Counter Culture

The best seat in Ballard is in front of Dandelion's kitchen.

Harmony in the all-female kitchen at Dandelion.

It was almost as if we had walked into the wings ‘n’ beer joint next door. My friends and I sidled up to the five-seat bar that divides Dandelion‘s open kitchen from the dining room, slid out three stools, and settled ourselves as Zephyr Paquette pushed up her shirtsleeves, adjusted her short-billed newsboy cap, and nodded a hello. I was waiting for her to ask, “What’ll it be?” when a server came from behind and slipped us menus.

“You look like a chicken man,” Paquette told one of my friends. Hearing me suck in a sharp breath and read “scalloped potatoes” (the side accompanying the fin fish that evening), she added, “Yeah, you should get the seared salmon. We just got it in from the guy who caught it off the coast of Alaska.” My other friend turned first to the Chicken Man and then to me, seemingly speechless. “We’ll get whatever else you think we should get for the third entrée,” I told the chef. Clearly, Paquette was a woman worth trusting.

While passing handfuls of orzo, crumbled blue cheese, chopped and sautéed greens and onions, and cubed yams into pans on the gas range, she negotiated our order with us. We’d start with the dates ($9), stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in pancetta from Da Pino, Pino Rogano’s Rainier Valley sausage shop, and the antipasti plate ($9.50), also featuring Rogano’s meats as well as artisanal cheeses and fruits. The Chicken Man would get the roasted half-chicken ($17), a Dandelion specialty, which Paquette said she’d prepare with light, smashed Brussels sprouts; my friend in the middle would try the polenta with winter greens and vegetables ($20), a special that evening; and I’d have the salmon with a balsamic glaze and those scalloped potatoes ($20).

We held a small conference among ourselves regarding wine. I was eyeing the Bergevin Lanes 2003 cabernet sauvignon ($44, and worth it; it’s one of the few cabs I like) and trying to forget that I’d planned to stick to mineral water that evening. The Chicken Man and I both noted how early we’d be rising the next morning when Paquette, making a face that approximated a wink, said, “I always find I sleep a little bit better after drinking some vino,” or something to that effect, and then recommended the very bottle I was considering.

BECAUSE THE dining room is small and the bar abuts Paquette’s work space, and because of her open, casual nature and the graceful yet workmanlike way she deglazes pans while fielding questions about root vegetables, Paquette’s a lot like your favorite neighborhood barista or bartender—or cooking show host. Her official title is sous chef, but she’s transitioning into a larger role at Dandelion as chef/owner Carol Nockold focuses on other things. Of course, what matters most is that Paquette’s plates sing.

Ours harmonized: the Chicken Man’s chicken so redolent of rosemary, it practically seemed like another animal altogether (he quietly admitted the dish was even better than a similar one at Le Pichet); my salmon so simple and sweet, balanced by mustard greens, the scalloped potatoes perfect with a creamy, soft Gruyère that never overpowered the spuds’ earthy skin; the meaty polenta topped with a fantastic tapenade-textured fig preparation. We asked Paquette about it: She soaks Mission figs overnight in red wine and then cooks them down with onions, thyme, and vegetable stock. The chicken gets rosemary, salt, and pepper stuffed under the skin, she also explained, and must sit for two full days in the refrigerator before they’ll cook and serve it. The physical openness of the kitchen serves as a good metaphor for the mind-set of its chefs.

Opened two years ago, Dandelion’s easy integration into the neighborhood scene on 24th Avenue Northwest has only increased the kitchen’s commitment to simple ingredients and supporting local, organic, family-run farms. The recent EcoTrust Farmer-Chef Connection (held at UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture) yielded Paquette and Nockold even more contacts. Dandelion currently serves lamb from 90 Farms in Arlington, pork from Sara-Joe’s near the Palouse River, and produce from Full Circle Farms in Carnation, among other local suppliers.

The menu changes each week (the only constants are the chicken and an old-school, homey American-style pork chop dish) and never features more than a handful each of starter plates and entrées (the thoughtful wine list, on the other hand, is lengthy). On an earlier visit, I sat in the dining room and enjoyed both an autumny, pecan-studded trout and the warm way the staff treats you like their own, but there are no better seats in the house than the five up at the bar.

As she audaciously fired another salmon, then pivoted to tug on her bottle of S. Pellegrino, Paquette wasn’t too shy to admit to us, “I have a little bit of a fan club.”