One of the nice things about going to a new city is exploring and finding places that become your little secrets, places that you go home and tell everyone about because you found them and you love them and you want to share them with others.
One of the nice things about going to a new city is meeting up with people you know who can save you from making some terrible dining choices and gently steer you towards food that is beautiful, memorable and worth sharing with them.
In the last Seattle post I talked about how J and I had done the former and about how we are now both advocates of Russian pies and cheesecake-on-a-stick; in this one, a single restaurant with an amazing chef’s choice menu takes centre focus alongside the wonderful people we shared this evening with…
Staple & Fancy is situated in Ballard, a northwestern neighbourhood in Seattle. Part of the Ethan Stowell Restaurants Group, it’s ranked in the top 60 of over 3500 Seattle restaurants and until this trip, I’d never heard of it or the man behind it. Luckily, J and I were staying with the lovely, generous and fellow-food-loving couple, S and V and as this is one of their favourite places, I had no doubts at all that it was going to be an awesome dinner.
A self-taught chef, Stowell was born into a family of ballet dancers but turned away from the stage and into the kitchen at a young age. Now responsible for a collection of restaurants focusing on Italian food and local ingredients prepared and served with love and respect, he opened Staple & Fancy 4 years ago and the chef’s menu that we experienced is a self proclaimed ‘multi-course feast of seasonal dishes crafted by the chef for each table.’
Starting with drinks in a gorgeous, naturally hip bar behind the restaurant was the perfect way to kick off the evening and experience something of a local haunt rather than one of the over-stuffed-with-tourists-and-priced-accordingly places closer to the centre of town.
The restaurant itself appears small but extends far further back than you’d think and feels intimate and achingly cool with its brick walls and long open bar.
Exceptionally friendly and welcoming from the moment we stepped inside, the staff here achieved the holy grail of service – unobtrusive and attentive and genuine. Much harder to do than it sounds, we were made to feel at home immediately and for me, that set the tone for the rest of the night.
After briefly scanning the menu, those in the know which would be S and V, thought that the chef’s menu would be the best way to experience the very finest that the kitchen had to offer and after a few quick questions about anything we didn’t like or couldn’t eat (try as I might I cannot get past the appearance of octopus and vetoed that I’m afraid!) the staff disappeared, returning only with glasses of cold rose and frosted beer. They offered drinks recommendations that were personal and real and if someone didn’t really like what had been brought, it was whisked away promptly with no fuss and offence taken.
The first courses arrived as the room started to fill and it became clear as the evening wore on, why it is sometimes impossible to get in here without advance booking.
Impossibly silky soft, wide ribbons of pancetta with generous Parmesan shavings and house-made creamy white discs of mozzarella with sourdough bruschetta started dinner off beautifully with no extreme flavours to scar your palate with and leave lingering in your mouth for the following dishes.
Next came my first ‘first’ with deep fried, crispy oysters and aioli. I can’t even pretend to be all cool and ‘hey man oysters are the best!’ here because although I’m glad I tried them as they’ve long been something I felt I should give a go, the remaining oysters of the world can feel free to rejoice and revel in their safety from me because I shan’t be putting them on my plate again.
If you’re going to try something for the first time, you really should do it in as well done a fashion as possible and I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t care for them here, I’m probably not going to find them somewhere else that I immediately love. I’m sure also that having them done like this is very different to eating them fresh from the ocean with a squeeze of lemon as their only embellishment but still, I think I’ll be leaving these bad boys alone for the future as their texture – similar to a soft to medium boiled egg – was not for me.
Much more enjoyable to savour was the steak tartare which I could eat everyday of my life and the heirloom tomato gazpacho with olive oil drizzle. This came in an elegantly, petite coffee cup but I longed for a ridiculously ‘Friends’ oversized mug of it because it was cool and refreshing and packed with ridiculous amounts of flavour. The olive oil added a satiny texture to the already gorgeously smooth liquid and it was one of my favourite dishes of the evening.
Thick, barely seared slices of Albacore tuna with radishes, cucumber, chilli and an avocado puree and a baby gem salad with home-made buttermilk dressing and blue cheese crumbs were up next – both wonderfully light and palate cleansing, the tuna was butter soft with a jewel pink hue, the avocado puree was creamy and the salad was light and more-ish.
You might be thinking by this point ‘hey lady, even for you this seems like a lot of food’ but fear not. Every course was perfectly proportioned for the four of us so that there was zero waste but also nothing was too excessive or filled you up to the point where you couldn’t enjoy what was coming next. This was a clever, inventive, respectful menu in every way possible. The timing was also well paced so nothing came out before you’d fully savoured what had just gone before.
After the 7, yes 7, starter plates, we moved onto pasta, meat and fish…well you’d hate to think of me going hungry wouldn’t you?
Squid ink spaghetti with anchovy and Calabrian chilli was my winning dish of the night. It was gloriously perfect – soft and salty with a nudge rather than a kick of heat, I could have squirrelled this plate away for myself and probably not even felt bad about it, it was that good. The flavour of the sea was lovely and subtle so you weren’t left feeling like you’d been dunked head first into the Atlantic.
Served alongside this was ravioli stuffed with English pea shoots and accompanied by snap peas and tomatoes in a white wine sauce. This too was lusciously made pasta with the fresh flavours of spring wrapped in each little parcel. The pasta was almost translucent so the vibrant green filling could be seen and whereas pasta can often be heavy and dry, this was light and delicate and warm.
King salmon with cauliflower puree and a corn and tomato salsa was fall-apart-at-the-touch-of-a-fork soft. The crispy skin added flavour to the fish, the sweet tomatoes and the creamy, earthy and full-of-depth puree. New York strip steak was perfectly pink, thick and succulent inside a juicy, charred outer crust with a balsamic glaze and seasonal vegetables adding enough difference in flavour and texture to complement without taking away from the meat which was clearly the king of that plate.
Eleven courses in, rose and Prosecco washing everything down nicely, every plate being served by a smiling, friendly, genuine waiter with a clear explanation of what we were eating and an interest in how we liked everything and fear not dear reader, we are now onto dessert so loosen that belt just one more notch and let’s get into something sweet…
…like a chocolate terrine with chocolate gelato, chocolate crumble and a salted caramel sauce? So delicious you can see I couldn’t even get my photo done before the first spoon dipped towards this plate of cocoa loveliness.
Or maybe you prefer cheesecake with a raspberry coulis so tart, rich and fruity that it allowed the creaminess of the cheesecake wedge to shine through? Both were fabulous but the insanely rich, clean and smooth chocolate gelato with the crumb that had the texture almost of cookie, almost of cornflake? Oh my word, I could sprinkle that onto everything I eat going forward. Seriously. I can’t imagine anything that this wouldn’t make better and it was the perfect way to end the meal.
And end it there we did after 3 hours and 13 courses and an experience that I can only describe as one I’ll never forget. Not only was the food stunning and not only did the service and environment make you feel special but never uncomfortable, but the company was equally wonderful. It felt like we’d been there forever, it felt like we could stay there forever in this city that we loved exploring on our own but equally loved being shown around by people whose passion for it shone out of everything they said and did.
Sometimes memorable food is about what you eat. Sometimes it’s about how you eat. Sometimes it’s about who you eat it with. And occasionally, if you’re really lucky, it’s about all three. If you visit Seattle, take someone you love or take yourself because they and you deserve to have this memory.