Don't Look Now

Ballard's Market Street Grill puts food ahead of everything.

For years, I've heard that Ballard's Market Street Grill serves really good food. Yet somehow, I never felt compelled to go there. I suspect that was because, although people praised the food to the skies, the restaurant never seemed to be among their personal top five, or even 10. Recently, curiosity overcame lethargy, and I headed over to Ballard to see and taste for myself. From the first dish put before us, I found that Market Street's cooking had not been overpraised. The food isn't just good; it rules. I can't speak for the quality back when Blake Caldwell ran the show, but his ex–sous chef, Nathan Rundle, is a master of menu design and execution in his own right, as well he should be, considering his experience on the line in stellar eateries like Napa's Bouchon and French Laundry. And he gets his results for somewhere around a tenth the price those temples of extravagant gastronomy charge. That's probably because Rundle puts 100 percent of his kitchen cost into his ingredients, not into turning each of those ingredients into labor-intensive works of art in their own right. (Check out The French Laundry Cookbook and you'll see what I mean.) Until you bite into it, Market Street food looks pretty much like tastefully served home cooking—no tweaky presentation or ostentatious garnishes. But oh boy, the way it tastes: Here's the menu description for just one appetizer: "Spicy ahi tuna tartare, daikon sprouts, red onion, fried capers, crostini ($12)." And that's exactly what you get, with each fresh and tangy ingredient performing a maypole flavor dance across your palate, twining together without losing their purity. Food like this is what cooking is about, or should be. Other appetizers are less startling but just as striking. Market Street's crispy calamari ($8) emit a haze of cilantro, soy, and salsa aromas. Lamb empanadas ($9) look east and west simultaneously with sides of zingy tomato confit and soothing cucumber raita. Caution is advised when ordering appetizers: The braised short rib ($10) on a bed of potato purée and topped with frizzled leek strips is just as filling as it sounds, but if two share it, you'll survive. Sizewise, the spring rolls stuffed with duck confit alongside a superhot dipping sauce ($10) are almost too much of a good thing. The night we had them, they weren't all that good, in fact; something—stale sesame oil, tired meat, the dull chopped greens they were served on?—was off. But the conception was so interesting that I may risk ordering them again anyway. Every one of the four main dishes we tried—the menu's not all that long— was something to recall and savor: roast chicken ($18), unbelievably moist and tender; grilled escolar ($21) with piquillo pepper cream and tomatillo salsa atop fabulously earthy black-eyed peas; a house-made boudin blanc sausage ($20), chicken-based, draped in wilted arugula, like bratwurst gone to heaven; and a winter-vegetable platter ($17) hearty enough to sate a dedicated meat eater. I confidently say: Order anything that looks good; it will be. What doesn't look good, and I say this with reluctance, is the restaurant itself. Every time we write about a restaurant's ambience, we get angry e-mails telling us to stick to the food and never mind the lampshades. But lampshades matter, if only subliminally, particularly when those on view seem to have been selected from four decades' worth of low-rent lighting catalogs. The Market Street's room is awkwardly long and narrow, but that's no excuse for the dim lighting, the raw, dirty-looking ceiling, the random-colored walls, and the clunky furnishings. Without being actively disagreeable, the atmosphere is about as cheerful and welcoming as a loading dock. If people aren't making the Market Street Grill one of their regular night-out spots, it's almost certainly because the room—and the brisk, efficient, but borderline surly service—doesn't encourage them to. There, I've said it. On a happier note, I can report that the wafer-thin chocolate tart ($8) delivered lush flavor many a thicker hunk of pastry might envy. The specialty drinks looked way too sweet and chichi for our tastes, but martinis might be something of a house specialty in their own right. Regardless of what you're drinking, there's a bar menu you'll want to try: truffled mac and cheese for $4; a half-pound New York steak and fries for $12. Lemme at 'em! And if you missed March's Twenty-Five for $25 dinner promotion, Market Street just so happens to offer a three-course special on its regular menu every Sunday all year long. Just remember: Until the management realizes that looks matter, you'll just have to keep your eyes firmly fixed on your food.

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