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Originally published Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 7:06 PM

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Restaurant review

A rave for Ethan Stowell's new Ballard restaurant, Staple & Fancy Mercantile

Ethan Stowell and his wife, Angela, have found culinary success at their latest restaurant — Staple & Fancy Mercantile, in Ballard.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Mussel brodo $10
Bucatini with smoked pork jowl $15
Potato gnocchi with
sweetbreads $16
Veal breast with figs $20
Mackerel with ham hock
and cauliflower $22

Staple & Fancy Mercantile3.5 stars

Modern Italian

4739 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle

206-789-1200 www.ethanstowellrestaurants.com

Reservations: Recommended.

Hours: Dinner daily 5-11 p.m.

Prices: $$$ (appetizers $10-$12, pastas $15-$16, entrees $19-$22; four-course, family-style prix fixe $45)

Drinks: Full bar; Eurocentric wine list offering choices by the glass and half-glass, bottles and half-bottles.

Parking: On street and in lot behind the Kolstrand Building.

Sound: Moderate.

Who should go: An informal setting for sumptuous feasting or just a simple plate of pasta.

Credit cards: Visa, MC, Amex.

Access: No obstacles; elevator access to downstairs restrooms.

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In the introduction to his just-published cookbook, "Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen," the chef/entrepreneur sums up his restaurant philosophy this way: "... eating is an art more walk-up than doorman, more warehouse than gallery. It's got to be good, but it's also got to be fun."

Union, Stowell's first restaurant, was, to turn a phrase, more doorman than walk-up, more gallery than warehouse. Critically admired from the start, it merited 3.5 stars from this reviewer in 2008.

But Union, which closed in June, wasn't nearly as "fun" as the restaurants Stowell subsequently conceived: Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf and Anchovies & Olives (with former business partner Patric Gabre-Kidan); and now (in partnership with his wife, Angela) Staple & Fancy Mercantile, the most coherent expression of Stowell's vision yet.

"Young chefs once thought you've got to go downtown to be a serious cook," says Stowell. "That's not so anymore." The couple set their sights on Ballard's newly restored Kolstrand Building, home to a marine supply firm for most of the 20th century, and at one point the site of a staple and fancy mercantile, which inspired the restaurant's name.

Buttressed between Ballard's gentrified retail core and its hard-

scrabble industrialized fringe, Staple & Fancy channels both. Its adroit use of masonry, metal and wood — rough and finished, reclaimed and new — results in a relaxed milieu at once antique yet au courant.

It's an intimate space with just 45 seats, most of them allowing a view of the integrated kitchen where Stowell cooks alongside chef de cuisine Elwood Thompson and his crew. Dressed in a black apron over a plain white T-shirt, Stowell looks utterly content to be back on the line, completely focused on the food; his demeanor is as easygoing as a guy cooking for friends at home.

It furthers that dinner-party feeling if you do as the menu urges and opt for the four-course, family-style supper at $45 per person. Allow me to add my insistence to theirs: you really should do it. It's omakase, Italian-style.

You won't know what's coming — not even your waiter does. To create this ad hoc experience, the kitchen draws from a wide-ranging repertoire. Every table gets something a little different. You won't leave hungry, that's for sure. They feed you like Italian grandmothers, but this rustic, refined fare isn't anything like Nonna's.

The meal begins with appetizers, not one or two but six or seven. Here are just some sampled over two visits: balsamic-drizzled pork liver crostini; deep-fried pork belly; blistered padrone peppers planted in aioli and dusted with dried tuna flakes; crispy fried clams with potent rouille; spot prawns and chick peas in sweet tomato water; and crunchy lemon- and mint-dressed crudo of sliced geoduck with Persian cucumbers.

Pasta, a main course and dessert will follow this appetizer abbondanza. Bucatini, a thick but hollow spaghetti-like noodle, had the right heft for a spicy pork-jowl tomato sauce, but was equally good in a squid-ink variation, tossed with anchovy, garlic and breadcrumbs, a seriously briny ensemble tempered with plenty of pepper.

The kitchen gets the balance of flavors right in dish after dish: lifting with spice, rounding with sweet, sharpening with acid, salting judiciously. Fresh peas, mint, feta and figs ground the lush, belly-like richness of grill-finished braised veal breast. A sassy salmoriglio sauce of chopped oregano, garlic and capers is ideal for grilled mackerel with ham hock and roasted cauliflower. Radish-studded, spice-warmed couscous cushions delicate dourade.

Those less inclined toward fancy feasting will find satisfaction among the printed menu's staples. Try gnocchi luxuriantly sautéed with sweetbreads, baby turnips and bacon; chanterelles and baby zucchini resplendent under a fried duck egg and shingles of parmigiano reggiano; or shell-less mussels and firm controne beans in an exhilarating brodo bright with tomato and green chilies.

With its metal-bound wood tables, weathered brick walls and plank floor, Staple & Fancy is "more warehouse than gallery," yet it doesn't lack the frills of fine dining: expertly blended cocktails, a thoughtful wine list and personable, skillful servers. It's definitely fun, and it's better than good. It's great.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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