The Fat Hen in Ballard draws a casual crowd seeking breakfast, lunch or brunch with a European flair.
On a typical weekend morning, urban-dwellers flock to The Fat Hen like fleece-and-spandexed fowl, many with their chicks in tow. Amid the whitewashed double wainscoting of this sweet, 20-seat restaurant, they perch on stools at the window bar, roost at pale marble tables set against a yellow cedar banquette, or gather communally around an antique pine table.
It’s a demographic Linnea and Massimo Gallo, proprietors of The Fat Hen, know well because they are of it. Their story is fodder for a romance novel: He’s from Naples; she’s from Seattle; they met in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu. They are raising their two young sons in Ballard and running this unpretentious cafe where she bakes and he handles the savory side.
The Fat Hen is carving a niche for itself on a block well-endowed with great eats. Linnea turns out rustic baked goods (amazing scones and English muffins among them), leaving the fancy French pastries to Honoré Bakery across the street. Pizza being the well-established domain of Delancey down the block, Massimo takes his Italian menu in other directions. Meat, fish and pasta supplement weekend brunch and dinner.
For now, dinner is served only on Friday. The mood is mellow. Couples dressed in comfy clothes trickle in, some just for an aperitivo or glass of wine, and a snack. Perhaps the addictive “pecorino crisps,” sophisticated Cheezits with a peppery after-burn, or bruschette, variously topped with vibrant pesto, warm eggplant caponata or house-made ricotta.
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Others tuck into abundant plates of pasta. Fresh ravioli filled with lemony house-made ricotta were excellent, if a little too swamped with sage and brown butter sauce. A classic spaghetti aglio olio was perfect: noodles with just the right tension, good olive oil, garlic, fresh parsley, plus a little red pepper sizzle.
Porco brasato, wreathed in red peppers, was lightly imbued with garlic and vinegar. No knife required; the braised pork yielded to the fork as willingly as the soft peppers, which had been simmered in olive oil to startlingly sweet intensity. In contrast, a plate of veal cutlets with a lemon-dressed Romaine salad was all crisp and crunchy. Pounded millimeters thin, the meat was coated in fine breadcrumbs and skillfully fried, though I found myself reaching for the salt and pepper shakers.
Both meat dishes are available at brunch. Night or day there are few frills to the service but plenty of warmth. A few inexpensive wines are available by the glass, poured into bistro tumblers that suit the casual country-kitchen ambience. So do paper napkins, but the ones here are pretty thin and not equal to the task.
The Fat Hen really bustles at breakfast, lunch and brunch. A sprig of frisee drifted like flotsam over a captivating soup du jour: creamy cannellini beans in their own broth bolstered by garlic, pancetta and good, fruity olive oil. Pancetta also punctuated a lovely lentil salad served in a bowl lined with fresh spinach. It was zesty with shallot and red-wine vinaigrette, but I added salt and pepper.
Weekdays, Grand Central Bakery’s semolina baguettes provide crusty support for warm sandwiches. Try the polpette, soft pork meatballs bathed in tomato-basil sauce, or salsiccia, sweet sausage chunks smothered in garlicky sautéed spinach and smoked mozzarella. (There are meatless options, too.)
Smoked mozzarella dotted baked eggs in carrozza, the “carriage” in this case referring to thin slices of sweet, salty ham cradling two just-set eggs in a sizzling casserole. A side of patate al cartoccio, a parchment pouch of roasted new potatoes sprinkled with salt and fresh thyme, makes a great partner.
Eggs Benedict, a weekends-only brunch special, are a vehicle for those splendid English muffins. The couple next to me each polished off a pair — his with the traditional Canadian bacon, hers with spinach subbing for the meat — then discussed where they would go for their afternoon run, no doubt pushing junior, asleep in the carrier at their feet. More power to them, I thought, and decided against buttering my scone.
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