There and Back Again

Bainbridge Island's Cafe Nola is worth a ferry trip and a frosty trek.

The ferry ride seemed long. A woman seated near us spent the entire trip yakking to someone about her dinner plans, simultaneously annoying us and making us hungry. By the time we reached the island, we were almost grateful to get out into the cold, damp air. The trudge from the ferry terminal to Cafe Nola, which occupies a snug corner on Bainbridge's idyllic main drag, took about 10 minutes. Our faces felt ready to freeze by the time we got there. "This had better be worth it," I said. My friend nodded, frozenly, and in we went. Originally a bakery, Nola became a restaurant six years ago, when French-trained chef-owner Kevin Warren left the sous-chef post at Marco's Supperclub to open his own place. Word spread, Seattleites started crossing the water, and Warren expanded, adding a bar in 2001 and buying the neighboring property two years later. The current space is just the right size for the nuanced lighting, not unlike Marco's, and the inspired art Warren keeps on the walls (small pieces from his wife's personal collection). We had the sense, immediately upon entering, that the trip would indeed prove worthwhile. The tables at Nola are close enough to create a communal atmosphere, but not close enough to keep you from hearing your tablemate talk; being there feels both relaxing and sophisticated. Our server looked like a nervous teenager, but he treated us like gold—he checked in often but not too often, and he made up for his seeming inexperience with a chipper attitude. Elsewhere in the dining room, two loud young couples were on what looked like a really fun double date; a small family was gathered around one of the larger tables, splitting a moo-shu duck appetizer ($10); and in the corner, a smart-looking couple held hands. In the interest of relaxing sophisticatedly, we took a look at the cocktail menu. Nola generally features house-made, rum-spiked eggnog around this time, but there was none to be had that night. No matter: A hot buttered rum ($9)—plenty rummy, not sweet, very smooth—and a tart Hot Apple Pie (cider, spices, real whipped cream; $6) did just fine. Hungry, we ordered butternut squash soup ($8) and tortilla crab salad ($15), both of which were presented with unusual flair. Condiments for the soup (jalapeño crema and tomatillo pico de gallo) arrived in a small edible dish made of blue tortilla. We added them liberally, but we didn't have to; the soup avoided the common error of squash dishes, which is to emphasize the vegetable's sweetness until what's supposed to be part of dinner tastes like dessert. Nola's soup, mild but not bland, stayed firmly on the savory side—the add-ons gave it an extra boost in that direction. The salad was a case study in elegant composition: The lightly dressed greens, topped with a generous portion of Dungeness crabmeat, occupied one of four quadrants on the large plate; the others held Cuban-style black-bean salsa with banana slices, excellent guacamole with a limey zing, and superthin, colorful, cumin-dusted tortilla chips. Nola's current menu expresses a wide-ranging global curiosity without making mix-'n'-match fusion mistakes. In other words, it references multiple cuisines but keeps them distinct. There are Latin touches, and also Asian: tandoori lamb pita salad ($14), the moo-shu duck, and the Thai spiced crab roll ($10). The entrée list follows Warren's overarching bistro concept. My pan-seared Alaskan weathervane scallops ($22) and my friend's grilled rack of lamb ($27) might show up at any of Seattle's more distinguished midrange restaurants. The scallops— sweet, very tender, and probably the biggest I've ever seen—were served simply on yellow corn grit cakes, which sat in a pool of delicious roasted pepper–garlic sauce. I cut each of the four scallops into four pieces, and each piece was a small mouthful. On the other hand, the corn cakes were so rich that four seemed like too many. They served as neat little podiums for the scallops, but their mild flavor was almost overwhelmed by the taste of the frying oil. The lamb arrived atop amazing wilted spinach—I could have made a meal of this stuff alone—and a dainty lentil-artichoke ragout. (About eight months out of the year, Warren gets his produce from Bainbridge Island's Butler Green Organics, but he clearly finds good vegetables in winter, too.) My friend found the meat "incredibly tasty," if slightly over-marinated—"almost like shawarma," she said. The walk back to the ferry terminal was easy; our meal and the setting had warmed us. Insulated from the cold, we even had a pleasant trip home. There was no one squawking into a cell phone beside us, just the almost-full moon riding along in the sky, escorting us back to the city. Cafe Nola, 101 Winslow Way E., 206-842-3822,, BAINBRIDGE ISLAND. Lunch 11 a.m.–3 p.m. weekdays; dinner 5–9 p.m. nightly; brunch 9 a.m.– 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun.

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