In their Dinner at a Movie series, Seattle Times restaurant critic Bethany Jean Clement and film critic Moira Macdonald taste-test the culinary offerings of Seattle-area cinemas (with sometimes less than stellar results). Now for a very special holiday edition: Dinner at “The Nutcracker.”
Bethany: Perhaps you are not completely in the holiday spirit this time around. Understandable! The world feels Grinchy, and we did, too, on our way to “The Nutcracker” at the Pacific Northwest Ballet on a recent, chilly late afternoon. But if you don’t get cheered by flocks of adorable children all dressed up in bows and plaids and velvets racing around vast expanses of carpeted lobby, your Yuletide bleakness is stronger than mine. Get thee to “The Nutcracker”! Even a nosebleed-level seat is a great one. Oh, the joy!!!
Moira: It is not possible to be grumpy when gazing at a very tiny child in a very tiny velvet blazer or red, glittered cowboy boots. These and many other enchanting pint-sized looks were on parade in the McCaw Hall lobby, and all we could do was admire. (And point, saying, “CUTE!!!”)
Bethany: As Moira said of a barely toddling one, “It looks like she’s been gift-wrapped!” Which was true. Bows! So many bows. A bow is just an objectively good thing.
Moira: I also noticed a wee child dressed as a sort of hipster Amish lad, in white dress shirt, vest, tie and teensy fedora. I died. This is my ghost writing. Anyway, the McCaw Hall lobby was beautifully festooned with swags and bells and general festivity, and I swear there was an aroma of sugarplums in the air. What are sugarplums, anyway?
Bethany: Fruit of Fairy fable! Clearly, we should eat some — I’ll do some research. Meanwhile, dear readers, Moira knows everything about ballet; she studied it for years, which makes so much sense given her effortless elegance. Everyone should have the good fortune of experiencing “The Nutcracker” with her. And she tells me that we are incredibly lucky to have the Pacific Northwest Ballet as our local company, as it is one of the best in the country! Also, this: “If I could only write about ballet, I would,” Moira said as we dined. Please prepare to subscribe to my new magazine, “All About Ballet With Moira Macdonald.”
Moira: Our evening began — at the unlikely hour of 4:30 p.m. (Sunday-night Nuts are at 5:30 p.m., presumably so the audience can be nestled snug in their beds by 9) — with dinner.
Bethany: One would be forgiven for not having great expectations of Prelude, the restaurant at McCaw Hall. This is a food-service situation, not Fine Dining. But we had a cushy little two-person booth and a view of a sweet, glowing pink Christmas tree, with, at one point, McCaw Hall’s current cutest child systematically examining every ornament upon it. And the art — large-scale, by Northwest master Alden Mason — looks perfect. It’s a big, boxy room, but it manages to feel like you’re inside a gift instead of, well, adrift.
Moira: Agreed! I did wonder why the black-cod chowder was $27 — a lot for soup? — but it was actually a sizable serving of fresh fish on top of chowder, with potatoes and various other tasty things, and it was smoky and flavorful.
Bethany: Moira was kind enough to share a bite of this silky luxuriousness — I’m a fool for sablefish.
Moira: Wait, is black cod sablefish? Really? Bethany knows SO MUCH. I wish you could all have the fun of eating dinner with her.
Bethany: I wish I could eat sablefish with everyone! And what a great name. I picture a fancy fish in a fur coat.
Moira: The sort of fish who would go to “The Nutcracker,” dressed up.
Bethany: Exactly. Then climb willingly into the creamy-light broth of Prelude’s lovely chowder. Disrobing first, of course! We also had a pretty lovely arugula salad ($12) with a few slightly tough snap peas (unnecessary, wildly out of season) and a blob of burrata (big, always welcome), dressed all lemony and with edible flower petals (clearly placed there by elves). To balance out the greenery, I ordered the roasted Double R Ranch striploin ($29), which entailed two gigantic slabs of rosy, tender meat. The awfully plain accompanying pasta seemed to have come off the kids’ menu, but on balance: Bravo, Prelude.
Moira: We expressed mild disappointment to the bartender about the lack of “Nutcracker”-themed cocktails (a Sugar Plum Sidecar? Mouse King Mimosa?), and he kindly offered to drop a cherry into my sparkling wine “to make it more festive.” Nice!
Bethany: Such nice service at every turn! Even the usher militantly making sure your drink was poured into a plastic cup for admission to the auditorium had a certain cranky charm. (Though, hello: Those cups cost $4!? And represent a small environmental catastrophe, considering how few probably get reused.)
Moira: Everyone we encountered at McCaw was very, very good at their jobs, from the bartenders to the ushers and our smiling server, in her Christmas earrings. Happy holidays to them all!
Moira: And, finally, to the ballet! PNB premiered this “Nutcracker” in 2015, after 30-plus years of running the Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell version beloved by many. But this one, choreographed by the great George Balanchine (in 1955!) and designed by Ian Falconer, has plenty of magic of its own. We were way up in the second balcony, and yet the charming performances — and very precise dancing — of PNB students Marissa Luu as Clara and Adam Abdi as Fritz registered all the way up. It’s kind of fun to see the Nut from so high, as you can see all of Balanchine’s clever stage groupings, and the intricate way he organizes ensembles like “Snow” and “Flowers.” Bethany, how long since your last “Nutcracker”?
Bethany: I had the privilege of seeing the very last performance of the Sendak version in 2014, which made me cry. And I definitely teared up at the beginning of our Nut Experience, as well as several times throughout. The music alone — the orchestra sounded fantastic — is enough to make one’s heart grow several sizes. Is it fair to call ballet an embiggening endeavor, Moira? Is that proper dance-critic-speak?
Moira: Yes! I support any words that describe how this most beautiful of arts can make us feel — lighter than air, and deliriously joyful. (I am, for the record, humming that AMAZING tree-growing music right now. And waving my arms around, in balletic fashion, between typing.)
Bethany: I’m having one of those moments where suddenly your bed is in the creepy, dark forest and it’s snowing and everything is all out of scale and it’s kind of terrifying, but also so, so beautiful, and you know you’re lucky to be alive, even if it’s all a dream.
Moira: Absolutely magic, right? (Fun fact: There is a dancer under that bed, moving it. He is known as “bed boy.”)
Bethany: What?! I was going to ask you about a few of the effects. I thought maybe giant magnets?! But maybe we shouldn’t delve? Let the magic be magic?
Moira: There’s that one really gorgeous effect in the final pas de deux that’s tricky to do correctly — not every Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier duo pulls it off — but on Sunday night, the impeccable pair of Angelica Generosa and James Moore did it perfectly. I sighed.
Bethany: I died. The gorgeousness. How he’s just there to support her, but also quietly brilliant on his own.
Moira: We are both ghosts now.
Moira: Other gorgeousness: The delicate hops-on-pointe of Yuki Takahashi as the lead Marzipan, the dashing hoop work of Candy Cane Steven Loch, and all those whirling Snowflakes and Flowers, who never fail to send me to a gloriously happy place. But shall we talk costumes? THE COLORS. Those “Waltz of the Flowers” tutus every year inspire me to redecorate my living room in their gorgeous, sunset hues. (I have not yet done so. But 2020 beckons.)
Bethany: Orange-flame petal tutus! With apricot tulle, voluminous, underneath. Kill me now!
Moira: In my dreams, I am wearing one of those. And would wear one in real life, every day, if I had one.
Bethany: The newsroom would be so much the better for it. I would obviously join your ensemble!
Moira: Tutu Day at The Seattle Times! I will make this happen!
Bethany: OK, there is one critical thing I want to say: Bows and blazers are all well and good, but Moira, you wrote about how PNB adjusted this ballet’s cultural consciousness recently, and I couldn’t help but notice that the children in the performance are very clearly conventionally gendered. As in, girls having a tea party while boys play leapfrog, or boys playing instruments while girls cradle dolls. PNB needs to mix this up a little bit. Or a lot.
Moira: Changing the choreography of this 1950s ballet isn’t something PNB can just do — it requires approval by the strict Balanchine Trust — but I agree that I’d love to see that mixed up. Ballet evolves; the party scene should evolve, too.
Bethany: Getting back to what’s fun: How about the giant grandfather clock with the owl on top? The sets of this “Nutcracker” possess humor and verve in an Edward-Gorey-adjacent fashion. I loved the sets. Sorry, “Where the Wild Things Are,” but these sets rule the school.
Moira: They are a dream. Right up to the final surprise … which of course I won’t reveal, because Bethany gasped when it appeared and I almost cried because her delight was so charming.
The Overall Experience
Moira: We arrived at McCaw feeling grumpy and burdened; we left with light spirits and dancing hearts. A holiday miracle, you might say.
Bethany: Indeed. Bless us, every one!
“The Nutcracker” at Pacific Northwest Ballet: Through Dec. 28 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-441-2424, pnb.org/nutcracker
Prelude at McCaw Hall: 321 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-615-0404; mccawhall.com/plan-your-visit/dining