To Be or Not to Bistro

The Francophiles are storming Bastille, but do they come for the food?

By Kathryn Robinson October 19, 2009 Published in the November 2009 issue of Seattle Met

WHAT AN ALL-STAR game is to a sports fan, Bastille is to a Seattle restaurant geek like myself. There’s Peter Lewis, founder of Campagne, greeting guests at the door, the soul of Ballard hospitality with his charming smile and hip little Euro skullcap. There’s Shannon Galusha, chef from the departed Veil, holding forth in the open kitchen. And that guy ferrying plates out of the kitchen—yep, that’s Matt Janke, the old Matt’s in the Market Matt, lending a hand in the restaurant’s opening weeks.

Bastille has nothing if not charisma. The owners Deming Maclise and James Weimann, creators of Caffè Fiorè and Triangle Lounge/El Camino, respectively—traveled to Paris to garb Ballard’s Obermaier Machine Works Building in white subway tile and vintage light fixtures and antique mirrors. They bolstered the ceilings with riveted steel arches, dotted the floors with black-stained plank-backed booths and tables, ennobled the glittering bar with a commanding 45-foot zinc countertop. Opposite the bar, doors fling open onto a side patio with heaters and delicate wrought-iron tables. The open kitchen boils at the end of the room. And down a narrow hall, the piece de resistance: the speakeasy-like Back Bar, clad in brick and mirrors and paintings, and anchored with a crystal chandelier as supersized and bright as Marie Antoinette’s hair.

It all adds up to a scene that’s sprawling, striking, teeming with the young and the Ballardesque, and loud as the Gare du Nord at rush hour. Poor Charles Aznavour and his posse can barely croon a note in edgewise. Perfect for an upbeat evening on the town; lousy for a soulful tete-a-tete. Textbook bistro, your instincts scream over the din. And your instincts would be wrong.

The first clue arrived with the waiter, whose pedantic dissertations on Mangalitsa pork fat and the fisherman who hauled in the halibut were impressive—but too precious for the surroundings. The places in France that look like Bastille are casual, down-to-earth, even working-class bastions of good, honest food. Unquestionably Bastille’s food passes the “good and honest” test—much of its produce is organically grown on its rooftop garden, and Galusha is a known stickler for sourcing. But it’s an irony particular to restaurants that the more “of the earth” cred a place seeks to claim for its ingredients, the less down-to-earth it feels.

This pretension, of course, is a service issue. Peter Lewis, you old front-of-the-house maestro: The minions could use your savoir faire. We had to keep slapping the buser’s hands just so he’d leave us our final bites of food. (Young man, you risked mortal peril when you reached for our moules frites dish. There were a few mussels left—plump, firm, perfect—bathed in a glorious leek- and thyme-fragrant broth that we mopped up with our bread and dispatched to the last molecule.) Other service gaffes were just as jarring, and just as fixable.

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Viva la France: Subway tile and vintage fixtures set the stage at Bastille.

But the food puts up the biggest challenge to Bastille’s bistro identity. Many of the classic bistro dishes were plagued with overcooking (an otherwise crisp and savory pan-roasted half-chicken; the coquilles St. Jacques, beautifully served over greens and marinated beets with a gentle cauliflower puree) and overfussing, as if the star chef were bored with them. The braised lamb shank (that should have surrendered its bone more readily) arrived in a pinched little arrangement of artichoke hearts, flat-leaf parsley, and tangy olives that wanted more hearty, less nouvelle. The steak frites was another stark take, a hunk of roasted flat iron arriving sans jus on a white plate, alongside a petite pitcher of Bearnaise and a cone of serviceable frites. These were careful compositions—not the rustic plates of our bistro fantasies—and restrained of portion, befitting the mostly sub-$20 price tags.

Once I exorcised the bistro cliches, my view of Bastille improved. Galusha applies French technique inspired by fresh flavors. His salads are sublime: a house salad of rooftop lettuces and hazelnuts, or a sensational little beet and arugula number with chevre and herbs on a citrusy bed of diced pistachios. His forays into North African–influenced French dishes were uniformly terrific, from his satisfying lamb burger with harissa aioli to a fork-tender presentation of vivid purple octopus, enriched and brightened with nutty argan-oiled chickpeas and preserved lemon.

Swabbing a piece of garlicky octopus through a velvety swath of hummus or dredging a crackle of Butterfinger-like feuilletine cookie through rich creme glacee my mouth finally experienced what the rest of me knew from the moment I laid eyes on this Parisian stage set: That Bastille will feed you sumptuously—sometimes even with its food.


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