The Fat Hen's Farmhouse Flavor

Ballard's sunny tribute to the chicken and the egg.

Nobody knows how many city dwellers are now keeping chickens in their backyards, but the consensus among feed dealers and coop builders is that the number hovers somewhere between a lot and a jillion. Backyard Poultry confidently prints 100,000 copies every other month, sharing sponge-cake wisdom and reassuring the occasional worried black Silkie owner that an errant swallow of leg-mite medication won't make her hen an alcoholic recluse. Hatcheries equipped to sell upward of 1.5 million chicks a year are struggling to stay ahead of demand.

"It's not a question of are you going to get chickens, but when are you ready to get chickens," urban-chicken advocate Owen Taylor last year told Good Morning America.

Equally attractive to locavores, libertarians, and families looking to trim their grocery bills, a laying flock allows eaters to live the agrarian dream writ minuscule. The owner of a few birds can claim the "farmer" label without ever having to wear overalls, worry about the weather, or beg a banker for another loan. But the dinky size of most backyard poultry operations also has its drawbacks: When a farm consists of a metal coop and a garden hose, there's typically no big house with a wraparound porch and a sunlit kitchen for whipping up fresh-from-the-nest breakfasts.

Enter The Fat Hen, a daytime cafe for the urban-chicken crowd. The restaurant doesn't actually source its eggs from neighborhood coops—its baked goods and Benedicts are made with eggs from Costco—but the winsome room perfectly exemplifies the idyllic vision of rusticity that compels Ballardites to study up on chicken breeds.

Nestled in a bricked storefront across the street from established culinary powerhouses Delancey and Honore Artisan Bakery, The Fat Hen is expansive only in name. With a quartet of counter stools facing the window and as many tiny marble-topped tables on either side, the restaurant's proportioned for munchkins, a reality that becomes apparent on busy weekends when every seat's taken. (Best to leave your newspaper at home, and hope the folks at adjacent tables do the same.) Yet when crowding isn't an issue, the scale only adds to the restaurant's overall adorableness.

While previous tenant A Caprice Kitchen bedecked the room in dark tones, The Fat Hen is as white as a milkmaid's laundered pinafore. The wooden floors are pretzel-brown, but the paneled walls, plastic chairs, kitchen counter, and a freestanding bookcase—lined with glass jars and seltzer bottles—all appear to have been painted with Tom Sawyer's brush. No wall hangings or other stray design elements interfere with the pristine Country Living look. The tidy aesthetic even extends to the staffers: "I guess I shouldn't wear white to work," fretted a server in a farmer's-daughter blouse.

 

The blouse made it safely through the first few hours of brunch service, a miracle attributable partly to the shipshape character of The Fat Hen's weekend menu, dominated by poached eggs, baked eggs, granola, salads, toast, and jam. During the week—just Wednesday through Friday—the choices are supplemented with an array of vegetable and pork-based sandwiches served on slender baguettes.

The baguettes have more crust than chew, so they function well as an envelope for softer, sloppier fillings, such as squishy meatballs in tomato sauce. The polpette sandwich is made with pork and Grana Padano instead of chicken and Parmigiano, but the ingredient swaps don't immediately register since the pork's saltiness overwhelms the cheese's subtlety, and everything's pretty well-plastered with sauce. It's a decent Italian sub.

Other sandwiches miss the mark, including a weave of sweet roasted red peppers, sliced wide as checkerboard squares, and inexcusably dry pulled pork shoulder from which no amount of vinegar could rouse any flavor. The meat's a joyless version of texture, like puffed rice in a candy bar.

If you must have something that doesn't belong on a breakfast table, the better choices are located in the soup-and-salad column. There's always a beef stew simmering, and a second soup changes daily. Savory white-bean chowder fulfilled the promise inherent in my first fertile spoonful, brimming with onion and fatty bits of ham hock. A tad more elegant, but equally porky, was a warm salad made with sturdy gray-green French lentils, pancetta, and thin crescents of celery. Dressed with a cheeky mustard vinaigrette, the peppery salad had a sophistication that legumes can sometimes undermine.

Still, the main plot is breakfast, and breakfast here means eggs. The Fat Hen serves five different baked eggs, shoehorning meats and cheeses into shallow oval dishes rushed from the broiler to the table. It took a few minutes for my Popeye—made with a shower of strength-inducing diced spinach and pools of tangy smoked mozzarella—to cool so I could eat it. But while time can make a plate cool again, it can't restore an egg yolk: The two eggs cracked over the greens were cooked until their centers were stiff and waxy, depriving the dish of moisture it badly needed. A guest at a nearby table solved the problem with a healthy dousing of hot sauce.

The egg on a straightforward English- muffin sandwich was equally overcooked, a rubbery counterpart to a slice of salty Canadian bacon. But the sandwich's undoing was the homemade muffin, inexplicably dressed with far more white flour than it needed to prove its in-house origins. The distasteful blanket of flour clung to the muffin despite attempts to shake it off and scrape it away.

Too often at The Fat Hen there's the sense that the customer is the first person to scrutinize a dish. The restaurant's been immensely popular since it opened, and the kitchen may just be too tuckered out to bother with niceties like not burning the French toast. Made with brioche, the Bostock is supposed to feature orange syrup, almond cream, and fruit preserves. But my hard-edged serving came with a fat clown's ruffle of piped whipped cream and a dollop of marmalade. If the dish wasn't exactly as advertised, however, it wasn't terrible either: The pastry's sweet, eggy center was terrific.

A few years ago, The Washington Post conducted a test of backyard eggs, and concluded that they taste exactly the same as eggs bought at the grocery store. But thousands of urban farmers would tell you otherwise. They'd say the eggs shimmied out from beneath their chickens are cleaner and richer. I suspect much the same phenomenon is at work at The Fat Hen. The food isn't flawless, but the fetching farmhouse decor—and knowing the restaurant's a product of its neighborhood—helps make everything taste slightly better.

Price Guide

Lentil salad $8.50

Bostock $9

Popeye $8

Pork sandwich $8

Egg sandwich $9

hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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