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Volterra – 12/31/11

Website

Location: 5411 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

Bar:

Mon-Thurs: 4:30pm-12am

Fri: 4:30pm-1am

Saturday: 9am-11pm

Sunday: 9am-9pm

Brunch:

Sat-Sun: 9am-2pm

Dinner:

Mon-Thurs: 5pm-10pm

Fri-Sat: 5pm-11pm

Sunday: 5pm-9pm

From the inception of this project, partaking of New Year’s Eve dinner at Volterra was planned. It seemed like a fitting end to dine at one of Ballard’s more famous fine dining establishments.

Volterra is a smallish place with a bar, a square dining room, a patio of outdoor dining in nice weather, and a separate drawing room for special, private parties. SIFF often uses Volterra for Dinner and a Movie nights and, just last month, they had a special dinner with Gary Oldman there.

Volterra’s specialty is Tuscan-inspired cuisine made with local ingredients. Their menu leans heavily toward pasta and hearty Italian fare made with a variety of meats and seafood. Veal. Wild boar. Duck. Dungeness crab. With their highly praised wine list, it’s the type of place you save for a special occasion … unless you know about their weekend brunch. J and I have had dinner at Volterra once before but go for their surprisingly affordable brunch at least once every couple of months.

The Service:

Our server was personable and quite helpful when asked for wine pairings. The restaurant also comped our wine selections and gave us two jars of their fennel salt so they get extra points for that.

The Drinks:

Before our meal began, we each ordered a specialty cocktail. I had the Tuscan Limoncello Rosemary Drop, housemade limoncello, vodka, rosemary, and lemon sour in a rosemary sugar rimmed glass. A very lemony, summery drink with a nice contrast between sweet and herbaceous.

J ordered the Pomegranate Sidecar, brandy, pomegranate, and lemon juice. A sweet, girly cocktail that had no liquor taste at all.

With my meal, I chose a Supertuscan red wine that our server suggested would pair well with my entrée. A delicious, bold red.

J had a glass of Altesino Alte D’ Altesi Toscana, another Supertuscan. His wine was slightly lighter than mine but so flavorful that he plans on seeking out Supertuscans from now on.

The Food:

For New Year’s Eve, Volterra offered a five course, prix fixe menu.

Dinner began with an Antipasti Platter which included two types of salumi, unpasteurized buffalo mozzarella, sautéed portabella mushrooms, lentil salad, pickled onions, asparagus with pancetta, cannellini bean salad, and white anchovies. Almost everything was delicious. The mozzarella was divine, creamy, cheesy, and like no other mozzarella we’ve ever had. Even though I’m not usually a fan of lentils or beans, both salads were delicious. The only off note were the surprisingly nasty tasting pickled onions.

For my primi course selection, I chose the Lamb Sausage and Pepper served on a bed of carnaroli rice. The rice was creamy without being mushy and contrasted nicely with the acidic tomato and pepper sauce. Personally, I would have preferred the lamb sausage to be stronger in flavor but it was tasty none the less. On a whole, the whole dish seemed a bit heavy for a primi course. I ended up not finishing it because I didn’t want to get full when there were still three courses to go.

J ordered the Three Cheese Tortellini in Brodo, ricotta, reggiano, and pecorino filled tortellini in mushroom consume with Italian vegetables. He’s never had tortellini served like this before. He called it an Italian wonton soup. Huge tortellini in a light, flavorful broth. The cheese mixture in the tortellini was exceptionally good.

The insalata course came next. My selection was the Apple and Goat Cheese Salad, balsamic apples and cherries, mixed greens, pine nuts, and goat cheese with a fig-honey vinaigrette. A good salad but rather forgettable. The vinaigrette had very little flavor and the apples were a little overcooked. Since I really like goat cheese, I felt like there wasn’t enough even if it was very creamy. I did like the addition of the tart, dried cherries though.

J’s salad course was the Wild Mushroom Salad, foraged wild mushrooms, sautéed with balsamic vinaigrette served over arugula. Great but a bit heavy. A mushroom and arugula punch in the face, as he put it. He especially enjoyed how the mushrooms had been caramelized to the point of crispiness.

My main course was the Wild Boar Tenderloin in gorgonzola-mustard sauce with crispy Yukon Gold, rosemary potatoes and seasonal vegetables that turned out to be kale and parsnips. Perfectly cooked, medium rare wild boar. Melt in your mouth tender. The strong, gamey flavor stood up well to the rich, creamy mustard sauce. The sauce was so, so good, sharp and creamy. The sides were merely okay. The bland kale and parsnip side could have used a bit more seasoning. Some garlic or salt or lemon. Something. The equally bland potatoes tasted like they had been left on the stove too long. Dry. Tough. Even the amazing mustard sauce couldn’t make them palatable.

As his entrée, J chose the Beef Medallions with truffle-scented wild mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and asparagus with a fontina fonduta, scallions, and fried prosciutto sauce. He asked for the beef to be cooked medium-rare but it came out noticeably closer to medium. The truffle sauce did help to counter the overcooked beef. The asparagus was cooked perfectly. Much like my entrée, his sides felt like an afterthought. The mashed potatoes were okay but he’s had far better ones at cheaper restaurants. In all, slightly disappointing.

Our dessert was a Chocolate Sour Cream Cake, covered in chocolate ganache with a dollop of chocolate mousse, a chocolate wafer, espresso crème fraiche, and chocolate covered espresso beans. Very chocolaty yet rather dry. The ganache was rich and delicious and the chocolate wafer was amazing but J and I both felt like something was missing. The cake needed something tart, like a raspberry sauce, to counteract the overwhelming flavor of chocolate.

The Price:

Limoncello Rosemary Lemon Drop: 8.00

Pomegrante Sidecar: 9.00

Prix Fixe New Year’s Eve Dinner: 2 @ 75.00

The Verdict:

We did feel like we got our money’s worth at Volterra. Many elements were quite good. J’s tortellini. My wild boar. The wines and cocktails. But it wasn’t entirely the outstanding meal we were looking forward to. Maybe it was the prix fixe nature of the meal. Rather than fixing items for each patron, it may have been more like an assembly line. Considering some not so good aspects to our meal, it seems like more care could have been taken with parts of dinner.

Perhaps it didn’t help that on Christmas day, J and I had a prix fixe dinner that was outstanding. At the Heathman Hotel in Portland, there were far more people seated yet every single aspect of that meal was amazing and memorable. For instance, I am not a fan of Brussel sprouts, yet I had a side dish of them with my entrée at the Heathman that made me rethink my dislike. Volterra’s dinner paled in comparison.

Will we go back to Volterra? Sure. We’ve had very good meals there, especially their weekend brunch. And they did give us a memorable meal, even if some aspects weren’t the type of “memorable” they would have preferred. I guess it’s just that Volterra turned out to be a rather anti-climatic end to the project.

Next week we’ll compile our best and worst of Ballard lists along with the best of various types of food … like best burger or best Long Island Iced Tea. And I’ll let you all know where we go from here now that the official project is finished. Thank you for reading.

Ristorante Picolinos – 12/14/11

Website

Location: 6415 32nd Ave NW

Hours:

Deli:

Mon-Sun: 10am-7pm

Café:

Mon-Sun: 6:30am-8pm

Restaurant:

Tues-Sat: 4:30pm-10pm

Sun-Mon: 4:30pm-9pm

Happy Hour:

Sun-Thurs: 4:30pm-6:30pm

For our last 14th dinner of this year, we chose Ristorante Picolinos, an Italian restaurant located on the corner of 32nd and 65th. It’s a sprawling complex that includes a deli, a café, a bakery, a bar, and the large main restaurant which includes a large outdoor patio. They offer everything from an early morning espresso to Panini to pizza to traditional Italian cuisine.

Picolinos is a higher end Italian restaurant of the sort that is appropriate for various special occasions. It’s the sort of place you take visiting relatives for a nice meal or where you go to celebrate weddings, anniversaries, or birthdays. They can readily accommodate large groups in the three large dining areas. In fact, the night we went, there were at least four such groups arriving.

Their menu tends toward traditional Italian pasta dishes with a modern twist. Pastas like linguine, gnocchi, and rigatoni are paired with salmon, clams, and wild boar. They also offer pizza both traditional Italian style and a small menu with gourmet ingredients. Picolinos includes a full bar, beer, and a small, but well thought out wine list.

The Service:

Our server was friendly, helpful, and very Italian. The service was exceptional.

The Drink:

J ordered a glass of Nebbiolo, a lighter red wine. He really liked how it went well with everything he ordered. It was the type of mild wine he would suggest to someone who does not normally like red wine.

I chose a glass of Super Tuscan, a rich red wine blend that was great on a winter day. For a weighty wine, it was surprisingly tangy and not at all bitter. Just a lovely wine with cheery notes.

The Food:

Our meal started with a basket of bread and a small bowl of pesto. The pest was bright and fresh, tasting strongly of garlic and Italian parsley. The bread was a little weird though. Instead of a baguette or slices of rustic Italian bread, it was a wheat bread that didn’t really pair with the pesto all that well.

For the appetizer/insalata course, J chose the Bresaola Limone e Capperi, thinly sliced, dry aged filet mignon, arugula, shaved Parmesan, and olive oil. The best meat salad he’s every had. The salty, rich filet mignon was meltingly tender. The peppery arugula complimented the meat and Parmesan. A bite comprised of each component tasted amazing and it was surprisingly light for a meat based salad.

I ordered the Insalata di Arugula, fresh arugula, pears, roasted hazelnuts, and gorgonzola with a balsamic vinaigrette. A huge heap of arugula accented with perfectly ripe pear slices. The gorgonzola was crumbled into small pieces so the ripe, salty flavor didn’t overwhelm. Everything was set off well by the light vinaigrette.

For his entrée, J had the Pasta del Giorno, gnocchi with braised short ribs in a tomato sauce. The short ribs were delicious, tender, and flavorful. J loves gnocchi so he was a little disappointed to find these were a bit overcooked and gummy, although he did like their sweet potato flavor. He also thought the tomato sauce was a little too sweet. It needed a punch of citrus to cut it. All in all, his meal tasted good but not as good as he expected.

I ordered the Rigatoni alla Salsiccia, pasta sautéed with wild boar sausage in a tomato sauce. The pipe-like rigatoni were cooked to a perfect al dente. The dense, almost caramelized tomato sauce had just a touch of heat. At first, the boar sausage tasted like your typical Italian sausage but eventually its inherent gaminess came though. Overall, a lovely entrée with a delicious, non traditional meat.

For dessert we shared the Crème Brulee. While the sugared top wasn’t quite as crisp as we prefer, it was still quite good. The custard had a distinctive anise flavor and was topped by three delicious brandied cherries.

The Price:

Nebiolo Damila: 10.00

Super Tuscan: 11.00

Bresaola Limone e Capperi: 12.00

Insalata di Arugula: 11.00

Pasta del Giorno: 19.00

Rigatoni alla Salsiccia: 17.00

Crème Brulee: 7.00

Coffee: 2 @ 2.00 ea.

The Verdict:

Other than J’s entrée, the meal we had at Ristorante Picolinos was quite good with J’s appetizer and my entrée standing out as exceptional. Their interesting takes on traditional Italian fare, fabulous wine choices, and romantic atmosphere really should make it a destination restaurant for special occasions when the fact that it’s one of the few places in Ballard that can handle large groups is added to the equation. I wouldn’t mind trying one of their pizzas some day, so I’m sure well be back.

Considering there are two similar Italian restaurants in Ballard, Pasta Bella and Picolinos, how do they stack up against one another? Honestly, as much as we did like Picolinos, both J and I prefer the homey atmosphere of Pasta Bella and their much larger menu of traditional Italian dishes. In the end, I think it comes down to location. If we lived nearer to Picolinos, we’d probably choose to go their more than once every couple of years but since we live three blocks away from Pasta Bella, I think we will go there far more often. Frankly, both are worth trying once.

La Carta de Oaxaca-11/14/11

Website

Location: 5413 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

Lunch:

Tues-Sat: 11:30am-3pm

Dinner:

Mon-Thurs: 5pm-11pm

Fri-Sat: 5pm-12am

La Carte de Oaxaca is one of Ballard’s most well known restaurants. Most of the time, when I’ve told someone about this project, the first thing they ask is “Have you been to la Carte de Oaxaca yet?” After 6:30 on any given night (except Sundays), rain, snow, or shine, you will see people standing outside Oaxaca, waiting for a table. Its small space is packed with as many tables as they can safely get in there. There’s one long communal table, about a dozen two person tables, and a short counter that overlooks the open kitchen. A tiny bar sits at the back of the dining area. The bright white walls are covered with beautiful photos of Oaxaca, Mexico.

J and I arrived at 5:30 on Monday night to find Oaxaca already a quarter full. By the time we left, about an hour later, seating was down to a few seats at the communal table. The clientele varied from young hipsters to couples out for a night out to two construction guys sitting at the counter. If you go to Oaxaca after 6:30, or anytime on the weekend, expect a wait.

Compared to the typical Mexican restaurant, Oaxaca’s menu is small, mostly a selection of dishes unique to the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Meat is a main ingredient, as are peppers. If you don’t like spicy food, Oaxaca is not the place for you, Everything from the salsas at the complimentary salsa bar to the guacamole to the beans and entrees have a heightened level of spiciness. Their drink menu includes a list of mezcal, tequila, and specialty cocktails.

The Service:

The guy who waited on us was friendly and helpful and the food came out pretty quick.

The Drinks:

I ordered the Teq-Caliente, a shot of pepper infused tequila. It was a good tequila with an extra spicy kick. The drink was very spicy but not in an undrinkable way like the cocktail I had a Paratii. The initial burn faded quite nicely.

J chose the Chimayo, Sauza tequila, crème de cassis, and apple juice. Great. Sweetness complimented by the sharpness of the tequila. An unexpectedly tasty combination.

The Food:

We started with an order of Guacamole and chips. Delicious, creamy avocado paired with light, salty tortilla chips.

To go with the guacamole, we got an order of Tacos Carne Asada, beef in fresh, homemade tortillas topped with cilantro, onion, and hot sauce. The carne asada had a distinctive, smoky flavor. J said they were the best tacos he’s ever had. The tortillas were incredibly light and fresh. A squeeze from the lime wedge nicely enhanced the flavors.

I had the Lamb Birria, stewed leg of lamb served with beans, rice, pico de gallo, and tortillas. The lamb was tender and pleasantly spicy. The black beans, cooked in a variation of a mole sauce, were the best Mexican style beans I’ve ever had. The rich, spicy sauce was rounded out by a touch of crema Mexicana. The rice was the only item in our meal that was merely okay. Lightly spiced and well cooked but nothing special.

As an entrée, J ordered the Entomatadas, grilled, thin sliced beef with homemade tortillas in a tomatillo sauce with Oaxaqueno cheese, onion, and crema Mexicana. The meat was so deeply flavored that J found himself sucking the juices from the meat before chewing it. Nothing extra, like salsa or quacamole, needed to be added because the mixture of meat, crema Mexicana, and tortilla was  perfect.

The Price:

Chimayo: 8.00

Teq-Caliente: 6.00

Guacamole: 5.00

Tacos Carne Asada: 6.00

Entomatadas: 11.00

Lamb Birra: 9.00

The Verdict:

La Carte de Oaxaca really deserves the accolades. It elevates Mexican food to the level of some of the best restaurants in Seattle. The depth of flavor. The freshness of the ingredients. The variety in the menu all make it the best Mexican restaurant in Ballard and one of the best in the city. There’s a reason why people are willing to wait out in the pouring rain for a table. We will go back, no doubt about that.

One thing to keep in mind, though,  when you do go to la Carta de Oaxaca, is that this is not your typical Mexican restaurant. The huge platters of cheese laden food are replaced with small plates of authentic Mexican food with hardly any cheese. Going to Oaxaca has more in common with going to a higher end Seattle restaurant, like Poppy or Staple & Fancy, than, say, Azteca.

Naturally, Oaxaca is our favorite Mexican restaurant in Ballard followed by Senor Moose, more for their breakfasts than dinner. Technically, that puts Malena’s Tacos next but going outside the project guidelines, I would say I like the taco truck, El Camion, better than Malena’s.

Pasta Bella Ristorante – 10/14/11

Website

Location: 5909 15th NW

Hours:

Mon-Sat: 4:30pm-10pm

Sunday: 4pm-9pm

Another 14th comes along and it’s time for another trip to one of Ballard’s nicer restaurants. We chose Pasta Bella Ristorante, a smallish Italian restaurant in an old brick building on 15th Ave. With its rich wood paneling and dark green walls, Pasta Bella feels like an old school, almost East coast Italian restaurant. The type of place straight out of The Godfather or Goodfellas.

The menu at Pasta Bella is refreshingly large compared to most of the nicer restaurants we’ve been to lately. They offer virtually any Italian dish you can think of with just about any type of meat. Spaghetti. Ravioli. Gnocchi. Lasagna, as well as a fine selection of Italian wines and desserts.

The Service:

Our server was so Italian, he could have been a bit player in one of the Godfather movies. Very friendly. Very helpful giving recommendations about what was especially good.

The Drink:

I chose a half carafe of Stella Montepulciano, a fruity, red wine that went extremely well with everything we ordered. J liked that it was served at room temperature.

The Food:

For antipasti, we ordered Italian Bruschetta, slices of garlic ciabatta with fresh basil. Tomatoes, onions, capers, and balsamic vinegar. The char-grilled bread was neither soggy nor brick hard as some bruschetta we’ve had over the course of the project. The topping was rich and fresh with strong tomato and slightly sweet balsamic flavors.

J chose a Spinach Starter Salad of spinach, gorgonzola, caramelized roasted walnuts, onions, and red peppers. The spinach was crisp and fresh and the gorgonzola didn’t overwhelm all the other flavors. The dressing added just a hint of sweetness.

For my salad course, I had the Mozarella Caprese, fresh mozzarella served with Roma tomatoes, fresh basil on a bed of spinach with balsamic and extra virgin olive oil dressing. The mozzarella was so incredibly fresh and moist that it nearly melted in my mouth. The tomatoes were a bit pale and unripe but the spinach was very fresh and crisp.

J had the Pesto Gnocchi con Pollo, house-made gnocchi in a pesto-marinara sauce. The gnocchi were incredibly light. The marinara wasn’t sweet, rather very acidic and tart. J really liked the sauce although it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The pesto also had a nice bite to it. The entire dish reminded him of something an Italian grandmother would make for her family.

For my entrée I ordered the Linguine con Gamberi al Diablo, linguine with black tiger prawns, Roma tomatoes, capers, fresh basil, garlic, and hot chili peppers in a light, tomato-lemon-wine sauce. Very good. The prawns tasted briney and like actual prawns rather than bland rubber. The lemon-tomato sauce complimented the briney prawns quite well with a faint tartness and an undercurrent of spice. The tomatoes were well cooked adding a bit of texture to the sauce. It was so good that, although I had eaten all the prawns, I still took the leftover linguine home for lunch the next day.

The Price:

Stella Montepulciano: 14.00

Italian Bruchetta: 6.95

Spinach Starter Salad: 5.50

Mozarella Caprese: 9.00

Pesto Gnocchi con Pollo: 14.50

Linguine con Gamberi al Diablo: 17.95

The Verdict:

We had a very fresh and traditional Italian meal at Pasta Bella. “Fresh” was the adjective both of us kept using through out the meal. The salads were fresh. The sauces were fresh. Even the wine was bright and fruity. A really good meal for a reasonable price in an atmospheric restaurant. Pasta Bella is a neat little joint that would be great for anyone who wants to feel like they’re stepping into a gangster film.

We were so full that we didn’t have a chance to try their desserts but both of us want to go back for dessert and coffee at some point. We’ll more likely than not return to Pasta Bella when we get a craving for traditional Italian food especially since it’s only a few blocks from our apartment.

Golden Beetle – 9/16/11

Website

Location: 1744 NW Market St

Hours:

Sun-Thurs: 5pm-11pm (Kitchen closes at 10)

Fri-Sat: 5pm-12am (Kitchen closes at 10:30)

Brunch:

Sat-Sun: 10am-2pm

Happy Hour:

5-6

For our monthly “nice” dinner, J decided we should try Golden Beetle, one of the newest high end restaurants in Ballard. Located in a space that has been home to at least 2 or 3 restaurants before being vacant for a couple of years, Golden Beetle is the second restaurant of local chef, Maria Hines. Her first restaurant, Wallingford’s Tilth, has earned national acclaim for its organic and locally sourced menu. Hines has garnered a James Beard award and is one of the few challengers to have won on “Iron Chef America”.

Golden Beetle reflects Hines’ interest in the cuisine of the Mid-East and Mediterranean. Ingredients and spices like goat, lamb, sumac, harissa, and preserved lemon are cooked using indigenous methods. The full bar uses house made infused alcohol and bitters. They also offer a weekend brunch with some interesting options you don’t see everyday.

A word to the wise, Golden Beetle is, as J puts it, “the new hotness” in Ballard so getting a table without a reservation may take some patience. J and I waited 15 minutes before we were seated in the bar section. We were told that on busy nights, such as the Friday we visited, only a few tables in the bar area are saved for walk-ins. It’s a relatively small space with a subdued Mediterranean themed décor and packed with tables.

The Service:

As I said, we had to wait to be seated, which was to be expected on a Friday evening. J eventually had to ask someone how long the wait would be since he hadn’t been told when he gave the hostess his name. Once we were seated, our server was friendly if a little distracted. Considering how packed the place was, our food came out rather quickly.

The Drink:

Golden Beetle offers an interesting array of specialty cocktails so J and I ordered from the cocktail menu rather than having wine.

I chose the Kirsch Sour, Bulliet bourbon, kirschwasser and cherry. A perfectly mixed cocktail, in which I could taste each ingredient. The sweetness of the bourbon complimented the tart cherry. I’m contemplating making my own version at home since it was so good.

J ordered the Swashbuckling Sangree, Flor de Cana aged rum, simple syrup, lemon, Golden Beetle spiced bitters, and port. He declared it “the best cocktail I’ve had during the project so far”. All the flavors melded perfectly so it tasted like true sangria.

The Food:

We chose three appetizers to get a sense of Golden Beetle’s small bites.

First, the Muhammara Dip, walnut, pomegranate molasses, and extra virgin olive oil. An interesting mélange of flavors. It was almost like a walnut butter with a strong punch of pomegranate and just a hint of spiciness. Interesting but, as is usually the case, they didn’t offer enough pita for dipping.

I chose the next appetizer, the Grilled Halloumi Cheese, halloumi cheese, padron peppers, sea salt and peppermint. I liked this better than J, who was put off by the squeaky texture of the cheese. Even though the grilled halloumi was a bit over-burnt in places, I still liked the salty flavor and the hint of peppermint. The bland padron peppers were  improved when dipped in a little sea salt.

The final appetizer was the best. Kibbeh, ground lamb, date sauce, and eggplant relish. Awesome. We easily could’ve have eaten a full plate of these and gone home happy. These lamb stuffed falafels were delicious. Moist lamb. Crunchy exterior without being tough. The date sauce added a perfect note of sweetness. I’m not usually a fan of eggplant but the relish went really well with the meatballs.

For an entrée I ordered the Chicken Bisteeya, braised chicken, carrots, and potatoes in phyllo, topped with mushrooms. The chicken in the phyllo was quite good on its own. Flakey phyllo. Moist chicken with just a hint of Mid-eastern spice. The cinnamon sprinkled around the edge of the plate mixed with the chicken quite nicely. However, the mushrooms threw the entire dish off with their overwhelming vinegar flavor. I ended up pushing them to the side, uneaten. I would have loved this dish if not for the mushrooms.

J had the Goat Tagine, a goat stew with apricot, couscous, and walnut. Although he felt the portion was rather small, he really liked this dish. Except for one large piece, the goat was cooked perfectly. Moist. Rich. All the component parts harmonized when eaten together. The sweetness of the apricot worked well with the onion and the slightly gamey goat. He commented, while eating, that he could easily imagine having a similar dish at someone’s home in the mid-east.

The Price:

Kirsch Sour: 10.00

Swashbuckling Sangree: 10.00

Muhammara Dip: 3.00

Grilled Halloumi: 8.00

Lamb Meatballs/Kibbeh: 11.00

Chicken Bisteeya: 20.00

Goat Tagine: 24.00

The Verdict:

Golden Beetle was good but should have been better for the price. The drinks, kibbeh, and J’s entrée were great but J felt the portion sizes left something to be desired. We’ve been to a good number of high-end restaurants in Seattle and elsewhere in the US and, for the same price, have had better and larger meals.

I felt the quality was uneven. A few good items, a couple so-so ones, and my disappointing entrée. I would expect the quality to be more consistent now that they’ve been open for over six months … especially for the price.

Having said that, J and I will most likely return to Golden Beetle for happy hour or brunch. The cocktails were outstanding. I’d like to try some of the other small bites and the weekend brunch menu includes some intriguing items … especially the spiced donuts.

Bastille Café & Bar – 7/14/11

Website

Location: 5307 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

Sunday Brunch: 10-3

Dinner: Sun-Thurs: 5:30-10

Fri-Sat: 5:30-11

Happy Hour:

Mon-Sun: 4:30-6

Sun-Thurs: 10pm-2am

Bar Hours:

Sun-Thurs: 4:30-12

Fri-Sat: 4:30-2

I remember when the building Bastille inhabits was a wood and metal workshop where there was a glowing eyeball on top of a giant metal spider in the window. Part of me wishes they had kept the spider for Bastille. Perhaps guarding the rooftop garden.

Bastille is the loveliest restaurant in Ballard. The main dining room, decorated in white tile and black iron work, feels like a French bistro. Large windows light the huge dining area where a bar and circular fire pit sit on one side and traditional booths on the other. French films play on the TV above the bar. Through glass French doors on the left is additional seating in a conservatory patio area. Add to this an intimate back bar and a beer garden on nice days and Bastille is hands down the largest restaurant in Ballard.

Frankly, from the beginning of this project, I had it in my head to visit Bastille for our first wedding anniversary. How could we resist going to a restaurant called Bastille on Bastille Day? Since I knew we would not be the only ones with this idea, I made dinner reservations two weeks in advance.

The Service:

Bastille was packed when arrived a little after 7pm. Even though our reservations were for 7:15, we were seated immediately at a booth. One of the few drawbacks of Bastille is the acoustics. The huge, open space can get very noisy when full.

Our server was great. Friendly. Helpful. She gets major points for bringing us complimentary champagne after J mentioned it was our first anniversary. Even though there were people waiting to be seated the entire time we were there, we never felt rushed. Our server’s attentiveness was one of the things that made our evening delightful.

The Drinks:

The Champagne was great. Crisp and cold.

We also ordered from their specialty cocktail menu. I chose the French 75 (gin, champagne, lemon and sugar) to keep with the champagne theme. It was quite refreshing. Like lemonade with just a touch of sharpness.

J ordered the Monk’s Habit, calvados, aquavit, Benedictine and antica formula. He thought it was very interesting and really good.

The Food:

We started our meal with half a dozen Penn Cove Oysters. These large, meaty oysters had an amazing, salty ocean flavor. The mignonette that accompanied it was tart but mild enough that it never overwhelmed the oyster’s distinct sea taste.

Next came a lovely, crunchy Baguette with sea salt butter. At each table is a small bottle of Dijon mustard so I added that to my slice of baguette to give it an extra sharpness.

Along with the baguette came three slices of Tete de Cochon, a terrine of pig’s head with semi-hard boiled eggs and mustard greens. The eggs were less cooked than I’m used to but delicious none the less. The mustard greens had a saltyness that complemented the creamy, fattiness of the Tete de Cochon. The chunks in the terrine gave an intense, smoky ham flavor. J was a bit wary of something made of pig’s head but found it as delicious as I did.

For a main course, I ordered the traditional Steak Frites, a grilled flat iron steak in red wine sauce and mushroom confit with French fries and garlic aioli. My stead was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Juicy and tender with a peppery coating. The red wine sauce had a slightly bitter aftertaste and was just a bit too salty though. The mushroom confit was nicely cooked without being mushy.

The frites came in a paper cone and were twice cooked to perfection. Crunchy on the outside, creamy inside and lightly salted. The garlic aioli was good but a bit too mild for my taste.

J chose the Confit de Canard, crispy duck leg with sweet corn, mustard greens and smoked oyster mushroom jus. J declared it the best duck leg he’d ever had. The skin was really crispy. It was very tender and not at all greasy like previous duck he’s ordered elsewhere. The duck flavor nicely merged with all the other components of the dish. The only issue was that he felt the dish was a little too salty.

As a shared side, I ordered the Tomates a La Provencale, baked tomatoes, herbed bread crumbs and goat cheese. The main reason I ordered this dish was because I have a recipe for tomates a la Provencale and wanted to see what it tasted like. The best part of this side was the tomatoes. They must either grown their own tomatoes in a hothouse on the rooftop or buy them from a grower. These were the freshest, best tasting tomatoes I’ve had for a long time. An intense tomato flavor. While I would have preferred the goat cheese to be a bit stronger, this dish was delicious.

Since neither of us could resist, we ordered the Butterscotch Crème Brulee with black cardamom shortbread for dessert. Hands down the best crème brulee in Ballard. The serving is more than big enough for two to share. The sugar crust was perfectly torched to a crispy, glass-like texture. The savory, spiciness of the cardamom shortbread complimented the rich, butterscotch custard.

The Price:

French 75: 9.00

Monk’s Habit: 10.00

Oysters: 15.00

Baguette: 3.00

Tete du Cochon: 12.00

Steak Frites: 24.00

Confit du Canard: 24.00

Butterscotch Crème Brulee: 8.00

The Verdict:

We had an awesome meal. The drinks. The food. The service, especially, made our first wedding anniversary a night to cherish. Bastille is a great place to celebrate a special occasion. Sure the main courses are a bit pricey and ours were a little over salted but the great experience we had more than made up for those minor issues. Barring being elsewhere during our future anniversaries, I could picture making this a yearly thing.

So, yes we will go back to Bastille. In fact, I’d like to go back before the project ends. They offer a weekend brunch I’d like to try as well as, during the summer, a tour of their rooftop garden. And their happy hour menu looks delicious and much cheaper than their regular fare.

Portalis – 7/10/11

Website

Location: 5295 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

Tues-Thurs: 4pm – 11pm

Friday: 4pm-12am

Saturday: 12pm-12am

Sunday: 12am – 10pm

Monday: Closed

J and I wanted to go somewhere quiet for dinner on Sunday while Ballard Seafood Fest was happening. When we walked by Portalis earlier in the day, J asked if it was on the list, suggesting dinner there after I had answered, “Yes”.

Portalis is a small, intimate wine bar located within a wine shop about halfway down Ballard Ave. One side of the rather rustic interior is given over to racks of wine bottles. The wine shop gives regular wine tastings throughout the week. In fact, I’ve visited their Sunday market tastings after shopping the Ballard Farmer’s Market. The people who run the tastings are always knowledgeable and friendly.

Along the other side of the shop runs a long bar as well as a handful of tables nearer to the front which can be open up during nice weather. The weather on Sunday was quite nice so J and I sat near the front and people watched.

Portalis’ small menu consists of a few appetizers, entrees, and desserts, all made from local ingredients. Many items on the menu change according to what’s in season so check out the menu online before going. Also, on Saturdays, they offer a price fixe menu of three courses.

The Service:

Our server was prompt, polite, and friendly.

I suppose this might be the best place to mention that Portalis has suggested wine pairings to go with each entrée on the menu. Their suggestions for what we eventually ordered were absolutely spot on and, at least with J’s entrée, unexpected.

The Drinks:

The suggested wine for J’s entrée was an Italian Sangiovese, Poggio Salvi 2008 Morellino Di Scansano. He found it to be a surprisingly light and mellow wine. Great for a summer day.

My wine was a French Grenache, Chateau des Roques 2007 Vacqueyras. This was was much stronger, as befit my choice of entrée. To me it had a bitey, peppery flavor. Although J described it as “Tawny” when he took a sip. Quite good.

The Food:

J chose the Fettuccine, homemade noodles with peas, prosciutto, crimini mushrooms and shaved grana. He was pleasantly surprised by its lightness. He had expected something far creamier. Like his wine, it was perfect for a warm summer day.

My entrée was the Chuck Eye Steak with peperonata and potato gratin. The steak came to the table nicely charred, covered in onions, red and yellow peppers. The meat was tender with a fresh, beefy flavor, which the sweetness of the peperonata enhanced quite well. Very nice.

The potato gratin turned out to be the winner of my entrée. Basically it was a more sophisticated scalloped potatoes made with goat cheese. The potatoes were not overcooked so they still retained a bit of a crunch. The tangy goat cheese complimented the potatoes and the steak. I am tempted to find a similar recipe to try at home.

The Price:

Poggio Salvi 2008 Morellino Di Scansano: 8.50

Chateau des Roques 2007 Vacqueyras: 9.50

Fettucine: 15.00

Chuck Eye Steak: 17.00

The Verdict:

We both really enjoyed Portalis. The intimacy of the restaurant part was comfortable and nice. Great, creative food made with fresh ingredients. Perfect wine pairings. The price is not at all bad for the quality. In fact, considering how tasty everything was, it might be considered a bit low compared to comparable places in Ballard.

Once the project is over, I’m sure we will go back to Portalis. I’m curious to see what new entrees they come up with over the seasons.

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