Staple & Fancy's Hare-Raising Terrine

A rabbit steals the show at Ethan Stowell's newest joint.

Staple & Fancy exists way down in the guts of Ballard—by the water, crowded in among the sailmakers, mini-storage units, and coffee shops that pop up like benchmarks of rapid gentrification. The building in which Staple & Fancy is housed has been reclaimed in the best kind of way: just barely. Because of the method by which owner Ethan Stowell and his demo crew turned this former boat-gear warehouse—home, for 80 years, to the Kolstrand Marine Supply Company, and before that to a neighborhood mercantile called L. Strand (a purveyor of "Staple & Fancy" goods, hence the unusual name)—into a rough and rustic restaurant, the place already had a century of history the moment they opened the doors. It's the kind of thing you can feel—lots of raw wood, framing timbers, and crumbling, exposed brick still painted in places with the advertisements of past tenants. There is a weight that no generic, plasterboard box in a strip mall is ever going to have. The light comes mostly from candles; they burn everywhere. The vibe is gentle, quiet, relaxing, and just a bit odd because of the bank of windows along the back wall that look in on the bright, cream-colored dining room of The Walrus & the Carpenter, which operates back-to-back with Staple & Fancy. I've never seen an arrangement quite like it. The effect is kind of like looking into a mirror that refuses to reflect what's happening and just kind of does its own thing. In the weeks after its opening, I heard some pretty bad things about Staple & Fancy's food from people whose taste I trusted. It wasn't that anything was terrible, necessarily, just that none of it was special. I heard dull. I heard bland. I heard totally not worth the time or money. I thought about going and seeing for myself, but then didn't. A restaurant's first weeks of business are sometimes like rehearsal—a last chance to get the balance right, to test the menu against the blade of public perception. One can get a completely different meal in a place's second week as one can in its eighth or 12th. And while not every restaurant can get it together quickly (I've known places that struggled for a year before everything suddenly clicked), most simply have to. In a town like Seattle, there are just too many options. Fuck up once, and most folks won't come back. I hit Staple & Fancy just before its three-month mark, at a point when most places have worked out the opening jitters, gotten rid of the dead weight, and come together into an approximation of the restaurants they will be for the remainder of their natural lives. I sat at the bar because, at least according to the hostess, Staple & Fancy was drawing enough reservations to be fully committed, on a weeknight, until 9 p.m. The paucity of trade on the floor seemed to tell a different story, but I was cool with it. The bar at Staple & Fancy is comfortable: nine seats, lots of liquor bottles for company, and a view right into the working line. I could ogle the mise of the cooks while they worked, on the grills and stacking pans for orders not yet materialized. The bartender handed me a cocktail list, a wine list, and a menu, stapled to a wedge of wood. The ever-changing board (literally, in this case) at Staple & Fancy is small and simple: five appetizers, three or four pastas, five entrées, and a couple of sides. They adjust with the weather, the supply, and the mood of the cooks. There's also an option for family-style dining: four courses, $45 per person, all chef's choice. The menu says "We would also like to inform you that you really should do this." So do the servers. But I am recalcitrant. I want to order what I want to order, and do. When the rabbit terrine arrives, it is pretty and rustic and smells of nothing at all. Just a pinkish slab of rabbit meat, a tangle of wild watercress hiding a small mound of caramelized shallots, and a spoonful of the agrodolce sauce that came of the sweet-and-sour prep of the shallots. I take a bite of the terrine and know immediately that it's good—made by someone who really knows his way around deconstructing bunnies. Forcemeats like terrine are made infrequently, ordered even less often. They exercise culinary muscles that don't often get a workout in a kitchen's day-to-day ops, requiring cheesecloths and water baths and a trust in the finality of the process that is more the stuff of bakers than cooks. A cook making a forcemeat is like a mathematician doing equations in his spare time just to stay sharp, or a stage magician standing before a mirror practicing the passes and drops he has done a million times. The terrine, the rillette, and the pâté are connections to past and beautiful rusticity: training for a cook who already knows how good he is. Beyond all that, the watercress tastes powerfully of pepper and nuttiness. It's stronger than the stuff you get in the store, delicious on its own. And the shallots are amazing—brown, sticky, and sweet like candy, with just the tiniest sting of vinegar. The shallots, all alone, are worth the price of admission. But then I try everything together—a chunky and rich forkful of terrine, a leaf of watercress, a twist of shallot, and a squiggle of the agrodolce—and the effect is almost indescribable. So delicious, so ideally wedded and perfectly balanced, this bite is transcendent. It is the definition of the phrase "greater than the sum of its parts," rendering all other uses of it pat and cliché. For just a moment I forget every other terrine I have ever had and concentrate on this one. It is, in a word, redefining, and I think to myself, "This might be the best restaurant I've been to in a year." It doesn't last. How could it? No kitchen— none but the very, very best, anyway— could possibly sustain that level of amazement through an entire meal, let alone hundreds of them. I have gnocchi in red sauce with pork cheek and basil, and it's great, but not as great. Gnocchi is easy to do poorly, hard to do well, and incredibly difficult to do perfectly. Staple & Fancy hits the solid middle ground with little potato-flour dumplings that have a bit of heft and some texture and match well with the pork cheeks, cooked so long they almost melt into the sauce. The mackerel in sauce salmoriglio comes laid atop chunks of ham hock and tufts of fried cauliflower. Like the terrine, the dish comes off best when every ingredient is eaten together—a complicated forkful of browned cauliflower, a bit of chewy hock, some flakes of white fish flesh, and the briny parsley-and-lemon sauce smeared across it all. But even then there are issues. The fish is a bit charred and wants some more salt. The ham hock chews like pork bubble gum. And on its own (without the fish, the sauce, the pig), fried cauliflower just tastes like . . . cauliflower. Other nights I return for veal breast with figs, mint, feta, escarole, and sweet balsamic vinegar, and for a composed salad of beets with watercress, avocado, and a soft-boiled egg on top. Both plates reach for that rare, flawless balance which is obviously Stowell's intent and strength, at this time, in this kitchen, amid his burgeoning culinary empire. He builds plates by layers, with flavor and texture, sometimes ramming together contradictory ingredients (raisins and tuna, squash and radish, cauliflower and fish) just to see what will happen. Nowhere else on the menu, though, does this work with the rare magic of that rabbit terrine. I do not order the terrine again. I may not ever order it again. I fear that in trying it twice, I will be somehow disappointed, finding it not as good as that first, brilliant moment. So I deny myself the opportunity for disappointment. I know this is stupid. And every time I think about it, all I want is one more bite. jsheehan@seattleweekly.com Price Guide Rabbit terrine  $12 Gnocchi  $16 Mackerel  $22 Beet salad  $11 Veal breast  $20

 
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