Ballard, with its cobblestone streets, has become something of a Seattle restaurant destination. But trendy new places are beginning to infiltrate the area, even beyond Northwest Market Street.
Over in the Ballard Commons, across from the public library, Gather Kitchen + Bar is a new feather in the cap of the neighborhood, with soaring ceilings, lots of white subway tile juxtaposed against wood, gray leather banquettes, hard-backed wood chairs with creamy leather seats, and black- and white-checkered curtains. Despite its generally handsome appearance, there’s something a little cold about it; though that may have had to do with the fact that we dined out on a 40-degree night and heat was scant. Cocktails helped to warm us up (particularly the strong Manhattans), but my pisco sour-style sherry cocktail came out in a skimpy pour that I finished in about four sips. It was good enough to want another, so I asked the server to tell the bartender that I would like a real pour, more than half a glassful. The next one came just right, the liquid filled to the level it should have been the first time.
The servers were eager to help, and immediately explained that the menu was designed for sharing (yawn), but that we were free to order as we liked. With five of us, and a pretty extensive menu, we opted to go the recommended route. Of the four starters (“Snacks” and “Charcuterie”) we tried, three were successful. The best was the fried cauliflower with Uncle Chen’s buffalo sauce, sweet cucumber pickles, and blue cheese mousse; I thought it was a spirited, vegetarian take on buffalo wings, and cauliflower, like tofu, is mild enough to take on the flavors of virtually anything you serve with it. I especially loved the blue cheese mousse, which helped give a mild veggie some decadence. Not everyone at the table loved the beef tartare, but I appreciated its unique spin. The raw beef is blended with a caper emulsion, fried shallots, artichoke, and basil. My only quibble is that it might be a better addition to a summer menu with its vegetal, herbal profile.
To my surprise, the pickle plate was a real stand-out. Every restaurant seems to have one these days, and it never seems to go beyond the same sour one-note which, when served en masse, can be just too much acidity at once. However, smartly, Gather Kitchen adds a light cloud of whipped fromage blanc to the center, which mellows the tang of the pickled tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Unfortunately, the caviar pie, which sounded intriguing, was the most disappointing. Essentially a small bowl of egg salad with crème fraiche and cream cheese, it’s served with a mere spattering of caviar and a few jewels of salmon roe. At $18, you feel bamboozled; “caviar pie” signals a copious amount of caviar to me, and this is far from it.
Moving on to “Pasture” and “Water”—entrée-sized dishes—our hands-down favorite was the slow-roasted pork belly with Thai caramel, delicate squash puree, and apple-fennel slaw. Thai caramel is a popular sauce from Thailand which typically incorporates palm sugar, fish sauce, ginger, chili, and kaffir lime, resulting in a sweet-savory, slightly briny flavor that is utterly distinctive and addictive. It paired particularly well with pork belly, the acidity of the caramel cutting through that succulent fat. I typically shy away from pork belly because it’s simply too fatty for me. But here, the slightly crisped pieces were thoroughly enjoyable and felt less unctuous. Likewise, the three large, crispy-fried chicken thighs were a favorite of the table. However, despite its perfect fry and berbere seasoning , the dish needed a little more of it, along with some salt. Fortunately, that blandness was saved by its accompaniments: oozing oven-roasted tomatoes, garbanzo beans, and mustard greens. Two fish dishes were both solid, if less exciting than the others. Wild Alaskan black cod came poached beautifully in a delicate coriander broth, piled high with sautéed bok choy and fennel—a bit too much perhaps, as the fish felt weighted down by it all. The salmon got a very autumnal treatment with a delicata squash romesco, a bit too heavy on the shallots, with roasted chanterelles, Brussels sprouts, and a sherry glaze. There was a bit too much going on, and the sherry imparted a sweeter flavor than I prefer.
Desserts were nice, but deconstructed as is the trend these days. The chocolate cake had a crusty texture, and came in pieces, some filled with lemon Chantilly and served with a pool of thyme oil, which actually worked. The vanilla bourbon-poached pear was the winner of the table, but there were very few bites of the sublime pear and far too much lavender ice cream.
Gather Kitchen + Bar seems to be adding just the right amount of “global” interest to Pacific Northwest cuisine, punctuating dishes here and there with interesting and unexpected flavors without calling too much attention to them. I appreciated that subtlety and the thoughtful approach with which it’s carried out. Here’s to more restaurants stepping out of Ballard with as much panache.