"Out, out, OUT OUT OUT!" Chef Anne Catherine is shouting in A Caprice Kitchen's kitchen. A moment later, a large black dog runs past the front picture windows, looking guilty. The server laughs and says that last week a cat came in, pinballed around the modest dining room as if possessed, then ricocheted back out the open front door.
A Caprice Kitchen has mismatched chairs, but not the fashionable kind: The majority are legitimately ugly, with black vinyl seats and backs, the type you'd find in a hotel banquet room. There's an old console record player in the corner and one Gerber daisy on each tabletop; in the bathroom, the must-wash-hands sign is taped to the wall with masking tape. It's too warm on this summer night, and there's no one else here, which usually makes for a highly awkward dining experience. But the tree outside the window is dotted with baby apricots, and the server is exactly the person you'd want taking care of you if you were sick (and you're well!), and the salad is so good, it inspires the singing of a song.
At A Caprice Kitchen, you're basically eating dinner in a Miranda July movie. The place was clearly put together on a shoestring—but, you begin to think, isn't a shoestring a funny and endearing thing? Once you're here, the excessively whimsical name becomes forgivable. So does the fact that the chef goes, intentionally and often, by Anne Catherine—this is reiterated on the blackboard menu and on the blackboard-themed website, which itself looks like a Miranda July movie. Anne Catherine's last name has been lost somewhere in the sea of charm. You have no choice but to succumb, and pretty soon you'll be singing about your supper, too.
That salad doesn't look like much on the plate, an uncomposed heap, like something you'd be served at the house of a not-very-particular friend in Portland. The lettuce is just romaine; the small pieces of salmon scattered on it are pretty and pink, but nothing breathtaking. The dressing is described on the chalkboard as a sorrel aioli: sounds heavy. But the romaine is grown at Nash's Organic Produce near Sequim, and it redefines green and fresh and crisp. Nearly everything served at A Caprice Kitchen is from an in-state small farm. The salmon on this salad, from Bristol Bay, Alaska, is one exception. The server explains in an uninterruptive, nondidactic way that our local Puget Sound orcas are very particular, and this salmon choice is meant to leave them their favorite fish. Adorable! Anne Catherine has cured the salmon herself with smoked sea salt, and she's done a spot-on job: It's completely silky and just tinged with smoke instead of soaked, and it is so, so good. And the dressing is subtle: creamy, but applied in the exact right amount so as not to cloy. This salad costs $8.
Another unprepossessing salad—red butter lettuce with cherry tomatoes, basil, and chèvre ($7)—was almost as surprisingly great, with the goat cheese nicely integrated instead of in discrete clumps. A third, sampled another night, suffered by comparison, being merely all right: mixed greens, feta cheese, and buttermilk-and-mint-marinated cucumbers ($7) that didn't seem to have picked up much in the marination process, with a vinaigrette that should've been more assertive. Served before and along with salads: Grand Central baguette, with Golden Glen Creamery butter mashed with a restrained amount of green garlic. This butter—made with the milk of contentment, from picturesque cows in Bow, Washington—is exponentially better than all other butter (and most other food).
The entrées sampled over a couple visits were half wonderful, causing exclamation and inhalation, and half middling, causing a little forlorn food envy. In the former category, pesto-coated chicken stuffed with spinach and white cheddar ($17) was uncomplicated but thoughtful, and totally delicious. (A Caprice Kitchen offers your choice of breast or leg and thigh: Why doesn't everywhere do this?) And: truly fine seared sockeye salmon ($19), not overcooked, also with a little pesto and simple green beans. The problematic main dishes seemed like victims of neglect: a lasagna ($15) with béchamel that was so gluey, it was impossible to identify any pasta layer; a purportedly ancho-pepper-braised pork ($17) that tasted devoid of any seasoning whatsoever.
All whimsy aside, Anne Catherine is using beautiful ingredients, she understands flavors, and she can cook. It's a one-woman operation in the kitchen, and she's smart to keep the menu brief. (The place opened with a single set menu on any given night, and now offers three or sometimes four options per course.) It shouldn't be difficult to eliminate mistakes like gloppy lasagna and underseasoned meat. The inexpensive Washington wines—$6 or $7 a glass, currently from Parejas, Domanico, and Whidbey Island wineries—help one feel generous (and help keep the bill low).
With highly anticipated pizzeria Delancey opening across the street, this sleepy bit of Ballard is about to wake up. Speaking of which, A Caprice Kitchen serves weekend brunch that's reportedly excellent. I'd go back for that, or for a double order of the cured-salmon salad, without hesitation. A Caprice Kitchen has its heart so in the right place, and maybe soon all the imperfections under the apricot tree will be the charming kind.