The manager at Ballard Annex Oyster House is so smooth and good-looking, it's like you're in a movie. You're the extras out to dinner at the tastefully upscale, bustling seafood restaurant. The manager—who's suavely introducing himself and asking if he can get you a drink before the waiter, who will also introduce himself, arrives—is played by The Rock, at last realizing his dream of running his own restaurant from The Rundown. When you say you don't know what you want to drink yet, The Rock graciously allows this—reassures you, even—and, muscularly, moves on. No explosion ever occurs.
Ballard Annex Oyster House grand-opened on March 21. It is brought to you by the owners of the seven Matadors—the upscale Mexi-themed restaurant-and-party-bars in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—as well as Ballard's upscale barbecue palace Kickin' Boot Whiskey Kitchen, plus its Portland cousin Southland Whiskey Kitchen. Located a stone's throw from a Matador and Kickin' Boot, BAOH looks ready for its sequel(s). The decor is old-school seafood house (hexagonal white tile by the bar, old-fashionedy carpentry around the liquor bottles, nautical-style hanging lanterns) with careful updated touches (a line of ropes that stretches to the ceiling, the faraway midnight blue ceiling). It is pleasant to sit in a two-person booth with your own faux-old-timey sconce aglow, though the tables are problematically small. It is less pleasant to be adrift at a table amid the echoing, anonymous-feeling dining room, without even a candle for an anchor. A reggae soundtrack—mostly just the bass line—sets the demographic to Younger Than Our Parents, Damn It.
Go off-script at BAOH at the peril of your sanity. I called for a 7:30 reservation and was asked to arrive 10 minutes early. So I should arrive at 7:20 for my 7:30 reservation? Yes, I should—for my convenience, they said—so they could get us settled in, or in case there was a wait (so that I could wait 10 minutes longer, apparently). Should I just make an earlier reservation? No, for my convenience, etc. Finally, I said, "So, really, you're just asking us not to be late?" "Yes, in a roundabout, polite way," they said. Politeness is not roundabout. A 7:30 reservation is not a 7:20 reservation.
A less irksome but similarly bizarre exchange occurred on-site about half-carafes of wine: The server was evasive about the relative cost, first saying it was "the same" as by the glass, then, asked specifically about the price differential, that the half-carafe was a better value. Another server, on a rosé: "It's light. That's about all I can say about that. People really like it." But: dry or sweet? "Right in the middle. [Pause.] Maybe a little on the sweet side." This went unaccompanied by an offer of a taste; I ordered the grüner veltliner instead.
A server on the lobster ravioli ($24): "It's a bisque sauce. So, you know, it's cream-based." This left its runny texture and sour taste unexplained. The asparagus that came with it had woody ends. A cup of New England clam chowder ($8) had many large chunks of chewy, chowderlogged bacon and a lot of potato, versus only two small bits of clam: way more smoke than ocean. An appetizer of baby octopus was oddly cheap for the many tiny, tentacled lives that were sacrificed: only $10 for maybe two dozen two-inch babies. They were tender to the point of sponginess, soaked in butter, and monotonous after just a few. The leftovers got skewered and grilled at home the next night; with a little char, they were great.
To be fair, these were the three worst things I tried at BAOH. The rest of the food was just fine, including a serviceable Caesar salad with planks of garlic toast instead of croutons ($8); adequate seared sockeye ($22); perfectly acceptable seared scallops, albeit with a peculiar side of green beans, cherry tomatoes, onion, bacon, and what seemed like turnip ($22); wholly edible, extremely cheesy oysters Rockefeller ($12 for three); respectable crab cakes (though lacking any big chunks of crab), both Dungeness and Maryland blue ($28 for the two); a decent lobster roll ($20), though with somewhat chewy filling (and why, why would you do this to a lobster unless the place was literally crawling with them?).
All... just... fine. You know how when you eat extremely fresh, perfectly prepared seafood, it makes your heart hurt in your chest a little? How life feels more worth living, tinged with the fear that global warming and overfishing are ruining everything already, and life will soon not be worth living at all anymore? That's not happening here.
The only thing that caused heartache at BAOH was a hyperfresh, just briny enough Dungeness crab cocktail with bright, horseradishy cocktail sauce ($14). Besides the octopus babies, all the other leftovers sat in the fridge until they got thrown away.
Sadly, this doesn't put BAOH at the bottom of Seattle's short pile of Official Seafood Restaurants. The food is probably better than at the dated Brooklyn, arguably better than overfussy Elliott's, definitely better than the attempted revivification of Ray's. But if you love the shock and awe you can experience eating at the Walrus and the Carpenter down the street, the ready-for-replication Ballard Annex Oyster House will not feel right.