Dandelion in Ballard could be the poster child for the new face of Seattle restaurants: small, casual, modest in scope and able to create a sense of place that defines its neighborhood.
To best make its acquaintance, I suggest dining solo. Do so and you might luck into one of five seats fronting a compact kitchen. Order a glass of wine — a dry French rosé or a crisp South African sauvignon blanc — and relax, preparing to surrender to Dandelion's understated promise of "Real Good Food."
This litany of small plates, handcrafted cheeses and entrees changes weekly, depends entirely on the chefs' whim and largely on organic produce, wild seafood and naturally raised meats and poultry. Give the menu a quick read, lay it aside, then keep your eye on the kitchen for inspiration.
You may be swayed by ripe figs wrapped in prosciutto and readied for the grill ($8.50); a lush slice of triple-cream cheese seen resting on a sideboard ($3.50); or chunks of heirloom tomatoes paired with fresh mozzarella and drizzled with fragrant olive oil ($8.50). Will it be chicken roasted to order ($16), its skin burnished and scented with rosemary, its meat impossibly moist? Or those silky pan-seared scallops playing ring-around-the-risotto — creamy rice punctuated with shelling peas, pancetta and Parmesan ($22)?
If it's not offered right away, ask your server for a plate of bread. It's from Tall Grass Bakery just up the street and will tide you over while you take in the scenery at this noisy little storefront cafe, painted to reflect its flowery moniker.
That name was given by Carol Nockold and Connie Palmore, partners so obviously enamored with one another and their new life as restaurant owners that you can't help but see it in their eyes. Nockold, former director of stores for Sur La Table, can be found at the cold station in the kitchen composing salads and desserts. Palmore, by day a Starbucks business-systems analyst, spends evenings as hostess and general manager.
Look around their crowded cafe to find sunflowers resting in a vase, wines iced in copper buckets and walls hung with local art. An oversized mirror reflects a hard wooden banquette and a tight row of linen-draped deuces tended by a small crew: some of whom are more adept at the task, all inevitably doing their best to make neighbors feel comfortably at home.
That they do, as evidenced by a pregnant young woman nuzzling her husband's neck; an older couple putting aside The New York Times crossword puzzle to marvel over their lamb kebabs; gal pals sharing a fluff of mascarpone cream sandwiched between meringue and capped with fresh raspberries; and a large group trading stories and bites, their heads thrown back as their laughter rises above Ella Fitzgerald's sultry croon.
Meanwhile, Jason Tenesch — the mop-topped young chef who pivots gracefully from grill to stove — partakes from his battery of ingredients: among them, caramelized vegetables, balsamic onions and a bouquet of fresh herbs kept within reach.
A tour de force of concentration and exuberance, Tenesch brandishes a peppermill over a sizzling Oregon rib-eye ($24), swiftly stirs a pot of mashed potatoes, takes tongs in hand to retrieve a pork T-bone ($18) from the flames. With an asbestos finger, he tests that pork for temperature; arranges it, just so, on a potato salad kissed with tahini; then adds a finishing touch of peach salsa before sending it on its way.
Watching from a counter seat late one evening, I restrained myself from leaning over to plant a kiss of my own: on the chef's slender cheek. This, in thanks for a pristine plateful of Mediterranean mussels ($8.50) steamed with wine, shallots and a handful of fresh herbs — the licorice imprint of tarragon chief among them. And that was before I took my fork to wild local albacore tuna, a summer stunner of rare-centered fish posed over pasta salad ($16). This festival of color, flavor and texture — slender orzo, heirloom cherry tomatoes, grilled corn and haricots verts — got a shot of bliss via a ladleful of tomato vinaigrette.
On weekend mornings, Dandelion offers an eggs-centric change of pace for locals who've made it their custom to stop at neighboring Café Besalu and Java Bean for coffee and pastries. The breakfast menu is short and (if you're inclined to order buttermilk waffles with real maple syrup or swab your toast with fresh berry jam) sweet. Build-your-own omelets ($8.50-$10.50) are a popular choice. As is the BELT, an egg-embellished BLT on thick slices of toasted honey-oat bread ($8).
Since those all-American options are specialties of the house — my house — I chose to sample the ethnic offerings instead.
Gently grilled polenta, poached eggs, fresh mozzarella and a generous spoonful of roasted tomato sauce comes with a side of excellent Italian sausage ($12.50). Chorizo and eggs ($9.50) is a glorious scramble infused with fresh ground pork sausage and feta-like cotijo cheese. I wrapped this Mexican-accented mess — with salsa and avocado — in the thick, warm tortillas that accompanied it. Then I took another sip of coffee and winked at the elderly gentleman next to me as he stood and bid "Good day!" That it was.