In France, traditionally "a bistro is a small neighborhood restaurant serving home-style, substantial fare," writes Patricia Wells in the introduction to her 1989 classic Bistro Cooking. "The china is almost always thick and plain white, the tables covered with waffled, crinkle-edged paper, the floor peppered with sawdust . . . In bistros, people don't whisper, they shout, and diners are on a first-name basis with the harried waitress wrapped in frilly white apron."Stateside, the word bistro has evolved to mean something quite different. The bistros of the 1970s coddled our romantic impressions of French restaurants, crediting them with the innate sophistication we Americans decided working-class Parisians embodied, based on our week spent circling the arrondissements bordering the Seine. (Campagne came out of this era, and then grew up.) In the 1980s, American chefs co-opted the term to define their restaurants as casual neighborhood places, in opposition to both diners and culinary temples. But as the restaurant scene in cities like Seattle grew, the bistro style—salads and unstructured appetizers, meat/starch/veg entrées, simple desserts—became the norm. These days it's fair to use "bistro" to refer to any upscale restaurant where the bottles of wine cost $25 and up and where three courses are ideal but most people content themselves with one and a half. Seattle has dozens upon dozens of bistros these days: Northwest bistros, Italian bistros, Vietnamese bistros, Spanish bistros, Korean-Mediterranean-whatever bistros (two, in fact).The two-month-old Bastille Cafe & Bar, Deming Maclise and James Weimann's new restaurant on Ballard Avenue, simultaneously wants to be a French bistro as well as an American bistro. Does it succeed? The short answer: yes, no, and well, let's all cross our fingers and hope.Reportedly modeled after Manhattan's great Balthazar, Bastille evokes the grand Paris of the Gare du Nord and the Galeries Lafayette: Rivet-studded steel arches salvaged from a bridge frame the wide-open room, which is tiled up to shoulder level in white ceramic rectangles lined in black grout. The milky white lamps overhead are imported from Paris, while the small number signs placed high on the columns come from an old Chicago hotel. The best seats are in the dark wood booths at the center of the room. Their wood and plastic dividers break the ferocious waves of crowd noise that barrel over diners sitting at the lower tables or the long communal table near the bar. (The quieter back bar evokes a completely different fantasy, more Jack London–meets-Verlaine, with its assemblage of barn timbers, a palatial chandelier, exposed bricks, and Gorey-esque portraits of women in black dresses. Stop in for a Pastis and a falafel sandwich while you wait for a table, and you may never return to the main room.)There is something so thought-through about the decor, as if it were an obsessive collector's cabinet of curiosities, that the atmosphere can feel forced. The eye-rolling drama of the fire pit occasioned a grimace, for example, and so did the fleur de lys ornaments on the door. When the sense of artifice grows too strong, though, turn your head 30 degrees and the illusion shimmers into effect again. Quite often it's a trick of the light, in the very best sense. When you're sitting in one of the booths, the small sconces casting a creamy glow across your plates, while the edges of your vision are tinted salmon from the light reflecting through a line of rosé bottles on the picture rail overhead, it's hard not to catch yourself wondering, gee, où suis-je?Peter Lewis, Campagne's founder, has been brought on board to show the front-of-house staff how to work the room. Based on the fact that the unflaggingly good-natured waitstaff, who all look like reality-TV contestants, know they should clear the silverware at this point in the meal and ask after the food at this point, he's successfully conveying the basics of bistro service. But someone in management isn't backing that up with training in French food and wine—or waiterly panache. So the waiters will read the night's specials off notebooks and then admit they don't know anything else about the dishes, tell you they're not sure what a certain wine tastes like, mispronounce basic culinary terms like "confit," and approach and retreat from the table with a sweet coltishness that's adorable and, for a $40-a-person meal, maddening. Three more months, I thought after my most recent visit. Maybe they'll get there in three more months.I thought the same about the food. Poor Bastille, so wanted by the New Ballard, thanks in part to the news of Veil chef Shannon Galusha's prime role in the kitchen and of Bastille's large rooftop garden, cultivated by Colin McCrate of Seattle Urban Farm Company. The better-dressed segments of the neighborhood flooded Bastille the moment they heard the doors unlatch. But the room's capacity is huge, the crowd is thick from open to close (reservations are necessary), the menu's gigantic—and the cooks can't yet keep up.Even though Galusha has cooked at Campagne and in Paris, the cooks are having the least luck with the best-known French bistro classics I tasted—the dishes that in Europe are working-class staples and in America carry the whiff of a college education. French onion soup was a travesty, half-crunchy onions lolling about in a thin beef broth without the faintest trace of salt in it—what should have been a two-hour project clearly made on the fly. Grilled veal tongue tasted spongy-rubbery, and the ka-runchy French beans served underneath it were raw, not steamed or blanched as they should have been. Pommes aligot, which are supposed to be whipped with cheese into a miraculously creamy-elastic texture, weren't; I'm thinking the cook tasked with stirring in butter and cream chickened out halfway through. Having seen close to a third of the plates that passed me contain steak-frites with Béarnaise sauce, I ordered it on visit two. Great steak. Glorious fries. But a Béarnaise so thin and insipid that I tried to summon Escoffier's ghost to sic him on the saucier.However, as Wells asserts in her book, "Bistro cuisine knows no boundaries," and the more Galusha asserts his own personality, the better the results. His Northwestern-Provençal seafood stew was centered on a thin, tomato-tinged broth that paired well enough with the standard seafood—halibut, mussels, prawns. But when I spooned up bites of octopus and mackerel, which had been grilled before being placed in the bowl, the flavors of the tart broth, rich fish, and grill came together and ignited. And he tossed penne with English peas and pea greens in an emulsion of stock and butter that mysteriously amplified the vegetables' flavor into an intense, bright-green pea-ness.A number of other dishes hit their mark—the simple bistro food that Bastille promises. The mixed greens "du toit" (the menu informs diners that the French word for roof is pronounced twah, though everyone who reads it has to snicker and pronounce the second t), tasted crisp and just-picked, and another salad of tiny beets, dressed in a nutmeg-scented vinaigrette, hid under a pile of fragrant young arugula leaves. The lamb burger, grilled just shy of medium to stay tender, was smartly counterbalanced by pickled shallots, a harissa aioli tasting strongly of smoked paprika, and peppery arugula. A scoop of peanut butter ice cream was garnished with crumbles of salty-sweet, crackly praline, a French tweak to America's favorite flavor. And there was a motherly appeal to a thick piece of toast, grilled in a Julia Child–ean amount of butter and smothered in sautéed mushrooms, a poached egg, and mushroom pan juices spiked with fresh thyme leaves.All in all, I tasted enough solid bistro fare that I left Ballard with a tarnished sense of promise. But if Bastille wants to avoid settling into that stratum of amateurish, aspirational Seattle bistros, it will take more than an appeal to our Francophile fantasies.Price Check
Bastille Cafe & Bar 5307 Ballard Ave. N.W., 453-5014, bastilleseattle.com. Open for dinner and late night seven days a week, brunch Sunday.
Salade du toit $8
Toast with mushrooms $8
Lamb burger $12
Seafood stew $20
Steak frites $18 email@example.com