Over in quiet, family-friendly Maple Leaf, a newly opened “farm-to-bar” is proof that if you do something really well, people will flock to it no matter its location. The Shambles focuses on beer, quality meats (there’s an in-house butcher, and a deli case is coming soon), and delightful small plates. It has a whiff about it of No Anchor—the beer bar with upscale food that received accolades from The James Beard Foundation—but is less geeky and esoteric about its offerings.
On a Friday night at 5:30, we waited almost 30 minutes for a seat at the bar. By the time we left, a huge crowd was gathered at the doors, spilling out. The large community table at the front was completely full and rambunctious—in a happy, it’s Friday kind of way—filled with a mix of young and middle-aged. As we waited atop a big, rustic butcher block, light streamed in from windows in the front and back, giving the space a decidedly un-pub-like atmosphere, despite the emphasis on beer. But one look at the taps, installed behind a massive, antique wood frontispiece, and you get the picture. There are at least 30, and strategically placed cutouts in the wood allow an ember-like glow to pierce through, adding to the dramatic backdrop. They range from light, hoppy, Belgian farmhouse to malty, dark, and sour—and local brews are very well represented.
As for the menu, I admit I wasn’t overly excited when I skimmed it at home. It boasts a lot of sandwiches and sausages, neither of which are my thing. Little did I know that I was about to partake in one of the best meals I’ve had in a while.
First, you should know that The Shambles has a rotating beef bone broth. It’s noted on the specials board at the front of the restaurant. It seemed imperative to try it, even though a spring asparagus soup with cured bay scallops, Meyer lemon, and egg yolk was distracting me. I was caught, it seemed, between two seasons—just like the cold but sunny weather. I’m glad I hung onto winter, though, because the broth was divine—the kind of soup you don’t feel shy about bringing the bowl to your mouth to finish. Floating in the rich beef broth are two dumplings that resemble matzo balls, but the comparison ends there, because these—made of flour, beef fat, and Parmesan rind—are sinfully good. To the broth, a spoonful of mustard is ingeniously added, which brings a slight sourness that cuts through the fat and makes the broth thrum with flavor. A smattering of cilantro is perhaps a tiny ode to spring.
On to the sausages, which, again, it seemed impolite not to try. Though I wasn’t up for an entire sandwich of them, you can order one from the menu’s small-plates section. Three varieties were in play that night; we went with the bierwurst. It comes on a dark-brown brioche roll from which lightly fermented cabbage tumbles out unapologetically. A side of what looks like paté, but which is actually bacon jam, earthy and somehow gamey, is good enough to eat off your fingers but is meant to be slathered on the roll. The sausage itself? Pure bliss in a casing. So incredibly juicy and flavorful, it makes the ubiquitous term “housemade” actually earn its keep. Despite the emphasis on meat, The Shambles knows how to mess around with vegetables, too.
On the “greens” portion of the menu, a Persian beet salad is vegetal perfection. Large orbs of golden beets are smartly texturally juxtaposed against puffed rice crackers. A dollop of yogurt, red onion, mint dressing, and sprigs of dill turn it into a well-composed dish that isn’t quite like all the beet-and-goat cheese iterations out there. It also allowed us to restart our palates and prepare for a 16-ounce, 25-day dry-aged pork chop.
Pork chops are another item I tend to shy away from on a menu—not because I don’t like them, but because they are so often overcooked. This one, however, from “the butchery,” is served medium-rare. As if it were a steak, we were actually asked how we’d like it cooked, something virtually never done with pork. We said we’d go with the chef’s recommendations, and when the pork arrived, in ¼-inch slices, the pinkish middle gave me a moment’s pause. Then I reminded myself that trichinosis is virtually eradicated, and that quality pork can indeed be eaten below well-done. Our adventurousness was rewarded: The pork is exquisitely tender, and lightly sweetened in a pear mostarda that’s actually more like a vin. A small bundle of vinegary, dill baby carrots makes a harmonious coupling.
At this point, it was clear we’d ordered way too much. Still, I needed to try another sandwich (of which there are five). I went with a vegetarian option: fennel confit on ciabatta. With the confit comes goat cheese, curried figs, and pesto. It’s good, but has a little too much going on. Every large plate, the list of which comprises the sandwiches plus a pasta and a seafood dish, comes with your choice of a side, most veggies except for crushed potatoes with horseradish powder and aioli. We opted for the foraged mushrooms, a small bowl of oysters dressed in sour ale and ghee. The Shambles even finds a way to incorporate beer into the food.
Since we sat at the bar, it’s hard—and not entirely fair—to gauge service. Bartenders are busy making drinks and often aren’t as knowledgeable about the menu, though that seems to be changing somewhat. Perhaps due to all that, as well as the sheer size of the crowd, our bartender/server was a bit distracted, even a little peevish. As we bombarded her with questions about the menu and skittishly made our choices, I got the sense she just wanted us to shut up and make up our mind. Unfortunately, we could have done that much sooner if she’d been a little more patient and forthcoming in her suggestions. By the end of the evening, she mellowed—and made sure to ask the kitchen about any of our questions that she couldn’t answer. Even better: When the bill came, she emphatically reminded us that a 15 percent tip had already been added. I appreciated that, as these days it’s easy to miss an automatically applied gratuity.
We left without dessert, sadly, but with a bag full of leftovers. As I write, I’m munching on the remains of those tender beets, and licking goat cheese off one finger. A couple slices of pork are wafting their sweet aroma next to me.
The Shambles is the kind of place we need more of in Seattle: comforting, non-fussy food that’s still thoughtful, served in an atmosphere that’s inviting and not pretentious. For beer lovers and foodies, it’s the Holy Grail of a neighborhood restaurant.