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Originally published July 19, 2012 at 1:05 PM | Page modified July 20, 2012 at 6:07 AM

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Belle Clementine: surprise menu, dinner-party atmosphere, locally sourced food

Belle Clementine in Ballard is a congenial supper club for socially inclined locavores.

Special to The Seattle Times

Belle Clementine 2.5 stars

Contemporary American

5451 Leary Ave. N.W., Seattle

206-257-5761

www.belleclementine.com

Reservations: Required for dinner

Hours: One dinner seating only at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10:30-1:30 Sunday

Prices: $$$ prix fixe four-course dinner $40; three-course brunch $20; six-meal subscription $200; all prices include tip but not tax

Drinks: Wine, beer, cider, sodas; limited spirits

Parking: On street; after 6 p.m. $2 parking available in lot south of restaurant (exact bills required)

Sound: Loud at full capacity

Who should go: A congenial supper club for socially inclined locavores.

Credit cards: Visa, MC (Amex also accepted online)

Access: No obstacles

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@aquaticus. If you'd like to try them they encourage you to call ahead and let them kno... MORE
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Belle Clementine is part restaurant, part social experiment. It goes a long way toward succeeding as both. Whether you agree will depend on what kind of eater you are.

At David Sanford's Ballard enterprise, you must book in advance for a four-course dinner served family-style. You won't know the menu until you arrive. Unless you come with a group of friends, you will share the meal with strangers.

A dinner-party ambience prevails in the rustically outfitted cement-walled space. Guests sit in comfortable chairs at one of three glossy fir trestle tables big enough for 12. As at most dinner parties, people like to congregate in the kitchen, which they are invited to do.

There is a whiff of revival meeting as Sanford, who is gaining confidence as a host, introduces the menu and credits the local purveyors. He cites the origins of every leaf, stalk and grain, every fish, meat and fowl — right down to the Tonnemaker Farm strawberries swirling through a lovely semifreddo and their sweet Sonata cherries that crowned lemon curd tarts.

Many of the guests are subscribers who purchase six-dinner lots. I did so, under a pseudonym, to see what the experience was like. The upside: a 15 percent discount, first crack at special events and, with your credit card on file, you don't have to bother with a bill. Any allergies or dietary restrictions are on record too.

On my initial foray I was seated with other first-timers. The woman next to me, a stay-at-home mom with two young children and a grad-student husband, kept saying, "I don't know why I'm talking so much tonight." She was likely as starved for grown-up conversation as she was for a meal she didn't have to cook herself.

Dinner that night started with crostini: toasted baguette slices layered with vibrant hummus and a slice of Japanese cucumber freckled with tart sumac that harmonized with the touch of pomegranate molasses in the chickpea purée. Another night the opening gambit was fresh marinated Washington sardines joining sweet, sautéed onions and grated parmigiana on warm, pliant flatbread.

Weekly emails, plus Facebook and Twitter, hint at upcoming menu ideas. Sometimes, says Sanford, the plan goes out the window in the middle of the market, if something captures his fancy. His chef-collaborator, Shannon Van Horn, welcomes the challenge. Given the seasonal focus, ingredients may repeat, but in different ways. Chick peas, for example, turned up again sautéed with lacinato kale.

Vegetables were a joy, salads in particular. Slivered snow peas added crackle to a heaping bowl of emerald-green lettuces, spinach and tat soi dressed in brisk sesame vinaigrette. Dill vinaigrette moistened a raw vegetable slaw that contained kohlrabi, sugar snaps, Tokyo turnips and radishes — a carnival of crunch, giddy with fresh herbs. Everyone at my table took seconds and many (including me) took thirds.

That night's entree was first-of-the-season albacore. Thick loins, seasoned and lightly seared, were served over a rice salad laced with arugula and almonds, a bowl of perfect aioli on the side. Most of us relished the buttery, near translucent fish; others at our table requested theirs be cooked through, and the kitchen obliged.

A guest with celiac was accommodated when pasta was the main event. He got salmon and rice while we had fresh fettuccine dotted with morels, fava beans and crisp nuggets of house-cured guanciale (pork jowl) alongside slices of tender coppa (pork shoulder). It was an impressive presentation, though an overdose of salt and rosemary undermined the noodles.

Meal prices include a choice of beverage: a glass of wine, cider, soda, coffee or tea. Wines can be purchased by the bottle from a list that Sanford edits with an eye toward the best matches for that night's menu. No bottle exceeds $40.

Walk-ins are welcome at Sunday brunch. I devoured another dazzling salad, an excellent salmon cake embellished with a fried egg, and many slices of warm, crusty, molasses-sweetened Gifford bread (a Sanford family tradition) spread with salted butter and Ayako's organic apricot jam. The bread alone is worth renewing my subscription.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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