The Four Swallows on Bainbridge Island, a 19th-century Winslow farmhouse, is a genteel spot for a casual dinner or a special occasion.
When you leave the city behind and travel a considerable distance by car, then ferry to an island restaurant for dinner, you hope to end up at a place with just the sort of rustic charm Four Swallows has in abundance.
A plaque at the entrance proclaims the building’s provenance. The William Grow House dates to 1889. Will Grow was (what else?) a farmer whose fields once surrounded this spacious, antique-accented yellow clapboard house in Winslow on Bainbridge Island. He’d likely approve of what the current owners have done with the place.
Geraldine Ferraro and Michael Sharp moved in a little over 14 years ago after they were forced to uproot their 5-year-old restaurant from its original location in Lynwood Center on the other side of the island.
Ferraro originally joined Four Swallows as its pizza-maker before becoming an owner. She cooks in the Italian tradition, and she still makes pizza. I didn’t get a chance to try it, but if it’s as good as the rosemary-flecked focaccia bread that comes gratis to each table, I can see why it’s a menu mainstay.
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Sharp tends to the extensive wine list and oversees the dining room. He is the tall, unflappable presence at the door, the one who fields your frantic call when the ferry is running late. He assures you that they’ll do their best to serve you, as long as you are willing to be patient with them.
Tensions dissolve easily in a setting like this, no matter whether you are seated on the wisteria-shaded front porch; in the romantic recesses of the dim wine bar; or in one of the bright, airy front dining rooms. The staff is so gracious they are almost courtly, but with a sense of humor that keeps any suggestion of stuffiness at bay.
There’s no hard liquor, but plenty of wine. The cellar (which is actually in the attic) is full of bottles from around the world you’ll want to drink, including a plethora of Washington state wines. You can spend a lot or a little and drink well.
The menu changes daily, ranging from pizza and pasta to seafood and steaks. There might be gazpacho on one visit, bruschetta on another. Seafood risotto might become seafood brodetto. Green beans might change to braised greens, spinach to rapini.
Smoked duck breast, carpaccio and mussels appear with regularity among the starters.
Bacon-lovers should zero in on the duck. The supple, lightly smoked meat flaunts a wide ribbon of fat. It’s wonderful all by itself, but plated with chunky, tart cherry sauce; ripe, runny Delice de Bourgogne cheese; and toasted brioche it is deliriously delicious.
Carpaccio wears a light dusting of truffle salt that, along with fruity Trampetti olive oil, enhances the rosy raw beef, shave Parmigiano and arugula leaves. Mussels shine in a sherry-spiked tomato sauce thick with leeks and smoky with paprika. Garlicky slabs of grilled bread make it easy to swab the bowl clean.
The mussels were local boys from Penn Cove, but the four enormous sea scallops offered as an entree hailed from Maine. The trip didn’t seem to have done them any harm, nor has the chef. Bacon, shallot and white wine not only make a great sauce for those perfectly caramelized bivalves but also for the jumble of corn, red pepper and pea vines sharing the plate.
A pair of scallops crowned seafood risotto. Shrimp, mussels and tiny clams turned up among the rice, simmered in a seafood broth enriched with tomato and saffron. Take most of those same ingredients, hold the rice, and you have something like the seafood brodetto I enjoyed on another visit. Salmon subbed for the scallops; garlic and red-chile pepper flakes gave oomph to the ruddy broth.
All of the seafood is top-notch, as are meats. The beef and pork are Oregon-bred. Painted Hills natural-beef tenderloin carries a hefty $38 price tag, but the thick steak moistened with red-wine demi-glace satisfies on every level. Well-seasoned and skillfully charred, it yields gracefully under the knife and tastes soft and full-flavored in the mouth. Sautéed spinach and mashed potatoes provide simple, classic accompaniment.
Carlton Farm’s juicy pork chop is equally impressive. The burnished, bone-in loin cut is paired with poached plums, green beans and coarsegrained polenta smoothed with creamy mascarpone.
Indianola, Kitsap County’s, Persephone Farm purveys much of the pristine produce used here, including the lettuce tossed with glorious island-grown berries in a balsamic-dressed summer salad dotted with creamy goat cheese and candied pecans.
The menu doesn’t note the origin of the peaches in the dessert crisp, but they were tart enough to offset the very sweet pastry topping and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you opt for the chocolate pâté, sharing is almost mandatory, it’s so wickedly rich.
For the designated driver in the group, the perfect finale is a frozen latte: a shot of espresso over vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered espresso beans.
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