I don’t know seattle very well. A sprawling city of 5 million, Seattle is the northern piece of bread in Portland’s Metropolis sandwich. (We are ever-so-meaty, aren’t we) Everett must be the olive; I-5 the toothpick. Whenever I go to Seattle, however, I see little more than sections of I-5, the U-district and Cap-hill. I’m beginning to wonder where all the people with real jobs live. Oh yeah…. Everett. Im not complaining; those areas constitute the greatest hits of the seattle 7 -not the compromise second draft- but I exited my adopted comfort zone to discover Carmelita.
Carmelita is in greater Ballard, on Greenwood Ave and 73rd. It appears to be one of those metropolitan areas which is both boring and busy. It is 1/2 of a newish building; the exterior facade and the floor-to-12′ windows were as new as the funky interior. This is not funky in the traditional sense: bas reliefs of plaster leaves adorn the ceiling, inspirational phrases written in script on tan on mauve wallpaper were often uninterepretable. No one told me about the patio–I instantly wished someone had. It was lush, cool and comfortable, but since i wasn’t there, we shall progress.
There is something that has always bothered me about vegetarian restaurants the world around: the Mission Statements. I know i have a stilted view of the food service hierarchy, but I truly believe that the food, the curtains, the servers’ pants’, the hostess’ tits and the cleanliness of your bathrooms are what define a restaurant, not some high and mighty statement of purpose. The hospitality business is a game of inches, nickels and dumb luck. If you can pull it off, you’ve done something pretty cool in my book. If you’re expecting your patrons to absorb your food philsophy before they order appetizers, well, I hate you.
I know that many a restaurant has a mission statement, and vegetarian places don’t make up a statistically significant portion of… well… anything. Nonetheless, the mission statement is undermining the vegetarian restaurant business– omnivores don’t want to be lambasted about the choices they make outside of the restaurant, they want to have a fine dining experience that happens to be meatless this once.
Anyone who reads the New York Times restaurant reviews must be aware of esoteric and asinine ‘mission statements’ from the latest and greatest fad restaurants. Those are just as asinine to me, but my point is that political, social and ideological harassment during dinner is not my idea of a good time. So please, readership of 0, take my words to heart.
Carmelita didn’t have a mission statement. I suppose had the service been bad I would have played mad-libs with my dining companions and those ‘inspirational’ phrases on the wall, but the service was attentive and knowledgeable. This restaurant appears to have a handle on what actually makes a good spot great: the food.
It began with house bread (from Macrina Bakery) and Scallion Oil. It’s official; I’ve given up the pretense of ‘green onions.’ Happy Dan?
Dining in mid July, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction radiating from the staff; at this time of year, even staff chow is full of fresh, summer ebullience. Their excitement transferred to us through every platter brought to the table.
The antipasti plate–the usual spread of hummus, house made olives and peppers– is matched with a very chewy and flavorful flatbread heavy with semolina and grilled till slightly charred; in a dish of mix and match, the bread complimented every possible combination. A second appetizer of note is the Summer Baby Lettuces. When presented, it is simply a stack of lettuce leaves- not a salad, not in a bowl or garnished at all- a stack. The leaves are dressed with intense citrus vinaigrette that clings to the leaves all too well. Not a drop of dressing parted from the leaves. Such intense flavor from an understated plate and product makes the Gastronaut weep.
The chickpea cake is less successful. It is a pale, ecru hockey puck. When I quizzed my dining partners about it a week after the meal, that’s all we could muster. Shameful, on our part, but the dish was unremarkable– doubly bad considering it is one of the scant dishes kept year round. A brief look at the current menu posted on the web shows yon hockey puck dressed up significantly. good call.
The tomato puree soup came presented as a solitary waffle on a bed of marinated onions, the soup poured tableside from a teapot– very theatrical. The flavor profile of acidic, in-season and fresh tomatoes against the cheese delighted the lucky one who ordered it, and she didn’t share.
The Beet Tagine won the presentation award—it was, after all, a tagine. A circle mold of extra large Israeli couscous centered the dish, turned pleasantly pink by the beet and vegetable shudder medley that surrounded it. The dish itself was mildly disappointing, the proportion of fennel to other ingredients was out of whack; I simply got tired of tasting fennel. Other entrees are more successful—a brilliant corn and chanterelle risotto, made with the more expensive, and more delicious, Canaroli rice and touched with honey. Also successful is the Tomato torte with goat cheese, although the side of lentils, heavy on the cinnamon, captivated. The truffled potato empanadas are undersized and the pastry slightly dry, but the sauces–tomato gastrique and sweet onion puree– paired with purple potato/cauliflower hash create a complex taste, and texture profile that is quite delightful.
Over a plate of English Pea Agnolotti (think large, haphazard ravioli), I witnessed one of my favorite food moments– epiphany. He truly enjoyed the dish, but I am happier that there is another newly impassioned diner in our midst.
Carmelita’s strongest point is their wine list, which is expansive in both source and number- we enjoyed a very fine bottle of Tempranillo – Castillo Establés Reserva ‘99 – for the ridiculous price of $28. In a region where a stellar wine list can be sourced from our own backyard, I do appreciate a wide reaching, ambitious, and economical list.
Our meal was memorable, but my favorite moment was the sorbet of the day– blackberry. They should rename it Frozen-essence-of-blackberry-goodness.