Once upon a time a Walrus and a Carpenter went for a walk along the beach where they met up with a bunch of oysters. “Come walk with us!” they beseeched, and pretty soon a parade of oysters was trailing them across the sand. When the pair decided they’d gotten sufficiently far, they brought out a loaf of bread, some vinegar, and proceeded to have a tasty snack. Poor oysters.
That’s the gist of Lewis Caroll’s poem from “In the Looking Glass.” It also happens to pretty well sum up my dinner at a Seattle restaurant of the same name.
The Walrus and the Carpenter came highly recommended. It’s also gotten a fair amount of national press lately, and was recently named one of Bon Appetit’s “20 Best Restaurants in America.” To be frank, after all the fanfare I was a bit apprehensive about actually going, particularly because it was Valentine’s Day. I pictured big crowds, a harried hostess, and too-cool-for-school servers. I could not have been more wrong.
Anne swung by at five to put our names in for a table (they do not take reservations), and already there was a two-hour wait. This was actually fine, as my run had taken longer than expected, and I was still full from lunch. We had just found a parking space in Ballard when the hostess called to tell us our table was ready. Pretty good timing.
The restaurant was nothing like I expected. There were no masses to wade through at the front door, no loud bar, no need to assert yourself. “It’s so civilized,” I said to Anne, as we stepped into the brightly lit and uncrowded space. Couples murmured and held hands, waitresses danced around one another behind the bar. A twig-covered chandelier dominated the room, while white walls and muted furniture made the relatively small dining room seem spacious.
“The idea is to serve the highest quality food and drink in a space that is stripped of pretense and feels like home.”
We were seated at the bar, so we had a great view of the action as we talked about what to order. Wire baskets filled with oysters sat at one end, and nearby two sous chefs plated dishes. Before us a large bookcase sat filled with bottles like a library of liquor. Our server appeared, the same lipstick-clad, tattooed lady whose photo appeared in the recent Bon Appetit piece. We congratulated her on her rise to stardom and she smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t even know they were going to use that photo,” she said.
Like Caroll’s poem, the Walrus and the Carpenter is all about oysters. We had seven local varieties to choose from, so Anne and I picked six each for an even dozen. However, in a display of amazingness, someone decided that we really should try all seven types, so our oyster tray arrived with a couple extra shells on it. Score.
The oysters were all small to medium sized, and were arranged from mildest to briniest around a bed of ice. Some had long, thin shells, some were rounder, some sported gorgeous frills on them. They were all delicious, reminiscent of the not too far away waters where they’d grown up. As I washed them down with cava, I turned to Anne and said again, “This is so civilized.”
We couldn’t stop at oysters. Instead, we elected to try prawn crudo, whose bodies arrived in a spicy/sour brine, and whose shells were served alongside, deep fried like true prawn crisps. There was also a bowl of Brussels sprouts, roasted dark, almost caramelized. And grilled sardines, covered in a walnut and parsley pesto, bright and earthy tasting. I drank something called the “Mustache Ride,” a bawdy concoction of bourbon, cynar, allspice dram and maple. It was well-balanced, not to boozy, with a hint of spice and a hint of citrus. Life was good.
Despite the wait, our meal was unharried. The service was attentive and friendly; they treated us as if we were regulars, even after I confessed to being a tourist. And the food? It was exactly what I look for in a restaurant: showcasing local ingredients in a way I’d never considered, inspiring new ideas for meals in my own kitchen (though I confess to being disappointed that uni custard wasn’t on the menu that night!). I left feeling like I’d just visited the home of a good friend, one who happens to be super-cool and cook really well.
O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.