I grew up a long day’s drive from the Atlantic shore. We vacationed there when my parents found the wherewithal to haul a crammed station wagon and six youngsters across two states. The week usually included dinner at one of those rollicking family-seafood restaurants that every seaside town seems to have, often adjacent to a boardwalk, and where we kids would hoard the little packets of oyster crackers and hope for pie a la mode.
There is no boardwalk on Ballard Avenue, no ocean nearby, but Ballard Annex Oyster House does a good job of capturing the boisterous bonhomie of those classic American dinner houses — except this place looks a lot swankier than any we frequented. Credit the design-and-build skills of proprietors Nate Opper and Zak Maleng, who do the fabrication work for all their restaurants, including Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen and The Matador nearby.
You wouldn’t recognize the former Thaiku. Compact windows, built-in nooks, wood paneling and rope trim suggest nautical without a whiff of kitsch. In the bar, round stools are riveted to the tile floor, opposite cozy booths for two. The dining room’s broad tables accommodate families and groups.
Vintage fixtures cast an amber glow that would be soothing but for the clamor of conversation and the jarring bark of orders at the steam bar (a bit of showmanship I could dine more happily without).
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The steam bar, just inside the front door, looks very much like the one at New York City’s famed Grand Central Oyster Bar. Mounted pots in a row facilitate the assembly of soups like the sturdy New England clam chowder, thickened with milk and potatoes and smoky with bacon; or the elegant, Cognac-laced lobster bisque generously studded with chopped lobster meat. Both come with oyster crackers.
Those pots steam shellfish, too, making it easy to tip the local clams, mussels and oysters — along with an abundance of aromatic broth — into the deep, Staub enameled cast-iron kettles they are served in.
Iced raw oysters are deftly shucked and presented with fresh horseradish and lemon. If you must embellish further, a tray of house-made condiments includes cocktail sauces, shallot mignonette and a killer mango-habañero sauce that I would rather spread on toast than eat with oysters, but that’s just me.
The menu gives both coasts their due. There is even an “East vs. West” crabcake showdown. I thought the East Coast had the edge, with its bolder seasoning and croquette-like texture. The West Coast version, loaded with sweet lumps of Dungeness and little else, barely hung together. Both tasted a little too assertively of fry oil.
Those willing to splurge on a whole steamed Maine lobster or Dungeness crab will pay a market price ranging from $20 to $25 per pound. For a more affordable indulgence try the $20 lobster roll: chilled chunks in a piquant mayonnaise mounded in the traditional crustless bun, buttery and slightly sweet, made by Columbia City Bakery. The equal of any I’ve eaten in Maine, the rolls come with Old Bay-seasoned fries. (Note to weekend lunchers: half a roll and a cup of bisque is just $12.)
Oysters Rockefeller, another classic, is meant to be rich, but with asiago and jack cheeses added to the onion, fennel and creamed spinach, the oyster seemed a little smothered. Not so the feisty clams casino, though a bit of grated parm on those bacon-festooned bivalves wouldn’t have been amiss.
Among main courses, I was pleased with butterflied “prawns scampi” lavished with butter, herbs and garlic, but not the bland rice pilaf. If you love whole fish, pan-fried trout comes wreathed by a warm salad of arugula, fennel, cherry tomatoes and new potatoes moistened with the warm pan-juices and finished with lemon oil. It’s spectacular.
For those who prefer salad on the side, I suggest the brazen Caesar flaunting white anchovies (despite impossible-to-chew croutons) or the demure butter lettuce draped in creamy blue cheese and bacon bits. (Leave the cloying orange “French” dressing where it is: on the side.)
Pastry chef Courtney Miramontes whips up textbook-perfect creme brulee. For her mini-apple pie she borrows Grandma Opper’s recipe for the filling. It’s served a la mode, of course.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.