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So last weekend I finally made it over to Ballard Ave. to check out Bastille Café & Bar for dinner. Since opening in June, I’d heard a whole gamut of reviews, so I was eager to discover for myself whether the new bistro was worthy of praise or yawns. We certainly do not lack for some truly remarkable French cuisine in Seattle, which admittedly raised the odds against the contender in my mind. Verdict?
Not so good, I’m afraid. But hardly bad either. Fair to middling? One thing Bastille has on everybody else is certainly its SHEER SIZE. The brasserie is positively vast, a yawning expanse of sleek. The cavernous dining hall has raised ceilings, white tiled walls, a 45-foot zinc topped bar and mirrors strategically positioned to further stretch the room into infinity. A clock salvaged from a Parisian metro station casts a soft glow on the room, all black and white and amber light. There’s patio seating, a rooftop garden, and just past the narrow kitchen, yet another full bar complete with crystal chandeliers and moody paintings. Bastille is easily the most ambitious restaurant space I’ve stepped into for a long time, and positively stunning in that regard.
Shannon Galusha and Jason Stoneburner (who both herald from Campagne, among many, many other storied restaurants) are at the helm in the kitchen. And while I appreciate simplicity as a goal, what struck me most about the food at Bastille was that nearly every “traditional” plate I tried had some strange twist or interpretation. A bowl of gratinéed French onion soup crowned with an exceptionally pungent cave-aged Gruyère immediately captured my attention. Sadly, the soup itself was light on onions, heavy on thyme, and had a much-too-sweet, almost vinegary flavor. A simple roasted beet and arugula salad faired far better, sprinkled with pistachios and a red wine vinaigrette and accompanied by a lovely, mild chevre croûte on the side.
Probably most disappointing was an order of fricassée de poulet. The pan-roasted chicken breast had wonderfully crisp skin, but was far too salty for my taste. Also abused by sodium: a bowl of Manila clams with house-made Merguez sausage (!) and chickpeas. Wonderful in theory, but somewhat unbalanced in execution – the sweet clams almost entirely lost under a pile of spicy sausage bits. Still, it’s not like these dishes were inedible, in fact they were fairly well polished off by the end of the evening. And an order of steak frites was nearly flawless – a wonderfully roasted flat iron steak with a side of surprisingly light house Béarnaise. What’s more, the French fries served in a traditional paper cone were just right (I’d heard some rather damning word-of-mouth regarding several early frite orders, so I’m happy that issue appears to be resolved). The wine list is expansive, and worthy of further exploration. I was quite pleased with a bottle of “old vine” Pascal Aufranc Chénas Beaujolais – floral, juicy, delightful.
It’s just that, given the magnitute and quality of many other bistros in town, I think execution needs to be reliably spotless. Or the menu needs to be a little more daring. Something. If Bastille survives the next year or so (and it’s a real gamble, given the sheer volume of space they are commanding), I think it has the potential to become a genuine neighborhood joint. And by that I mean, if I lived in the neighborhood, I’d probably become a regular. But as it is, I’ll hardly be going out of my way to get back there any time soon. There’s just way too many dependable French places between here and there.
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a Summer backpacking across Europe with a friend of mine. Since we were young and poor, we pretty much subsisted on ploughman’s lunches and beer for the duration of the trip. And of course, the ubiquitous gyro, which could be found at carts and stands nearly everywhere we went. Cheap and satisfying, there is nothing quite like eating a gyro on the beach somewhere along the Cote d’Azur in the middle of July. Which is the primary reason I keep returning to Plaka Estiatorio in Ballard. The gyros at Plaka send me straight back to that beach, every time.
In fact, nearly everything at Plaka is remarkably authentic. Owned and run by several generations of the Tziotis and Mandapat families, relations abound (as evidenced by the photos which line the walls). Not surprisingly, everybody is impossibly sweet and hospitable. The room is spacious and comfortable, filled with baskets of fresh produce and bright flowers. The entryway is flanked by some admittedly cheesy faux Grecian pillars, but honestly, it’s hard to care much about the décor. Since opening last Spring, this is easily the best Greek food I’ve eaten in Seattle.
Start with some hummus (or more appropriately, revithosalata). Spicy, creamy, garlicky, sprinkled with oregano and fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s served with grilled whole wheat pita bread served hot. Also marvelous: a bowl of warm, comforting avgolemono soup – the best I’ve had. Moist chunks of chicken float in a thick, savory rice porridge, the flavor of lemon is strong and tangy and elevates the entire dish. I can’t wait until it gets cold and dark and rainy – this soup will be a bright little reminder of Summertime.
I’m not crazy about the Greek fries (about the only thing I’m not crazy about at Plaka). Hand-cut with the skins on, crispy with a coating of dried oregano and covered with huge chunks of tangy, salty feta cheese. They’re just not as inspired as the rest of the menu. Go for something more exotic, like the kalamarakia. Served with a potent spread of cold garlic mashed potatoes topped with olive oil, the Monterey Bay squid are lightly fried and have a perfect chewy texture. Not overdone, and not too greasy. I love it, but man is that garlic spread powerful strong.
Okay, so the signature Plaka gyro is traditionally Athenian and made with a pungent mixture of veal and lamb. It’s chewy, with an incredibly deep flavor and rich taste. The tzatziki sauce is genuinely thick and creamy and tastes like real yogurt and cucumbers and mint. The whole wheat pita bread is thin and warm and wrapped in a green and white checkerboard sleeve. Even better: the grilled chicken souvlaki. Peppery and moist, and perfectly tender. The loukaniko pork sausage is also outstanding, thinly sliced and remarkably lean. Not too spicy with loads of black pepper, the sausage is grilled up and served with caramelized onions and roasted green bell peppers.
For the veggies in the audience – the falafel in pita is crispy and spicy, made with lots of fresh cilantro which imparts a nice bright aftertaste. The gyro is stuffed with scallions and sweet, sweet, wonderful radishes, red onions and fresh lettuce pulled straight out of the basket up front. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, you bite into a juicy Roma tomato. Fresh dill is sprinkled throughout. The quality of the ingredients is simply top notch, screamingly fresh.
And just to round things out, the wine list is awesome and the service is knowledgeable. Everything is imported directly from Greece, and I’ve now tried some gorgeous wines that I had no idea even existed.
See you at the beach.
After nearly a decade of dining in Seattle, I finally – finally – made it to the esteemed Le Gourmand this past weekend. Hallowed amongst food enthusiasts and Francophiles, chefs Bruce and Sara Naftaly are revered for their impeccable cuisine and lifelong dedication to local and organic food culture. A full quarter of the printed menu is committed to acknowledging their farm sources and providers. Still, the Naftalys are hardly newcomers to the locavore bandwagon, and in fact the evening’s experience called to mind Alice Waters and her pioneering approach to cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. There was an ease and elegance to the food that can only come from years and years of devotion, and countless mornings spent in the garden.
Since I never knew Le Gourmand during its previous incarnation, I can only imagine the transformation it must have undergone after a (reportedly) dramatic remodel early last year. The space is wonderful, like nowhere I’ve ever been, a singular room out of time. Like a fairytale. This is in no small part due to the wizened visages of the three hand-carved puppets watching over you from the far wall (the puppets were not nearly as freaky as I had heard – really, the craftsmanship, concept and execution were singular. They were also quite a bit larger than I had anticipated). Even though this is serious cooking, and you will be dropping serious cash, the puppets remind you not to take things too seriously.
The dining room is very small, very intimate and very relaxed. White tablecloths, a porthole peering into the kitchen through an upholstered swinging door and soft light bursting from wonderful, exploding blossoms of glass. Like if an allium went supernova. The music is unobtrusive but upbeat, the pace of the service is leisurely, and my partner and I could actually whisper to each other across the table (despite the constant low level murmur drifting through the doorway from the Naftaly’s adjacent, equally beloved lounge, Sambar). Really my description cannot even begin to capture the magic of the place.
Nor, I’m afraid, can I fully do justice to the exquisite four hour, seven-course Late Summer tasting menu that I enjoyed. But I will try. The tasting menu doesn’t actually feature any of the items listed on the regular menu, though they are happy to substitute if so desired. Also unlisted: a mini-flight of various wines to accompany the courses (there was nothing mini about it – the pours were immensely generous). Our server was very thoughtful and attentive, easy-going and cheerful. There was a fluidity to the service that I thoroughly enjoyed, a subtle capriciousness (the wines seemed paired mostly on the fly, the sorbet course was still TBD, etc.)
I started with a remarkable glass of Sancerre rosé – full-bodied, with a nice mineral bite, a perfect way to end the season. The first course was a tiny cup of radish soup (!!), smooth and creamy, simmered in duck stock and topped with fresh julienned radishes and Claudio Corallo cocoa-nibs. As you well know, I adore radishes. It was perfect pink. My partner opted for à la carte, but joined me on this course with a beautiful bowl of heirloom tomato soup – deep red, rich and earthy. Next up was a screamingly good pork sausage meatball stuffed with foie gras. The dollop of paté was almost (almost) upstaged by the freshness of the herbs used in the loosely packed sausage – marjoram, savory, thyme, and Italian parsley. It also didn’t hurt that the pork was from Wooly Pigs. An absolutely sensational dish.
For the third course, a tantalizing bowl of early season chanterelles bathed in a decadent cream sauce that reminded me of butterscotch and apricots. The mushrooms were meaty and warm, tiny caps mixed in amongst the larger ones. Thankfully, the portion sizes were well-controlled throughout the evening, as this dish in particular was exceedingly rich. A somewhat sweet Vouvray bridged this course into the next – local Albacore tuna gratin, layered with basil, sweet red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and baked in a scalloped half shell with comté and gruyère cheeses. Perhaps out of everything I ate during the tasting menu, this dish in particular was closest to my heart. There was something so soulful about it, so comforting, the flavors so well-balanced, that I found myself mopping up the shell with the previously untouched bread on the table. It’s no wonder that the basil guy gets his very own special shout-out on the menu (respect due, Dennis Williams). Simply unparalleled.
Before the main course, a small scoop of sorbet was served as a palate cleanser. Apparently they had settled on a sweet and light blend of honey, nectarines and champagne (with a tiny garnish of that incredible savory from earlier – an herb that, until I sat down to dinner, I was entirely ignorant of). The sorbet served it’s function, but was otherwise neither here nor there. No matter, as soon the squab was upon me. Bathed in an earthy lobster mushroom sauce, the medallions of tender, pink pigeon meat were wrapped in chewy grape leaves straight from Le Gourmand’s garden arbor. I found it a great deal richer than the usual poultry, with more depth of flavor, and very moist. The squab was served with a plate of vibrant vegetables – kale, cabbage, new and purple potatoes, butter, some salt and pepper, more butter. My partner’s boneless rack of lamb in a plum and garlic sauce was undeniably brilliant (although it’s worth noting that it was listed on the menu as “wrapped in house-made bacon”, said bacon nowhere to be found on the plate. Not that this was necessarily an issue, but there was never any explanation).
As all things appropriately Euro should be, the final course was Salade le Gourmand: green and leafy lettuces straight from the garden, tossed with colorful nasturtiams and other edible flowers in a Blackwood Canyon Chardonnay vinaigrette with mustard seed. It was a little bit bitter, and a whole lot earthy. The best possible way to end a meal, unless you’ve somehow managed to save room for one of Sara Naftaly’s desserts. Sadly, we were informed, Sara had been called away unexpectedly to attend to her son who had gotten into a skateboarding accident (although, we were assured, he was going to be just fine). This may explain why the chocolate soufflé we ordered was runny in the center, not cooked all the way through. There was a rich hazelnut sauce to pour over the soufflé, and best of all, a garnish of golden raspberries and blackberries. I can’t even remember the last time I ate golden raspberries, and that was about all the dessert I needed anyway.
As I contemplated the meal through a haze of synaptic fireworks, Bruce Naftaly came out from the kitchen to introduce himself and thank us for our patronage. I was starstruck and awkward as ever, but he was appropriately gracious and humble. We said our farewells and wandered down the street, savoring the fleeting summer night. It was truly an epic dinner, and I had one of the most intense food highs I’ve had in ages. Endorphins for days. In many ways, Le Gourmand is completely off the map – not least of all physically, tucked away on Northwest Market in that little area of town that’s not quite Fremont, but not yet Ballard (Frelard?). So too, it seems to reside on the edge of the epicurean consciousness. Like a fairytale.
We had company calling this weekend and, as I’ve discussed at length before, I was hardly surprised when the inevitable breathless request was made for Northwest Seafood!TM I’ve long since realized that this actually means “I want salmon”, but please allow me to iterate my erstwhile complaint – for a city whose local cuisine is famously synonymous with all manner of high quality maritime delights, why are there so few restaurants dedicated to actually elevating the cuisine? Please do not object with your Anthony’s, your Elliott’s, your Chinook’s – that seafood is just fine thanks, but I can hardly tell one from the other looking at a menu. Where’s the imagination? The innovation? I think Flying Fish comes closest to raising the bar, but the dishes are so inconsistent that I rarely want to take a chance with guests. And honestly, you can pretty much find a kickass piece of fish brilliantly executed at just about any notable place in town. But wouldn’t you rather order the goat tagine instead?
So then, in these situations we are both resigned to and grateful for Ray’s Boathouse and Café. The most stalwart of our local seafood institutions, the quality is unwavering, the preparation flawless, the dishes simple and good (and expensive). It’s the definition of reliable. Picturesque waterfront seating overlooking Shilshole Bay, the islands and the snowcapped Olympics in the distance – Ray’s is undeniably perfect for showing off to visitors. Enormous neon letters flashing R-A-Y-S are mounted on a tower near the building, and an equally enormous painted, carved salmon greets you when you first walk through the door. The Café and a cozy wooden deck are located upstairs where dining and drinks are slightly more affordable; the restaurant proper is downstairs, tables and booths positioned against huge plate glass windows with that immaculate view of the Puget Sound.
And the food isn’t bad either, it’s just very textbook. There are no surprises. If I want a Niçoise salad, I know I’m going to get a Niçoise salad and I know it’s going to be good. Big, juicy slices of seared pepper-crusted Ahi tuna with olives and potatoes and eggs over green beans. Check. You want a bowl of clams? Ray’s does an awesome bowl of clams. Steamed in beer and butter with a touch of dill, simple and good. You want salmon? You get the picture. And on this particular evening, oh my yes the people wanted salmon. In addition to the predictable grilled Alaskan and Coho salmon preparations, the special of the evening was a freshly caught Columbia River (!) King Salmon with a mild raspberry and red onion gastrique, leafy pea vines and buttery fingerling potaoes. Next stop: Adventure!
It’s worth noting that Ray’s Boathouse has a reputation for being one of the first restaurants on the West Coast to prominently feature regional Washington and Oregon wines on their menu. And the wine list is admittedly exceptional, with a lot of local producers that you don’t see very often. We settled on a righteous bottle of Adelsheim Pinot Noir (although notably, I was thrilled to see that they had that Cristom I like). I should also mention that both the sommelier and our server were extremely affable and courteous.
I’ve eaten enough salmon for one lifetime, so I ordred the Chatham Strait sablefish in sake kasu – an oily black cod served over jasmine rice and choy sum. The sweetness of the fish contrasted well with the saltiness of the kasu, and the flavor was markedly enhanced by a honey soy sauce. The meat was flaky and smooth and sufficiently tasty, the steamed cabbage crisp and tender. No complaints, but no fireworks either. It was just as I remembered, just as I expected. And I guess that’s why an institution like Ray’s continues to do such great business and garner so much esteem (well, that and the view): No surprises.
So I know I have previously registered my outrage regarding the abysmal Mexican food scene in the Puget Sound, but I think it’s time to explicate a bit further. My consternation can be traced back to the very first thing I ate on my very first night in Seattle – a disturbingly bad burrito, a rank mess of refried beans and cotija cheese served “wet” (full disclosure: it was at a Jalisco’s. Yes, I know.) Still, I’ve had better burritos in Wisconsin. Much to my dismay, I would soon learn that this bland Guadalajaran style of Mexican cooking was the predominant one of the area, and having just arrived from California, I wept for the future. Where were the black beans? The tacos al pastor? The fiery salsas I craved?
It would take several years, but I finally found them, along with the single truly worthy Mexican joint in town – la Carta de Oaxaca. This tiny, family-run restaurant on Ballard Avenue is exceptional, with more flavor and finesse than you’ll get from your neighborhood taco truck (the only other go-to for decent Mexican in town). The interior is artfully adorned with local hero/photographer Spike Mafford’s iconic images from Oaxaca, lending a regional charm to the perpetually crowded cantina. A large, smoky kitchen dominates half of the restaurant space, and a quaint, four person bar can be found in the back. There is an impressive array of Mezcals and Tequilas available from Southern Mexico, but ever since superstar bartender Zach Harjo left to open his Spanish tapas mecca Ocho around the corner, I’d just as soon drink a Pacifico.
And it doesn’t really matter what you’re drinking, you’ll be too busy stuffing your face. Literally every single dish on the menu is delicious, so unless you’re with a huge crew, you’re going to have to prioritize. Easily the most beloved item at la Carta de Oaxaca is anything covered in the brilliant house mole’ negro. I’m partial to the black mole’ tamales with either pork or chicken, steamed and served in a banana leaf which imparts a subtle sweetness to the hearty corn masa filling. The mole’ sauce is also rich and sweet, with more emphasis on chocolate than peppers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Begin with an order of chips and guacamole. The housemade tortilla chips are hot and salty, and the creamy guacamole tastes like avocado paradise. Do not skip the salsa bar. This is easily the freshest pico de gallo in Seattle – chopped tomatoes and onions and jalapeño and cilantro combine to form an unstoppable salsa Voltron. The salsa verde is equally compelling, with smoky tomatillos and lots of garlic.
The plates at la Carta de Oaxaca are best ordered in mass quantities and then shared family style. Except for the tacos al pastor – you’ll want those all for yourself and then you’ll want to order more. The sweet, barbequed pork is tangy and moist and served in lovely handmade corn tortillas. Garnished with onions and cilantro and radishes, the heat slowly rises with each bite until you’re soon wiping your brow and singing the praises of a perfectly rendered hot sauce. If you’re lucky, one of the Dominguez brothers might slip you a dried tepin pepper – if so, have a shot of Mezcal on hand and prepare to meet the deity of your choosing.
I could go on and on about those tacos, but I should probably give a quick shout out to the vegetarian options on the menu. The yellow curry mushroom empanadas are definitely worth a visit, a unique dish unlike anything I’ve tasted anywhere else. The enchiladas will not disappoint either, with a gorgeous red chile sauce and oaxaqueno cheese and a goddamned fried egg served on top. Remarkably, even the side dishes at la Carta de Oaxaca are better than most of the average Mexican food in town. A side of black beans or simple Mexican-style rice will find you marveling at the difference in quality that some simple spices can add to a recipe.
If you’ve never been to la Carta de Oaxaca, and you have any interest in Mexican food whatsoever, you owe it to yourself to head over there immediately. Just look for the massive throng of people milling around Ballard Avenue waiting for a table. Did I mention the wait? People typically start lining up before the doors even open. These people are wise. They have heard about the tacos al pastor.
After months of anticipation, I finally made it over to the corner of 24th and Market in Ballard last week with the sole purpose of consuming tapas. If I lived in the neighborhood, Ocho would easily be my new favorite hangout. I was completely spellbound by the cozy candlelit space, the incredible spirits and the stellar bites of Spanish bar food. This has everything to do with the absurdly charming Zach Harjo (formerly the bartender at La Carta de Oaxaca around the corner) and his girlfriend Gelsey Hanson, who are the owners of Ocho and quite possibly the nicest people in Seattle.
Additionally, Mr. Harjo has some pretty vaunted mixology chops. Ocho bills itself as “Home of the 10 Dollar Margarita”, so how could I pass that up? Made with El Tesoro Añejo tequila (aged 2 to 3 years in oak barrels) and freshly squeezed lime juice, it certainly was a tasty margarita – no bitterness, mellow with big floral agave notes (but was it worth $10? I’ll let the tequila connoisseurs duke that one out). The Sangria Roja is even better, and tastes nothing like what passes for sangria in most of the places I’ve seen in the States. Harjo wanted to recreate the sangria he discovered while traveling through Spain, so this meant a cocktail with lots of brandy, just a little bit of red wine for flavor and a dry sherry called amontillado muddled with strained crushed fruit and then shaken. Bright and strong with a hint of almonds, I think I’ve found my new summer drink. I also enjoyed the Hemingway inspired Death in the Afternoon, a terrific cap to the evening which featured Harjo’s homemade “absinthe” (la hora verde) mixed with cava rose and served in a champagne flute. Pungent and herbal and unequivocally lovely.
And what of the tapas? The chalkboard on the wall reveals an endless list of tiny bites ranging from $1.50 for a white anchovy skewer with roasted red pepper, fried artichokes and a dollop of aioli (yum, gulp, gone) to $6.00 for clams with smoked ham in a tomato paprika broth (which I found to be tragically overcooked and chewy). My favorite bite(s) of the evening were the Setas de Jerez – sherried mushrooms piled on top of olive oil toast, with a mound of gorgeous arugula shredded on top. Buttery and sweet, with a slow burning spiciness. I devoured it and ordered two more. The most successful dish I sampled was an ensalada de pulpo – chunks of warm octopus with beans, pickled onion, preserved lemon and slow cooked garlic. The octopus was grilled up beautifully, not chewy in the least, with a tasty charred flavor and an oily texture. The entire plate was fragrant and heartwarming and paired deliciously with the Death in the Afternoon.
We had gathered a large crew for the trip to Ocho, so there were many tapas plates passed around throughout the evening. A charcuterie plate with Lomo dry-cured pork loin, Mahon cheese and sliced honey crisp apple was a crowd pleaser. A dish of spicy fried potatoes was determined to be not terribly spicy (or memorable). A bite of tortilla española (a densely layered frittata with egg, potato and onion served on a toothpick) was considered very strange. By the time we were finished, I had eaten to contentment, and was sad to pass on the paella (earlier in the evening, I had been granted a sample from Zach’s impromptu “lunch” that the kitchen had whipped up – “one of the perks, I guess”.) I did somehow manage a final bite of the already famous pan con chocolate – a piece of toast with spicy chocolate ganache, chopped almonds, truffle oil and flor de sal. It was crispy and creamy and tasted like Europe.
I should probably mention that Ocho is a very tiny, very intimate, very crowded space. The bar seats nine, and there are a handful of tables and that’s it. By the time we left, the place was packed. Get there early or prepare to wait. My favorite part of the evening was the final bill, which read “FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD LIQUOR LIQUOR LIQUOR LIQUOR…” Sounds about right to me.