Staple and Fancy Mercantile is "Pretty Good"

Is chef Ethan Stowell's new Ballard restaurant his best yet? Dining critic Allison Scheff finds out.
Allison Austin Scheff  |   January 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

In big cities like ours, there are a lot of “pretty good” restaurants. It takes something to really shine, to be great.

Union, Ethan Stowell’s first restaurant, which opened way back in 2003, was a great restaurant in the beginning. But it was always a little too stiff for an any-night stop.

Still, Stowell built an empire on the back of (the now-shuttered) Union: four restaurants, a cookbook and a burger joint (in the works at press time). His latest is Staple & Fancy Mercantile, named for a business that used to exist in Ballard’s now-remodeled Kolstrand Building, where the restaurant debuted in August.

The space is awfully easy on the eyes: A long, exposed-brick wall still bears the original paint of a cigar ad from the grocery store it once helped to house—up-lit to gorgeous effect—and an open kitchen showcases Stowell, front and center. That pesky stuffiness is long gone; Staple & Fancy is energetic, a bit noisy, an easy place to have a good time.

I just wish the food was better than “pretty good.” There’s a modest à la carte menu, but diners are strongly nudged toward a family-style option: $45 per person for four courses chosen by the kitchen. And when the plates start making their way to the table, boy, does it feel like Christmas, starting with smoked bluefish spread and chicken liver pâté on crostini, plus seasonal veggies, slices of prosciutto and the like.

And it all tastes fine. Not bad. Pretty good. Next comes squid ink pasta in a familiar garlic, chili flake, bread crumb treatment, but it’s a little too dry, a little flat. Gnocchi and sweetbreads? All so very soft. Turnips tossed in for texture don’t add much else. We pushed aside a tough pork shoulder in favor of mackerel, nicely tarted up with capers and lemon. Dessert? Not particularly memorable. As much fun as Staple & Fancy is, this isn’t Stowell’s best.

Dinner nightly. Ballard, 4739 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.789.1200; ethanstowellrestaurants.com/stapleandfancy. $$$

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