Brimmer & Heeltap, a cheery bistro and bar in Ballard, is as comfortable to slip into as your favorite jeans. In a neighborhood not lacking for dining options, it’s quickly becoming a hangout for thoughtful eaters and drinkers drawn by a well-tended bar and a tantalizing, flexibly priced menu.
A couple of locals opened Brimmer & Heeltap quietly in late December. Jen Doak, a longtime Ballard resident, counts Tilth and Agrodolce on her extensive résumé. Chef Mike Whisenhunt, Ballard-born and raised, cooked under Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, first at Coupage, then at Joule and Revel.
Doak and Whisenhunt thoughtfully updated the 90-year-old building, the former home of Le Gourmand and Sambar. A J-shaped bar juts from the open kitchen. My favorite seats are the two stools along the curve at the end of it, where you are well positioned to see both bartenders and cooks, as well as admire the striking geometry of the space.
An upholstered banquette cuts a jaunty teal green swath along a whitewashed interior wall that’s been pared to the studs. It physically divides but visually joins the main dining area and the smaller room beyond (what used to be Sambar) where the floor is paved with pennies and the wall papered with Doak’s menu collection.
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Above that peek-a-boo divide hang pendant lamps in assorted shapes and sizes grouped together to form an ad hoc chandelier. Below them, in recent weeks, rows of gerbera daisies nodded a colorful salute to spring.
The first signs of spring are just showing up on the menu. Tangy crème fraîche coddled firm English peas, accented with fresh mint and pickled carrots. A special of pan-seared halibut came with an exhilarating chopped salad — asparagus, radicchio, pistachio and Castelvetrano olives dressed with lemon grass and ginger vinaigrette. A vegetarian variation on that dish — with broiled asparagus spears peeking from underneath the radicchio salad and a whole, soft-cooked egg teetering on top — earned a recurring spot on the menu.
Whisenhunt is fond of salads and pickled things, and he manipulates textures, acid, salt and heat effectively. His brief menu offers a handful of quirky snacks and some outstanding desserts but focuses on vegetables, seafood and meat, offering three dishes in each category, most available in small and large portions.
Spring means bidding adieu to turnips braised with quince, richly caramelized root and fruit in a tart, buttery sauce crunchy with pork cracklings. Octopus soup is also gone; it was an ideal rainy-day soother, crowded with parsnips, daikon, leek and kale jostling slices of cephalopod in a dashi broth.
Not surprisingly, there are Asian influences aplenty. Chewy Korean rice cakes bolstered creamed spinach dusted with hazelnut salt. Sweet nori rice crackers poked from steak tartare glistening with sesame vinaigrette on a plate rimmed with bright red chili salt to incorporate as you like.
Baby bok choy kimchi accompanied a broiled pork shoulder steak enhanced by a spicy brine and an urfa biber (Turkish pepper) rub. Tender chunks of roasted, butter-basted chuck steak teamed memorably with pickled mirepoix (chopped carrot, celery and onion) and shio kombu, a sweet/hot salad of shredded kelp and mustard seed.
Whisenhunt unleashes his imagination in other directions, too. Braised rabbit goes into crepinettes, parcels of savory meat wrapped in spinach and onion and encased in caul fat. Another vibrant side salad of watercress and herbs balances their richness.
Dungeness crab trifle layers mirepoix gelée, custard, brioche and ginger beer with plenty of cracked crab in a tall parfait glass. Crab cocktail purists might fuss, but I loved every multifaceted bite, including the Brussels sprout leaves on top.
All three current desserts delighted. Creamy coconut meringue crowned a bewitching key lime tart. Smoked fig compote graced bourbon-laced chocolate mousse. A drizzle of exotic “Kashmiri syrup” introduced notes of cardamom and white pepper to bites of gingery carrot cake that you would never guess is gluten free.
A miscellany of “snacks” includes sticky, salty steamed buns filled with sweet kabocha squash; crisp bits of fried lardo with diced, pickled apples; and “toast” — two baguette slices topped differently every day at the chef’s whim. You’ll take a chance on those, but not on much else here.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.