Having two kids means you grab your romantic dinners if and where you can. When my parents offered to watch the kids so we could take in the final Harry Potter movie, I squeezed them a little further and managed to cram in a post-movie dinner date at Bastille, a Frenchy restaurant in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with a reputation for doing great things with local food.
This restaurant advertises its local food identity proudly, greeting visitors with a chalkboard listing the farms that participated in the production of tonight’s meal, like the opening credits of a movie. Tonight, the board tells me, you may expect to enjoy rabbit from Mad Hatcher Poultry, beef from Painted Hills, and greens from our rooftop garden. But all those local relationships mean little if the food isn’t good. We picked three plates to test the chef’s prowess: The Salade de Tomates, Pâté du Lapin, and the Flat Iron Steak (my French fails me here; pardonne-moi).
I needn’t have worried. The rabbit pâté came first. We spread the it thickly on excellent bread. Little constellations of cubed lard kept the lean meat interesting, giving our tongues something sinful to play with as the finer textured rabbit dissolved in our mouths. Fingersfull of pickled fennel cleansed our palettes every few mouthfuls, so we could enjoy every bite as much as the first.
The tomato salad came next. Though the server could not name the specific farm in Yakima that provided the tomatoes (Gotcha!), the bursting-with-red fruit reminded me why restaurants like Bastille deserve our praise. When a chef takes the time to specify local ingredients, you can usually count on fresh greens, ripe fruits, and lots of flavor. The region’s spring weather has been lousy this year, and local tomatoes were still difficult to find when I visited the restaurant in early July. A more conventional restaurant might have shipped in under-ripe tomatoes from far, far away. I tasted such poor tomatoes on my hamburgers while vacationing along the Washington Coast this spring. But at Bastille, Chef Jason Stoneburner took no such shortcuts. This tomato looked like the beating heart of a lovesick Parisian.
The tomatoes, the pâté – these technical achievements impressed us. They demonstrated artistic judgement, with their balance of richness and sour, fat and herb. But a steak occupies murkier territory. Only when I order a steak does my server ask me for advice as to preparation.
I will confess to some snobbishness here. Despite whatever history you may have with steaks, despite whatever concerns you may have about food safety, I’ve come to believe medium rare is the proper way to order a steak. Yet my wife, with whom I would share a steak, always orders medium. Someone was bound to leave disappointed. Like a perfect passive-aggressive gentleman, I encouraged her to order, then silently disapproved when she ordered the steak medium.
By some magic, the chef provided a steak that we both could love. Somewhere between medium and medium rare, the steak comprised an argument, put forth by a skilled mediator, who somehow showed us middle ground between our religious positions. In preparing the steak this way, the kitchen took a risk – an artistic risk, perhaps hoping the perfection of the food itself would justify a flexible interpretation of our instructions. That decision proved sound. Emily and I both declared the steak perfect. The Foraged and Found mushrooms added a wonderful chewy counterpoint. It sat in a rich reduction so rich and dark my camera could not capture it, as if it were the center of some culinary black hole.
Bastille has drawn praise for its rooftop garden and beehive, for its excellent kitchen. It deserves this praise. But frequently these innovations don’t extend to the meat at the center of the dinner plate. Bastille could go further by developing substantial relationships with local grass-fed beef and pork producers, rather than relying on large suppliers like Oregon’s Painted Hills and Carlton Farms. This sort of networking takes time, and potential suppliers must prove their reliability. But the chef who risked cooking our steak his own way should be up to the task. Such risks would solidify Bastille’s rightful place as a leader among local food restaurants in Seattle.
Joshua is a freelance reporter for KUOW Public Radio in Seattle and author of the forthcoming book The Urban Farm Handbook: City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading, and Preparing What You Eat.