425 NW Market St, 781-4883
Mon-Thurs 5:30 pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 5:30 pm-2 am, closed Sunday.
I like small restaurants. With a small room, there's instant intimacy, a kitchen that can't get too slammed with tickets, and servers who are never too far away when you need another cocktail. Granted, once a small place becomes popular, it can get tricky to deal with the wait, which might very well become an issue for Sambar, a bonbon of a bar/restaurant adjoining Ballard's Le Gourmand. It's about as small as a restaurant can be without being someone's living room.
Sambar specializes in elaborate cocktails and dainty portions of food. Situated just over the Ballard border, it's not quite the salt-of-the-earth Ballard pub that we've come to know and love, but is full of a different kind of charm. Like a song by '60s yé-yé girl Françoise Hardy, the atmosphere has a whispery, sophisticated pop quality. The lighting is low, but luminous, and breathy French electropop fills the room. There are a few juicy red bits of décor--ornate beaded lamps and a crusty floral mural--but they're offset by the cool grays that fill the rest of the space. Sambar reminds me, in the very best way, of the lounge area outside the ladies' room in a classy department store.
In its 18-year existence, Le Gourmand has become known for owners Bruce and Sara Naftaly's affection for French food and for local ingredients, many of which grow in their own garden. Still, with $75, seven-course fixed-menu dinners and $36-$50 three-course meals, it's not the kind of place you can just drop by. Which is what, about a month ago, the younger, nibblier Sambar came to be.
Behind the bar, liquor bottles glow softly against their mirrored background. Le Gourmand's wine list--deep on French and Northwest wines--is available, but there's something about those glowing bottles that makes cocktails a priority. Most rely on homemade boozy infusions of fruit or herbs, such as a grown-up fuzzy navel ($10) with peach liqueur, vodka infused with Buddha's hand citron, and little rose petals floating on it. Another, which has a violet ball of rhubarb sorbet floating in a bath of kaffir lime vodka ($10), is named after Barbapapa, the '70s kids' icon of similar appearance. The pear sour ($10) tweaks your palate with the fragrance of pear brandy and nectar and leaves you, in the end, with a tiny alcoholic pear to munch on. Less fruity is a martini revamped on a Spanish theme ($10), with a steel toothpick stuck full of anchovy-stuffed manzanilla olives, and dry sherry instead of vermouth.
If you stuck to the drinks with hearty garnishes, you could easily forget about food, but in truth the food is as carefully prepared as the cocktails, and full of French-style refinements. Even peasanty food like the venison stew ($12) boasts turned carrots and potatoes--each carved into a perfect football shape, each cooked to match the tender texture of the long-cooked meat. Neat leek parcels (tied with chives!) and a stuffed quail egg fancy up a composed salad ($9) of radishes and lentils. And there's the double pour of soups in a single bowl ($8): One's chestnut, one's parsnip, and both are so velvet-smooth that they must have passed through a very fine strainer indeed. Even standard-issue French bar food like a croque monsieur is smooth: Sambar's ($5) is less about oozy melted cheese and ham than it is about its seamless crackling crust. Flavors at Sambar, like the lighting, are muted: Aggressive flavors are set aside in favor of the mellow, the nuanced, the French. It's all part of the mood.
For dessert, there was an effusive Yuletide bóche de Noël (chocolate cake in the form of a log, which arrived complete with meringue mushrooms and buttercream ivy), but we opted out. Instead, our waitress--who glided through the room with impeccable posture--brought a tray of imported cheese and let us design our own cheese plate ($10). The cheese, particularly the unbelievably good Persille du Beaujolais, brought an earthy blast into the ethereal environment and lingered long after we'd paid the check.
If you've got room for one more indulgence before the resolutions kick in, Sambar just might be your place.