Another Improbable Goodness
A Nowhere Bit of Ballard Has All the Luck
Photos by Kelly O
The people who live around 15th Avenue Northwest and 70th Street out in Ballard are lucky. They don't have to go to Cafe Besalu for mind-meltingly good pastries—they've got Honore bakery right there. (Honore's kouign-amann makes people crazy; one Stranger reader-reviewer says it's "like crack." The macarons cause raving as well.) And they've got the famously awesome Neapolitan pizza of Delancey, too—otherwise, it'd be a trip to Veraci.
On the other hand, these great places have turned their narcoleptic mini-neighborhood into a place where it's hard to find a parking space, and the gourmand tourists on the sidewalk waiting for tables at Delancey probably audibly use the word "foodie." It's not going to get better, either, because now, in the role of cafe, brunch spot, and Friday-night snacks or supper, there's the Fat Hen.
The Fat Hen gets points right up front for its name, which makes you think warm, clucky thoughts while subliminally introducing a longing for eggs (and, for the perverse, chicken). It's in the windowy little storefront where the terribly named A Caprice Kitchen used to be, and while that place's on-a-shoestring aesthetics—an old console record player, ugly mismatched chairs, everything a little out of plumb—had a certain charm, the food also had a DIY aspect to it, with the Y in question maybe not better than your average amateur home cook.
Now the space looks impeccably lovely, with the wooden joists of the high ceiling exposed and whitewashed wainscoting on the walls. The tabletops are white marble, and the decor is of the pinecones and branches ilk, but with a restrained number of pinecones and branches. A shelf of books isn't, for once, all cookbooks—there's F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hannah Arendt, Nabokov, Faulkner, Gardner's Grendel—they're some of owner Linnea Gallo's favorites, and you're welcome to take them down and page through. A row of old-school Italian Bialetti stovetop espresso makers sits waiting—they'll make you a pot for $5 ("Please allow 15 minutes")—probably the idea of her Italian-born husband, Massimo, who masterminds (and cooks) the simple, delicious Italian menu.
At breakfast/lunch/brunch, eggs are baked four different ways, including in carrozza ("in a carriage," an adorable image) with country ham and smoked mozzarella, and in camicia ("wearing shirts," I think—puzzling but also cute) with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella (each $8). The Fat Hen's eggs Benedict ($12) is a triumph of understated goodness. Remember the last hollandaise sauce you had, all thick and gloppy and school-bus yellow? This is not that—it's subtle and light and pale lemon-colored, and lightly lemon-flavored, too. The spilling yolk of the eggs looks nearly orange by contrast (though one of mine was poached a bit hard), and the Canadian bacon is thin-sliced and smoky, and the English muffins are made in-house. These house-made English muffins have the exact right spongy density and crispy edges—they're just a little bit better than any English muffin you've ever had before. The roasted new potatoes that come with the Benedict are golden-creamy inside, burnished on a spot or two on the exterior—just plain orbs of goodness, but kind of wonderful when you think about all the roasted potatoes you've ever had.
The French lentil salad ($8.50) is great if you're feeling virtuous, with celery and crispy pancetta for opposing forces of crunch. If you're feeling cold, lo stufato ($11) is a mildly winey, very satisfying stew with lots of beef and bright disks of carrot, and no potatoes taking up room (kind of wonderful when you think of all the potatoes in all the stew you've ever had). The Fat Hen also makes its own Jersey-milk yogurt and granola and pastries (a chocolate-swirly coffee cake, a lemon tart with a perfect crust).
Dinner is Friday nights only, and they just started doing it (they plan to add Thursdays and Saturdays eventually). The kitchen is minuscule, and even with only a few tables full, the pace was leisurely. As the neighborhood and beyond finds out about $5 glasses of house wine (rocketing up to $7 for a valpolicella or prosecco) and pretty plates of stuzzichini (snacks like salumi, bruschetta, and peppery house-made pecorino-Romano crisps, $4–$14), be aware that if you're in a rush, you've come to the wrong place.
But you're in the right place for un-tarted-up, fresh-tasting rustic Italian. The roasted potatoes make a reappearance as a snack, and lo stufato and the lentil salad are here, too. Penne ($14) was textbook al dente, and its all'arrabiata sauce was bright, spicy, and sparingly applied, made with Solea tomatoes, Mangalitsa lardo for a fatty/porky taste, peperoncini for spark, and lots of garlic. Veal cutlets ($16), enveloped in a crisp coating, were tender and good, plainly so (though the green salad on the side was a little too plain—it just tasted like lettuce). Cod alla livornese ($14) was a pristinely white and firm-but-flaky specimen, ideally offset by its caper-heavy tomato sauce—more like a Mediterranean stew, with lots of slices of garlic, bits of olive, and leaves of basil.
There's one more pasta, a soup, and a few desserts (the budino, $5, is what all molten-chocolate things aspire to be). The Fat Hen isn't doing anything extravagant—it's just a neighborhood place that's uncommonly good, in a neighborhood with uncommonly good places.