Seattle’s allegiance to dressed-down dining extends beyond the chefs in weathered black T-shirts, the servers in jeans and untucked blouses, and the patrons in puffy coats that cost as much as the Bordeauxs they’re contemplating. All that casualness also shows up on a plurality of local plates arrayed with food as pulled-together as Lindsay Lohan in her latest mugshot. When food-media types aren’t watching, sweetbreads slump, noodles clump, and salmon filets vanish beneath fat bouquets of pea shoots and Brussels-sprout leaves.
But at Stumbling Goat Bistro, a neighborhood restaurant where rumpled presentations probably would be forgiven, the appearance standards are exacting. Although the upbeat drinkers who crowd the bar at happy hour might not notice or care, the kitchen won’t let go of an entrée unless the meat’s tipped at the proper angle to emphasize its textbook grill marks and gleaming crust of animal fat; the reduction sauce evenly coats the bottom of the plate; and the harmonizing root vegetables’ shape, size, and color are proportioned in ratios that would make the ancient Greeks giddy. Such culinary vanity is as rare in Seattle as an 85-degree day.
The prettiness of Stumbling Goat’s plates isn’t a new development. When the Weekly in 2000 wrote up the then-new Greenwood restaurant, the reviewers were so forthcoming with praise for its “gorgeous” dishes—including an eggplant caponata they likened to the climbable concrete slabs of Michael Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Upon in Myrtle Edwards Park—that they felt compelled to point out that “While presentation plays a prominent role at the Stumbling Goat, one thing that saves it from design-heavy pretension is generous portioning.” (Still true.)
Yet the restaurant has changed over 13 years. In addition to tweaking its cocktail menu to satisfy contemporary connoisseurs and continuing to tinker with its weekly schedule, adding weekend breakfast service just this month, Stumbling Goat has employed a succession of ridiculously talented toques who’ve imposed their own styles on the menu. Ever since a former Herbfarm sous chef, Craig Serbousek (now owner of Crow and Betty), launched the restaurant, Stumbling Goat has functioned as a kind of locavore finishing school; Seth Caswell and Matt Dillon both logged time in the head-chef role. The latter was running the kitchen in 2004 when the Weekly last checked in, pronouncing it “the apex of dining experiences” in north Seattle.
But the Goat’s prestige had faded slightly by the year of its most recent white-smoke routine. Joshua Theilen, who had served as executive sous chef at Trellis, took over the kitchen in 2009. New owners Keri DeWoody and Angie Heyer hoped he’d reinvigorate the restaurant’s reputation for rigorous ingredient sourcing and irrefutable deliciousness. Judging by a pair of recent dinners, their plan panned out.
DeWoody and Heyer renovated the restaurant soon after they bought it, but—perhaps owning to the Goat’s popularity—the room has a lived-in look. The restaurant actually consists of two rooms, but the secondary dining area (better known as the room farther from the bar) was empty and darkened when I visited. Despite the abundance of spare tables, the Goat’s service staff has a maddening habit of putting on airs, such as skeptically asking “Do you have a reservation?” when confronted with two would-be diners and failing to greet guests within 10 minutes of their being sat.
Service was always sluggish, but on the night we waited longest for acknowledgment, only five tables were taken. It appeared that one of the two servers on the floor was also handling bar duties, but there’s little excuse for failing to deliver at least a polite “Someone will be right with you”—especially since there’s nothing complicated about the boxy restaurant’s layout.
Uncovered wooden tables, plain as the Goat’s exposed brick walls, are the sum of the main room’s furnishings. Other than the tabletop candles and sugar caddies, nothing at the Goat would qualify as decor, although diners have their pick of watching the kitchen window, where Theilen and sous chef Gunnar Erickson occasionally linger, or gazing out the streetside casement windows. (The view’s a constant stream of sweaty joggers, which may or may not make you feel better about hunkering down with roasted bone marrow and a smoked-bacon bourbon cocktail.)
Still, when servers are on hand, they’re enthusiastic and fluent in the daily specials, a critical component of a menu designed to emphasize freshness. And they all seem very musketeery: When a server told me a cocktail of Bulleit rye, Amaro Nonino, and black-walnut bitters was undergoing revision, it certainly sounded as if he might have a say in its final recipe. As it stood, the Chuckanut was overly cakey, an imbalance the bartender corrected by topping off my glass with more whiskey. It seemed like a wise and generous solution until I knocked over a glass of red wine while cutting into a pork chop, staining the Goat’s white curtains. Perhaps the whiskey-soaked walnuts at the bottom of my cocktail had done me in.
Despite thoughtful touches like the drunken walnuts, the cocktails I sampled came up a few sophistication levels short of the food. As much as I regret racking up a dry-cleaning bill for the Goat, I’m not sorry for freeing every morsel of meat from the extraordinary double chop, nestled in a prim hash of apples and squash and crowned with crisped sage. The flavor combination isn’t novel, but the tender white flesh of the pig—finished on hazelnuts by Portland’s Tails & Trotters—was worthy of classicism. Its earthy nuttiness was underscored by just enough aged balsamic to wheedle the palate.
A dead-on cauliflower soup notwithstanding, Stumbling Goat does its best work with meat. A velvety rabbit-liver mousse, jarred and sealed off with a pert white-wine gelée, tasted both wild and elegant, like the Cowardly Lion in cape and crown. A hunk of rich lamb served with a tumble of edamame and spring onions was beautifully cooked, while a chestnut-sweetened roasted chicken would be a fine candidate for ordering again even without the very persuasive florets of caramelized cauliflower.
A lovely green salad garnished with plugs of smoked trout, thin panes of watermelon radishes, and a ready-to-pop poached egg suggested there’s much to anticipate on the Goat’s spring menu. For now, though, there’s lightness and sparkle on pastry chef Jens Melin’s impressive dessert menu. Alongside the cakes, there’s an ice-cream float with housemade root beer served in its own apothecary bottle. The brassy root beer’s true to the Stumbling Goat’s longtime farmstead- worshipping ways, but tastes entirely of today.
STUMBLING GOAT BISTRO 6722 Greenwood Ave. N., 784-3535, stumblinggoatbistro.com. 5–9 p.m. Tues.–Thurs. & Sun., 5–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat.
Rabbit-liver mousse $9
Pork chop $28
Root-beer float $8