Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tribute to one of a kind

I opened my e-mail this morning to a wonderful story by Kim of her last visit to Phoenicia, telling of the delightful experience that we had always come to expect. Direct from Kim:

I've been wanting to relate the tale of my last visit to Phoenecia. It happened while my SF friends Rebecca and Phill were visiting. Of the half dozen or so times I've been, each visit seems to contain just a bit more magic, and this time did not disappoint.

I had to hype it, Phoenicia that is, quite a bit this time. Friends from out of town's, "Where should we go?" is sometimes not the open-ended question it at first appears, especially if, like me, you live in the downtown core and the restaurant you're proposing is a car trip away to far-flung sounding "West" Seattle. Wouldn't the prime restaurateurs be just steps away from my door? What about these touted rockstar chefs?

I whipped out your "Interpreter of Food Desires" phrase for my marketing angle, made a quick call, and a half-hour later we snagged parking on a very sunny, very busy Saturday eve, not far off the cruisey strip plied by motorcycles and convertibles. And, only half a block away from the restaurant. On entering, we were met by Hussein's wife. Her eyes darted among our faces, as though she was hoping to recognize us, to find a familiar look or gesture among us. It was an entrancing moment, her standing there in front of that low table loaded with wine, probing us with her curious eyes as I began to speak, and at that very moment, under his breath, my friend Phill, who was standing behind me, says, "oh, yes," quite convinced now apparently, that this, indeed, was the place to be.

At the table, a window table—a table with a view of a particularly beautiful Seattle sunset over the dusky islands and mountains at the far end of the Sound—Phill says, "I wonder what 'bread salad' is?" As I was explaining this peculiarity, a dish I've only had in Seattle, as "a normal salad, heavily dressed, heavy on the croutons, but the croutons aren't toasted," bread appears on the table, and, of course, as you would imagine, a little dish of Hussein's curious dip.

This time as last, the dip is the same but different, and therefore 'how?' becomes the question (but only in my mind). 'Perhaps it has more oil and less pomegranate,' I wonder, 'or more of that lemony herb?' but in any configuration, as you know, it is unfathomably delicious. We were each clutching the menus with one hand and dipping wildly with the other, when suddenly a salad arrived. Hussein himself brought it, saying, "Very special balsamic, very very special," and then he was gone. Phill's eyebrows went up, Rebecca said, "Wow," and the three of us speculated aloud as to how he knew we wanted—needed—bread and salad. Then we attacked the salad.

"This is always how it is," I say and recommended the creamy fish stew, the pink one that goes over the rice and grain dish that's sweet and nutty; Jewel of the Sea I think it's called. Do you remember it? The first dish we had there? Phill says, "I'm thinking 'lamb'" and Hussein abruptly returns, takes Phill's menu, and says, "You like lamb." Rebecca laughs. Phill orders the lamb. Hussein says, “I make you a curry, a lamb curry, very special.” Phil nods. What else can you do? Rebecca and I order the fish stew. Hussein leaves and the three of us discuss whether it's likely that the table is itself bugged.

We drink wine. Hussein buzzes through the room, charmingly unsettling the other diners, while we eat our bread and salad. He has adopted table-flaming, with a blow-torch, what appears to be a creme brulee. I keep hearing behind me the unsettling sound of pressurized butane, on fire, and directed at food.

You know the rest. The food's brilliant. Hussein continues to arrive suddenly, always as if on queue, asking his accusatory questions with a friendly smile. The wine he recommends is inexpensive and balanced to the table's needs: light enough for the fish, substantial enough for the lamb. As diners, we are relaxed, delighted, lost in time.

Perhaps his only failing that eve was to not push the creme brulee, which one imagines must have been delicately scented with orange and roses, as was that first desert he insisted we had, the one with the ice creams and the delicate, rolled and filled cookie. Sadly, Hussein died this past weekend. A note appeared in the West Seattle Blog from his daughter.

Stories and condolences are piling up. Hussein was greatly loved. As one person put it, “I’m sure the shockwaves are traveling round this globe today, for the loss of our beloved Hussein is just such a shattering blow."

Phoenicia was my favorite restaurant in the world. I would tell people this, and they wouldn't believe me, but I believed. The meals were always magical, and Hussein was always gracious, humble and charming. I looked forward to my business trips to Seattle with the hope I would have the time to be able to go. Each time I went, he asked where I was from, and when I said "Boston", he would say, "you must be a doctor!" And when I brought my daughter with me last time, he gave her the advice to not marry the first man that came along. He was always willing to share some (but not all!) of his culinary secrets with me when I asked.

I blogged about my experience last October. I did find out on my last visit a few months ago that rather than coconut milk, he used cream with very ripe banana for his special seafood bowl -- something I will have to try!

I will miss him, his food, and his spirit.

No comments:

Post a Comment