La dolce vita, the Chow Foods way
Special to The Seattle Times
A new restaurant in Ballard hardly qualifies as news anymore. By now there must be more restaurant seats per capita there than in any other Seattle neighborhood except Belltown.
Nor is it surprising that Peter Levy and Jeremy Hardy have staked their claim to a piece of the Ballard action. As partners in Chow Foods, these talented restaurateurs have made neighborhood eateries their niche. The Hi-Life makes an even half-dozen in the family, joining siblings Coastal Kitchen, Jitterbug, The 5 Spot, Atlas Foods and Endolyne Joe's. Each hews more or less to the same basic formula: Keep it casual, affordable and family-friendly, and offer a reassuringly familiar menu peppered with a soupcon of foreign intrigue. The Hi-Life's American-anchored menus are influenced by the Mediterranean.
The restaurant occupies a choice piece of real estate. The fortresslike brick building just off Market Street was built in 1911 as a firehouse. Its massive, iron-hinged wooden doors are the refurbished originals, as are the Douglas fir beams that crisscross the high ceilings inside. Exposed brickwork, wooden booths and wainscoting further contribute to the Hi-Life's "rustique" mood.
Perhaps it was the firehouse connection that inspired the installation of a wood-burning oven. It's a Chow Foods first and the focal point of the open kitchen, where the entire line of cooks operates in full view of the dining room — grilling, frying, sautéing, baking, then barking out the server's name when an order is ready.
If you sit at one of nine seats along the counter's curve, you'll feel the warmth from the oven's fiery maw and you can watch the swift, sure hands of the pizza-maker rolling dough. Those individual 10-inch pies come out blistered and burnished, the thin crust still supple. Good tomato sauce tops the simple "Marguerita" ($8.50) while "Bianca alla Romana" ($8.75) delights with its monochromatic coverlet of creamy mozzarella studded with pancetta, caramelized onions and thyme.
The oven roasts chicken, fish and vegetables, too, and melts the Gruyère cap on a bowl of French onion soup ($6.50). The cheese lies thick on a raft of bread smothering a dark and beefy stock so dense with onion it's almost a stew. If you like your onion soup subtle, this is not your bowl of broth.
A light smoky flavor perfumes oven-roasted fall vegetables ($13.50). Anchored by half an artichoke — a dollop of aioli filling its hollow middle — the plate teems with roasted fingerling potatoes and turnips (some a bit underdone), large brown mushrooms, beautifully seared spinach and wickedly rich polenta, creamy with mascarpone.
A few hard potatoes and turnips amid such bounty can be overlooked more easily than undercooked beets in a roasted beet salad ($6.75). Lovely as they look peaking through a pile of spinach and arugula tossed with a pleasantly assertive citrus-kissed balsamic dressing, walnuts and mild blue cheese, those ruby chunks sorely lack the sweet taste and soft texture that oven-roasting imparts.
Burgers and steaks benefit from the apple wood-fired grill. Splurge on a 12-ounce New York ($25.50) or rib cut ($22.50) if you like, but the thick 10-ounce flat iron steak ($16.75), expertly seared on the outside, juicy within, offers a good deal of bang for fewer bucks. A heap of willowy fries, cooked to order, comes alongside.
Fries partner sandwiches, too, among them the fabulous B.A.T. ($7.75) — a B.L.T., hold the lettuce. Substitute arugula instead, with bacon and tomato on grilled slices of thick, rustic bread spread with lemon aioli. Grasp with both hands and devour.
You'll find sandwiches on the "blunch" menu, a commingling of breakfast and lunch available from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Get the day off to a good start with caramel espresso coffee cake ($2.25) or "Corn Cakes Suzette" ($5.75). And don't skimp on the brandy-spiked maple syrup, a marvelous match for those light, orange-infused cornmeal pancakes.
Dig into ziti in a garlicky tomato sauce chunky with sweet fennel sausage ($9.75 lunch/$12.75 dinner) or head for a "Bordertown Breakdown" ($8.75), nachos disguised as an egg rumble. Chase any of these with a horseradish-heavy Firehouse Bloody Mary ($6.25). It tastes just like a shrimp cocktail — hold the shrimp (and nix the untrimmed celery stalk better suited to the stock pot).
Disappointments happen. Bunuelos ($7.75), a dinner appetizer billed as manchego cheese croquettes, are soggy, the side of Serrano ham too thickly cut, but the flavors merge nicely with pickled cucumbers. Pan-seared rockfish, dubbed "Poisson Rouge" ($14.50), becomes an unappetizing "poisson gris" when sauced with a bitter merlot pan reduction.
"Zucca al'Modenese," or butternut squash soup ($5.25), tastes just like a pumpkin-spice latte with extra whip — hold the espresso. It's part of a menu that celebrates Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. The Hi-Life will highlight a different region quarterly (a Chow Foods signature), offering family-style dinner platters (small feeds two to three people/large up to five). Current choices include fettuccine Bolognese ($19/$35), wine-braised pork shoulder ($25.50/$48) and oven-roasted whole chicken with warm panzanella salad ($32/$48).
Families flock to The Hi-Life, and the staff is particularly accommodating to youngsters. Grown-ups take note: Hang a right into the bar and you'll find yourself in a cozy, kid-free hideaway far from the kitchen's clamor.
"Eat-Drink," commands the sign outside. Obey. You won't be sorry.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org
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