What don't they throw into the smoker at Bitterroot? The new Montana-themed barbecue joint in Ballard seems to put pretty much everything in there. At brunch a few weeks ago, a visitor from Arkansas mentioned that her Bloody Mary tasted smoky (in a good way). The server explained that Bitterroot house-smokes the tomatoes and the salt. They even house-smoke sugar cubes for their Sazeracs. I asked to try a cube on a subsequent visit: It was surprisingly chewy, not granular at all, and tasted like a nice balance of smoky and fruity and sweet. Bitterroot could sell them as candy.
The restaurant can get away with this all-smoked-everything policy because they use apple wood in their smoker, which gives a subtler and more fruity taste than hickory or oak or the other popular, pungent hardwoods. The apple-wood gambit totally pays off, especially since the restaurant makes several sauces—a mild one, a hot one, and a yellow-mustard one, all of them complex in their spiciness—as condiments. You can definitely taste the smokiness in the meat, but it's a mild smokiness, allowing them (and you) to experiment with other flavors.
The Great Barbecue Wars have their partisans—saucier or drier, more vinegar-based or more tomato-based—but Bitterroot sits squarely in the center. (For those of you who keep score on this kind of thing, the part-owner/head chef is from Missouri but does not follow the Kansas City barbecue tradition of smothering everything in tomato and molasses.)
Bitterroot's beef brisket is red but not saucy (they dry-rub their meats) and vinegary but not southern-Virginia/North Carolina vinegary. Between the sauce, the smoke, and the condiments on the table, the meats have a surprisingly complex flavor for a barbecue joint. The brisket, unfortunately, was a little dry and brittle. But the smoked chicken, tried on a different day, was as moist and succulent as you could ask for. Since the restaurant is young, and everything else was good, one hopes they're still refining the delicate art of a perfect meat-smoking. And the barbecue sandwiches are excellent, served on pretzel rolls from Tall Grass Bakery, which add a pleasant but not overwhelming saltiness.
Bitterroot isn't all dead, smoked animal flesh. They offer some great vegetarian dishes as well, including seared brussels sprouts, corn bread with honey butter, and mix 'n' match macaroni and cheese, involving elbow macaroni with a mild-tasting cheese sauce and a smorgasbord of sides: roasted red peppers, jalapeños, caramelized onions, fresh English peas that pop between your teeth. (They also offer good braised greens, though those aren't vegetarian.)
And let us pause for a moment to consider Bitterroot's excellent grits. Grits in Seattle tend to be a bit denser than what you'd find in most parts of the South—sometimes a slab of overcooked hominy with a pile of not-yet-melted cheese on top. But Bitterroot's grits are in the old twice-cooked Southern tradition, where the cheese is fully integrated (they use an aged cheddar) and the grits are extraordinarily fluffy. The restaurant also serves delicious fried chicken livers—it's hard to screw up chicken livers, whose musky, essence-of-animal flavor is right up there with bone marrow and raw oysters and needs little embellishment. But Bitterroot's browned batter seems to magically enhance, rather than mask, the livers' marvelous inherent flavor. The jalapeño hush puppies are also extraordinary—fried but not too heavy, spicy but not pepper-spray spicy, like large and light tater tots with cheese and jalapeño in the middle. The visitor from Arkansas mentioned earlier can be persnickety, and her first reaction to the hush puppies was something like "That's not how my grandma makes them. You wouldn't see that back home." But within minutes, she and I were negotiating over the last one.
In short, Bitterroot's barbecue is good, but its sides are great.
The interior of the restaurant is stylish but unpretentious—exposed brick and ductwork with whitewashed chain-link fencing in the front room and a bar separated into alcoves in the back. Bitterroot is not a small place, but walking through it feels like ducking through a series of cozy warrens populated by happy people. The few times I've visited, the staff seemed frank, friendly, and pleased to be there—none of the false obsequiousness of fancy restaurants, nor the sneering resentment of too-cool-for-school bars and gastropubs. The overall feeling is one of camaraderie and loyalty between the staff and the clientele, with the underlying sense that if somebody's ass needed to be kicked, it would be a team effort.
Bitterroot is situated in the Ballard corridor, just a few minutes' walk from iconic neighborhood bars and clubs such as the Sunset, the Tractor, and Hattie's Hat. Here's hoping that it will stick around and become another neighborhood icon.