who crave mushrooms and rocket (arugula in America), focaccia and biscotti. Above all, you have to like coffee. Those espresso machines start in the airport terminal and sigh on every garage forecourt, public building, even every dry-cleaner's. About 150 are listed in the guidebook Sip of Seattle.

Have an espresso while you pump gas, wait for your shirts, walk down the street, ride the elevator. You want Americano, breve, cappuccino, con panna, doppio, latte, macchiato, mocha, ristretto Non-fat milk, 2 per cent, or cream? With chocolate powder, vanilla or cinnamon? A splash of hazelnut syrup, almond or caramel? Biscotti, a cookie or a muffin? Regular, low sodium, low cholesterol, high fibre?

At first, no one understood about Seattle. 'You're English?' an editor exclaimed to me down the phone from New York. 'I always thought you lived in Seattle. That's where your faxes always come from. Never could figure out what you were doing with all those lumberjacks . . .'

Ever since young men went west to cut lumber, search for gold or flee from justice, this has been one of the youngest, most adventurous places in America. The railroad deemed it the end of the line, the last stop before the boat or plane to Alaska.

'Houses of ill repute were our first service industry,' says Charles Finkel, looking excessively respectable in his three-piece suit and gold-rimmed, half-moon specs. 'This place used to be a house of ill repute, called the La Salle Hotel.' Now, Mr Finkel has turned a part of the building into the tiny Pike Place Brewery, making Old Bawdy (a peat-smoked barley wine), Birra Perfetto (with oregano in addition to hops), Cerveza Rosanna (with chillies) and an Oyster Stout (flavoured with the liquor released when the creatures are shucked). The brewery is just down the hill from Pike Place Market; next door at 1418 Western Ave, the Liberty Malt homebrew store offers tastings and useful guidebooks for newcomers to town.

After the lumberjacks and fugitives, the next arrivals were morally upright Scandinavians, Japanese and people such as Mr Finkel, whose New York Jewish parents had inconsiderately raised him in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He decided to move to a city named after a native American chief. The only racist joke I have ever heard in Seattle concerned the relative stupidity of Swedes and Norwegians. The city is so short of African-Americans that, as soon as it found one, it gleefully elected him Mayor, a post he still occupies.

Japanese and Italian smallholders and Jewish fish merchants built their trade on the slogan 'Meet the Producer' at the waterfront Pike Place Market. It escaped a scheduled demolition to become the stomach of the downtown area and, deservedly, a tourist attraction. The market is a public venture, its profits supporting local charities. Even an espresso vendor I met volunteered that she donated 1 per cent of her takings to charity (she also told me she had previously been a longshorewoman, a fisherwoman in Alaska and an interior designer).

The only vaguely disreputable place I have ever found is The Blue Moon saloon, where Jack Kerouac is reputed to have had the odd glass. The city successfully rose in its defence when it was threatened with demolition,

Seattle really began to look like a city of the future, in the style of Flash Gordon, when it built a modernistic tower (in an architectural mode known as 'Populux') obscurely called The Space Needle, and a monorail for the 1962 World's Fair, which also brought Elvis Presley to town to make a terrible film. Presley soon left, but the other features make visitors feel they are sitting inside a comic book. In the Seventies, a domed ballpark looking like a flying saucer was added to the skyline.

Between the tower and saucer, stylish skyscrapers in mirror glass reflect the Cascade and Olympia mountains and the waters of the lakes and the Puget Sound. People started calling it the Emerald City when its old name, the Queen City, began to sound politically incorrect. (It was quite innocent - it meant Queen of the Northwest).

It was when people started to notice that the lakes were becoming polluted that Seattle was aroused into an environmental awareness that has become its own obsession. In the way that other places have a conflict between town and gown, Seattle's battles are between the oyster and salmon eaters and the loggers who might disturb the fish. This is Singles versus Twin Peaks with a touch of Northern Exposure.

'It is a physically exciting area. You sit in a restaurant and see two ranges of mountains. It is a small enough city for people to have civic pride, to rally round. There is a spirit of the Northwest. I think it has something to do with being a far corner of the country,' says Chris Canlis, whose Greek-Lebanese father came from Hawaii to start one of Seattle's first serious restaurants. That was when it was still a Boeing company town, before people began to talk about software and the Pacific Rim.

Mr Canlis is now just about the sole representative of the old establishment, unless you count Ray's Boathouse, which all the guidebooks feature. 'I think we are the only restaurant in town with a dress code,' concedes Chris. 'We like you to wear a jacket and tie, but we don't mind if you kick your shoes off under the table.'

Ale Houses are yet another Seattle phenomenon. They mean what they say - enjoy the ale, but don't ask for lager. It was over a few pints of bitter at the Great British Beer Festival in the late Seventies that I met Gordon Bowker, a Sixties sort of person who was educated at Berkeley and involved in alternative newspapers. He said he was planning to start a micro-brewery, to produce ale, in Seattle. His Redhook Brewery and Scottish-Canadian Bert Grant's rival establishment in Yakima (over the mountains, in hop, apple and cherry country) began the movement in the Northwest.

Mr Bowker also began the Seattle company Starbuck's Coffee, which is today America's biggest roaster and retailer of speciality beans and blends, with 180 shops every one equipped with an espresso bar. Mr Bowker is one of those unassuming Seattleites who seem to have a hand in everything.

Another is Rich Komen, whose restaurant, Cutters, again at Pike Place, started the focaccia craze back in the mid Eighties, and whose later establishment, Palomino, was then among the pioneers of thin-crust pizza and (an odd combination) cask-conditioned ale. His latest place, Palisades, offers a Vienna-style lager called Integrale, a better pizza beer, and views of both mountain ranges.

The Olympia oyster, with its slightly metallic taste, is unique to the Northwest. The mild Pacific oysters, the fruity Kumamotos of Japan and the briny European Flats are also grown. On menus in Seattle, each tends to be identified with its bay of cultivation, sometimes with the botanical name of the species.

In November, The Brooklyn offers 33 micro-brewed beers and 45 types of oyster, but at no time of year are there fewer than five varieties of oyster, even if some are imported. In early May each year, the restaurant has an oyster seminar and the city has food and drink events every week. Visitors should check the Wednesday food sections of the P-I and the Seattle Times, The Weekly, or the bulletin board at the cookware store Sur La Table in Pike Place Market.

The world does not get any more Western than Seattle, and this may have been the birthplace of the cuisine that builds bridges with the East. Near a bridge on the Ship Canal, Ponti is a restaurant with this West-East accent. The chef, Alvin Binuya, an American of Filipino origin, serves oysters in beer-batter on a bed of cabbage and beansprouts with a Thai fish sauce; broils scallops to serve in a marsala sauce on penne; and offers spot prawns, a local variety, with a salsa of papaya and lime juice. Even in these fancier places, and momentarily deserting the Northwest's flowery ales for its fragant wines, two people can eat well for under dollars 100.

In the Cornerstone area, in an old hotel building ('this used to be a house of ill repute'), at a restaurant called The Painted Table, Emily Moore offers ceviche of scallops with Szechwan peppercorns; smoked halibut with a paillard of yams; and duck tamales in a mango plum sauce - sensuous food, Seattle's answer to cynics who say the place is just too squeaky-clean.

Mind you, in all my years of visiting the city, I have never been accosted by a woman of ill repute. I had a perfectly innocent chat with a schoolteacher at an espresso stand once, and she later sent me a mildly affectionate postcard. On the front of it was a photograph of an Alaskan halibut.

FACTFILE

Getting there: USAirtours (081-550 8866) offers a pounds 302 London-Seattle return fare with Northwest via Minneapolis; direct with United costs pounds 419.

Accommodation: Seattle has the range of accommodation that you would expect from a US city. A room at a Holiday Inn (UK reservations: 0800 897121), for example, costs from pounds 44 per night. Cheaper motel accommodation costs around pounds 20 per night.

Best beer bars: Seattle is not a conservative place, but liberals cherish their own restrictions. Where else would you find an entire pub deemed a non-smoking area? Try the new Blue Star, with 18 beers on tap, including an offbeat Honey Wheat made by Hale's Ales. The Blue Star, at 45th and Stoneway (548-0345), is in the Wallingford neighbourhood. In adjoining neighbourhoods, the Latona, on the avenue of that name, at 6423 (525-2238), and the 74th St Alehouse on Greenwood Ave N (784-2955), have the best beer selections. The Triangle, 3507 Fremont Place N (632-0880), and the Maple Leaf, 8909 Roosevelt Way NE (523-8449), have the best pub food Seattle-style. The Pioneer Square saloon, downtown, 73 Yesler Way (638-5444), is the handiest.

You can taste Redhook Extra Special Bitter on the brewery premises, in a former tramshed, N 35th St and Phinney Ave N, Fremont (548-8000). The brewery also makes a porter, called Blackhook. The Victorian notion of porter and stout as an accompaniment to oysters is very much alive in Seattle.

Many argue that the finest spot is Elliott's on Pier 56 (623-4340), but I am better acquainted with The Brooklyn on 1212 2nd Ave (224-7000), which offers a beer-and-oyster sampler.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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