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Best of the Ballard Restaurant Project 2011

Here it is. Finally. Our list of the top ten Ballard restaurants of 2011. When asked by friends, family, and strangers, these are the restaurants we consistently said were the best and we’ve had a number of people thank us for our suggestions.

It actually wasn’t that hard narrowing it down to ten from the 82 Ballard restaurants we visited. Our top ten turned out to be a good mix of cuisines and price points. They spanned the course of this project, which makes me think we spread out the good ones fairly well.

10. Tie

J’s Choice: Flying Squirrel Pizza

For J, Flying Squirrel Pizza has the best pizza in Seattle. Fabulous crust. Fresh and unique ingredients. Inexpensive for the quality. Quick. He looks forward to going whenever we decide to have pizza in Ballard. I like it, as well, but prefer the wood-fired crust of places like Veraci and Via Tribulani which is why I chose some place else as number 10.

H’s Choice: Bastille

The most beautiful restaurant in Ballard with food and cocktails to match. Delicious cocktails with a French twist. Good, solid French cuisine made with ingredients so fresh that some of them are grown on the roof. A great place to go for a special occasion. Our dinner there, for our first anniversary, was one of the more memorable of this project.

9. Copper Gate

In the top ten on the deliciousness of the Gravlax and Swedish Meatballs alone. J counts the gravlax, mustard, and pumpernickel bread as one of the best bites of food he’s had in his life. I liked the food, cocktails, and the fun décor mix of rustic Scandinavian furniture with old porn. A great nod to Ballard’s heritage.

8. The Boar’s Nest

Good, relatively inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall BBQ. Tender. Flavorful. Friendly staff. We loved how they provided different regional BBQ sauces on the table.  We have looked forward to going back ever since our first trip.

7.Pasta Bella

Do you want eat hearty, traditional Italian food and feel like you’re on the set of The Godfather? Then Pasta Bella is the place for you. A huge menu of fresh Italian dishes at reasonable prices plus a pretty fine wine list. Sure there are “nicer” Italian restaurants out there but they just don’t have the atmosphere of Pasta Bella.

6. Thai Thani

The best Thai food in Ballard and some of the best in Seattle. We’ve been back multiple times since our initial visit. The menu consists of the usual Thai favorites along with an extensive list of unique items. Huge portions and a fun cocktail menu round out a great place. Sure, it doesn’t have the ambiance of Thaiku but the food is way better.

5. The Sexton

Other than a plating misstep … that they subsequently changed after reading our review … our visit to The Sexton, on their opening weekend, was great. Rustic, comfortable space. Friendly servers. Fabulous, creative cocktails. Amazing hush puppies. Southern down-home cooking with a contemporary twist and quality ingredients. A great addition to Ballard’s mid-range, high quality dining establishments.

4. Ocho

We love Ocho, one of the first of Ballard’s creative, high quality restaurants. Awesome tapas. The bacon wrapped dates (La Carolina) continue to be one of our favorite single bites of food. The tapas are so delicious that it’s hard not to order everything available. J calls it “Spanish sushi”.

3. La Carte de Oaxaca

Best and most authentic Mexican food in Seattle. Fabulous cocktails. Small plates of amazing food made with the freshest of ingredients. Fresh tortillas that will spoil you forever more. Totally and completely worth the wait you will invariably have..

2. The Walrus and the Carpenter

If you think the nation has overhyped The Walrus and the Carpenter, you’d be wrong. It IS as good as everyone says. The only reason it is not tied for number one on this list is because it is so blasted hard to get a seat. Fresh, creative cocktails. Delicious, regional oysters. The salmon tartare is one of the best dishes we’ve eaten. Ever. Worth any sort of wait to get a seat. If you enjoy good food, you owe it to yourself to try The Walrus and the Carpenter, the best of the new flock of small-plate eateries in Seattle.

1. Plaka Estiatorio

We ate our review meal at Plaka Estiatorio way back in April and it has been at the top of our Best of Ballard list ever since. We have never had a bad meal here, lunch or dinner. Everyone is super friendly. The meze are fantastic with the best hummus we’ve ever had topping the list. The ingredients are either local or brought in from Greece giving every dish a fresh, authentic taste. Their lunch gyros … omg, the gyros are phenomenal. Anything you order will be cooked perfectly. Seafood. Lamb. Beef. And the avgolemono soup is a delight. Go to Plaka Estiatorio. Really. Don’t wait. You will not be sorry.

Next week I’ll post the Honorable Mentions. The ten restaurants that didn’t make the top ten but we want to highlight them. After that … the worst of Ballard restaurants.

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Shelter Lounge – 9/30/11

Website

Location: 4910 Leary Ave NW

Hours:

Mon-Fri: 4pm-2am

Sat-Sun: 11am-2am

Happy Hour:

Mon-Sat: 4pm-6pm

Sunday: All Day

Shelter Lounge is located on the south end of Leary, near the Ballard Bridge, in a building that once housed a garage before being converted into a small bar called The Station, for a short time. When The Station went under, the building went through an extensive renovation, adding a large, glass enclosed seating area to the previously small building. The wood and stone lined interior features a cozy row of booths at one side, the bright enclosed patio on the other side with a huge circular bar separating the two. They serve beer, wine, and a full bar with a creative specialty cocktail menu. The food menu is rather small, with a few interesting appetizers, sandwiches, and just three entrees.

J and I had never gotten around to visiting Shelter Lounge. It’s in a weird spot, off the main drag of Ballard’s food scene with only the 2 Bit Saloon, across the street, to keep it company. It always seemed the sort of place where douche bags and frat-boys would hang out, which added to the reasons we avoided going there. According to one of the servers we spoke to, our assessment is correct at least on Friday and Saturday nights when the place becomes something akin to a club.

We decided to go early on Friday night, expecting it to be crowded. Instead, we found a comfortable, friendly place that, much like the Bal-Mar and Ballard Loft, turned out to be a huge surprise. So surprising, in fact, that we took a couple of friends back to Shelter Lounge on Sunday afternoon to try the food and watch the end of the Seahawk game. For the first time in this project, we’ll be reviewing two visits to the same place in one post.

The Service:

On Friday, we arrived just before a second server came on shift, so service was a little erratic but friendly. On Sunday the place was nearly empty so service was quick and the server was friendly and chatty.

The Drinks:

On both visits J, as usual, ordered a Long Island Iced Tea. In his opinion, Shelter’s is now tied with Shiku’s WMD for the best Long Island in Ballard. Both times it was mixed perfectly.

There were a number of interesting selections on their specialty cocktail menu, so I tried a different drink each time. On Friday, I chose the Ballard 75, Aviation gin, fresh lemon, agave nectar, shaken, and topped with champagne. It was cool and refreshing with a nice contrast between the piney gin and the crisp, dry champagne.

On Sunday, I decided to try the Jalapeno and Cucumber Margarita, Hornitos tequila, lime, chopped jalapeno peppers and cucumbers topped with Sprite. The spiciness of the jalapeno and the coolness of the cucumber played off each other quite well. Unlike some pepper infused drinks, the jalapeno did not overwhelm the other flavors.

The Food:

Appetizers:

On Friday night, out of sheer “WTF???” curiosity, we ordered the Avocado Fries appetizer, slices of avocado breaded with panko, deep fried, and served with chipotle aioli. Surprisingly delicious. The texture contrast between the crunchy panko and the creamy avocado floored us. The spicy aioli gave the fries a flavor punch that melded well. I will admit that I’m a fan of People’s Pub’s deep fried pickles but I would choose these avocado fries over them any day of the week. These were so good, we ordered them again on Sunday in order to share the wonder with our friends.

On Sunday, J ordered the PB&J Jalapeno Poppers, panko breaded jalapeno peppers, deep fried, stuffed with cream cheese and peanut butter and served with a sweet, spicy jelly. J loved these, especially the above-average peanut butter used. I’m not usually a fan of peanut butter but I soon found the flavor combination oddly addictive, especially the sweet jelly that gave them a spicy, fruity kick.

Entrees & Sandwiches:

On Friday, J ordered the Carne Asada entrée, marinated steak with pico de gallo, corn on the cob, and mashers. When it arrived, he said the loaded plated looked like something you’d get at someone’s home. The carne asada was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, tender and flavorful. The marinade gave just a hint of spiciness while the well cooked side of corn on the cob, dusted with cayenne pepper, added another note of spice. J loved the mashers. Perfectly mashed potatoes that were neither lumpy nor pasty. The huge portion tasted extremely creamy from either the addition of tons of butter or, perhaps, a cheese or some sort. Even though he was full, he forced himself to finish the mashers because they were so good.

I chose the Rum Marinated Chicken entrée, chicken breast rubbed with cumin then marinated in Sailor Jerry’s rum, served with pico de gallo, corn on the cob, and mashers. The chicken was moist, its flavor a lovely mix between spicy cumin and caramel sweet rum. I took half home since the portion was so big. My corn was just a touch tough but that was barely noticeable through the spicy cayenne pepper and cilantro flavor. The delicious mashers went surprisingly well with the spoonful of fresh pico de gallo included on the plate.

On Sunday, J and I shared a Spicy Grilled Cheese Sandwich, pepper jack cheese, avocado, red onions, and chipotle aioli on grilled sourdough bread and served with shoestring French fries. The sourdough was perfectly toasted, retaining just a bit of softness. The avocado added a cooling note to the creamy, peppery cheese and the spicy aioli. The fries were awesome as well, staying crispy and hot the entire time.

The Price:

Friday:

Long Island Iced Tea: 8.00

Ballard 75: 8.00

Avocado Fries: 6.00

Carne Asada: 15.00

Rum Marinated Chicken: 14.00

Sunday:

Long Island Iced Tea: 8.00

Jalapeno & Cucumber Margarita: 9.00

Avocado Fries: 4.00 (Happy Hour price)

PB&J Jalapeno Poppers: 3.00 (Happy Hour price)

Spicy Grilled Cheese: 5.00 (Happy Hour price)

The Verdict:

Considering J and I went back on Sunday, with friends in tow, our opinion of Shelter Lounge is overwhelmingly positive. Over the course of this project, we have had few meals that were, across the board, as good as both of the meals we had here. The drinks are great and well priced, including a Long Island Ice Tea that is one of the best in Ballard. The menu may be small but the quality and portion size is worth every reasonably priced penny. Creative touches, like the avocado fries, are deliciously well executed. Though it sounds like weekend evenings are hopping, the atmosphere during the day and early evening is genial and relaxed.

Shelter Lounge has been added to the list of our Ballard haunts. No question. We have been singing its praises to everyone who asks how the project is going. I will not be surprised if it ends up on the project’s top ten list at the end of the year.

Thai Thani Kitchen – 7/29/11

No Website

Location: 2021 NW Market St

Hours:

Mon-Thurs: 11am-9pm

Fri: 11am-10:30pm

Sat: 12pm-10:30pm

Sun: 12pm-9:30pm

Thai Thani Kitchen is the newest Thai restaurant in Ballard, bringing the total to five. Located on the corner of Leary and Market across from the Majestic Bay Theatres, the Subway franchise that used to be there is barely recognizable in the chic, almost minimalist interior. The décor has traded the usual Thai kitsch for dark wood paneling with metallic accents. The only nods to the ethnicity of the restaurant are a few faded photos and the pedicab that sits out front. Thai Thani boasts a large kitchen that runs along the eastern wall, open to the dining area.

When looking at their menu the first thing both J and I noticed was the surprising variety of dishes offered. Rather than merely having the usual suspects of a Thai restaurant, phad Thai, phad see iew, phad kee mao, and various curries, Thai Thani also presents a startling array of dishes neither of us have ever seen on a Thai menu. Ranging from the relatively inexpensive Eggplant Jay and Golden Cashew Nut to the moderate, and odd, Spaghetti Kee Mao and Curry and Roti to the rather pricy Red Curry Duck and Garlic Lamb, the variety of choices already put it a step above the other Thai restaurants in Ballard.

The Service:

Our server was polite and a bit soft spoken. The drinks and food arrived in a fairly timely fashion. It did take a hint longer than I’m used to for Thai food but that was most likely due to the three or four different couples in the restaurant all ordering around the same time. One more note, when we asked for boxes for our leftovers, our server boxed them up herself.

The Drinks:

Thai Thani offers Thai iced tea, soda, beer, wine and, surprisingly, a full bar. J and I craved something cool and refreshing so we both chose Blackberry Margaritas from their list of specialty cocktails. I found my margarita light and refreshing but just a tad sweet for my taste. J, on the other hand, liked its sweetness.

The Food:

As usual, we ordered the Crab Wontons for an appetizer. We were brought eight of the little fried wonton pockets filled with imitation crab, cream cheese and scallion with a side of sweet chili sauce. The wontons were not quite as light as I’ve come to expect and the filling was a bit flavorless, to be honest. The sweet chili sauce was delicious, which made the wontons taste a lot better.

J chose the Thai Thani Noodle, stir fried wide rice noodles, with tofu, onion, bell pepper, bamboo shoots, zucchini, mushrooms and basil in a hot chili paste, for his main course. He mainly chose it because it was an interesting variation on the usual Thai noodle dishes. While he did find it unexpectedly spicy, he loved it. Especially the tofu which was cooked perfectly.

For my entrée, I ordered the Basil Ground Chicken, sautéed ground chicken with onion, bell pepper, mushrooms and basil in a chili sauce with a side of brown rice. Frankly, this dish was delicious. The ground chicken was moist in a sauce that perfectly merged the spicy chili with a fresh basil flavor. The vegetables retained that bit of crispness I love. My dish did not seem as spicy as J’s even though we both requested a 2 on Thai Thani’s 0-4 scale.

One of the best things of my meal was the brown rice. Instead of flavorless brown rice that looks like someone dyed regular white rice tan, Thai Thani’s brown rice is true brown rice. Slightly purple in color with bits of the outer layer of bran remaining. The flavor was lovely. A little sweet. A little nutty. J, who has been to loads of Asian restaurants in his 15+ years of living in Seattle, said he has never been to a relatively inexpensive Thai restaurant that served brown rice like that.

One note about Thai Thani’s spice scale. It runs from 0-4. We both ordered our food to a 2, which turned out fine for me but was a bit spicy for J. He called his a “hard 2”. In reality, on the typical 1-5 scale, I suppose what we chose was a 3 so anyone who goes should keep this difference in mind.

The Price:

Blackberry Margarita: 8.00 (2)

Crab Wonton: 7.95

Thai Thani Noodle: 9.95

Basil Ground Chicken: 9.95

Brown Rice: 2.00

The Verdict:

Barring the crab wonton, Thai Thani served up great Thai food. Better than what we’ve had in Ballard thus far … and that’s including Thaiku. I don’t want to declare it the best Thai food in Ballard yet. I’d like to go back a couple more times before stating that unequivocally but our entrees were very, very good. The ingredients were fresh and flavorful. The brown rice was amazing. The service was great. And their menu includes many interesting choices that J and I both want to try.

We will go back the Thai Thani well before the end of this project. Probably next month to be honest.

Plaka Estiatorio-4/14/11

Website

Location: 5407 20th Ave NW

Hours:

Lunch:

Tues-Fri: 11:30-3

Sat: 12-4

Dinner:

Tues-Thurs: 5-9

Fri: 5-10

Sat: 4-10

Sun: 4-9

The first date J and I had was on January 14. Best first date ever. A few months after that, we started a tradition of going out for a nice meal on the 14th of every month. This is a chance for us to celebrate that great first date and try new and interesting restaurants at the same time.

To celebrate the 14th, we chose the nice Greek restaurant in Ballard, Plaka Estiatario. Tucked just off Market Street, the exterior looks like any Ballard restaurant, big windows and rather plain on the outside. When you walk inside, you are transported to the Greek Isles. Wide open with rustic wood tables, cream painted walls covered with family photos. The open kitchen lines one wall with a small bar at which one can watch the food being prepared. After spending some time there and especially after trying the food, I wouldn’t have been surprised to look out the window to see colorful Greek boats bobbing along a cove of startlingly blue water. Plaka Estiatario feels authentically Greek without the kitchiness of other Greek restaurants (Costa Opa in Fremont comes readily to mind).

The Service:

Our server was extremely friendly, quick and helpful. He explained the various menus available, the main menu, the menu of specials for that day and the Seattle Restaurant Week menu that was going on for a limited time. The bus boy was also friendly, stopping to talk with us about how good our choices were and what else was good on the menu.

The Drinks:

I ordered the Rapsani Tsantali, a red wine, which was smooth and velvety. J chose the Tsantali Blanc, a white wine, which was, as he put it,  “very good indeed”.

The Food:

We started with the choice of three Voutes (dips), large spoonfuls of Revithosalata or Humus, Roasted Red Pepper and Feta and Melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant, tomatoes and onions). The humus was creamy with just a hint of olive oil. J says it was some of the best humus he’s had in a restaurant. The pepper and feta dip was amazing with a perfect balance of roasted pepper flavor and salty feta. The melitzanosalata turned out to be a great vegetable compliment to the creaminess of the other two dips. We were also served a couple of pieces of a softer, almost cake-like pita they called “angel pita” and a small bowl of inky black Greek olives.

For an entrée, J ordered the Yiouvetsi, a clay ramekin of baked hilopites (egg noodle pasta like orzo) with lamb and a side of greek vegetables. When the dish came out, the top was just the hilopites pasta with small chunks of feta sprinkled on top. J took the first bite, which encompassed all the layers and found the bottom layer was just lamb. Juicy, moist lamb chunks that he says was the best he’s had in any Greek restaurant in Seattle.

I decided to try Plaka Estiatario’s Seattle Restaurant Week menu, a three course price fixe meal. My first course was Avgolemono, a traditional egg and lemon soup with chicken and rice. Delicious. Creamy with the perfect mix of lemon to egg to chicken. Unlike many avgolemono soup I have tried, this one was not bright, fake yellow color, rather a pale, creamy yellow.

My main dish choice was the Kokinisto, braised lamb shank with square shaped hilopites pasta and mixed vegetables. This was probably the most dramatic looking dish I’ve ever had. The lamb shank was left on the bone so it looked like a gigantic, prehistoric leg surrounded by noodles, tomatoes and onions. The pasta was creamy. The tomatoes and onions had a lovely Mediterranean flavor I can only describe as lemony with hints of oregano and thyme. Once I sliced the lamb off the shank, I found the meat moist, flavorful with just a hint of gaminess. The only issue with this fabulous entrée was that, in spots, it seemed a little salty but his may have just been lamb shank juice run-off mixing with the pasta.

For my dessert course, I ordered the Diples, a sheet of dough rolled up, lightly fried and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and walnuts and drizzled with Greek honey. While I wish they had spread the cinnamon sugar over the dough before rolling up it up so it ran through out the huge, rolled up dessert, the honey seeped through, giving what could’ve been plain dough a light, sweet flavor.

J, feeling jealous of my dessert course, ordered Baklava. What came out was the biggest, thickest piece of baklava I’ve ever seen. It could have easily served two or three people. We were told that they use a mix of 5 different nuts in their baklava rather than the usual one or two. Even through it was huge, J ate nearly all of it because it was so good.

The Price:

Rapsani Tsantali: 9.00

Blanc Tsantali: 7.00

Voutes (dips): 3 for 10.00

Yiouvetsi: 18.00

Baklava: 8.00

Three Course Menu: 28.00

The Verdict:

Dinner was a little pricy but considering the quantity and the quality, I’m sure we’ll go back. The portions were so big that we took home enough leftovers to have a full dinner, for both of us, the next night and it tasted just as good. This is some of the best Greek food I’ve had not only in Ballard but also in Seattle.

We’re planning to return at some point for lunch, since their lunch menu, which I’ve tried, is just as good and cheaper. Their gyros are huge, flavorful and made with really fresh ingredients. The Greek salad is huge and delicious.

We will not be surprised, at all, if Plaka Estiatario turns out to be in our top 5 Ballard Restaurants at the end of this project. The authentic, fresh flavors mixed with the lovely atmosphere and friendly staff makes this a restaurant we will happily suggest our friends and family try. Trust us, you won’t be disappointed.

Flying Squirrel Pizza in The Sunset Tavern– 1/23/2011

Website

Location: 5433 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

5-9:30 everyday

Happy Hour:

5-7 everyday

This time we visited the newest pizza place in Ballard. The Flying Squirrel Pizza Company opened up in the Sunset Tavern a few months ago bringing with it what is the best pizza in Ballard. Period.

J and I visited Flying Squirrel for the first time at the beginning of December and were very impressed. Tonight was the fourth time since then and we will return many more times in the future.

The Service:

Pretty good for a place in which the bartender is your server. There are no other servers. The dude who helped us was quite nice and relatively attentive considering there were 4 or 5 other parties there.

The Drinks:

J got rum & coke and I had a glass of tempranillo. Both were totally serviceable.

The Food:

Ah, the pizza. This time around we went with a ½ & ½ pizza. Full pizzas consist of 8 slices.

First half: Homemade sausage, chopped fresh garlic, mozzarella and sauce. Delicious, slightly sweet tomato based sauce. Spicy sausage that was not greasy. A light coating of mozzarella. And oh, so garlicy without being overwhelming. A little sweet and a little burn. It was nice to eat a pizza in which every element was identifiable rather than becoming a mass of tomato and cheese.

Second half: Zoe’s bacon, organic arugula, fresh tomato, mozzarella and sauce. The bacon was in quarter slices rather than bits which let the bacon flavor seep into the cheese and sauce. The arugula gave a nice, fresh but bitter accent to the rest of the pizza. Sure, the fresh tomato was a little pale but that’s to be expected during the winter.

One of the best things overall about Flying Squirrel’s pizza is the crust. Flavorful. Stays crispy on the edges and holds up in the center. So good that we ate the pizza, crusts and all.

About the only con about these pizzas is that, as is indicative of thin crust pizzas, it tends to get cold quickly. But even cold, these pizzas are delicious.

The Price:

Rum & coke: $5.00 normally, $3.00 during happy hour.

Tempranillo: $7.00

First half: $8.25 ($16.50 full)

Second half: $9.25 ($18.50 full)

$3.00 off of pizzas during happy hour.

The Verdict:

Run, don’t walk, to try this pizza. Fresh ingredients. Local meats (Zoe’s, Salumi, homemade sausage). Interesting choices (we’ve had their roasted potato, blue cheese, chive oil, spinach pizza as well). There’s a rotating selection of specialty toppings/pizzas. J, as an East coast native, says it is as close to eastern style pizza as you can find in Seattle. This is our choice of pizza places in Ballard from now on.

And if you do go, drop us a line and we’ll be glad to join you.