As a professed fan of Ethan Stowell’s restaurants (and now cookbook as well), it’s no surprise that I would be excited for his newest venture to open its doors. Though Staple & Fancy Mercantile was on the foodie radar for a while, as opening the restaurant also involved rehabbing the entire Kolstrand Building, a beautiful piece of Ballard’s industrial history. I had seen the interior of the space from the sidewalk, and through the large window from its neighbor, The Walrus and the Carpenter, but somehow hadn’t managed to dine there until recently.
The entire building has an industrial-chic sort of vibe – just make the long trek to the restrooms and you’ll see what I mean – and Staple & Fancy follows that design scheme with an abundance of exposed brick. It’s a single large space, with big doors that open to the sidewalk at the front of the restaurant, the tiny bar and open kitchen along one wall, and a gray painted wood bench running the entire length of the room. The metal-edged wood tables and what looked to be the original plank flooring complement the brick, and make for a particularly warm and inviting space.
Staple & Fancy had been of particular interest to me, as Ethan Stowell had said that he planned to do much of the cooking here unlike other restaurants Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf, and Anchovies & Olives. Given this, and the fact that I’d finally made it there after several previous attempts, this seemed like the right occasion for the family style supper. It’s the perfect thing to do if you have a table of adventurous eaters interested in experiencing what Stowell and Staple & Fancy really have to offer. So we gave ourselves up to the whim of the kitchen and sat back as dish after dish began to arrive.
We started with a demitasse cup of butternut squash soup, with a lovely slick of olive oil on the top. Next to arrive was a small crock of fennel, green bean, and cauliflower served with bagna cauda (an Italian dipping sauce) that was the perfect salty counterpoint to the vegetables. Then a duo of crostini, one with seriously smoky smoked tuna, and the other with white bean puree topped with white anchovy. Next came the escolar crudo with avocado purée, one of my favorite dishes of the evening. I’ve said it before and this makes me say it again – ALWAYS order the escolar crudo when presented with this option at any Ethan Stowell establishment. You will thank me, I promise!
Midway through we had the romiolo, a blend of cow, goat, and sheep’s cheese served alongside very lightly dressed arugula. Then steamed mussels and chorizo in a deliciously salty broth, as well as fried oysters with a Calabria chili aioli. I tend to like my oysters raw (hence the multiple visits to neighboring Walrus and Carpenter) but these were delicious and perfectly accented by the aioli. The wild hedgehog mushrooms were the best part of the gnocchi, though the duck egg that topped the dish added a wonderful creaminess. These same mushrooms reappeared alongside leeks in the beef culotte, with the meat cooked to perfection. I am not necessarily the biggest fan of swordfish, but this piece was well-prepared, and again paired with a delicious side, this time couscous and tagliasca olives. As if we hadn’t already been presented with a substantial amount of delicious, beautifully prepared food, the evening ended with a nicely un-sweet ricotta cheesecake, and decidedly sophisticated chocolate pudding with a truffle cookie.
Staple & Fancy has terrific food and pitch-perfect interior, without question. Dinner that night would have been perfect, if not for the service experience. I can imagine that it’s a challenge to fill a restaurant when you don’t know before the guests sit down whether they’ll be having a drink and a small bite, or are settling in for the family style supper. But for us, each dish of the supper came out so quickly we barely had time to finish the one before it. And I suppose it’s because there are so very many physical plates involved in this kind of service, but everyone in the restaurant – from the hostess to the bartender to several other servers – brought us plates at one time or another. It’s not that I want my assigned server to be my best friend, but I also don’t want to feel abandoned once we’d made our choice of family style supper and (finally) received starting cocktails. The service at How to Cook a Wolf is one of my favorite things about that restaurant; perhaps there could be a little ESR internal coaching and this hands-on style could make its way across the bridge to Ballard.