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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.