By Kelley Lane for Seward City News –
On a Sunday evening, amidst steady rain, we set off for a walk from our house in downtown Seward to Hotel Seward’s longtime, locally loved restaurant, Ms Gene’s Place, named as a tribute to the property’s’ former owner, Gene Snowden. Before we even walked through the front door, we were eagerly greeted by an employee of Hotel Seward. “A lady with xtra tuffs and an umbrella, now that’s sexy” said Wesley Oetinger, who works as a hunting and fishing guide, taking visitors to fishing spots along Resurrection Bay and over to Kasilof and Kenai, as well as working as a part-time bartender at Ms Gene’s Place. Hotel Seward and Ms Gene’s Place benefits from this ease amongst its staff, thanks to their many years of working together and their family vibe. Wesley is married to Luzan Quintero who works at Hotel Seward’s front desk, and who Wesley describes as “very picky about fish” and who “loves the sockeye salmon and halibut cheeks as Hotel Seward’s new Chef, Michael Shimonek, prepares them.
Once inside, the easy camaraderie continued, as hotel manager Jed Wilde joined the conversation. We entered through the restaurant door, which leads into a lush waiting area for the restaurant, known as Ms. Gene’s Place. It’s been loved by locals and visitors alike, and has been open for breakfast year round since 2007, when Mary Kulstad purchased the property and began to manage it year round. This winter season Ms. Gene’s was closed for the first time in a long while, which is why their excitement about their new chef, Michael from Oakhurst, California, has brought a lightness and optimism to their lives. The staff assured me that the food would speak for itself, as it emphasizes the fine quality of the meats featured on the menu. Oetinger exclaimed “you can give him a piece of meat and he’ll hit a home room every time without any sauces.”
Ms Gene’s has a few options for dining areas, including three private dining rooms that have been curated into thematic rooms (Christmas, Victorian and Traveler’s) featuring seating for 8-10 people in each. The main dining room faces onto Fifth Avenue, and features comfortable tables and lush decorations and wood interior. On warm and dry days, Ms Gene’s has one of the best deck seating areas in town, facing south towards Resurrection Bay.
Hotel Manager Jed Wilde, a Seward local who attends University of Alaska Fairbanks and spends his summers managing Hotel Seward and Ms Gene’s Place, directed us towards the Christmas themed private dining room, where he joined us for the duration of our meal. The meal service began with luscious mussels in a thai curry sauce, featuring thai basil oil that chef Michael had infused himself using thai basil purchased from New Sagaya in Anchorage. Equally stunning were the coconut crusted prawns, served with a habanero dipping sauce, atop a bed of greens. “These are like shrimp donuts” said Reed Lane, who was part of our dining trio.
Our three entrees arrived, each beautifully plated and filling the room with their aromas. The sockeye salmon that Luzane had lauded was served with its skin on, as Chef Michael descales each filet, in order to preserve the fish’s natural umami flavor, found in fish skin. The filet was situated atop a cauliflower puree and served with pickled fennel and red onion, baby kale and kalamata olives. Equally visually appealing and delicious was the parmesan crusted halibut cheeks, served atop orzo with charred cauliflower and sundried tomato. It was becoming evident that Chef Michael is proficient at using both texture and flavor to emphasize one another. The creaminess of the orzo contrasted with the pan seared salty crunchy edges of the salmon. Our third entree was New Zealand Lamb chops served with salt roasted fingerling potatoes in a coriander creme fraiche, with pea pesto and mint-infused oil. Again, we were stunned by the pairing of textures in this dish and with the attention to detail that the mint oil represented. The fine quality of the food made us eager to speak with the chef, to hear of his motivations and thoughts in putting together the dishes.
When dinner service in the main dining room had slowed, Chef Michael made time to come speak with us in our private dining room. Michael explained that owner Mary Kulstad had given him the freedom to develop the menu himself. He had enjoyed the month-long process of figuring out what he could sustainably put on his menu, while working within the constraints of cooking in Seward, Alaska, a location where it can be difficult to obtain reliable, high quality ingredients. Michael had delighted in the variety and quality of produce available at New Sagaya grocery store in Anchorage, which allowed him to include meyer lemon infused oil on the menu. “I try to get all the senses,” Michael said. When asked about what motivates him, Chef Michael spoke of making guests happy, and cited a recent experience of cooking filet mignon for guests from London, who said that it was the best filet that they had ever had. “I like seeing people be happy.” Chef Michael and Wilde hope to earn the support and enthusiasm of locals with their new menu.
The evening concluded with two desserts, plated on white china, Bailey’s and chocolate bread pudding made from brioche with salted caramel and an off-menu dessert described as a modern tart, plated in a Jackson Pollock style. We lingered over the well crafted desserts, listening as Wilde spoke of his happiness that Hotel Seward once again has a fine chef. He hopes that locals will give Ms Gene’s Place a new try, and find comfort and delight in the new menu and superb cooking abilities that Chef Michael displays six nights per week. As we walked home along Fifth Avenue, the wet weather continuing, we felt warm and full of hometown joy from the comfortableness and satisfaction of the evening’s dining and conversation.
Ms Gene’s Place is open for dinner Wednesday through Monday, 5pm-9:30pm, and for breakfast from 6am-11am. Reservations are encouraged for parties of more than 4 persons. Ms Gene’s Place can be found on Fifth Avenue in Hotel Seward and at https://www.facebook.com/msgenesplaceseward/.