Carnegie's
2026 NW Market St (Ballard), 789-6643
Tues-Sat 5-10 pm.

Just when I thought that there should be a ban on any new eclectic urban bistros, I revisited what existed before all that gastronomic clutter. At Carnegie's, which opened in June in Ballard, I came face to face with the culinary past, and I'm not sure I liked it.

Carnegie's looks great. It's lodged in Ballard's old library, an imposing brick affair with heavy Richardsonian arches. Old municipal buildings, with their traces of utility, can work well for leisure businesses, the kind of thing the McMenamins people did with the Kennedy School hotel in Portland, where you go get your liquor at Detention Bar and bed down in old classrooms, complete with original blackboards. As anyone who loved the "Hot for Teacher" video knows, it's a kick to indulge in a space that was once so rule-bound. Go too far with a theme, though, and you end up with a gimmick. It's a delicate balance.

The library building might have fit right in with Ballard's vintage sensibility, but Carnegie's has chosen to use the structure's grandeur without a trace of irony. With safe dark woodwork and red walls, it seems to have been created as a refuge for those displaced by the neighborhood's creeping coolness.

Carnegie's food shows a similar unwillingness to reframe the past. The menu is full of European standards: French onion soup, Wiener schnitzel, and the like, which in theory can be very good, but here seem kind of stodgy. The lack of personal flair left the meal feeling a little like a catered affair--like a wedding attended just for the food. (Not surprisingly, Carnegie's is courting banquet events, as well it should, with such a grand space.)

Dishes filtered out one at a time. Blandness was generally the worst offense at Carnegie's, but two times the kitchen tried and failed to invoke the Pacific Rim. This I imagine is how Asian-style dishes must have tasted in the '50s, before coconut milk and fish sauce appeared in our supermarket aisles. A vague look of alarm crossed my friend's face when her ginger-lime calamari appetizer ($7.95) arrived. Its sautéed squid bits were served with pallid tomato chunks and a limey sauce that packed a near-acetone kick. The Tahitian Poisson salad ($8.95) was seriously confused: softly seared tuna gobbed with coconut cream as thick as mayonnaise, served on a bed of salad mix, with five neat slices of cucumber on one side and tomato on the other. Back on safe territory, my non-Asian butternut squash soup ($5.95) was just fine: smooth, undistracted squashiness.

Most of our entrées were jacketed in sauces that were labor intensive, but not really exciting, like the cream sauce--a beurre blanc, I think--that enveloped my friend's halibut ($24.95). It was velvety, all right, but without any counterpoint to the richness. My coq au vin ($16.95) also lacked anything to grab onto: no garlic hook, no salty bacon/ham frisson, just some neutral button mushrooms to poke at. Roast chicken should be a textural delight, all crackly-skinned, but the version here ($17.95) was doused in jus, and the soft skin delivered no guilty pleasure. Weiner schnitzel ($17.95), in this case pork, was pounded thin and breaded, as it should be, and scorched in a few spots, as it shouldn't.

Each entrée came with the same sides, a device that, with different presentation, could have been charm- ing, like the shared contorni plates at an Italian meal. The vegetables betrayed no clue that we were in the throes of late summer, with abundant fresh beans, peppers, squash, and such available. Instead there were steamed carrots and slices of wintry potato gratin (golden brown and spiked with a funky cheese--actually the liveliest thing served).

Desserts were a mixed bag: A strawberry shortcake ($5.95) was actually indifferent strawberries and cream crowned with a slice of puff pastry. We eagerly finished our Chocolate Concorde torte ($5.95), though. It was a little crumbly and quite bittersweet with a brittle layer of meringue inside.

As we left, a library-like hush had fallen over the place, leaving this corner of Ballard, at least, comfortably sedate.

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