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A look back at Green Lake’s Saleh al Lago

What do you think? Comments Off February 15, 2011 at 6:16AM

Saleh Joudeh of Saleh al Lago. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown, courtesy seattlepi.com

Yesterday (Monday, Feb. 14, 2011), Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson shared a tiramisu recipe with her readers. “Truth be told,” she wrote, “it’s not my recipe: it’s Saleh Joudeh’s, the name behind the late, great Saleh al Lago at Green Lake.”

Saleh al Lago, an Italian restaurant, occupied 6804 E Green Lake Way N from 1982 to 1999. The spot currently houses Nell’s Restaurant.

The following story from our news partner The Seattle Post-Intelligencer offers a glimpse into the popularity of Green Lake’s Saleh al Lago.  The story was originally published on Sept. 29, 1999.

SO LONG, SALEH: DINERS CROWDING INTO POPULAR SPOT FOR ONE MORE MEAL AND MEMORY
BY GREGORY ROBERTS P-I FOOD WRITER

The phone rang early and often at Saleh al Lago on Monday morning, and for each caller, Saleh Joudeh had the same disappointing response: “We are full through the 30th.”

Tomorrow is Joudeh’s last day as head chef at the restaurant he opened 17 years ago across from Green Lake.

He announced last week that, because of health problems, he’s turning things over to sous-chef Philip Mihalski, who will close for a month, redecorate and reopen with a new name – Nell’s – and a new menu.

Joudeh will continue other food enterprises in town and even may cook some nights at Nell’s, if his health problem, which is debilitating but not life-threatening, responds to treatment.

Longtime customers of Saleh al Lago have been scrambling for a seat before tomorrow night’s shutdown.

Others, nostalgic over the birthdays and anniversaries they have celebrated in Saleh al Lago’s pink-and-teal dining room, are sending letters and e-mail lamenting the end of a notable chapter in the history of Seattle dining.

“It’s overwhelming,” Joudeh said. “And when they come in, the crying starts. It’s so emotional. It’s not just the food.”

Joudeh, 54, is an emotional man, something he attributes to his Middle Eastern temperament. Born in Palestine, the son of a wealthy hotel owner, he fled with his family to Syria in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. Later, while studying medicine in central Italy, he learned how to cook from his landlady.

He also met and proposed to Lucy Fournier, a Seattleite, and they moved here and married in 1974. Joudeh opened in Green Lake eight years later, during a dynamic period for food and dining in Seattle.

After decades when the serious restaurants in Seattle could be counted almost on the fingers of one hand, a cadre of chef-restaurateurs riding the nationwide foodie boom remade the local dining landscape with their enthusiasm, creativity and commitment. They found success at locales such as Brasserie Pittsbourg and Settebello.

And at Saleh al Lago.

While Joudeh may say, “I never claimed I’m a great chef – I’m a good cook,” he played a significant role in redefining Italian food in Seattle as something greater than meatballs in red gravy. Many locals sampled their first calamari at Saleh, their first fresh pasta, their first risotto.

“The first time we bought radicchio in 1982, which cost $40 a pound to fly from Italy, people thought they were eating red cabbage,” Joudeh said.

Joudeh started with a fairly strict interpretation of classic central Italian cooking, but his customers weren’t always enamored of authenticity. He tried serving beef tenderloin sliced thin and sizzled Italian-style with scant adornment, but it didn’t sell.

So he adjusted. He seared thick hunks of tenderloin in olive oil, then sliced them on the plate and drizzled them with a sauce of red wine, balsamic vinegar, green peppercorns and roasted garlic. He studded his risotto and stuffed his ravioli with combinations unknown in Italy.

Yet he kept his preparations relatively simple, his flavors clean. As he put it, “I always say if you’ve got a nice tie, why put an ugly sweater over it?”

And if ingredients were selected with care, portions were restrained. “My philosophy of dining is you really want to have fun, and then go back to your home and enjoy the rest of your evening” – without, he said, collapsing in an overstuffed daze.

The formula worked. Critics raved and the customers came. Although the spotlight may have shifted to newer, trendier restaurants over the years, Joudeh has retained a steady clientele. More than 75 percent of his business comes from repeat customers, he said, and many of them book a table every year for their birthdays or anniversaries.

The first requirement for success in the restaurant business, Joudeh said, is family support: “If you don’t have your family behind you, don’t open a restaurant.” The hours are too long, the pressures too great. It’s also critical to maintain the quality and consistency of the food and service, he said. And the restaurateur needs to make a commitment to his staff and to the community.

“It’s very easy to have a child or open a business,” he said. “It’s very hard to send that child or business to college. Saleh al Lago never had that problem, because if I am the owner, I am the chef, then I’m here with the `kid’ – and now he’s graduating.”

Joudeh never intended to cook for a living. When he came to Seattle in 1974, he hoped to continue his medical education. When those plans fizzled, Joudeh hunted for work.

Sometimes cultural or language barriers got in the way. One day, he answered a help-wanted ad for a bookkeeper. There’s a job I can handle, he thought. But when he showed up to apply, he was puzzled and dismayed to discover a store that sold only hats and carried no books that needed shelving or tending.

Eventually, he was hired as a dishwasher at a Green Lake nursing home. He soon moved around the corner to the old Green Lake Bowling Alley, cooking at the alley’s cafe, which featured a locally renowned hamburger.

He quickly rose to manager, and hired a college student named Dorothy Frisch to open beer at the bar. Frisch is still with him, as a partner and waitress at Saleh al Lago, and she, too, will step aside tomorrow.

Joudeh kept making hamburgers and saving money for a return to medical school in Italy. But events interfered: His first daughter, Kinan, was born in 1975; his second, Jinan, in ’78.

When new owners at the bowling alley substituted frozen hamburger patties for fresh ones in 1979, Joudeh quit.

Impulsively, he combined his medical-school savings with a loan from his mother-in-law to take over a vacant cafe at University Way Northeast and Northeast 52nd Street. Counting on the drawing power of his famous burger, he featured it on a menu fleshed out with Middle Eastern and Italian dishes and named his 30-seat restaurant Avenue 52.

“Finally, I opened the doors – and nothing happened,” Joudeh said. “Nobody came. I’m sitting there, day and night.”

One customer who did wander in eventually was John Hinterberger, the now retired restaurant critic for The Seattle Times. He liked the food and wrote about it.

“It was like the sky opened and the rain came,” Joudeh said. “People were standing in line to get in.”

More publicity followed. “I became, overnight, a well-known figure in the city,” Joudeh said. “Everybody you can imagine in the city wanted to get into the restaurant.”

By 1982, Joudeh’s lease was nearing its end, and so was his official seven-year leave from medical school. He informed friends and customers that we was returning to his studies in Italy.

“At that time,” Joudeh recalled, “a lady in the restaurant told me, `This place has brought together people of different backgrounds, ideas, politics – Jewish, Christian, Moslem. And if this place was outside the country, we wouldn’t be together. And that’s why I’m glad we are here.’

“That was a turning point,” he said. “It was true: They came together over the food. They were talking together, and they were friends.”

So Joudeh gave up on medicine and turned to plans for a bigger restaurant by Green Lake. The menu would focus on Italian food, and Joudeh traveled to Italy to gather recipes. He returned with a pasta machine and installed it in the kitchen, which he insisted be open to view from the dining room.

“I wanted everybody it see what I’m doing, and what they’re paying for,” he said.

For 17 years, night after night, what they’ve seen is Joudeh cooking. And no matter how hard the work or hot the stove, he’s always worn a necktie on the job.

“Cooking is a romance,” he said, “and you’re going out on a date with your food.”

While the romance may be ending for Joudeh at Saleh al Lago, the love affair with food goes on.

He recently opened Sage Mediterranean Cafe downtown with his brother-in-law, selling pizza, pasta and Middle Eastern food. Larry’s Markets carries his Vivo by Saleh gelatos (Italian ice creams), and grocery stores stock a complete line of Saleh al Lago prepared foods that generates income for his sisters.

A onetime stateless refugee, Joudeh gained U.S. citizenship in 1977. Despite his fears – as a Moslem and Arab – of discrimination, he’s found a home in Seattle.

“People accepted me as I am,” he said. “They liked everything I did.”

Recipes from Saleh al Lago are available on seattlepi.com.

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