What?! You haven't been to Barnacle yet?! You live in Seattle, and you love good things—especially good things to eat and drink—and you have yet to go to Renee Erickson's shotgun-style, 14-seat bar attached to the side of her renowned restaurant the Walrus and the Carpenter? (Barnacle, attached—best name ever.)
A guy I know accosted me about this, in the friendliest drunken way, at the Roanoke recently. (The Roanoke, aka Seattle's ivy- covered Chia Pet, is a great bar in its own, totally different right—nicely worn in, always friendly, pretty good nachos, ping-pong out back.) I had not been to Barnacle yet. It's in Ballard and has been open for six months. He became nearly apoplectic. He is a man of good taste—one who remains charming when drunk—and his exhortations could not be ignored.
So I found myself a week or so later driving through rush-hour traffic to Ballard and arriving somewhat grumpy at Barnacle's happy hour. In a matter of moments, a glass of prosecco ($8) and a small bowl of complimentary Lay's potato chips were in front of me. Sparkling wine and potato chips are, truly, a superior pairing. Ray Charles was playing. Right away, the unpleasant fog lifted.
Barnacle is long and narrow, and the copper-topped bar and its metal stools face a standing bar for a quick European-style drink and snack. It's got lots of pretty blue-and-white tiles, and the light fixtures look like they came from an old-timey operating room. The shelves behind the bar are a larder of attractive things to drink and eat, including tons of different kinds of amaro, jars of Erickson's Boat Street pickles, tinned sardines, bottles of the Ligurian olive oil that they use to finish many dishes, packets of special salt. Up above are baskets with bags of Lay's in them, and there's a rolling library-style ladder to reach everything. On the bar—wide enough with ample room for working on one side and eating on the other—there is a complicated, shiny steel holder for a whole leg of jamón serrano. This implement also looks medical, like something that's meant to hold a body very still for surgery, which, in a sense, it is: The ham is hand-shaved off the leg to order, then served with eye-watering, splendidly bitter pickled Treviso ($12, more than enough for two). If a hoof is going to make you nervous, you're in the wrong place; it's right there, just like it might be at a neighborhood bar in Italy or Spain.
Barnacle's happy hour, which is Sunday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m., is called "cavi-hour," as in "caviar" (not as clever a name, but okay). The three $6 snacks they served each contained a different kind of fish roe, and each was better than the last. The gougères—three little cream-puff-type pastries—were filled with chive cream and topped with tiny golden whitefish roe. The rosti—like an extra-thin-and-crispy potato pancake—was topped with crème fraîche, the electric, orange-popping greatness of salmon roe, and a sprig of dill, and the spot prawn custard, topped with a small mound of tobiko, was rich and smooth, deeply shrimp-flavored but light as air. One of the Barnacle crew recommended scooping it up with potato chips, and this was not at all a bad idea, but I ate most of it straight with its small-sized spoon.
Speaking of the Barnacle crew, everyone here seems either genuinely delighted or admirably intent about their work, often both. The wine list, on flip-over chalkboard menus along the bar, is all Italian; if you don't know much about it, they couldn't be happier to help you choose. If you want red, you will very likely learn that the bright Burlotto Pelaverga ($10 a glass) is a staff favorite; their eyes get shiny when they talk about it, and some of them buy it by the case and split it up. If you ask questions or just listen in, you will learn all kinds of stuff: how if you love a Negroni, you should try a Boulevardier; how to make duck prosciutto (which you will want to do, once you taste theirs, which is not currently on the menu, but you could beg); how the octopus terrine (the most delicate, elegant treatment of octopus you could ever hope to have, $10) is modeled exactly on the one Erickson had in Liguria ("She showed us pictures!"); how the sweet, jiggly pieces of pâte de fruit you might get as a free treat were made with the leftovers of juiced oranges; how happy they are to have the new Fermín ham-holder, because the old one was janky and wobbly and made of wood.
Sardines ($10)—your choice of Italian or Spanish, with the Italian recommended as smaller and less fishy—are served still in their tin with darkly herby salsa verde on top, plus a lemon wedge to squeeze over them and saltines to convey them to your mouth. The duck liver mousse ($8), we were conscientiously informed, was not so moussey that night, more of a rougher chop; fair enough, and it was served with pickled raisins, wonton-like semolina crackers, and good strong Dijon, and eaten in a blur. Almost everything at Barnacle makes you eat it fast and then wish you had more. A special of thin-sliced pig tongue ($10)—curled on top of a bed of tonatto, which is a creamy tuna and caper sauce, and drizzled with the Ligurian olive oil—was no exception, even given its super-richness. The pig, we learned, came from Yarmuth Farms, an hour north in Darrington, which primarily makes goat cheese; the pig had eaten goat-cheese whey and such all its life, so that's part of why it tasted so good. When the tongue was all gone, it took restraint to ask for bread (which is complimentary) rather than just lick the plate.
My favorite thing at Barnacle so far (besides everything) is the Spanish-style mussels escabeche ($8). Marinated mussels sit atop pieces of crouton-like bread, with a good glob of aioli in between, and these little marvels all sit on a plate that's covered in a glorious bright-green cilantro sauce, with more Ligurian olive oil. It's tangy, briny, creamy, crunchy, verdant, arguably perfect. That drunk man knows what he's talking about.