You've come a long way, Ballard. Lately, the land of lutefisk and fish and chips has been as much a Mexican food mecca and even a fine-dining destination. It seems the neighborhood that showed Seattle how to pickle a herring knows a thing or two about foie gras as well. Sure, you can still get some of the best clam strips around at the little joints along Seaview Avenue Northwest and Fishermen's Terminal, and Old Ballard still produces all the greasy diner food and hearty pub fare a person could crave. Yet tour Ballard not with the intent of visiting old favorites but with an eye for the fresh, and one will find four new Mexican restaurants, first-rate Thai, enough souvlaki, barbecued ribs, pizza, and pasta to feed a Viking army, fabulous pho, revolutionary chai, and a Reuben to be reckoned with. If the flashy condos lining Ballard's industrial core aren't evidence enough that the humble burg is now hip, take a culinary trip down Market Street, where blue collar meets blue ribbon. Here, at least three honest-to-goodness destination restaurants pull in dinner crowds from as far as Laurelhurst and even Languedoc. Katie Millbauer Barking Dog Alehouse If you were to look only at the entrée lineup, you'd conclude that Barking Dog's culinary ambitions did not push the pub-food envelope—meatloaf, halibut and chips, Cajun gumbo. But turn your eye to the appetizer column: wasabi-pork wontons? Thai seafood cakes? Boar satay and tofu fries? No, Barking Dog is an alehouse with ambitions in both food and drink: It aspires to be the place in town for sampling the exotic seasonal beers of Belgium as well as a rotating lineup of fine Northwest brew. It wants to be your choice for weekend breakfast, too, offering classics like corned beef hash–and-eggs and eggs B, along with livelier fare—hot-sausage tortilla- wrap and Mediterranean tofu scramble. (Hmmm . . . beer with breakfast to smooth the wrinkles from the night before. Now there's a fresh idea.) And don't forget the nightly pizza and sandwich specials, either. Like Fred's Rivertown Alehouse in Snohomish (owned and operated by the same family), the Dog wants to be the dining spot of choice for people who take their food as seriously as their beer. R.D. 705 N.W. 70th St., 206-782-2974. $$ Carnegie's Ballard's old Carnegie Library feels a bit like a forgotten castle inside. You may expect ghosts, but, luckily, the only surprise is finding high-quality, classical French food in the heart of Ballard. Carnegie's is an event—grand foyer, crimson-walled dining rooms, oversized antique wood furniture, thick white table cloths, and all. The formal service and hushed classical music make it apparent that one is to be serious about one's dinner here, and it's easy to be serious about food this good. It's not "creative," just remarkable for its fantastic flavor and skillful preparation. It's prepared in the tradition of the great masters—simply, allowing superior ingredients to speak for themselves. The choice tenderloin Roquefort with wild mushrooms is melt-in-your-mouth good. The rustic chicken stewed in red wine, mushroom, and onions is superb. Don't skip dessert. K.M. 2026 N.W. Market St., 206-789-6643. $$-$$$ La Carta de Oaxaca Part of Ballard's new wave of Mexican eateries, La Carta is tiny but highly stylized. Spartan and clean, its white walls covered with framed black-and-white photos of Oaxacan people and scenes, it looks more like an art gallery than a restaurant. But the dishes coming out of the open stainless-steel kitchen put any doubt to rest. The house specialty, mole negro, is on the sweet side and tastes great atop pork or chicken, served with rice and tortillas. Other standouts are spicy fish soup and molotes: three fried tortillas stuffed with potatoes and beef sausage and garnished attractively with guacamole, hot sauce, and Oaxacan cheese. The plates are small but so are the prices, so the menu's great for sampling and sharing, tapas-style. The margaritas are practically perfect, which isn't a surprise, considering La Carta's bar shares management with Fu Kun Wu, Thaiku's trendy lounge. K.M. 5431 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-782-8722. $$ Le Gourmand Eating at Le Gourmand is a little like visiting an artist's studio. Each dish is an original—a product of seasonal, textural, and gustatory impulse. The menu is dedicated to hearty, rustic-style foods: game, the woodsy fragrance of mushrooms, and the delicate flavors of organic, local vegetables and herbs cooked with care and affection. Local cheeses, wild mushrooms, and breads decorate plates of wild and wind-dried salmon, rabbit liver pâté, organic beef tenderloin, and Washington lamb. If you hear French being spoken at the next table, no surprise—after two decades in business, Le Gourmand may be better known in Rouen and Caen than here at home. Though its new little sister, the adjacent shoebox-size Sambar lounge, is pulling in as many young local trendies as can fit. If Le Gourmand recalls the French countryside, the mod, colorful Sambar recalls A Clockwork Orange. The only sign that they're connected—other than that they share the same building—is Sambar's exquisite bar food menu. K.M. 425 N.W. Market St., 206-784-3463. $$$ Library Cafe Unlike Carnegie's, this cozy cafe never was a library, though it was a used bookstore, as evidenced by the shelves of old books still nestled between assorted knickknacks, art, and eclectic tables and chairs. Exposed brick walls, at least three fireplaces, and an open kitchen occupying the center of the restaurant are just some of the charms of this odd neighborhood cafe. Brunching or lunching here (they don't serve dinner) is like eating at somebody's grandparents' house, and, appropriately, the Library Cafe also hosts reservation-only afternoon tea services. Regulars convene here for the big breakfasts, grilled panini, and classic sandwiches, some with literary names such as the Catcher in the Rye. There's also a full espresso bar, an extensive tea list, and beers from Belgium, Germany, England, and the U.S. K.M. 850 N.W. 85th St., 206-789-5682. $ Malena's Taco Shop This new outpost of a longtime Queen Anne favorite can't be beat for after-work takeout. The rolled, lightly fried beef or chicken tacos are a reliably scrumptious and filling option. The authentic pork tamales and the chorizo burrito are also good. Basic is king here, from the entrées to the accompanying healthy heaps of rice, beans, lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole to the one house salsa. And there's nothing wrong with basic. Malena's isn't as showy as some of the more ambitious new Ballard restaurants, but its tidy ivory curtains, silk flowers, and friendly family service make it the neighborhood darling of frenzied families, newspaper-reading singles, and hungry skate punks. This Malena's is much bigger than its Queen Anne counterpart, so there's room to dine in, but even if you grab your meal to go, be sure to sample the salsa. K.M. 2010 N.W. 56th St., 206-789-8207. $ Market Street Grill Foie gras and tuna tartare in blue-collar Ballard? Four years ago, the people behind the Market Street Grill were right to say, "Why not?" They've been serving such delicacies—along with fashionable New American entrées like monkfish osso bucco and lamb sirloin with eggplant caviar—to grateful diners ever since. It's Belltown quality (and prices) without the pretensions. One can taste the love and care in the Grill's seasonally changing menu. Elegant dishes such as olive-oil-poached Alaskan halibut with tomato-ginger compote, a potato cake, and lightly sautéed pea vines are as comforting as they are creative. Each plate is like a study in contrasting colors and textures. And for an upscale restaurant, the wait staff is remarkably down to earth. K.M. 1744 N.W. Market St., 206-789-6766. $$-$$$ www.marketstreetgrill.net Other Coast Cafe Stop your sniveling, Seattle. You can get a decent sandwich at least at one place in town: the Other Coast Cafe. All this time you've been whining about the lack of proper Reubens in the Northwest, the Other Coast crew has been stacking them tall with flavorful, skin-thin slices of Boar's Head pastrami. For five years, they've been warming the hearts and tummies of local sandwich enthusiasts. Only reason you haven't heard about them is that the folks in the know are too busy eating—or driving across town to eat—their deliciously tangy and sloppy sandwiches to slow down and spread the word. So hear it now: There's a narrow, warehouse-type space in old Ballard where fantastically happy people make fantastically delicious subs and East Coast–style sandwiches with fantastic, sliced-to-order Boar's Head meats. Go now. And may the wind be always at your back. K.M. 5315 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-789-0936. $ www.othercoastcafe.com Thaiku The renamed and relocated Fremont Noodle House serves the same crowd-pleasing noodle and rice dishes as the old favorite—plus more. The reincarnation has expanded conceptually and physically: The menu's bigger, as is the space, which is like an old barn inside—high-ceilinged and dark with metal and wooden antiques displayed in the exposed rafters and in wall-mounted glass cases. The dining room is family-friendly and taste bud–friendly, too; most dishes are a creative cut above other local Thai joints. Some particularly fun dishes are the mieng kahm appetizer, a roll-it-yourself palate cleanser; and the kao yum appetizer, a vegetarian rice dish with coconut and grapefruit. Fu Kun Wu, the theme bar in back of the restaurant, is named after a Chinese apothecary who supposedly roamed Ballard around the turn of the century. In his honor, the bar's signature drinks are infused with a variety of teas, herbs, and even yohimbe, an African aphrodisiac tree bark. (Sorry, only one per person—that's the rule.) K.M. 5410 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-706-7807. $ Wild Mountain Cafe This whimsical, women-owned restaurant was built with love—and a social conscience. All kitchen scraps and coffee grounds are composted out back for use in the cafe garden; all of their charmingly eclectic furniture, silverware, kitchen equipment, dishes, and glassware are secondhand; and every bit of recyclable waste they can sort by hand is recycled appropriately—all rarities in the restaurant industry. On top of being environmentally friendly, the home-style comfort food tastes great, too. Irresistible entrées include the honey-kissed, oven-fried chicken with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and exquisitely roasted vegetables, and the four-cheese secret-blend mac 'n' cheese. Set inside a remodeled old house, with dining tables and a full (but tiny) bar dispersed throughout its main rooms, this cafe is about as homey as they get. And any place with staff this happy has got to be doing something right. K.M. 1408 N.W. 85th St., 206-297-9453. $$ email@example.com
One of a Kind Seastar Bellevue is a thriving, sophisticated city with a first-rate retail core. But it is not notable for first-rate sophisticated dining establishments. In fact, until chef John Howie opened Seastar two years ago, one would have been hard put to suggest any Bellevue restaurant to a discriminating visitor. On the edge of downtown off an office-building plaza, Seastar looks not much different than other upscale suburban enterprises, but the arrival of the first dish puts any doubt to rest: This is a kitchen that can hold its head up anywhere. The emphasis is on seafood, and the restaurant sports a full-bore raw bar, but Seastar is not a "seafood restaurant." Without compromising the freshness and quality of his ingredients, Howie puts a unique spin on every dish. Asian culinary touches abound, particularly among appetizers, and there's something Asian in the elegance of presentations, though there's no tendency to err on the side of flossiness, either. The wine list is remarkable, both for its range and its accommodation of modest pocketbooks as well as the wide-open wallets of big spenders. R.D. 205 108th Ave. N.E., 425-456-0010. BELLEVUE $$$ www.seastarrestaurant.com"