At the southern end of Ballard Avenue in historic Old Ballard, Renee Erickson’s The Walrus and The Carpenter is tucked away in the Kolstrand Building, behind Staple and Fancy and The Dutch Bike Co. You would think that the somewhat hidden location would deter visitors, but ever since the restaurant made the front page of the New York Times‘ Travel section in June of 2011 with an iconic-looking, mustached server, this has not been the case. I’m talking a minimum two-hour wait on a Friday night for a party of two (basically unheard of in Seattle), but ‘good things come to those who wait,’ right? RIGHT.
With our crew coming in from every possible direction, I was the first to arrive on Thursday night to slip my name on the waiting list. (The trick is to have SOMEONE arrive to get your name on the list. They won’t seat you until you’re all there, but that probably won’t be an issue by the time your name is called.) Luckily, all four of us have eaten at ‘Walrus’, as we refer to it, so none of us mind the wait as we people watch and stare for too long at the plates on each table.
Cocktails in hand, we made our way to the table about 45 minutes later (Thursday night, 6 pm, not bad). The Walrus makes great cocktails, but my favorite standby there is the Moscow Mule. It’s served properly in a copper mug, which keeps it ice cold. Perfect balance of ginger beer and lime and the big classic ice cubes that I love.
We started with the Bread and Butter and a dozen Oysters on the Half Shell, a mix of Barron Points, Snow Creeks, and Totten Virginicas, to be exact. There are a lot of oysters in this town, and I’ve eaten my fair share. But there is something about the oysters here. They’re special. And they are perfectly chilled and briny and wonderful. The mignonette and the fresh horseradish are the cherries on top, although I could easily eat these little guys by themselves. The bread and butter are also in a league of their own. Why more places don’t serve butter IN the olive oil, I have no idea. It’s brilliant and heavenly on the chewy but crusty, thickly sliced peasant bread. I could honestly stop here and eat these two dishes all night. But of course I won’t.
Connor, Ryan, Chloe and I were like kids in a candy shop. Just ordering things left and right, not in any particular order. Calling things out that are our favorites (read: steak tartare, fried Brussels sprouts), or new items that caught our attention (hello, sea urchin custard). The next thing we knew we had essentially ordered more than half the menu, but that’s what a last supper is about, isn’t it?
The Fried Brussels Sprouts were swiftly inhaled upon arrival. How can something fried still feel so light and flavorful? The Speck with Jersey Ricotta, Preserved Pumpkin, and 30 Year Balsamic dissolved on your tongue. Speck is a type of prosciutto and it is so thinly sliced here that it melts in your mouth like candy with the beautiful bits of pumpkin, creamy ricotta, and thick, decadent balsalmic that’s the REAL deal (not the watery stuff that we all use in our kitchens).
Next up? A must-order for any non-vegetarian diner eating here: the Steak Tartare. For me, Walrus has set the bar pretty high for this dish which has only left me feeling disappointed when I order it elsewhere. The bright orange color of the yolk, glistening with the coarse salt crystals over the raw, deep red meat is a thing of a beauty. Ryan did the honors, breaking the yolk and tossing it all together and we hungrily devoured the delicacy, spooning generous servings onto pieces of the crisp, rye toasts. Foodie bliss at its best.
The Grilled Sardine with Walnuts, Parsley, and Shallots is always a hit. Nutty and meaty and salty, but not too salty. The Celeriac Salad with Pine Nuts, Cream, Celery Heart, and Pomegranate Molasses served as a great palate cleanser for us. I love the flavor of celery but am not a huge fan of the texture, so the celeriac (also known as knob celery) is fantastic because it has the same earthy flavor, without the stringy quality.
Connor made the brave decision to order us the Sea Urchin Custard which I can only describe as the custard that Ariel herself might eat. It tastes as if you’re eating an insanely rich, concentrated piece of the ocean. Certainly a textural explosion on your tongue with the salmon roe popping like bubbles and the subtle acidity of the apple cider gelee was a good match for the smooth, creamy, thick custard. Don’t know that I would order it again, but definitely interesting to try once.
While we were bordering on full at this point, we powered through and went with the Maple Bread Pudding and the Cajeta Drinking Caramel for dessert. Dear Lord, both were out of control. Never have I had such good bread pudding (with the exception of my mom’s White Chocolate variation). They bake it off in the oven in a cast-iron skillet, so the bottom is caramelized and almost charred, giving it a smoky flavor. It rests in an espresso butter sauce and lets just say that we politely fought over each bite of this dish. The drinking caramel was something out of a Harry Potter book. So decadent, it tastes exactly as it sounds. Salty, sweet, the whole package. Oh and I almost forgot, we also had the Dinah’s Cheese from Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island. Upon arrival, it was oozing everywhere, surrounded by locally-sourced honey from Ballard Bee Co. Does this sound like an episode of Portlandia yet?
It’s hard to pinpoint what I love the most about this place. Maybe it’s the special times that have been had here with good friends, maybe it’s the fact that I feel like I’m in a Nancy Meyers movie throughout the night, or that the music always sounds like something straight off of my iPod. Perhaps it’s just the simple Northwest meets France food. Although I’ll no longer be able to walk here from my front door, I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m trekking west to get my name on the best list in town.
I’ll try and wrap this love affair up, and let Frank Bruni do what he does best. This is what he said in his NYT piece describing ‘Walrus’ and Willows Inn (more on this one later): ‘To eat in and around Seattle, which I did recently and recommend heartily, isn’t merely to eat well. It is to experience something that even many larger, more gastronomically celebrated cities and regions can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place.’ Amen Mr. Bruni, amen.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, 4743 Ballard Avenue NW, Seattle, WA, 206.395.9227, http://www.thewalrusbar.com, No Reservations, Open Daily 4pm – Close