The dinner started exactly like so many other awkward family gatherings. Attempts at conversational starts sputtered until the blowhard at the head of the table for 10, ignoring his wife's unspoken signals to stick to frivolous topics which would pair well with digestion, plunged into a political monologue that culminated with a heartfelt encomium for Ronald Reagan. "Best president we ever had," he decreed. As the meal progressed and more wine was drunk, the partisan patter eventually gave way to gossip about limo drivers and mutual complaints about the difficulties of steering a $10 million boat.
BELLE CLEMENTINE 5451 Leary Ave. N.W., 257-5761, belleclementine.com. 7 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m. & 6 p.m. Sun.
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To be clear, this is not my family. But for one unpleasant evening at Belle Clementine, the new communal-table supper club from Corson Building alum David Sanford, my date and I were sandwiched between the WASPs, party of four, and another foursome so dour that I wondered whether the one of them who was purportedly celebrating a birthday had gotten word it'd be her last. Since the parties had no interest in engaging us, and we couldn't carry on our own conversation without interrupting theirs, we had little choice but to sit quietly and marvel at the proceedings, Alvy Singer–style. Occasionally I asked someone to pass the salad.
When Sanford designed Belle Clementine, he surely didn't intend to convene the world's worst dinner party. "Belle Clementine is grounded in the philosophy that the shared meal is one of the best ways to bring people together," he said soon after the restaurant opened. "The fundamental goal is to bring people together."
The problem is that Sanford can't subject his prospective guests to a loyalty test, so he has no way to separate the community-seekers from the upper-crusters who think it's a lark to go locavoring in Ballard. (Our Queen Anne–based tablemates repeatedly congratulated themselves on their exploratory streak.) And in keeping with Sanford's aim to stir up a co-op vibe, meals are served in leisurely, family-style courses, so guests can't discreetly scarf down their entrées and call it a night if their assigned companions are dreary. The specter of discomfort always looms at Belle Clementine.
To Sanford's credit, though, he's done his darnedest to make the restaurant pathologically welcoming. It's sited in a storefront that previously functioned as a sales office for a nearby condo development, and the room embodies a prospective buyer's Ballard residential fantasy: Resolutely industrial bare floors, white brick walls, and exposed ducts are softened by salvaged wooden shelves lined with cookbooks and kitchen ceramics. The three long wooden tables are sparsely set with salt cellars and wildflowers plunked into clear glass vases, but if those accoutrements were cleared away, it would be easy to imagine an environmental design team gathering around one of the tables for a brainstorming session.
A wooden counter divides the dining room from Sanford's workspace, although he encourages guests to breach the barrier and poke around his kitchen. A board chalked with future menus and shopping lists is the only clue to the logistical machinery behind the four-nights-a-week operation, and the limited schedule—combined with Sanford's total control over what's served when—helps keep the kitchen immaculate. Still, a kitchen tour is a fine way to begin the evening.
If your table companions are genial—or you've had the foresight to stock your table with so many friends that objectionable strangers aren't an issue—you might instead stay seated while waiting on stragglers. Sanford usually prefaces the meal with a snack, such as taut potato chips or warmed green olives with curlicues of lemon zest, and the $40 flat rate for dinner (a tremendously good deal) includes a glass of beer or wine served in a stubby jelly glass.
The wine selection fluctuates according to what food is served, and has the inevitable gaps that emerge when a list is drafted on deadline. Our tablemates summoned Sanford to ask why they couldn't drink Washington wine at a restaurant that advertises its commitment to local sourcing—because his dishes are more simpatico with European wines, he explained—and there wasn't anything resembling a full-bodied red the night I requested it.
Unlike many restaurants which clump their communal dishes on big platters, forcing guests to privately calculate how much they can take without denying their neighbors a fair share, Belle Clementine is never stingy with its servings. A plate of a dozen appetizer toasts smeared with a sweet chicken-liver mousse and grazed with pickled sunchokes was refilled three times before diners at our table caught on to the kitchen's generosity and quit hoarding for a lean serving ahead.
Dinner typically includes three courses, the best of which feature flawless ingredients assembled with minimal mussing. Salads are cause for excitement at Belle Clementine: As much as I loved a lightly dressed tangle of arugula and chicory sprigs graced with sesame seeds and radish slivers, I was even more struck by a cairn of miner's lettuce and radicchio, its red and green blazing brightly as a stoplight. Sanford, who recites the menu and contributor credits at the start of each meal, endearingly presented the dish as a harbinger of spring.
Cooked dishes at Belle Clementine are high-end homey, recalling what a talented cook with a Viking range might concoct if his or her spouse was charged with entertaining a visiting college dean. One night, Sanford served a tagine of whole chicken, softened almonds, and bumptious white beans. "We're having this same thing tomorrow night," a guest quietly reminded her husband, who was eagerly reaching for a second helping. Another evening brought steamed mussels, their meat white and fleshy as an Irish lass's shoulders. Swimming in liquor sweet with shallots and bacon shards, the entrée provoked unceasing calls for additional bread.
"I need more carbs," explained the farm manager at our table who'd spent the day picking parsnips. His farm was responsible for the radicchio, the lettuce, and the arrows of phenomenally sugary carrots and kale in a buttery sauté. Sanford had left dinner invitations for the manager and farm owner when he'd picked up produce earlier that day.
Belle Clementine's simple food is made to play second fiddle to conversations like those which unfolded at our table when we quizzed the growers about the politics of hosting farm dinners and the difficulties of cultivating imported greens. It didn't much matter whether we were wowed by the consistency of the zeppoli when we were engrossed in a discussion about the growing popularity of kale.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees about ending up at the right table at Belle Clementine. And that reality, more than savoring sunchokes alongside food producers, is what may ultimately help diners appreciate the local farming that informs Sanford's cooking. At Belle Clementine, as in tomato fields and apple orchards, a happy outcome is never certain—but when everything blossoms as planned, there's true joy in the occasion.
Dinner $40/Brunch $20