BalMore and Less

Ballard's newest lounge offers great, locally sourced plates, but you'll have to pay the price.

There's much that feels thoughtful about the BalMar, a stylish, newish lounge at the corner of Ballard Avenue and Market Street. Take, for example, the preservation of the 1920s building's exposed brick walls and old wide-plank floors, and the incorporation of the steel beams (from a recent seismic retrofit) as architectural elements in the airy, two-story space. Or the menu of small plates, helpfully divided into seafood, veggies, meats, and a catchall category of nibblies labeled "etc. . . ," with plenty of choices in each section. Given all this, as my husband and I settled in to enjoy a couple of classy, well-made cocktails on a recent visit (him: an old- fashioned, $7; me: a blood orange martini, $8), the arrival of our fillet of Snake River Farms Kobe beef ($15) was a bit of a disappointment—two small cubes of meat dwarfed by a long, oval plate. The beef was beautifully cooked—I loved the contrast between the seared outside and the rare middle—and well paired with a veal reduction and Bleu de Basque cheese, but if you blinked, you'd wonder where your $15 went. A dish of anchovies and roasted peppers on grilled bread ($8) revealed another hazard of small portions: I thought it was perfectly tasty, but my husband, who seemed to have gotten the dish's entire ration of sherry vinegar on his piece of bread, found it soggy and sour. I don't mean to sound like a skinflint, but the BalMar's Web site suggests that co-owners Andrea Martin and Steve Mako envision the restaurant as a neighborhood gathering place, not a special-occasion foodie heaven. I appreciated the opportunity to sample a variety of dishes without stuffing myself silly, but with a light dinner and drinks for two approaching three figures, those who can afford to regularly hang out here probably make up a select slice of the neighborhood. Granted, the BalMar serves wild seafood, small-ranch meats, and local organic produce—there's more of that thoughtfulness at work—and such careful sourcing comes at a premium. Yet would slightly simpler ingredients (regular old pasture-raised beef instead of Kobe? Arugula in place of microgreens?) allow for a wider variety of clientele, and more return visits? A cold beet salad ($10) got higher marks from us—crisp, earthy beets contrasted nicely with candied pecans and pungent Cabrales cheese. But the highlight of the evening was a big pile of french-fried potatoes ($5) gussied up with spicy paprika, crumbles of Bleu de Basque cheese, and a generous ramekin of banana ketchup for dipping. It was a great combination of familiar and adventurous flavors, and perfect for noshing on as we nursed our drinks, chatted, and people-watched. Indeed, although the restaurant wasn't busy, there was a great mix of people—hip young couples, groups of older friends, pregnant bellies, a barkeep from the pub down the street having a glass of wine with a friend—and I caught the appeal of that convivial gathering place the owners say they envision. When a girlfriend and I returned for a second visit one Sunday evening (we wanted to sample the specials that chef Andrew Ingram builds from weekly trips to the Ballard farmers market), we happened to hit happy hour. Most food and drinks are 25 percent off from 5 to 7 p.m. daily, and this seemed to make a big difference; this time, the food seemed well worth the price. First, a couple of cocktails befitting girls' night out: a Ryan Lee ($6 during happy hour/regularly $8), made with fresh-tasting Clear Creek pear brandy; and a Bal-ini, a fruity but not too sweet rendition of a classic Bellini ($6.75/$9). Next, more of that Kobe beef, this time in the form of Swedish meatballs ($8.25/$11)—one of a couple of dishes on the menu that give the nod to Ballard's Scandinavian heritage. I grew up eating Swedish meatballs, and I can vouch that these were the real deal: rich and tender with traditional white gravy and tart lingonberries on the side. And the BalMar did nostalgia one better, rounding out the plate with "noodles" of shaved salsify, an old-fashioned root vegetable with an earthy flavor and a healthy crunch. Salsify showed up again, cut into matchsticks and tossed in truffle oil, to accompany a piece of Oregon skate wing with crabapple chutney ($8.25/$11). From the farmers market specials, we chose a piece of smoked trout with homemade red-pepper noodles ($8.25/$11), a wonderful tangle of smoky, spicy, and creamy flavors. If you're fortunate enough to have Terri as your server, the lean, attentive brunette will probably push the molten spiced chocolate cake ($8) on you when it's time for dessert, and you should let her. A gooey round of chili-spiked chocolate cake is surrounded by clouds of chantilly cream and seared but still-firm bananas. It's a bit over the top, and it's delicious. Now there's a dish that's made to be passed around and shared.

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