The Dinner: King salmon fillet, at Ivar's Salmon House (401 N.E. Northlake Way).
CBS Films "Couldn't we swim away to another, better movie?" McGregor and Blunt.
The Screenplate: Since his 1985 breakthrough in America, My Life as a Dog, Swedish-born director Lasse Hallström has earned a comfortable living directing warm, comfortable, and generally uplifting movies. For a while, he was the ambi-European house director for Miramax. Based in the U.S. since the '90s, he seems comfortable with any culture--once it's been diluted, denatured, and denuded of any thorns or sharp edges. His pictures are never mean or funny; and if you should ever be caught on a long airline flight, you're actually glad if they're playing Chocolat or The Cider House Rules or The Shipping News, since they require virtually no censoring. He's a middlebrow humanist, which gives all his films a boring kind of integrity. So why did two talented, charismatic stars like Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor sign on to his latest project...?Paul Torday's 2006 source novel related the inanities of government and NGO work, as an evident folly (salmon, Yemen, etc.) somehow gets funded and spawns a boondoggle bureaucracy that won't die. There's a love story in there, too, but the book is more a satire of political gaming and New Age philosophizing (this from the billionaire Yemeni sheik who's paying for the dam, the river, the fish, and the British consultants on the project). But before we meet the sheik (Amr Waked), his money manager (Blunt), and the fisheries expert they hire (McGregor), let's find an appropriate seafood joint near the movie theater.
Roll down the hill from trendy Wallingford proper (where there are more than a few sushi places, which we must disqualify on the grounds of quality), duck beneath the bridges, and you'll find that bastion of seafood tradition: Ivar's Salmon House. Added to the late Ivar Haglund's restaurant chain in 1969, this was once the premium steed in his stable. (And maybe it still is.) With its view of Lake Union and Indian longhouse decor, it became a favorite place to take tourists and out-of-towners during this city's booming years before the Boeing bust. All the historical photos and bric-a-brac on the walls contribute to the museum feeling, along with the advancing age of its patrons (many celebrating birthdays and wedding anniversaries). And since Haglund's death in 1985, there is a certain locked-in-amber feeling to the place. But, as with a Hallström movie, there's also a comfort and familiarity to it: no surprises, nothing too spicy, no fancy traces of fusion cuisine or the avant garde.
The Salmon House is unabashedly old-fashioned; and so, too, are the characters of Blunt and McGregor, beginning with their names: Harriet and Alfred (he also goes by Fred, which hardly removes a decade). She loves her cellphone, he loves his fly-fishing rods, so naturally they're meant for each other. The rom-com, departing somewhat from the book, gives her a soldier boyfriend and him a bland wife. Then there's much flying back and forth from London to Yemen, with visits to a Scottish castle (the sheik is very rich, you see). Fish are endlessly discussed, and our central couple briefly changes into formal evening wear (here a glimpse of what 007 might've become had McGregor been cast into that role). But the plot hardly matters to Salmon Fishing as it lazily meanders toward its inevitable outcome. Kristin Scott Thomas provides the only energy, playing an ornery English government PR minister. Remember the movie In the Loop? She belongs there. In fact, that's the movie Salmon Fishing should've tried to be. But Hallström's not the director for that.
Still, Hallström and his characters--though likely not the actors--would probably quite like the Salmon House. Though the place is somewhat corny and outdated, the food is, well, better than you expect. Not exceptionally good, but superior to some newer, trendier places. A generally young wait staff doesn't inspire confidence at first, but I detect some older hands (or at least older recipes) in the kitchen. For instance, the Red King Salmon Fillet ($28 for 6 ounces, $31 for 8) is Alaska-caught and cooked, Indian-style, over an alder-wood fire. Not your typical preparation today, but the flame doesn't dry the fish so much as you'd expect, the cut is clean and well-presented, and it's almost worth the price. (Sitting near a window makes it a better deal.)
Salmon Fishing is film full of lovely locations (including Jordan and Morocco, but not dangerous Yemen), where Blunt and McGregor look smashing together (pity about the script). By contrast, while Ivar's gives you a northward view Lake Union (and an eastern keyhole glimpse of Portage Bay), the place is somewhat benighted by the ever-roaring I-5 ship canal bridge overhead. That, plus the noisy car traffic on the University Bridge doesn't help the ambiance, especially during outdoor dining season. (Also: the seaplanes landing on Lake Union are picturesque, but really loud.) For a waterfront restaurant, the location, an old shingle factory, isn't really that great; and in 1967, the I-5 bridge was already built. In fact, while checking my mistaken belief that the Salmon House was built before I-5, I uncovered an interesting story.
Originally, Ivar's Salmon House was intended to be a floating restaurant (!), like all those houseboats nearby. According to the Times and P-I, Haglund had bought an old barge in Gray's Harbor, intending to rest a modern, two-story structure on top of it. The permits or costs didn't work out, so he fell back on a shoreline approximation of an Indian longhouse. (UW students from the Burke Museum helped adapt the design.)
No matter how you feel about Ivar's food today, it's a pretty good outline for a movie. Blunt could play the forward-looking architect, McGregor would be the fusty museum curator, and Anthony Hopkins might portray the canny old publicity-hound Haglund. It would be a perfect project for Lasse Hallström to direct.