“Bug met Goose one fine clear morning in her garden.” I sat in the skinny restaurant sipping my breakfast latte and pulling warm cinnamon-sugary apple slices out of a half-moon of shattering pastry with my teeth, one by blessed one, when I noticed those words burned into my table.
Glancing around the place I saw that every wooden table had words burned in: the one where a young daddy pushed bits of biscuit into his baby’s rosebud mouth, the one where a trio of Capitol Hill matrons shouted Democratic politics over dark green salads, the one where a beautiful, fine-boned hipster with a platinum bob and ebony roots stretched fire engine lips around a biscuit sandwich thick with peanut butter and housemade honey.
The words were phrases from restaurateur Heather Earnhardt’s forthcoming children’s book, Bug and Goose. Earnhardt has three young children. She is also a photographer, a potter, a gardener, a chicken raiser, a beekeeper, and one hell of a baker. These days she’s usually behind the antique pastry case or in the kitchen of the little joint she opened in October, Wandering Goose; wiping her hands on a floral apron, embracing about every third guest with a haven’t-seen-you-in-forever hug and a wide, lipsticky smile.
Pastries overburden the pastry case: big almond–orange blossom and -blueberry-buttermilk and pumpkin Bundt cakes, raspberry thumbprints and triple chocolate chip cookies, platters of corn bread and layer cakes and biscuits filled with raspberry freezer jam. Alongside sits the Hoosier hutch Earnhardt found broken and battered on Craigslist; it reminded her of her North Carolina grandmother’s, so she repaired and prettied it with whitewash and wallpaper. Pendant lights are made of sugar sacks, condiments served in mason jars. Dividing her restaurant from Ethan Stowell’s Rione XIII next door are panes of vintage glass, with a half-painted mural of scarlet wallflowers shambling across the rest of the room.
Earnhardt came up amid the bullfrogs and fireflies of red dirt North Carolina, learning to bake from that same Carolina granny who ran her 50-year catering business with a Sunbeam mixer and a Hotpoint oven. By the age of eight Earnhardt had refined her own recipe for pumpkin bread, which she peddled to the neighbors out of her little red wagon. Culinary school was looking unnecessary.
Earnhardt wound up in Seattle via Tucson, where she and a dozen of her artist and chef friends moved en masse from North Carolina, and after waiting tables at Phinney Ridge’s Carmelita she partnered with chef Ericka Burke to open Volunteer Park Cafe in 2006. It was her first baking job. Instantly VPC’s casual country-store aesthetic seized the heart of Capitol Hill, with Earnhardt’s pastries a moist and expert and altogether compelling part of the draw.
Life thickened. Volunteer Park Cafe ran into neighbor troubles, creating tensions between the partners, and Earnhardt sustained a personal tragedy: the death of an infant daughter. She and her husband split. Last year, so did she and Burke, who still has the VPC. “We are very different people,” Earnhardt says carefully. “She wanted a $32-plate-of-fish place. I wanted to do something more affordable, more casual. The food I grew up on.”
“They ate thump-ripe watermelons and gorged themselves on sweet greens.” One knows from the first squeeze of the latch that Volunteer Park Cafe and Wandering Goose spring from the same DNA: The piled-up pastries with labels toothpicked in; the drop-in-all-morning-and-afternoon vibe; the hipster-folky aesthetic, here with the supple fiddles of bluegrass and zydeco swelling in the air. And yes; the discomforts sociability brings—too-close tables, the door swinging right into one of them, the fact that that door swings open a lot (people like it here), the uncertain service setup (order at the counter; they bring it to your table) and, often, the long wait for it.
One ends up shrugging: Can what goes down in Grandma’s kitchen really be judged as service? “Oh! I meant to catch people before they got water!” apologized one cheerful staffer as she caught me returning from the serve-your-own spigot with a full glass of ruddy water. She explained that work in the neighborhood was making the water muddy and replaced my glass with a clear one from the back. Even the water at Wandering Goose seems to pine for the red dirt of the South.
The blackboard over the pastry case calls out Cheerwine cherry soda from North Carolina, Abita Root Beer from Louisiana, and Webster’s Seltzer from…well, Capitol Hill, but handcrafted and delivered by Webster himself on his bike, so Southern in spirit. I ordered my lunch—with a slice of chocolate Bundt cake to nibble while I waited for it. (Don’t judge: It was still warm from the oven.) The cake was a wonder: thickly chocolaty with a delicate crumb, its icing shined and sweetened with Steen’s, the South’s signature cane syrup.
Earnhardt bakes out of instinct and love; she says she’s hopeless for it when she’s grumpy. She works out recipes on friends and family and, for a time, one unbelievably fortunate garbageman, who’d find bags of her experiments carefully tied to the can handle. That’s how she comes up with secrets like how to end dry corn bread forever. (Pssst: just a little sour cream, which makes her corn bread the best in town.) Cookies are big and caramelly, often strewn with little rocks of salt to bully out the flavors.
Her biscuits, the rightful specialty of the house, crackle thickly at the edges and surrender to fluffy interiors that melt away on the tongue. Pure pleasure with butter and raspberry jam, they become another pleasure entirely when piled with soft egg and cheese and Benton’s chewy bacon. Or with fat chunks of fried chicken, sharpened with aged cheddar and flooded over with fiery sausage gravy. On a hill full of biscuits, these are the runaway best.
About that fried chicken. Earnhardt’s longtime pal Michael Law was part of the aforementioned Carolina-to-Seattle migration, only he pit-stopped a few years in the kitchens of New Orleans and San Francisco, including the latter’s fried chicken house Front Porch. Upon his arrival Earnhardt snapped him up as her chef, a move that would have been savvy, even if only for the chicken: a buttermilk-and-thyme-marinated marvel with a delicate crust giving way to uncommonly flavorful meat, moist throughout. At lunch three pieces arrive with a biscuit, collard greens, and a dish of Sea Island peas—a nuttier heirloom version of their black-eyed cousin, served in a rich soupy juice and topped with chowchow, the neon-yellow pickled cabbage popular across the Carolinas. The chowchow lent its bold hit of vinegar to the peas, which was pitch perfect on the tongue and represented a nice marriage: new Northwest meets Old South.
Law’s wise palate adds the bitter crunch of pumpkin seed brittle to a saturated salad of dark greens and sweet vinaigrette; a feisty wash of pepper jelly to a crunchy fried oyster-bacon sandwich on toasted brioche. Only Fridays does Wandering Goose do dinner: a four-courses-for-$38 arrangement with a fixed menu, a 7pm seating, and a no-reservations policy. The line began clumping outside the door around 6:30 for our New Orleans–themed dinner, which began with a thick pumpkin soup, ragged with chunks of the squash, and brightened with a clove--fragrant dollop of creme fraiche. The soup was at once silken and steely, with spice that resolved itself in the back of the throat. A black-eyed pea “salad” was actually a warm stewy shrimp Creole, thrumming with an elegant bass note of modulated Cajun spices. A quail Andouille jambalaya entree was notable, too, for the nuance and restraint of its spices and the meaty novelty of the quail.
Service in this more formal context was still a little slow, still deeply dear—still, in short, Southern. We sat savor-ing ramekins of fallen chocolate cake in huckleberry-blueberry sauce with cinnamon-kissed whipped cream, as we -chatted about how very little this restaurant felt like a restaurant. Except for the chefs, of course, whom we spied from time to time, cooking feverishly back in the kitchen. Chefs who make it look easy.
And on our table: “You have made your way into this heart of mine like a stone falling into a clear pool.”
Published: January 2013