Critic-Turned-Cook Recalls A Few Perfect Bites


[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Here's an adjective tossed around a lot in the professional kitchen: perfect. While showing me how to stuff sausages, a prep cook at Lola purred: Purrfect, purrfect, purrfect while I was twisting links. On the line last year at Shultzy's, grill master Jordan praised my burger-building skills by adding a French twist: Pair-fect!

Now, I know my efforts were far from perfection. "Perfect" is a lofty goal rarely achieved in busy kitchens, where there are tons of little details to execute. Which means there are so many ways for things to go wrong.

Yet, it usually goes all right. It's such a sweet miracle when ingredients get put together by talented, hard-working people and sometimes, perfection appears on the plate. While wearing my pointed critic's cap, I craved those rare moments.

Maybe that's exactly what makes them so special. Sometimes, perfection has a lot to do with the setting: slurping pristine Kusshi oysters at the water's edge, eating a citron crepe at the foot of the French Alps, gnawing on a crispy chicken leg cooked up by the legendary Austin Leslie at a Southern Foodways Alliance fried chicken throw down in Oxford, Mississippi.

Other times, great company around the table makes for a perfect meal. Like the lunch at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle way back when I had a conversation with Julia Child about Dungeness crab versus Maine lobster. "I don't like lobster because it gets stuck in my teeth," she said. That afternoon, people at this special meal couldn't stop talking about the fantastic Alaska salmon, served crispy skin side up. Why did that trend never take off?

Then, there are those truly memorable, magnificent moments when everything is so on: the food, the setting, the people around the table. That's true perfection. That's the magic of food. Here's a short list of my perfect bites. Feel free to add your own.

My Perfect Bites


[Photograph: Dave Darnell]

Miss Flora's sliced pork barbecue sandwich at Payne's in Memphis.

Lavender crème brûlée on a summer night at a country hotel in Gigondas, France.

Shrimp and grits with Allan Benton's bacon at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City.


[Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

Grilled octopus with salsa verde at Café Juanita in Kirkland, Washington.


[Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

Seared ahi tuna at Mala Ocean Tavern on Maui (on my birthday, while my brother Chris mixed me a mojito behind the bar).

Geoduck crudo at Anchovies and Olives in Seattle.

A Rocky Road cupcake at Dahlia Bakery in Seattle, split with my daughter, Claire, on Mother's Day.


[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

My very first French baguette on my first trip to Paris in 1980.

The chicken pasta salad from Fery's in Spokane, Washington.

Caviar on super soft scrambled eggs tucked inside a hollowed-out shell at the French Laundry.

The heirloom tomato salad at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California. (Why don't more kitchens realize that the best tomato salad is served room temperature? Not chilled!)


Ashley Merriman's halibut en papillote when that Top Chef was opening Branzino in Seattle two summers ago.


[Photograph: Tom Douglas Restaurants]

And, finally, (though this list is far from complete), the Yukon gold pizza I ate at Serious Pie more than a year ago, the meal that inspired me to try to make the leap from critic to cook. Even 15 months later, I can still conjure the memory of the impeccable, chewy crust, the rustic potatoes drizzled in peppery olive oil, the perfume of the Barbera I sipped while the sun streamed in the picture windows. Perfect!

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. Inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she recently started a new project on her personal blog, exploring "An Egg A Day".