I went to Seattle last weekend to catch up with friends in the band Sleeping Giant as they played a hardcore show in an evangelical Russian church that was broadcast live to 38 different countries around the world. WHAT, WHY IS THAT WEIRD?
It was a great time and Seattle is a vibrant city, especially if you catch it on a rare sunny day in March. We got to town late and botched our lunch plans, so when we finally got out of the church after 9pm I was more bound and determined than ever not to blow dinner. We took a cab to Old Ballard and the restaurant at the top of my list: The Walrus and The Carpenter.
This place is crammed and all the rage, so instead of making reservations you have to put your name on a wait list and the hostess will call you when your table is ready. My wife, cinematographer pal Mike and I showed up at 9:30 and the place was still packed. We were told that we couldn’t be guaranteed a table since the wait list was full, even though a lot of the names on the list were from hours before. We were already around the corner ordering pizza when I got a call for a table 15 minutes later, and we faked an emergency and raced back.
It’s a tiny little place, about the size of your parents’ garage, decorated in rustically-decaying white and modest steel. The kitchen takes up half the space, but because a good portion of the dishes are raw, the room isn’t suffocated by kitchen smells. The small plates menu changes daily, which is another luxury of the limited capacity. When we sat down the music was twee, but by the time the first course arrived old people were leaving and hardass hip-hop cranked.
This was the best meal of 2013 so far…
Oysters here come fresh and fried. I’m not normally the biggest fan of fried oysters - there’s something a little creepy about the mushy fishiness in between all that crunchy batter - but these were done just right, with the oysters holding all their buoyancy while still being crispy and greasy and satisfying in those guilty ways. On the fresh side there’s more than half a dozen varieties, ordered on the menu by natural saltiness. Ours were as good as fresh oysters get, which are really about as good as any mouthful of food on earth. We also ordered some fresh clams, which were okay but a little gritty.
The salad we ordered was lightly dressed but driven entirely by the fresh mint and cilantro, which played off the earthier greens and roots to make for an elegantly balanced palate cleanser.
Next was the smoked trout, served cold over a salad of lentils, walnuts and creme fraiche, topped with a pickled onion ring. Now, smoked trout can get a little fishy if not prepared perfectly, so it was a really smart move to bring it back down to earth with the lentils and nuts.
This is a clam tartare with cucumber and potato crisps. Reeeeally bright, fresh flavours that paired beautifully with the acidity and sharpness of the other ingredients.
The grilled sardines were a major highlight, exemplifying what most dishes at W&C do best, balancing sharp, salty fishiness with bright fresh herbs and bold flavour profiles. Sardines are a magical little fish, so full of natural oiliness and saltiness, halfway between an anchovy and a snapper.
Steak tartare. Oh, what a symphony this motherfucker was. A really great steak tartare offers a texture like minced raw fish - buttery and delicate, showcasing the natural balance of flavours of the meat. The egg yolk just added an extra element of richness, and the crunch of the toast made for such a perfect harmony of textures. This dish was a standout on a lineup of straight all-stars.
This is what your table looks like when the meal is done. The dishes comes fast and furious, one after another so that you have all the different flavours to bounce between. It’s dizzying. Drinks are reasonably priced - our wine was under $40, my pint of beer was $5, and their bourbon selection kept us there until well after the plates were cleared. We had a Russian church service to purge ourselves of, you know? Typical Saturday stuff.