I knew very little about Carnivore (5313 Ballard Ave. NW, 566-6113) before I ate there last weekend. But there are certain things the average diner can deduce from context clues. The name, of course, suggests a propensity towards meat, as does the decor, which includes a bison rack on the wall and banquette backs in alternating hues of cowhide.
It wasn’t until nearly the end of the meal, though, that I discovered that the restaurant is in fact paleo-themed. That explained some things, like why the perfectly cooked, medium-rare bison strip loin was served with a scant trickle of charred onion jus without a drop of fat in it—which, unfortunately, it sorely needed. Bison, which naturally eat only grass, not grain, make for super-lean meat, and without a little lushness it’s a bit too dry and flavorless. Interestingly, the restaurant does serve a Bordelaise sauce with many of its other cuts, including a bavette, a New York strip, and a ribeye (all of which come from grass-fed cows). All these are grilled to get a nice char, as are the Spanish octopus, the salmon fillet, and a pork loin chop.
Other meats go into a massive “fire chamber” (aka a rotisserie), which allows for a longer cooking time to “give the meat an even color and render fat.” The chicken with Peruvian spice rub doesn’t fare so well under that method, though. The meat, particularly the white meat, is woefully overcooked. The sauce it’s served with, a chili-based aji amarillo sauce, is thickened to a cream-like consistency with cashews, since the paleo diet restricts dairy. The sauce, however, is too mild, and the spice rub is also tame. I’ve had much better Peruvian chicken elsewhere, including at my own home.
A small plate of bison tartare, however, is on point—and served with an egg brined in olive juice, a surprisingly delicious toasted bread made from cassava root (no processed flours in paleo), green peppercorns, and a green sauce made from an arugula purée. It’s a lovely twist on traditional steak tartare. Another small plate we ordered, from the Salad/Broth portion of the menu, comprises charred and pickled cucumbers and snap peas, though the latter two items are not abundant. I did, however, like the bacon vinaigrette it comes doused in; a fun meat-lover’s addition to an otherwise strictly vegetarian item.
With our steak and chicken, we also enjoyed a side of crushed potatoes, with crispy skins and plenty of salt, even though the horseradish and candied anchovy it was purported to come with tasted nonexistent. We did find some crispy onions, however, and the porcini aioli provides some decadence. I didn’t think potatoes were paleo, but research reveals it’s a controversial topic: While the potato did exist during the time of cavemen, its nutritional value is not paleo-positive; it’s starchier and carb-laden as opposed to the high-protein, healthy fats that the diet promotes.
Of course, I couldn’t care less about this, and was glad to have potatoes on my plate, which brings me to nagging questions about Carnivore: Do most of the diners know that it’s paleo, and do they care? Our server didn’t clue us in on the menu’s restrictions until I asked a question toward the end of our dinner. The restaurant’s website, too, doesn’t mention paleo specifically, but does describe a mission to “protest factory farms, processed food companies, pseudo-food producers, and chemical manufacturers” as well as to promote an “evolutionary approach to dining that will nourish our bodies and fuel our minds.” That certainly will appeal to many a Seattleite, whether or not they’re on the paleo diet.
Also, to Carnivore’s credit, the service we had was exceptional. Our server knew every minute detail of each ingredient and its preparation, but offered it only when requested—which I appreciate in this era of over-explanation. Oh, and the copper ceiling that extends out from the kitchen area and over the back tables is a lovely design touch—and not one I’ve seen elsewhere. But to guarantee a return visit, I’d need to see better execution on the preparation of the meat, particularly given all the fancy equipment, as well as more interesting spins on paleo-centric sauces (like on the bison ribeye).
As for dessert, we passed. The two options, one of which is a chocolate mousse made with avocado to replace the cream, would have been just a little too much paleo for me to process at one meal. But, given the rabid love of all things avocado these days, it just might be a hit.