The world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who enjoy puppets looming over their heads, and those who would strongly prefer not to be thus menaced.
The puppets suspended in the airspace of Le Gourmand in Ballard are, it is fair to say, amazing—recognizing that to be amazed is not necessarily a positive thing. The puppets polarize; neutrality is not an option.
The puppets are new, an audacity in the otherwise unobjectionably lovely redecoration of the dining room. For many years, the salient feature of Le Gourmand was The Mural, a greenery-and-hollyhocks pastoral complemented by pink cushions and heavy drapes, creating an atmosphere sometimes described as precious (and—unforgivably—likened by some in the restaurant industry to a part of your grandmother's anatomy that you should never think about). Now there are The Puppets, three in number1, made more prominent via their total dissonance with their elegant, white-and-putty surroundings. Here are seamed, streamlined cream leather chairs; chandeliers like lotus snowballs, made of glowing translucent seashells; an enormous mirror in its own simple, mirrored frame; the door to the kitchen, softly, richly, pristinely upholstered.2 If the tables at the room's center are snug, occupants can feel lucky to be there, like jewels crowded together in a pretty setting. For very fine dining in Seattle, this remodel represents a coup of the contemporary, making Lampreia and Rover's seem even stuffier. (Mistral, also said to suffer from a certain airlessness, is closing, with chef/owner William Belickis planning a restaurant that suits human beings instead of parodic notions of special occasions.) And, now that they're not separated by a century or so in style, Le Gourmand and its lauded adjoining lounge, Sambar, make splendid sense together.
Perhaps the puppets are the oddity that lends the whole a more singular beauty.3 At the least, they provide a topic of conversation. And once the matter is settled—what kind of person are you? and if you are a different kind than your companion(s), can you continue to coexist?—what happens on your table easily becomes the focus.
Bruce Naftaly, chef and co-owner of Le Gourmand, deserves a lifetime achievement award, if not outright canonization. Since 1985, he's been quietly, honorably using local and seasonal ingredients in the manner that's just recently, very loudly been hailed as revolutionary. But lifetime achievement sounds tired, while his care with Northwest ingredients and his insight into French techniques remains amazing (in the best way).
As long as you're spending a small fortune (or, preferably, someone else is), you may as well order the seven-course tasting menu. For $75, you're afforded the luxury of not having to choose—none of these dishes are available à la carte—and taken on a fresh, delightful, and indulgent journey through right here, right now. The first stop on a recent Saturday night: a thick nettle soup. If you've ever been stung by the nettles growing along a local island path, you'd recognize in the taste of this soup the dappled or dripping woods, the damp spring earth, and (so slightly) the nearby Sound—all the wonder with none of the rash. The flavors and textures of a foie gras course—with honeyed sauce, just-in-season rhubarb, and buttery brioche toast—conspired in combination to taste like extraspectacular cake (the kind of cake that has foie frosting). The root vegetable salsify, treated tenderly in a thick cream sauce, was so rich that more than a small dish of it would've been too much. A cream-based sauce Américaine, flavored by shrimp shells, surrounding a skate wing cooked with tea was too much: the oil of the fish, the heavy dairy, the smoke and saline. But then it's only one course in seven, with salad and sorbet for recalibration, and at a once-in-a-lifetime dinner like this, being overwhelmed feels appropriate. The meat featured—overwhelmingly tasty—was Wooly Pigs' Mangalitsa pork, a breed imported with much tribulation from Austria, now being raised in small supply near Spokane to much demand (from places like the French Laundry).
On Le Gourmand's à la carte menu, salade composée is currently "A.Q.," priced as quoted, an eloquent nod to the foragers and organic farmers who provide for it. More Mangalitsa pork (sausage pillows with house-made mustard, $12.50) is to be had, and the first of the season's halibut with wild-mushroom sauce ($38). However one eats here, it's an unrushed evening's worth of pleasure, more so if you make the acquaintance of sommelier David Butler. Formerly the maître d' at Cremant, he gauges interest unerringly, speaking softly about French sunshine and flinty soil or just benevolently fading away. His wine recommendations are the drink that demands the next bite, making a circle of enjoyment to be completed over and over.
There's barely room to mention co-owner Sara Naftaly's desserts—artistic feats of meringue ($10); thick, butterscotchy crème brûlée ($10)—like there's barely room to eat them. But Le Gourmand is now more than ever an experience to be prolonged, puppets or no puppets.
1. They are: (1) a bald bird; (2) a pillow-bodied, branch-haired, grasping-fingers-outstretched witch; and (3) a bug-eyed, traumatized-looking sort of Rasta-multi-knitted-character. They were made by a neighborhood artist known as Captain Sunshine. The source of the Rasta-multi-knit component is, according to two different servers: (1) a group of schizophrenics with whom Captain Sunshine had occasion to do art therapy, who knitted to quiet the voices in their heads; or (2) a woman Captain Sunshine knows who, due to memory loss, can never finish a knitting project. Either way: Oh dear. 2. The foyer also contains three new things: (1) a small, exquisite plant-filled terrarium; (2) an even smaller, possibly more exquisite biosphere supporting minuscule shrimp-creatures; and (3) a trio of stools made out of white recycled paper. Philosophically, the denizens of the foyer exist in opposition to the puppets, representing the transformative force of life versus the puppets' foreboding inanimateness. You know the puppets creep forth late at night in the darkened restaurant to terrorize the little plants and sea creatures, with the stools valiantly defending the foyer door in tense standoffs. 3. Except that they are not. They should be somewhere furnishing children with lifetimes' worth of nightmares, not here where grown-ups go to have an evening like a dream.