It’s always a good sign when you leave a restaurant plotting your return. So it was for me at Barnacle, Renee Erickson’s tiny aperitivo bar adjacent to her insanely popular Ballard oyster bar, the Walrus and the Carpenter.
Aperitivo is an Italian concept, a transitional hour or two intended as a prelude to dinner, typically involving a glass of wine and a plate of food. Barnacle looks the part. A broad, copper-topped bar runs the length of the narrow space. On it wines chill on ice in a hammered silver tub, a bowl of lemons and oranges stands ready for the bartender’s needs, a haunch of Serrano ham awaits the chef’s knife.
Patrons sit on one of a dozen white metal stools facing Moorish-tiled walls that frame a sideboard and hutch whose shelves display bottles, glassware and pantry items. Some wait for a seat at Walrus, which takes no reservations and can have a wait-list hours long. But Barnacle can stand on its own as a destination for a light repast of snacks and small plates — terrines, pâtés, salads, cured meats and cheeses — that vary from day to day.
Sunday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. a “Cavi-Hour” menu features $6 bites involving fish eggs. I was fond of gougeres split and packed with chive-flecked cream and smoked trout roe, even fonder of crisp, little rosti potato pancakes dabbed with crème fraîche, dill and salmon roe.
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Sardines are served straight from the can, which sits on the plate alongside saltine crackers and lemon wedges. House-made cured meats include finely textured mortadella studded with pistachio. Pickled pork tongue tasted like a milder cousin to corned beef. It was spectacular with creamy tonnato sauce (tuna mayonnaise) and a splash of the lovely Ligurian olive oil that chef Gabriel Meringolo lavishes on so many dishes.
Pickled muscat grapes accompanied the Serrano ham. Though more hand-hacked than hand-shaved, it was nonetheless satisfyingly sweet and salty. The grapes’ spicy kick complemented the whisper of Calabrian chili in an invigorating cocktail called Thunder Road, a mix of rye, Amaro Averna and Carpano Antica vermouth.
Cocktails make excellent use of herbed and spiced Italian liqueurs like amaro or fernet, and wine-based aperitifs like Carpano or Cappalletti. Cobble Hill Variation is a bracing blend of fernet, Carpano and bitter lemon soda poured over crushed ice; the beguilingly bitter Americano combines Cappalletti, Amaro Abano and a splash of soda.
The Americano was the aperitif that launched our tasting-menu experience, a multicourse feast that requires reservations at least 48 hours in advance ($50, add $25 for wine pairings). A group of up to six fits snugly into the “Champagne Room,” the staff’s nickname for the single booth in Barnacle’s way-back. As a party of two, we were seated at the end of the bar, opposite sous chef Emily Young.
First up were deviled eggs dusted with sweet pimento and dotted with smoked salmon roe, paired with a glass of Prosecco. Next came a simple but spectacular octopus terrine, looking like a sheet of tessellated marble slick with Ligurian olive oil, scattered with lemon zest and large grains of Oregon sea salt.
The wine pairings had progressed from sparkling to a white blend from Abruzzi to a pale rosé from Marche, all generously poured. The meal continued with raw asparagus and fennel salad. Shot through with lemon, toasted pine nuts and pecorino, it was crisper and better constructed than one than I’d had previously.
For our main dish, Emily whipped out a hot plate to boil pasta. Spicy sausage plumped the ravioli bellies; unfortunately their rims never softened. But her sauce was a delightful spring fling of favas, pickled rhubarb and herbs, bolstered with bits of braised pork tongue and a dollop of crème fraîche. A peppery, light-bodied Piedmont red was an inspired match.
For dessert there was sparkling rosé and pound cake — Emily’s mom’s recipe — exceptional with or without rhubarb sauce and crème fraîche. A thimble full of a piney digestivo from Bormio, in the Italian Alps, arrived just before the check, prompting my guest to recall her visit to the Roman baths there. By then we had happily whiled away more than three hours at the bar, which says something about the company, but so much more about the place.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.