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Originally published Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Taste

Holiday food traditions in the heart of Seattle

You can start at icon Grill with the Holiday Wreath Salad and go from there.

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FOR MANY MORE years than I like to admit, my two BFFs and I have met every December for lunch at icon Grill in downtown Seattle.

The pretty-in-pink interior is always cheerfully decorated with multihued art-glass chandeliers, its walls liberally plastered with colorful artwork and a head-spinning array of tchotchkes.

During the holidays, its kitschy décor is even more over-the-top than usual.

While glittery Christmas decorations sparkle around us, my "sisters" and I open gag gifts and chatter like teenagers. One of them invariably orders the Holiday Wreath Salad, while I'm partial to the Butternut Squash Bisque with Cashew Salsa and Grilled Pear Salad combo.

We finish on a sweet note with the Candy Cane Cake or the Gingerbread Pudding, along with three forks or spoons for sharing.

But lunch at icon Grill is far from the only holiday tradition I've established after 21 years of living in downtown Seattle.

My husband and I always look forward to Gingerbread Village in the lobby of the Sheraton Seattle Hotel, which benefits the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Northwest Chapter. Talented teams from local architecture firms collaborate with Sheraton pastry chefs to design, bake and build holiday-themed extravaganzas. Local icons such as the Pike Place Market or the Space Needle mix with whimsical landscapes like Santa's workshop and the man in the moon.

The houses can be seen for free (though donations are gladly accepted) 24 hours a day, seven days a week from now through New Year's Day.

Today and again on Dec. 18, from 3 to 5 p.m., ART Restaurant & Lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle will host the third annual Chocolate Holiday Buffet. Larry the Dog, the beloved canine of children's-book fame, joins in the fun this year along with his creator, Seattle-based illustrator John Skewes. There will be a reading from "Larry Gets Lost in Seattle," and Skewes will create personalized Larry artwork for the kiddos to take home.

Buffet temptations include Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake, Chocolate Croquembouche, Double Chocolate Cheesecake and Larry's own sweet treat: M&M Brownie Bars (adults, $20; children ages 6 to 12, $12).

At The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, both the young and young-at-heart enjoy strolling through the Festival of Trees before visiting the wildly popular Teddy Bear Suite, overflowing with dozens of fluffy stuffed bears (donations benefit Seattle Children's hospital).

Taking tea in The Georgian is another tradition (adults, $55; children ages 6 to 12, $20). Tea with Santa and sing-a-long with Mrs. Claus is offered there 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 23. (Adults, $35; children, $20; under 3, free.)

Finally, on Christmas Eve, executive chef Walter Pisano will once again add to the menu his stellar Feast of the Seven Fishes at Tulio Ristorante in the Hotel Vintage Park. A tradition among Roman Catholics to commemorate La Vigilia — the midnight birth of Jesus — Pisano's seafood-centric feast will be served a la carte (along with wine pairings for an additional charge).

Choose among the chef's personal favorites (Spicy Crab Spaghetti and Baccalà with Crispy Herbs) or modern twists such as Tuna Crudo with Meyer Lemon Confit. Whatever you do, you'll be creating your very own holiday traditions in the heart of the city.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Holiday Wreath Salad

Serves 4

For the pomegranate dressing

6 tablespoons fresh or bottled pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons raspberry white-wine vinegar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped shallots

1 tablespoon honey

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For the salad

1/2 head romaine lettuce, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/2 head red leaf lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces

1/2 pound smoked chicken or turkey breast, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 Granny Smith apple, diced

1/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries or dried cherries

4 ounces blue cheese, preferably Rogue Creamery Oregon Blue or Oregonzola, crumbled

1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped

1 small red bell pepper, finely diced

2 tablespoons fresh pomegranate seeds, optional

Red cherry tomatoes, for garnish

Fresh rosemary sprigs, for garnish

1. To make the salad dressing: Place the pomegranate juice, raspberry vinegar, shallots and honey in a food processor or blender. Pulse with two or three short bursts until the shallot is finely chopped.

2. While the machine is running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the dressing becomes thick and smooth (emulsified). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. In a large mixing bowl, gently mix the lettuces with the chicken, apples and cranberries. Toss gently with the desired amount of dressing (there will be leftover dressing for another use).

4. Place a small glass in the center of a large dinner plate. Carefully place the salad around the glass in the shape of a wreath, stacking it as high as possible, while keeping the glass directly in the center. Use your hand to compact the salad into a more uniform ring shape, if needed.

5. Sprinkle the top of the salad evenly with the cheese, hazelnuts, red pepper and pomegranate seeds.

6. Carefully remove the glass, keeping the center free of salad. Garnish with the tomatoes and rosemary sprigs and serve immediately.

Cook's hint: Cranberry juice can be substituted for the pomegranate juice and bite-sized pieces of rotisserie chicken for the smoked chicken.

— Recipe adapted from "Aroused Americana Cooking" by Nick Musser, executive chef of icon Grill.

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