FOR SUCH a health-oriented city, Seattle is surprisingly wanting in the healthy-restaurant category. Oh, we have the odd vegetarian or vegan joint, many of which are just that—odd. I've always thought some genius should open a restaurant serving organic food, a means of healthy eating with considerably broader appeal than herbivory. Problem is, such a restaurant would have to feature monster prices to cover the monstrous cost of such clean food. Could such a restaurant really make a go?
The Stalk Exchange
6711 Greenwood N, 782-3911 breakfast Tue-Fri 7-11am; lunch Tue-Fri 11am-3pm; dinner Wed-Thu 5-9pm, Fri-Sat 6-10pm; brunch Sat-Sun 9am-3pm MC, V; beer, wine (some organic)
Meet the Stalk Exchange, a place that has—for the better part of the last year. Caterer Laurie Dent opened the house/restaurant/bakery/espresso bar/deli/catering enterprise on Phinney Ridge (across from Red Mill Burgers) last September, operating it for lunches, dinners, and weekend brunches to boot. That she does all this while maintaining a roughly 75 to 90 percent rate of organic foods—from meat and produce to flour and coffee—is a tribute to this energized owner and her formidable crew, most of whom are laudable.
She also boasts one of the most charming settings in town: a cute-as-a-bug's-ear cottage (complete with front porch and upright piano) all done up in mosaic tile work and perky art in harvest tones. As you walk in you're greeted with the takeout bar, laden with freshly baked brownies and chocolate chip cookies; big, moist slices of blueberry poppyseed cake with cream cheese frosting; and lemon marscapone coffee cake. The case is overstuffed with all manner of salads and sandwiches, from kalamata bread salad-stuffed heirloom tomatoes to pitas filled with Italian potatoes and wild greens.
Walking past this happy display on the way to our brunch table got us even more in the mood for breakfast than we already were. (I don't know about you, but the closer I draw to Phinney Ridge—home of Phinney Ridge Cafe, Pete's Eggnest, and Mae's—the more I begin reflexively drooling for eggs and toast.) We ordered lattes (made with organic Lighthouse Roasters coffee) and fresh-squeezed organic orange and grapefruit juices ($2.75, $3.50) all around and surveyed the menu, an egg-heavy list with some dozen plates to choose from.
WE FINALLY DECIDED on three. The toddler in our midst chose the grilled cheddar polenta ($7.95), a nicely bland rectangle of cheesy corn cake served with scrambled eggs in dire need of seasoning and a generous side order of zesty Italian chicken sausage ($3.50). A special-of-the-day scramble of roasted tomatoes, cubed prosciutto, and Parmesan cheese ($9.95) tasted smokey and savory—rather more like pizza than I had in mind for 10am of a Saturday, but ultimately satisfying. The crumb-encrusted potato cake with it was frustratingly tasteless comfort food, with the accompanying narrow toasted baguettes being toast of the shards-of-glass variety. (Toast this painful is a hostile act, intended or not. Plus, it was rye.)
Our final breakfast, Huevos Weirdoes ($8.95), utterly disarmed the restaurant critic at the table. They were weird, but apparently this was the goal. A goo-fest of hash browns, eggs, black beans, salsa, and sour cream, topped with red chip strips, this dish was a big sopping mess, both literally and figuratively. It shouldn't have tasted terrific, with all the ingredients forging together into colorful mud on the plate. But it did.
In fact, bland polenta breakfast notwithstanding, a lot of things taste very, very good here at the Stalk Exchange. We returned for a lunchtime pig-out and were delighted with its sandwiches. A heavenly salmon melt ($6.95) featured king salmon salad loaded with celery and melted over with Irish cheddar cheese on homemade focaccia. The burger ($7.95) was likewise tasty, with nicely lean beef, saut饤 peppers, and garlic mayo on focaccia. One of two veggie sandwiches ($6.95) featured Italian potatoes, wild greens, lentils, and blue cheese chunks stuffed into a pita: a fine munch.
One of the day's three soups, carrot ginger ($3.95, $4.50), rather flogged the ginger flavor within a bisque-y texture. Another, roasted roma tomato/Parmesan soup ($3.95, $4.50), was fine, if uninspired. (It tasted like my scramble of a few days earlier.) A third, corn and andouille sausage ($3.95, $4.50), was gently spicy and clear-flavored, our favorite. With them we enjoyed a couple of salads: one a savory bread salad studded with kalamatas and served inside a hollowed-out heirloom tomato shell; the other a mix-up of potatoes, celery, walnuts, and dried cherries in yogurt dressing.
THAT NEARLY ALL of this bounty is organic (with the exception of the fish, which is almost impossible to come by) is astounding, even inspiring. It also means chefs Lasha Johnson, Jennifer Dowd, Bobby McCool, and Melissa Nefler must remain nimbler than most at using what's fresh and available on a given day.
This they do most admirably at dinner, when diners can tailor their meal to their tastes off the list of that week's half-dozen organic vegetables, requesting one or two with their entr饠or four at a time for an all-veggie supper ($12.95). I ordered the fresh halibut ($18.95), which they grill in the applewood oven that lends the Stalk Exchange its signature aroma of wood smoke, and it arrived fresh and beautifully grilled under a light mango relish. I'd requested stir-fried green beans and carrots with sweet peas as my two veggies; these came crackling fresh and delectable as dessert, the first saut饤 with tamari, the second sweet and fragrant with vanilla.
A special entr饠salad, billed on the blackboard as "a whopper," was that and then some: mixed greens and assorted raw vegetables scattered with chopped walnuts, homemade croutons, fresh blueberries, champagne grapes, and two creamy, crusted dollops of warm goat cheese, all doused in a light balsamic vinaigrette ($12.95). This was a corker—blueberries moistening every mouthful with their juice, goat cheese lending its creaminess to the whole. Yum.
The Stalk Exchange's brick ovens are responsible for all of its baked goods— uniformly yummy in our experience—and all of its breads (Yukon Gold potato, oatmeal honey, polenta, to name a few). None was offered me with dinner. The water poured with all my meals was lukewarm. The bussers/deli girls couldn't have been nicer, but need coaching in the answers to some basic questions. (Like: Just how organic is the Stalk Exchange? "Um," one answered earnestly, "I think it's pretty organic.")
Although servers are often harried, the atmosphere is suitably mellow, with Joni Mitchell and Enya crooning from the rafters—this is Greenwood, after all— and was marred on our visits only by one hostile server.
Aside from that downer, all was well with us at the Stalk Exchange, whose food seems to improve the later in the day you drop by. Not even the bill unhinged us too much. Expensive, no question, particularly if you're comparing the place to similar casual neighborhood joints (which you shouldn't do). For the nontoxic quality of the raw ingredients and the flair with which they are generally assembled, prices are fair.
I have a friend who lives pretty hand-to-mouth but splurges on all-organic produce; he considers it the highest political act he can perform on a day-to-day basis. In that spirit, eat at the Stalk Exchange—and "Viva la revolucion!"