The new Ballard restaurant from Mitch Mayers, who’s spent the past four years at Lark as chef de cuisine under James Beard Award-winning chef John Sundstrom, has a fun, youthful energy, with cooking chops to boot.
Think of the menu at Sawyer as a mini “Wheel of Fortune” where you come up a winner most of the time. Among the prizes: candy-sweetened sautéed spot prawns on cubes of pisco-infused watermelon; bone marrow matzo balls in pho broth; and pork belly porchetta, rotisserie-spun for hours to crackling-skinned glory.
The food at Mitch Mayers’ breezy new Ballard restaurant has a whiff of carnie showmanship and that’s no accident. Fair food has been the family business for generations. But underneath that playfulness, Mayers displays some serious cooking chops. Those marrow-enriched matzo balls could easily win his aunts’ annual “whose balls are better” contest. They are so airy they seem about to float, but slivers of rosy sirloin anchor them in a rich bone broth that has the fragrance of pho and the clarity of consommé.
The dish displays the kind of refinement you’d expect from someone who’s spent the past four years at Lark as chef de cuisine under James Beard Award-winning chef John Sundstrom. Mayers started cooking as a teenager, inspired by watching Emeril Lagasse on The Food Network. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, the Seattle native was recruited by the highly respected Hillstone Restaurant Group (51 locations in 13 states). He was just 23 when he moved on to become executive chef at Denver’s Black Pearl, where his future wife, Ellie, was the hostess.
Sawyer hums like the sawmill it once was, only now it’s the buzz of conversation that rises from well-spaced tables and booths. More than 100 seats include a dozen at the L-shaped bar opposite the exposed kitchen. Wood and natural light soften the sleek, Graham Baba Architects design. Exposed rafters in the vaulted roof cap whitewashed herringbone-patterned walls and broad, west-facing windows. When daylight recedes, lamps and pendant lights cast a warm glow.
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You can’t be bored by a menu that segues from fried potato jojos to pommes puree to potato gnocchi — and does all three equally well. Ranch dressing anchors the jojos. The puree is a luxurious sidekick for deftly grilled flatiron steak draped in chile-stoked chimichurri. The gnocchi are baked rather than boiled, giving them the pouffiness gnocchi aspire to but so rarely achieve. They huddle with pink-fleshed figs, charred bits of Castelfranco radicchio, pine nuts and dabs of fresh goat cheese in the simplest of pan sauces — butter, wine, garlic and vegetable stock — sweetened with saba, a syrup reduced from grape must.
There is simple, down-to-earth goodness, too, in a plate of honey-drizzled ricotta wreathed with stone fruit and salted pistachios, or wood-grilled artichoke halves with a robust anchovy and hazelnut rémoulade. On the flip side, an elegant ensemble of ahi tuna, mashed avocado and nori chips in a pool of soy sauce and lime, is poke, dressed for prom.
Fun is frequently afoot. A deliciously demented Dungeness crab roll piles crab, salmon gravlax and taramasalata on a seed-crusted torpedo roll seasoned like an everything bagel. The awe-inspiring animal-style burger boasts crusty double patties cemented with caramelized onion mornay sauce. That’s two-thirds of a pound of wagyu beef, plus pickles, lettuce and a thick tomato slice on a buttermilk brioche bun. Bless the kitchen for pre-slicing that slippery monster in two.
Whenever bread is involved, it bodes especially well. Linnea Scott is Mayers’ “Chief Dough Officer.” Her warm, buttery pretzel pain d’epi, shaped like a stalk of wheat, is essential eating on its own or dragged through house-made mustard that’s as sweet as it is sharp. “Cheesy bread” is modeled on Ligurian focaccia de Recco, but here the oven-blistered, crackerlike flatbread oozes pimento cheese made with Tillamook cheddar, mixed with the spicy Italian pork spread ‘nduja. Fluffy pita-like flatbread, as airy and rich as popovers, accompany the porchetta, to be slathered with anchovy rémoulade or chimichurri and folded around shards of meat and pickled vegetables.
The fun fizzled a bit with oxtail nachos that could use more oomph and the gummy tempura onion rings alongside the steak, but regained momentum with dessert. There are no duds among the sweets. Reward your inner child with the four-dollar Dilly Bar — chocolate chip cookie dough semifreddo on a stick with sprinkles stuck to its Theo chocolate magic shell. S’more Choco Tacos come as a pair. Peanut butter ice cream and ruffles of scorched meringue fill graham flour waffle shells. Chocolate cookie crumbles and toasted almonds litter the plate. Dip into that debris before each bite, for maximum enjoyment.
A buttermilk biscuit anchors a classic cobble served in a hot cast iron skillet with vanilla ice cream melting into the juices of stone fruit and blackberries. The recipe for “Quatro Leches” comes from sous chef Julio Avila’s grandmother. Three kinds of milk plus cream saturate pound cake, turning it into a cool, nearly creamy, vanilla-infused confection topped with a flourish of whipped crème fraîche, pistachio and strawberries.
Avila, Scott and co-sous chef Taylor Thomas are all Lark alums, too. Avila staged at San Francisco’s minimalist Benu and New York’s modern Mexican Cosme. Thomas worked with chef Shaun McCrain at Copine. Mayers, 31, is the oldest of the four. The front of the house, headed by Tony Ramos, previously at MBar and Percy’s & Co., has its own youthful energy. Ramos gets the credit for developing cocktails and mocktails as imaginative as the food.
Service is a team effort, friendly and sometimes too efficient. They tend to whisk things away before you are quite ready to let them go. A server removing my plate noticed that I’d placed the knife and fork at 4 o’clock to signal I’d finished eating. “You don’t see that a lot anymore,” he said. “It’s probably going to go away with my generation.” Like cursive, I thought. I hope he’s wrong.
5309 22nd Ave. N.W., Ballard
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday
Prices: $$$ (plates $6-$33)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; brief Northwest/European wine list; local beers on tap; house-made sodas
Service: alert and energetic
Parking: on street; nearby lots
Credit cards: all major
Access: steps at entrance; wheelchair lift available