The woman seated across from me was allergic to metal. You know that rivet on the back of the button of jeans? That always gives her a rash. She was talking to her companion, seated next to her, and when there was a lull in my conversation, across from them, this is what she was saying. Communal dining means learning things about people, and every so often that means things you would rather not know.
On this night at Belle Clementine, new in Ballard, all three of the reclaimed-wood-plank tables were at full occupancy. Another woman realized belatedly that the hummus and flatbread (both freshly made and quite fine) were not solely for her party of four and handed them along with a mortified apology. No one minded; there was plenty on the other big plate going around the other two-thirds of the table. When one person reached for the saltcellar to apply some to their pureed sunchoke soup, several more people felt licensed to help themselves, too. Otherwise, though the quarters were close, through all four courses, everyone kept pretty much to themselves.
It's funny to share a communal table and not really commune. Some people might feel disappointed by the failure of a temporary social club to arise; one reviewer, writing about the Corson Building in the P-I in 2008, suggested, "How about an icebreaker... introducing yourself and naming your favorite season and your favorite seasoning?" Others couldn't care less, or might feel relieved to be left, favorite seasoning and all, alone. On this night at Belle Clementine, with its almost sky-high ceilings, whitewashed walls, and capacious open kitchen, no one wanted to compare notes on other restaurants they'd been to recently; no one used the word "foodie." Once a faint initial awkwardness passed, it felt like a particularly pretty cafeteria, and if you weren't sure why you were there with these other people, well, that seemed perfectly all right.
At another dinner a week later, a couple fewer people were seated at each table, and pairs were given the option of sitting across from each other or side by side. A little personal choice and a little more personal space (and, probably, just the stars in another place) seemed to loosen things up. Introductions were made collegially all around right away, and the people across from us pushed the warm Castelvetrano olives and spiced nuts across right away, too, because otherwise, they said, they'd eat them all.
A funny moment occurred when chef/proprietor David Sanford came around to the table to say hi, after he'd talked about what was on the menu (all as organic, local, and seasonal as humanly possible) and reminded people to share (maybe after other intervening hummus-hogging incidents). Sanford used to help Matt Dillon run the Corson Building; he also has a degree from Stanford in entrepreneurial management and plans to offer dinners at Belle Clementine on a subscription "Seasonal Meals series" basis. One guy congratulated him and inquired respectfully how it was going; then when Sanford asked a woman seated nearby how she was doing this evening, she told him she'd like a bottle of the sparkling wine. A flicker of surprise might have registered on his face—these days, the cult of the chef is so pervasive, who would ever think to actually ask one for something you want at their restaurant? Then, "Of course," he said.
Dinner at Belle Clementine is $35 per person, with a glass of wine and gratuity included (though you're still faced with the "Tip" line on your credit card receipt—if you can leave it blank without feeling like a heel, you're a stronger individual than I). The wine list is thoughtful, and it's priced to promote a good time; that woman's bottle of Spanish cava cost only $23 and seemed to lead to lots of laughter at her end of the table.
The rustic food is by and large tasty, but sometimes it's tastier than others. One night's stewy rabbit, braised with a scattering of green olives and (self-) served with polenta, was pleasant but minimally seasoned; more olives, more herbs, even just some black pepper would've been nice. It did not get finished off. Another night, a platter of extremely tender flank steak disappeared with alacrity, and one man declared the chimichurri—an Argentinean olive oil/cilantro/parsley mashup, this one with the exactly correct amount of garlic—to be the best he'd ever had, to all-around agreement. When Sanford came by to see if anyone wanted more of anything, meat was demanded, nearly accompanied by the banging of knives and forks on the table. One night's shaved brussels sprouts salad with apple and caraway vinaigrette was sweet and tart and just right; another night's quinoa contained still-crunchy black beans.
Sanford is still getting his feet under him—feeding 36 people at once takes practice—and Belle Clementine has a winning sweetness to it. It's named after his grandmother; her artwork sits on shelves. At one dinner, Sanford wished a happy birthday to the woman who makes the jam for brunch, and everyone applauded her presence, because: birthday! And: jam! He's posting recipes, by popular demand, on Belle Clementine's Facebook. The distinct feeling you get is that he'll make a community yet.