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Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

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.

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Ravioli Station – 12/27/11 – Closed

No Website

Location: 4620 Leary Way NW

Hours:

Lunch:

Tues-Fri: 11:30am-2pm

Dinner:

Tues-Fri: 5pm-9:30pm

Sat: 5pm-10pm

Sunday: 5pm-9pm

Happy Hour:

Mon-Sat: 5-7pm

Sunday: All Day

Ever since moving back to Ballard, we’ve been curious about the Ravioli Station. Housed in a wedge shaped building that looks like an auto shop, it’s located in the industrial no-man’s land between Ballard and Fremont. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone by the Ravioli Station in the evening, looking in at an interior empty except for a couple of people sitting at the bar.

The night we went, the Ravioli Station was exactly that, empty but for one guy at the bar. It’s a small place, cheerfully painted and homey. J liked their choice of punk music immediately, spending most of our time there singing along. There are about a dozen tables and a bar with cool bar stools made from large pistons.

Their menu consists of salads, appetizers, and various pasta dishes. The specialty is ravioli, naturally, which comes in various flavors with four choices of sauces. There’s a full bar with draft beer and wine as well.

The Service:

Other than the guy at the bar, we were the only patrons. Our perky, friendly server readily answered any questions we had.

The Drinks:

I had the House Red wine, a generic, nameless peppery wine that was actually quite good.

J ordered a Rum and Coke, which was happily strong on the rum side.

The Food:

As a starter, the server brought a plate of lightly toasted foccacia bread and bowl of herbed oil. The foccacia bread was fine but the oil was delicious. Herby. Oily. So salty. I wish I could’ve taken a jar of it home with me.

I ordered a side sized Medin’s Mixed Green salad, carrots, cabbage, gorgonzola, toasted pecans, tomatoes, and olives tossed with balsamic vinaigrette. A large portion with an interesting combination of flavors. Fresh, crisp vegetables mixed with the spicy, roasted pecans and the strong gorgonzola cheese. The balsamic vinaigrette was just a bit too sweet but otherwise, on the whole,  it was quite good.

My entrée was Medin’s Pasta, spaghetti, prawns, olives, scallions, anchovies, and garlic with marinara sauce. A huge bowl of pasta with a pile of shredded parmesan on top. The spaghetti was a little past al dente. The marinara sauce tasted of sweet, caramelized tomatoes and salty anchovies. A very fishy sauce. The prawns were rather small but numerous. Each entrée came with a large, fried, cheese ravioli which was a little greasy, to be honest. All in all a pretty good dish.

J chose the Ravioli Sampler, one each of their raviolis (cheese, spinach, grilled sirloin, butternut squash, and chicken) with a sample of their four sauces (marinara, alfredo, tomato cream, and roasted red pepper). He thought it was neat that he didn’t have to choose just one ravioli and sauce to try. The beef was shredded rather than ground. The chicken had an interesting flavor that we couldn’t put out finger on. Some of the sauces were tasty but a little too rich. He liked the fried ravioli more than I did.

The Price:

House Wine: 8.00

Rum & Coke: 3.00

Side Medin’s Mixed Greens: 3.50

Medin’s Pasta: 14.95

Ravioli Sampler: 14.95

The Verdict:

The Ravioli Station was a nice, little place with a good atmosphere and friendly service. It felt like a bar trying to be a restaurant. The herbed oil and salad were delicious and the rest of the meal was good. The only issue we had was with the price. It seemed a bit pricey for food that was merely good rather than outstanding. We’ve had far better meals during the course of this project for equal if not less money. For instance, the amazing gnocchi J had at Pasta Bella was less expensive.

Since the Ravioli Station is a bit out of the way, we probably won’t go back any time soon. In some ways we hate to give this place a nominally “meh” review. The service was friendly and the atmosphere was great. If the price went down by just a bit, it might be worth the trip but as it is, we would rather go back to Pasta Bella when we’re in the mood for Italian food.

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.

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.

Palermo – 3/26/2011

Website

Location: 2005 NW Market St

Hours:

Sun: 9:30am-10 pm

Mon-Thurs: 11am-10pm

Fri: 11am-11pm

Sat: 9:30am-11pm

After having seen Sucker Punch at the Cinerama, J was in the mood for Italian for some reason, so we decided to visit the cheaper of the many Italian options in Ballard. Odd that. There are as many Italian restaurants in Ballard as there are Thai.

Palermo is in a storefront right on Market Street tucked in between a dry cleaners and the now empty storefront that once housed Epilogue Books. It’s a very unassuming little place. Light. Airy. Not at all pretentious. It feels like the family run restaurant it seems to be. The menu is long ranging from calzones to pizza to hot sandwiches to pasta and all with an Italian flair with hints of Greece here and there.

The Service:

Our waitress was very friendly, pausing to describe the special in great detail. She willingly answered our questions about the content of our dishes. Once we ordered, the food, a salad course followed by pasta, came out with amazing speed. Especially the pasta course, which came out virtually the minute we had finished our salads and was piping hot.

The Drinks:

J and I decided to share a carafe of the house red wine. It wasn’t the best red wine I’ve ever had but it was fine. Obviously a red blend, the wine had a bitey grape flavor with a surprisingly smooth finish. J commented that the wine tasted like it was made in the back of the restaurant … in a good way.

The Food:

The meal came with a huge house baked roll and a dipping oil of olive oil and paprika. The roll was hot, tender and delicious. J loved the dipping oil with its spicy, almost curry tasting bite.

I ordered the Penne alla Vodka with Seafood, vodka sauce with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, octopus, garlic, basil and parmesan with a side Caesar salad. The Caesar salad was heaped high with romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese and a creamy Caesar dressing. While the dressing lacked the anchovy flavor I’m so fond of, I enjoyed its  slightly salty richness.

The seafood pasta, naturally, had a strong, almost overwhelming, fresh “seafood” taste. I could pull out the distinctive flavors of the clams, mussels and calamari with each bite. The seafood portion was quite tasty with its freshness with each creature well cooked.

My issue with the dish was that the seafood flavor almost completely masked the vodka sauce. With ach bite, I was nearly unable to taste the sauce and what of it I did manage to taste was bland. I ended up squeezing lemon juice, from the lemon wedge that came with my Caesar salad, onto the pasta just to cut the seafood taste. This did bring forth a little of the sauce giving it a brightness it lacked. I would have enjoyed the pasta dish more if the sauce had been bolder. Perhaps a stronger kick of tomato or basil.

J ordered the Baked Fettuccini with Meatballs, in a classic Alfredo sauce backed with feta, parmesan and mozzarella cheese with a side salad. He was pleasantly surprised. It reminded him of Italian restaurants in Pennsylvania, where most of them were run by Greeks. He loved this dish finding the smallish meatballs perfect, delightfully moist with a hint of sweetness. His comment was “I don’t need a meatball the size of a softball.” He felt the addition of feta to the baked cheese topping added a interesting dimension to what could’ve been a common baked pasta.

The Price:

Carafe of House Red Wine: $17.95

Penne alla Vodka with Seafood: $14.25

Baked Fettucini with Meatballs: $13.50

The Verdict:

Even though I felt there was a certain blandness to my pasta, I would be willing to give Palermo another shot. I tried a bite of J’s fettuccini, which was far more flavorful than my penne. I wouldn’t mind trying one of their baked pastas or their calzones, for that matter. The prices are good for the amount and quality of food you receive. It’s a really nice family style restaurant with homemade, inexpensive Italian-Greek food with just enough unexpected touches to make it interesting.

Once this project is done, we’ll go back to Palermo whenever we feel like a good, homey Italian meal that won’t break the bank.

Staple and Fancy-2/14/2011

Website

Location: 4739 Ballard Ave NW

Hours:

Mon-Sun: 5-11

For Valentine’s Day we decided to try out the newest, high end restaurant in Ballard, Staple and Fancy.

Located at the industrial end of Ballard Ave in the refurbished Kolstrand building, Staple & Fancy is the fourth restaurant to be opened by local celebrity chef, Ethan Stowell. His other restaurants (Anchovies & Olives, How to Cook a Wolf and Tavolata) have been highlighted in Bon Appétit and Food & Wine magazines. He’s got a new cookbook, Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen (available at his restaurants and through the Seattle Public Library). Staple & Fancy highlights “Italian-inspired” food in a menu that has a little bit of everything and has the option to put your taste buds in the hands of the chef with a Chef’s Choice menu, created specially for that day’s diners.

I had read about Staple & Fancy before and a friend of J’s highly recommended it so we decided to visit it for the first special occasion of the year, Valentine’s Day. J made reservations nearly a month ago for a special 3 course plus appetizers, Valentine’s Day dinner, created for that day by Chef Stowell, who would also be at the restaurant overseeing things.

Due to torrential rains and high winds, we decided to drive down to the restaurant rather than walk as we usually do. The neighborhood around Staple & Fancy is a bit sketchy for Ballard Ave can be a bit sketchy, with most of the businesses being closed in the evening. Although with the coming of this restaurant, a neat little bar called The Walrus & the Carpenter and the bike store next door, the area is beginning to be a little gentrified.

The restaurant itself is small with an open kitchen, a short bar with seating for 35. Our reservations were for 5:30 and when we arrived it was already about a quarter full. We were seated at a small table along the wall, bench seat for me, chair for J. I will admit the seating was not the most comfortable thing in the world. I woke up the next morning with a backache. I have no idea why bench seating seems to be a trend lately among upscale restaurants. When I eat, I would like to be comfortable.

The Service:

Our server was friendly and helpful if a little erratic. Compared to the other diners around us, who had one server helping them the entire meal, at some points during the meal we ended up with two other people serving us. Maybe he was new or maybe he was too busy serving the table of VIPs next to us (Chef Stowell came out to chat with them a couple of times during the meal) or maybe we threw him off by being ready to order right after he brought our drinks, thanks to the magic of a menu posted on their website. I don’t know. It just seemed a little weird to me. I will give credit though to our being given plenty of time between courses and a comfortable atmosphere.

The Drinks:

Since J drove, we ordered a half bottle of Bertagna Pinot Noir which was nice and fruity. For the dessert course, we each ordered a glass of dessert wine. J had the Porto Kopke 1988 and I Andrew Rich’s Late Harvest sweet wine. The dessert wines paired beautifully with the desserts.

The Food:

The meal consisted of four courses. An appetizer course which was chosen by the chef then pasta, a main and a dessert course each with 2 choices a piece. We decided on an egalitarian way of choosing who got what. J had first choice for the pasta course and I got my choice of the main course.

Appetizers:

There were six small plates for the appetizer course. Each plate included just enough for two people.

Soft Boiled Eggs with White Anchovy: I liked this one. The egg yolk wasn’t too under done which is usually my fear with soft boiled eggs. The taste of the egg melded nicely with the almost vinegary flavor of the white anchovy and the garlic of the aioli upon which the eggs sat.

Marinated Beets with Oranges, Pistachio and Pecorino Toscano: Because of a sensitivity to oranges, I couldn’t taste this dish. J, who does not normally like beets, was quite surprised with the flavor. He mentioned that the beety taste was nicely toned down and wondered if it was due to the acidity of the orange mixed with the nuts.

Prosciutto di Parma with Parmigiano-Reggiano: Slices of melt in your mouth prosciutto with fresh flakes of parmigiano. Nothing better than this simple dish.

Crostini with Smoked Mackerel: The fish had a nice texture and fishy-smokiness without being overwhelming. The crostini was perfectly toasted. Other times I’ve had crostini it’s been so dry and hard that it rips up the roof of your mouth like Captn’ Crunch did when I was a kid..

Salmon Crudo with Red Radish and Watercress: Tasted like really good sushi. The only detractor was that the radishes were kind of tasteless.

Burrata with Marinated Peppers: Burrata, for those that don’t know, is a soft cheese made with mozzarella and cream (thank you Wikipedia). This plate was really good. It was basically a nest of julienned red peppers and sultanas with a dollop of Burrata on top. It was almost a dessert with the mix of the very sweet peppers and the creaminess of the cheese. Delicious.

Pasta Course:

I ordered the Conchiglie with Swordfish Puttanesca, Tomato, Capers and Olives. I was pleasantly surprised at the size of this course. Much more than I had expected. The little shell-shaped pasta was perfectly al dente. The puttanesca sauce had a bit of spiciness but did not take over the taste of the dish. In fact the weighty flavor of the swordfish shone through the sauce unlike other fish pastas I’ve had where the only time you taste the fish is when you actually bite into a piece. The dish was just a perfect melding of flavors.

J ordered the Potato Gnocchi with Red Wine Braised Beef Short Rib, Tomato, Horseradish and Oregano. His take on his pasta was that the sauce was excellent in the sense that it didn’t overwhelm the gnocchi or the short rib. There was a lot more meat than he had expected and it was nice and tender. I tasted the short rib and it had a very nice, if strongly oregano, flavor.

Main Course:

For my main course, I chose the Duck Breast with Almond and Salsify Puree with Thumbelina Carrots, Pearl Onions and Aged Balsamic. When the duck got to the table, I honestly thought it was a piece of beef. I have never had duck breast served sliced crosswise and rare. It was a little chewy with a couple of almost gristly bits to the point where I had a little trouble cutting it but the skin crust was lovely. Basically there was a layer of skin then delicious fat and finally the duck breast. It was good but not excellent. I guess my problem was that it didn’t really taste like duck. It tasted more like beef and if I’d wanted beef, I would’ve ordered beef.

J chose the Daurade (fish) with Artichokes, Meyer Lemon and Controne Beans. He felt that the fish was cooked perfectly. It was probably the best fish he’d ever had. The lemon reduction gave a fresh taste to the dish and bean sauce mixed well with the flavor of the fish.

Dessert:

My choice was the Ricotta Cheesecake with Vanilla Bean and Wild Huckleberry Sauce. The server brought a huge piece of cheesecake with a generous amount of huckleberries. It was delicious. Creamy with a graham cracker crust that soaked up the huckleberry juice. This was the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. Amazing.

J’s choice for dessert was the Chocolate Cake with Bourbon Ice Cream and Bourbon Caramel. He went crazy for the caramel. Said it was the best caramel he had ever had. That it had ruined all other caramels for him. I quote him “Un-fucking-believable. The cake was awesome. The ice cream was delicious. Just amazing.” The port he ordered to go with it was a perfect match.

The Price:

I will say, we have a blow-out meal like this maybe once a year. This will look expensive but considering what we received and upon looking at their regular menu, it was probably cheaper than if we had ordered each item separately.

Half-bottle Pinot Noir: $38.00

Valentine’s Day Menu: 2 @ $75.00

Porto Kopke: $12.00

Andrew Rich Late Harvest Dessert Wine: $9.00

The Verdict:

The winners of the menu were the soft boiled eggs, the buratta with marinated peppers, the two pasta dishes and the two desserts. All of these items were memorable for their taste, execution and creativity and made the meal worth the price.

One of the criteria I’ve begun to judge these Ballard restaurants by is whether we will go back once the year is over. I would say, at some point in the future, I’d be willing to go back to either try the chef’s choice menu or to have the cheesecake again. Holy crap, that cheesecake was amazing ….