I was greedily gobbling up grits and grillades at The Wandering Goose one brisk, sunny morning in January when a woman blew in from the cold, bundled to the chin in gray woolens, long, wavy hair flowing behind her. As everyone does, she approached the glass-fronted bakery case where you place your order, but paused before she got there, as if to better appreciate the panoply of biscuits, cookies, muffins, hand-pies, coffee cakes, cookies and a single stately layer cake yet to be sliced.
That’s when I realized this wasn’t a customer; it was Mother Goose herself, proprietor Heather Earnhardt, admiring her wares.
After ending her partnership with Ericka Burke at Volunteer Park Café, Earnhardt opened this endearing Capitol Hill cafe, serving breakfast and lunch daily — and a fixed-price, family-style supper every Friday.
The menu mostly nods to her North Carolina roots, with occasional detours to New Orleans (a fine Cajun gumbo) and beyond (good French onion soup) courtesy of chefs Michael Law and Spencer Heller.
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But first, attention must be paid to the contents of that well-
endowed pastry case. A slice of still-warm apple coffee cake revealed big chunks of soft, skin-on fruit under a loose walnut streusel. Big, thick, chewy cookies include peanut butter and chocolate chip, both topped with fleur de sel, a dark chocolate version spiked with chili powder, and a cinnamon-spiced sugar cookie sweetened with Steen’s cane syrup.
The layer cake was called a Brownstone Front. Once it’s sliced, you see why: Cocoa powder tints the four-layer cake the color of masonry, and the caramel frosting turns it into a killer dessert. The recipe came from Earnhardt’s grandmother, and it’s a fixture at every family celebration.
The buttermilk biscuits have a delicate crumb but do yeoman’s work as a base for half a dozen hearty sandwich combos. I was mighty partial to the “Sweet Blonde,” country ham and a fried egg stacked on a buttered sweet-potato biscuit.
Grits are gussied up with thin slices of pan-seared pork loin that are tender enough to cut with a fork and smothered in peppery brown gravy. The Hangtown Fry is an even heftier option: A small cast-iron skillet packs in crisp, bronzed potatoes with cured pork belly, two poached eggs and a couple of fried, cornmeal-crusted oysters.
The kitchen fries beautifully. One Friday-night supper included dainty fritters made of crabmeat studded with diced kabocha squash. Dessert was fried apple hand-pies, the pastry crackling hot.
Supper began auspiciously with a bowl of red beans and rice bolstered with andouille, but faltered at the main course: a painfully salty sauce glazed truculent pork ribs that refused to let go of their bones.
If you want to turn a chop salad here into something extra special, just add a boneless fried chicken thigh ($4 more). A plate of fried chicken comes with a biscuit, braised greens (collards that were equally tangy and sweet), and nutty-tasting Sea Island beans (dead-ringers for black-eyed peas) generously topped with chow chow (pickled relish).
On the “Veggie Plate,” pimento mac & cheese subs for the fried chicken. It was suitably rich but a little bland and short on pimento. A better choice for pimento cheese lovers is the grilled cheese sandwich on brioche, although the side of potato salad was soupy, the potatoes a little crunchy.
Daily “chef’s whims” are scrawled on a chalk board above the service station where you fill up your water glass, get extra napkins and add cream to your mug of good, strong coffee.
The staff delivers your food, but bussing is up to you. Some do it, some don’t. Even when people do, crumbs stick around on the oiled plywood tabletops branded with capricious quotes from Earnhardt’s forthcoming book, an illustrated tale of a wandering goose and the ladybug who loves him.
Some might find the debris, the occasionally ditsy service and the crowded, nearly communal tables annoying. Others will consider it part of the charm, as apropos as the distressed paint on the antique sideboard, the lampshades made of flour sacks, and the whimsically sketched mural that appears to be still a work in progress. Count me among the latter group — and slice me some more of that cake.
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.