ginger and salt

birthday dinner: boat street cafe.

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While I love a good celebration, I’m not big on making a fuss of my own birthday.  I don’t particularly enjoy being the center of attention and I still squirm and turn beet red for the excruciating thirty seconds while the “Happy Birthday” song is sung.  The one thing, however, that I love about birthdays, is the chance to be treated to great meals with family and friends.

Being the Renee Erickson junkie that I am, Boat Street Cafe was the restaurant of choice this year for dinner with my family.  Most of you know how much I adore The Walrus and the Carpenter as well as her newest addition, The Whale Wins, but sometimes I feel like Boat Street, the older sister, gets overlooked.

Don’t tell anyone, but at Boat Street you can munch on the same wonderful pickles and slurp down the same briny oysters as the ones at Walrus, without enduring the two hour wait. The atmosphere is a bit more formal and a little less lively (you won’t hear Outkast blasting on the speakers here), the environment more French farmhouse (plus a few bright Japanese lanterns) and less rowdy oyster bar, so I suppose it really depends on your mood. But you can (and should) make a reservation here, which is a big plus.

Tucked away in an unexpected location in North Belltown, underneath the Northwest Work Lofts, Boat Street Cafe has been a longtime Seattle favorite.  The fact that the restaurant relocated from Boat Street (hence, the name) in the University District to the more obscure area off of Denny Way and still is packed is a testament to the food and experience.

Our meal began with the classic Boat Street Pâté, served mousse-style with pickled French plums, cornichons, dijon, and baguette toasts.  I lose all ability to be eloquent about this dish.  I mean, it’s perfect.  With large, flaky salt crystals resting on top, this pâté is creamy, rich, and gamey.  My mom, who is typically not a big pâté proponent, was practically cleaning the plate with our excess bread.  (Side note: it’s always a good idea to order the warm Columbia City Baguette with butter and olives.)  We paired this with the famed Boat Street Pickle Plate (a must-order).  The acidity in the crisp pickled fruits and vegetables was a nice balance to the heavier dishes that were soon to come and we nibbled on them throughout the course of the night.

We also shared the Treasure Cove Oysters on the Half Shell with champagne mignonette, lemon, and the grated horseradish that I adore (served on a charming scalloped piece of menu paper). There are certain things one can trust Erickson to nail time and again and among them are pickles, oysters, and bread pudding.  An unexpected winner was the Mushroom Duxelles Tartine with thyme and lemon.  The earthy mushroom mixture was served over lightly toasted peasant-style French bread and was a simple but satisfying snack.

I had my eyes set on the Abundant Acres Rabbit Confit a few days in advance and stuck with my guns.  Served with brandied apples, warm Savoy cabbage, and red onions, I was very pleased with my decision.  The rabbit fell off the bone and each bite made me feel like I should be sitting by the fire in some snowy cabin near the Alps.

Part of the reason I allowed myself to go for the rabbit is that my godmother ordered the Pan-Roasted Mad Hatcher Chicken, one of my favorite things, so I knew I could still sneak bites of hers.  I still think that this is the best entree on the menu (should you feel torn when ordering), served with tender heirloom Rockwell beans (a rare breed from the area), avgolemono (a sauce made from lemons, eggs, and broth), baby leeks, and watercress. Unless I’m eating at Le Pichet, I tend to ignore chicken on menus as I feel like it’s placed there for timid eaters, but when it’s as moist and crispy and flavorful as this one, you really don’t need anything else in life.

My mom ordered the Roasted Wild Steelhead with Ebey’s Farm Emmer, Roasted Shallots, Wilted Greens, and Horseradish Cream.  It had a strong flavor profile and was a very substantial dish, but probably one of the less-memorable ones for me.  My dad likes to do this thing where he won’t tell anyone what he’s ordering and insists on speaking last, so as to have some sort of “surprise” effect. Typically our family’s leading carnivore, he pulled a fast one when he went with the Grilled Broccoli with House-Made Ricotta, Arugula, Pistachio Pesto, and a Fried Organic Egg.  When I imagine myself being an excellent chef in my dreams, this is the kind of off-the-cuff dish I would be able to come up with when opening up the refrigerator.  (In real life, I typically panic and go for cheese and crackers.) Simple, high-quality ingredients prepared in a way that feels classic and innovative at the same time.

In true birthday fashion, we ordered three desserts: the classic Bread Pudding, the Salted Caramel Ice Cream, and the Huckleberry Cake.  My favorite was definitely the bread pudding, and it was prepared the way my mom makes it (different from how Erickson does it at Walrus), with the thick chunks of brioche fused together in each crispy, golden, magical bite.  This version is served with a buttery, amaretto sauce and it is just heavenly.  We also thoroughly enjoyed the ice cream, made in-house, and agreed it had the perfect amount of salt.  Too often I find that salted caramel ice cream is over-salted, but not this one.  Another special touch was the house-made graham cracker served on the side.  The cake was tasty, too, but it’s hard to compete with the bread pudding.  We did, however, enjoy the fresh sour cream served with the cake as it was a cool, almost tart partner to the sweet, dense cake.

Our entire dining experience was a feast for the senses.  The vibrant poppy-red tulips and silver water pitchers in the entryway.  The creamy, yellow egg yolk oozing over the slightly charred green broccoli.  The scent of the caramelized bread pudding, bathing in amaretto sauce.  I read a quote that I loved in an article from the Seattle P-I in 2005 that completely echoes my thoughts on Renee Erickson.  In it Rebekah Dunn wrote that a diner at Boat Street told her, “It’s like an artist, you can recognize their work across the room,” in regards to Erickson’s plates.  Erickson’s restaurants thrive because they consistently put out reliable, solid dishes.  People depend on her and her staff, as they would an old friend, when craving food that’s special, but not fussy.  While it might not be as trendy as it’s younger siblings, the food at Boat Street Cafe will always be of-the-moment, and it’s certainly the kind of food that makes birthdays worth having.

Boat Street Cafe, 3131 Western Ave. #301, Seattle, WA, (206) 632.4602, http://www.boatstreetcafe.com, Open Monday – Sunday, 10:30 am – 2:30 pm (Brunch + Lunch), Tuesday – Saturday, 5:00 pm – 10:00 pm (Dinner)

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