Walk along Boat Street, past the eager taco fans at Agua Verde, past the bike repair shop, past the UW buildings, toward the shadow of the University Bridge. Keep walking. You'll notice how quiet and still it suddenly is, except for the gravel crunching beneath your feet, and it will dawn on you that you are cutting through a boatyard, catching glimpses of Portage Bay between buildings.
It feels impossible that a restaurant sits mere steps away. As I followed my dining companion, I was beginning to think he was going to drag me behind a shed and bust my kneecaps rather than take me to dinner. But then there it was--softly glowing, making absolute sense in the light of dusk.
Located in a former machine shop for wooden boats, Renee Erickson's Boat Street Cafe is a lovely example of what ingenuity and candlelight can do for a series of squat little rooms with cement floors. The bare-bones elegance of the place--white paint on wooden walls, flowers and wine bottles, French postcards on tables--is the most seductive element here. The food, while well executed, is not particularly innovative; but your experience is somehow elevated when the atmosphere is so flawless, so right on.
Erickson's menu avoids any inflated sense of gourmet status, maintaining integrity. (This doesn't mean she avoids having fun: Note the "green crème fraîche" on the salmon special, or the banana hot pepper confit with crab cakes.) Her cooking reminds me of what Craig Serbousek does so brilliantly over at the Stumbling Goat Bistro, with her own quirks like the Boat Street pickle plate ($6.50, with rotating house-pickled fruits and vegetables such as onions, baby eggplant, asparagus, prunes, or kum-quats) or sweet-potato ravioli served with house curry, saffron, and heavy cream ($14.50).
Appetizers are refreshingly purist--a clutch of marinated niçoise olives ($4.75), a cheese plate ($10.95), a bowl of Provençal tomato-saffron-fennel soup ($6). Even Penn Cove mussels ($8.50) are treated with a delicate hand, steamed with just butter, white wine, and fragrant strands of tarragon, reminding us that shellfish doesn't need a frickin' entourage. My dubious friend, who had never tried mussels before, approved. (To date, I've convinced him to sample mussels and soft-shell crab. Next: monkfish liver.)
Our "Caviar Provençal" ($6.50) was decidedly more plain-Jane: a purée of eggplant, olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. I longed for a little more garlic, and the tang of lemon was barely perceptible, but sometimes I appreciate a nice palate neutralizer. Seafood Rookie, however, was quickly bored. ("It tastes exactly like you'd expect it to.")
The sweet corn flan ($14.50), a sort of upscale quiche-like dish with local corn, New York white cheddar, lots of spinach, and fresh dill, was also disappointing for Seafood Rookie. After a few bites, the expression on his face made me want to hand him a thick slice of pizza.
But I was way too busy with my pork. The tenderloin ($17.50) was rightly rosy and succulent, thickly sliced after being crusted in a dry herb rub and gently baked. That pork was seasoned with such respect, I found myself wishing I had requested its accompanying blackberry-wine sauce on the side (and I swear, I am normally NOT one of those sauce-on-the-side women). It was too heavy, almost like berry jam; I found the best partner for my pork in my sizzling roasted potato, skin bursting to reveal plain, perfect insides.
As we paid the bill, I was already planning what I would order next time. At brunch, there's a smoked trout plate ($9.50) with my name on it, and I long for a proper lunchtime niçoise salad ($9.50) with a butter-smeared, salami-draped baguette (Gare de Lyon, $7.50). On our way out, we nearly bumped into a couple standing right outside the door, feverishly making out. And of course there was a full moon, and of course the night air was warm, and of course I turned around and took one last look.
Boat Street Cafe
909 NE Boat St (U-District), 632-4602. Lunch Tues-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner Wed-Sat 5:30-10 pm; brunch Sat-Sun 10:30 am-2:30 pm.