New restaurants during a global pandemic? Yes, it’s happening. What on earth would possess anyone to move forward with opening? “We love pain — that’s why we did this,” joked Paul Shanrock, co-owner of Dreamland Bar & Diner in Fremont, back in August. In fact, they’d signed the lease on the former Red Door spot three weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown; at a certain point, they had to forge forth, even with seating and hours of alcohol service limited by government mandate.
At Dreamland, temperature checks are part of the new normal, and there’s a big outdoor deck for nonrainy days. But the safest way to support our struggling restaurants remains takeout or delivery (and tipping big). Here are three places that might become new at-home favorites, including a chef/owner running her first restaurant, the goodness of Dreamland and the to-go-only return of a big name.
A new kind of comfort food from Di Fiora
1320 University St., Suite 1, Seattle; 206-325-5508, difiora.com
Is the fried rice staring at you? Yes, it is. “Love me!” it pleads, the cherry-tomato eyes on top importuning. “Put me on your Instagram and put me in your belly!” The food at Di Fiora — new on the Pike/Pine edge of First Hill — gets such care in presentation that even in a to-go box, it begs for admiration, then documentation, prior to consumption. Colors pop, as in the vibrant saffron curry in which four big scallops bathe; each one of them ferries a half cherry tomato, too, plus a tiny green sprig of dill. It’s so nice to have extra care lavished on your takeout. No one’s doing that at home, though Extreme Garnishing might be a good COVID-19 hobby. Even a bottle of humble pinot grigio has clearly been chosen for particular prettiness, with a rustic necklace of a grapevine twig tied around its neck with raffia.
But pretty is as pretty does, and food from Di Fiora does both your social media and your happiness quotient so much good. Chef/owner Thidaphat “Chimme” Ariyahirantrakul calls it “Asian with a twist of European cuisine,” and that often translates into dishes both full of interest and replete with comfort. The pool of curry for the “Lava scallops” ($17.95) earns its name with a bracing but not overpowering spicy heat, made complex with a hint of sweet; the European twist comes from the addition of melty mozzarella, softening the curry’s spikes. An absurdly rich organic spaghetti carbonara ($25), loaded with bacon and shrimp, gets even more over the top with masago caviar. The fried rice ($23) is the dish you might find yourself wanting over and over — faintly oceanic with Dungeness crab, it’s soft and brothy and ideally savory, each grain imbued with flavor like a risotto. The usually mixed-in egg here takes the Frenchy form of a delicate omelet draped over the dome of rice. There’s no sear about it; Chimme seems to have a penchant for smooth textures, and with warm flavors and nuance, she’s making leveled-up comfort food.
But when the chef goes for crunch, she gets it: Her Korat chicken wings ($13.50) have a coating so incredibly crispy that taking them to-go is no problem. On the phone, Chimme demurred when asked about her method, just calling it “a process” and allowing that yes, rice flour is involved in the batter. These might be the city’s best wings, and they’re huge — she special-orders the biggest she can get, and organic, too. Her family is from Bangkok, and she learned to cook in their restaurants, now numbering a half-dozen including Fremont’s ZapVerr. “This is like a new generation,” she says of her own place, “more fusion and upscale — very Seattle, green and healthy.”
The best hash browns and more diner goodness from Dreamland Bar & Diner
3401 Evanston Ave. N., Seattle; 206-402-4902, dreamlandfremont.com
If a diner can be judged by its hash browns — which it definitely can — Dreamland in Fremont is winning. Good hash browns seem especially hard to find in Seattle, where many a breakfast or brunch spot cops out by going the home-fries route or pretending that roasted potatoes are somehow superior. Made right, shredded hash browns are correct and beautiful and good and also very difficult to make right at home, so thank you and welcome, new Dreamland!
These hash browns are tender inside and crispy golden-browned all around with lacy edges. Some hash browns are all texture; Dreamland’s combine proper form with a distinct potato-tastiness, such that if you usually like ketchup on yours, you might find it not only unnecessary but also begin to understand those who find it objectionable. There is an almost undetectable note of spicy heat, which is how spiciness in hash browns should be (it’s morita chili, with the other seasoning being onion powder, garlic powder and good ol’ black pepper). The amount of grease is just right. You can, and you should, substitute hash browns for fries at Dreamland — no extra charge — for the fries are merely good, while the hash browns are great. They travel better for COVID-times takeout, too, and if you want to take the time, throwing them in a skillet over medium-high with some butter works wonders for reheating.
The mac and cheese ($13) at Dreamland is a creditable creamy-saucy version, with the acceptable substitution of shells for macaroni, plus the option of adding things like sautéed mushrooms, which seems like gilding the lily, but all right. The wedge salad ($9) is a pleasure to eat, a quarter-head of very crisp iceberg with smoky bacon bits and a good, strong blue cheese dressing that’s been cleverly drizzled down into the crevices between the leaves. The turkey club ($13) takes a risk of an update that works out beautifully: Parmesan-crusted top and bottom bread.
There’s lots to love about Dreamland, which comes from the team behind nearby Stampede Cocktail Club, with chef Troy Krajewski formerly in charge of RockCreek’s brunch. There’s even a paragon of the important diner classic the Monte Cristo ($14), also a rarity in these parts. This one’s got fluffy, thick French toast that’s eggy but light; generous but balanced amounts of ham and Swiss; a modicum of raspberry jam plus Dijon mustard to counter it. It comes with a glossily dressed, fresh little side salad, which is probably the right thing as a counterpoint to the sandwich’s richness and also healthful, but you’re going to want a side of hash browns.
The very-worth-it splurge of Bisato at Home
Preorder/to-go only; 2700 Fourth Ave. S., Suite C, Seattle; 206-773-4663, bisatoshop.com
Roasted vegetables are very good, and they’re so easy to make at home — nothing here to transcend, the end. Except when Scott Carsberg makes roasted vegetables — his are actually excellent, to the degree that you should not think about any roasted vegetables you’ve ever made while you’re eating his, for that might make you sad, and his roasted vegetables should be pure joy. I ate them separately to get the full effect — one bite of sweet, pliant yellow pepper; one thinnest plane of zucchini, floppy yet not at all oversoft; a bit of eggplant, the bitterness muted to an echo but not forsaken; etc. And, like a weird child, I ate the accompanying blob of beautiful burrata mostly on its own, too, dredging it through the vegetables’ highest-quality, golden-hued olive oil for even more richness, because it was there.
It is unsurprising that Carsberg’s roasted vegetables would be superlative. This is the chef of Seattle’s vaunted fine-dining Lampreia in Belltown, which then became the equally wonderful and more accessible Bisato; recently, he reopened the latter in Pioneer Square with partners, then departed in that no-comment way that means it’s probably for the best. (That Bisato is now 84 Yesler.) It seems for the best for the rest of us that he’s now doing takeout-only Bisato at Home, turning his prodigious skills to the marvelous basics of Italian cuisine, with results that make eating at home a special occasion when we need that most.
I brought Bisato at Home dinner for two (which starts at $96 for three courses, with à la carte also available) to my mom. She deserves it; she’s the best. We ate social-distanced in her garden, still lovely in autumn. We said, back and forth, how unbelievably good the roasted vegetables were, and she noted that the capers added more than such tiny things should. We admired the smart and adorable accompanying sachet of highest-quality balsamic, attempting to drip it artfully on the burrata. We trusted Carsberg’s heating instructions for the lasagna, though the oven time seemed a bit long, and it, too, was perfect — delicate pasta sheets; tender, luxurious ground pork and beef; precisely the right amount of mozzarella and Parmesan; a heartening amount of bright-orange grease.
We ate what we could of the darkest-cocoa-dusted tiramisu, and I left the rest with her, because she’s got the real sweet tooth and that’s how love works. Soon it would be too cold for supper outside, not to mention dark by 5 p.m. What would we do then? No matter — for now, we had this.