Tucked away below street level at the awkward intersection where Denny meets Western in lower Queen Anne, you will find an unlikely oasis of Provençal French cooking that contends with the very best. Down a short ramp and through a petite herb garden and into the best smelling restaurant in town – Boat Street Café, a longstanding and beloved favorite of mine, an intimate sanctuary to forget one’s self over a glass of Beaujolais and a plate of silky smooth chicken liver paté. Upon stepping through the bright yellow sliding garage door, take a minute to catch your breath amidst the twinkling lights and colorful parasols and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The room is whitewashed, the tables topped with slate, the walls hung with Jeffry Mitchell’s playful ceramic elephants. Prepare yourself for a magical evening.
My admiration for chef Renee Erickson is only exceeded by her tireless reimagining of the menu. There is always something new to try. There are rarely any lapses in the kitchen. The grace and execution of her plates are unparalleled. Simple, rustic French food that satisfies body and soul. Steamed mussels, roasted chicken, ribeye steak. Dijon mustard and niçoise olives and Erickson’s famous pickles (rotating seasonal selections of fruits and vegetables). Salt and pepper abounds. The dishes are approachable, and not nearly as intimidating as say, the menu at Le Pichet. There is a singular elegance to the space and the cooking, a distinctly feminine perspective that is plainly obvious and deeply appreciated.
So a few years ago, after returning from a trip to Italy which “cured” me of my pescetarianism, the very first thing I did was make reservations for dinner at Boat Street Café. That fortuitous meal would be the first time I encountered Erickson’s house made pork sausage – coarsely ground and loosely packed with fennel and garlic, spicy and herbal and topped with a magnificent fried egg. It immediately became the standard by which I now measure all sausages. Also in the pig department: herb roasted pork loin chop courtesy of Carlton Farms (or if you’re really lucky, Wooly Pigs) and served over roasted potatoes with a seasonal vegetable. As Summer roared into town last weekend, I found a side of grilled Romaine lettuce with sweet pickled golden raisins very nearly upstaged the meat! And leave it to Renee Erickson to make me a believer in salmon again. Alaskan King served with a bright and wonderful lemony cream and mint sauce and covered with sautéed English peas, meaty Porcini mushrooms and ridiculously tasty shallots. It makes me wonder how places like Anthony’s even stay in business. (Answer: tourists).
And finally, I also hold Boat Street Café solely responsible for teaching me that dessert is not an option. The Valrhona dark chocolate pot de crème is the stuff of legends. Served in an ice cold ceramic jar, the custard is so light and smooth on the tongue, so rich and chocolaty that you’ll need another bite to confirm the breadth and depth of this dessert’s unrivaled awesomeness. And another. Are you going to eat that?
I should also mention that while Boat Street Café is only open for dinner, the adjacent Boat Street Kitchen is equally amazing for lunch. Headed up by Erickson’s partner Susan Kaplan (the owner of the original Boat Street Café – R.I.P.), the same attention to detail and classy sensibility is always on display. I love the ruby trout with basil sauce, and the Magali tomato soup served cold with goat cheese baguette. There’s Croque Monsieur and assorted tartes and the famous rustic cornmeal custard cake with sausage and maple syrup (“better than pancakes”). Get out of the office, take an hour for lunch, relax. Eat a cheese plate. Drink a glass of rosé in the sun. It’s summer. It’s not going to last forever.