by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
As the sun set behind the short structures of the Pike/Pine corridor, Paul Anka’s lounge-tinged cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” filled the room at The Summit building. Capitol Hill Housing’s fundraiser, Omnivorous, occupied the space. One could not ask for a moment more descriptive of the neighborhood’s 21st century character. Capitol Hill Housing has been providing low-income residences for 42 plus years, but today the organization is building state-of-the-art structures in a part of town that is going gaga for green innovation, multicultural swank, and the glass walls of ultra-modern architecture. It’s a far cry from the grunge-tinged rain and working-class sensibilities of Capitol Hill’s not-too-distant past.
Every year, Capitol Hill Housing asks for donations at Omnivorous to support its Resident Services program. Local restaurants, cafes, and specialty food shops supply in-the-moment eats to a crowd that pays a minimum of 80 dollars per ticket, plus raffles and donations throughout the night, to fund elements of CHH’s concrete humanism. This is money that supports an independent block watch, health maintenance, and other things the pervasive non-profit group provides to the most needy of its more than 1,700 residents.
Capitol Hill has evolved considerably in the past decade, and its current position is a curious one. Just like Paul Anka’s swanked-up croon puts a fresh coat of low VOC paint on Kurt Cobain’s agonized wails, the sheer amount of money and prestige floating around at Omnivorous is indicative of a shift in the fuel that powers our budding neighborhood. Our era is one that finds our mayor, our senators, and a not-insignificant number of our successful business owners raising eggplant-shaped paddles to give thousands of dollars to an organization that does unambiguous good. 2012 is not a year of scrappy NPO efforts on Capitol Hill; it’s a time of transition when prosperity by osmosis seeps into the halls where a cross section of immigrants, artists, and working-class people live.
Capitol Hill Housing selected Laura Michalek to be the night’s MC at Omnivorous. Now billing herself as a “professional fundraising auctioneer,” Michalek once ran her furniture business, Standard Home, out of a CHH property, the Villa Apartments. Today, the Villa supplies housing to people who make 30-50 percent of the area median income, as well as providing commercial space to Tango Restaurant and the new Rumba bar. Laura Michalek was one of the first business renters in the organization’s history. Today, she says, “I would sell the boots off my feet for Capitol Hill Housing.” Though she got to keep her ivory footwear, Michalek was happy to accept a bid during the fundraising portion of Omnivorous that saw one donor buying a volunteer’s apron for a paltry 2,500 dollars.
There’s a certain degree of theater in fundraisers like this. Though Laura Michalek and CHH’s executive director, Christopher Persons, asked the mostly well-to-do crowd for 12,000 dollars at the beginning of the fundraiser, it took very little coaxing to get the final count to 25,525 dollars. This was before the raffle for various prizes, like a night at the Sorrento Hotel and a couple bottles of infused vodka, entered the tally.
The proof of Capitol Hill’s evolution is in the semi-sweet watermelon pudding. The room at The Summit was lined with local purveyors of top-notch cuisine. Everything was one kind of wonderful or another, but there were a few standouts.
La Bete restaurant and bar provided some of the most substantial fare of the evening with a bánh mì sandwich. It takes an especially deft hand to make pork taste light and refreshing, but Aleks Dimitrijevic’s Bellevue Avenue eatery delivered in spades with a perfectly cooked cut of meat on a mini-bun dressed in kimchi aioli.
The Tin Table also impressed with a dangerous snack of ginger snaps elevated by a carrot and goat cheese mousse. Those who find themselves in the restaurant at the Oddfellows Building this year may walk away a few pounds heavier and a fair amount poorer from several plates of these fancy but not pretentious crackers.
In what may have been the most “Seattle” dish of the night, Monsoon went above and beyond with a grilled eggplant in Chao sauce that made the strongest case for vegan cuisine since Plum Bistro opened its doors. Mayor McGinn was in attendance, and spent a fair amount of time next to Monsoon’s table. Apparently, Mike likes tofu paper as much as bikes. Also on the Asian menu was 15th Avenue’s favorite hole-in-the-wall, Little Uncle. The family-owned stand impressed with a noodleless Pad Thai augmented by a build-your-own condiment array that is standard at the lunch carts and night markets of Thailand’s most honest joints.
It seems beside the point to pick a favorite dish at Omnivorous 2012. It’s positively dizzying to go from the simultaneously cool and spicy gazpacho care of Poquito’s, to the Taylor Shellfish oysters on the half-shell that are downright poetic in their ability to idealize the scent and taste of the sea in one, perfect slurp. Capitol Hill has emerged into our time as a proud, towering center of culture and cuisine. Ours is a neighborhood perched on the precarious heights of ingenuity and enthusiasm, in defiance of the struggles of our restless era. How easy it is to entertain cynicism in the shadow of so much situational prosperity, and how encouraging it is to hear hard-working bigwigs like Chris Persons say, “We can’t achieve great communities where equity does not exist,” and believe every single word.