Maria Hines’ Beetle Juice

Tilth's buzzed-about Ballard sibling could soar if it fixes some flubs.

Many of the wickedest characters in the Bible were too busy with thievery and bestiality to bother with gluttony, but had they shifted their sinfulness to the edible realm, they surely would have gorged themselves on something like the fabulous gum mastic ice cream that Maria Hines offers as a coda to her rangy Mesopotamian menu at Golden Beetle.

Sadly, the unavailability of sugar was a reality of the Biblical era, so ice cream wasn’t really an option for the Gomorrahites. But everything else about the dessert tastes intensely ancient. The milky ice cream, which derives its pull and subtle chew from a plant that King David used to trip up the Philistines, is trimmed with splintered almonds and fat black mission figs, halved and dripping with an alluring sweetness that launched a thousand Babylonian odes.

Many diners at Golden Beetle, Hines’ four-month-old Ballard eatery, will have trouble resisting the Pavlovian tug of baklava at a restaurant that serves so much eggplant, lamb, and goat cheese. The walnut baklava (really more of a katafi, by virtue of its shredded phyllo dough and accompanying rose syrup) is decent, if dry. With a bowlful of ice cream, though, Hines reminds her patrons that she’s planted her culinary flag further east. There are hints of Greek cuisine at Golden Beetle, but Hines’ elegant small plates draw on the kitchen traditions of a half-dozen headline-making countries —including Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Tunisia—whose foodways rarely share menu space with handcrafted cocktails and $40 bottles of wine.

Hines scouted Mediterranean spice markets for Golden Beetle’s inspiration, returning home with a newfound affection for fenugreek and ras-el-hanout, the complex Moroccan blend of spices that propelled ancient traders to take to the Silk Road. Ingredient lists for the mix are generally kept secret, but cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns, cardamom, and cloves typically make an appearance. The most ambitious shopkeepers lard their proprietary blends with as many as 100 esoteric seasonings, including dried flowers and Spanish flies—sometimes known as golden beetles.

Local photographer Frank Huster chronicled Hines’ journey, and the resulting black-and-white prints—as sizable as sandwich boards—encircle the restaurant. The images of amiable-looking market vendors and shoppers temper the exoticism of rabbit kidneys and charmoula marinade: The people pictured look much like Ballardites, bottling honey and enjoying tea.

Despite Golden Beetle’s faraway focus, Hines’ medium is local and organic—very, very organic. Golden Beetle is the nation’s third restaurant to win organic certification from the famously rigorous Oregon Tilth organization. The second restaurant was Wallingford’s Tilth, also helmed by Hines, who in 2009 won the James Beard Award for Best Northwest Chef.

That doesn’t mean every ingredient at Golden Beetle is certified organic, although a startling number have earned the designation. As the menu reminds diners, “There is no organic certification for ‘wild’ foods.” Nor, apparently, are there reliable suppliers of certified-organic lamb fat or green olives. Every item on the menu that could possibly contain an unlicensed ingredient is underlined, a design decision that has the bizarre effect of making the illegitimate plates more attractive, since it seems unlikely Golden Beetle would sacrifice its environmental principles for hot mustard—unless the mustard was phenomenal.

Its presence on the za’atar-spiced French-fry plate makes an order inevitable. For all that underlining fuss, however, the mustard isn’t very special. But the steaming hot fries are so good that it seems blasphemous to contemplate dipping, anyhow. Burnished with beef fat, the glossy, skin-on fries twinkle with sumac and salt.

The fries set a standard that not every plate can meet. Golden Beetle has many frustrating flubs, most of them concentrated in the entrée section. A flat-tasting lamb tagine, served over a stingy serving of limp couscous, bores after a few familiarizing spoonfuls. A miserable turkey gyro has none of the slick juiciness of a sandwich made with shaved lamb; what should have read as protein ingenuity instead seemed like a slapdash solution to a turkey surplus, appropriate for three days after Thanksgiving. The turkey—plated with ribbons of pickled onions, an airy yogurt mousse, and damp pita triangles too petite for sandwich assembly—was horrendously dry.

There are duds among the small plates, too. Skewered logs of ground beef, burrowed in a velvety peanut sauce, are encumbered with a puckering amount of salt. And for a restaurant that intends to salute street eats, Golden Beetle does a lousy job with the lowbrow. Fans of American-style wings will be dejected to discover that the grilled chicken wings, basted with ginger and spritzed with lime, are neither crispy nor spicy. A flatbread pizza, brimming with goat cheese, was equally lackluster.

Surprisingly, Golden Beetle also struggles with falafel. There are two versions on the menu: halibut falafel (which turns out to be a very Mediterranean way of describing a fried fish taco) and herbed falafel, tucked into palm-sized pitas with pleats of fresh iceberg lettuce, a tangy tahini sauce, and pickles. The crisp cylinders of mashed fava beans, compact as a kinged checker, offer more crunch than flavor.

In spite of all the disappointment, Golden Beetle is capable of producing spectacular small plates. For every lame chicken wing, there’s a stalk of gorgeously roasted asparagus, braided with lively spring onions and bonneted with toasted discs of haloumi cheese. What’s good at Golden Beetle is so good that it’s possible to forgive the dishes that don’t work, assuming a patron’s patience doesn’t run out before the praiseworthy plates reach her table.

Consistent with the care Golden Beetle lavishes on its ingredients, the kitchen moves deliberately: Seated at the bar on a weekday evening, I waited 30 minutes for my opening order of French fries. The time passes especially slowly on quiet nights, when the staff sometimes forgets to turn on the music and there’s nothing to do but count the Turkish stained-glass globes that hover above the hushed room. While I’m all for leisurely dining, the pace isn’t compatible with the spontaneity a small-plates restaurant should cultivate.

Fortunately, Golden Beetle has a smart list of cocktails to placate waiting diners. There’s a snappy concoction of tequila, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, and peppercorn bitters, pink as a parasol. A ruddy Manhattan made with rhubarb is terrific. And for wine drinkers, there’s an array of Washington wines and a summery, tropical viognier blend from Lebanon.

The wine is a perfect match for the flatbread with dips, which should be required eating at Golden Beetle. The hummus, tacked with pickled serrano peppers, skews slightly waxy, but the walnut-and-pomegranate dip has a genteel sweetness that incites gobbling. The plate’s showpiece is the sassy yogurt sauce, featuring cool, fresh yogurt made charismatic by garlic, onion, and heaps of dill.

We were steered toward the dips by our server, who was attentive and conscientious. Golden Beetle’s staff is well-versed in the menu: No dish arrived unaccompanied by a confident recitation of its components. It’s prudent to trust the servers’ recommendations, since they’re apt to recommend the superlative flaky pies of shredded rabbit meat, seated in a syrupy currant purée, or the rolled spinach “cigars.”

The stuffed cigars are a thoroughly Turkish celebration of phyllo dough, spinach, and feta, modeled after the country’s ubiquitous sigara boregis. Yet rarely is the dish executed so exquisitely: At Golden Beetle, the brittle phyllo, primed to shatter, encases sonorous spinach scented with sumac and flecked with vivid bits of feta. Brightened by lemon juice, the cigar wordlessly explains why the recipes of the eastern Mediterranean have enthralled eaters for thousands of years—and why, if Hines can satisfactorily address the flops on her menu, they’re likely to keep doing so on her watch.

Price Guide Flat bread with dips $11 French fries $6 Spinach cigars $8 Falafel $8 Chicken wings $10 Gyro $17 Tagine $23