BalMar does a great job at setting the mood for small talk. A lovely, darkly stained bar is hidden behind small tables, and candles are everywhere. There’s an area upstairs – where Dishcrawl smartly had us sign in – for parties and events with plush leather seats and stools.After we went downstairs to start the evening, one of the co-owners came out and introduced herself. She then talked about how most people come to the 6-year-old Ballard institution for the alcohol, and she was visibly excited to show us what they could do.The first course of the evening was macaroni and (Tillamook) cheese with fried onions and three petite spanikopita. The macaroni sauce was mild and creamy base with a hint of spice, and was topped by a sharp cheddar crust. The fried onions and crust were the best part of the dish, savory and spiced just right. They served the dish in a ramekin; I think it would have been even more glorious in a shallower dish to let that crust take center stage.
The spanikopita were lovely – and, frustratingly, the only item that focused on leafy vegetables the entire evening. (I find myself lately wanting more kale and less beef in my dinner options.) But they were great little bites, with the phyllo shattering nicely and contrasting with the spinach and occasional morsel of cheese.
Volterra has ambience, but in a different way than BalMar, all pale tiled floors and dark wood. The room we ate in was their main dining room, with larger tables so we could socialize with other members of the group.
The chef came by to introduce the meal: polenta with a bolognese sauce and shaved parmigiano-reggiano cheese. The polenta was a creamy, well-executed bowl of winter comfort food, with a rich sauce that worked amazingly well, especially with the provided bread. But there was a lot of it, so I mainly ate slowly and talked to my tablemates.
By the time we got to La Isla, we had just had a very large quantity of carbohydrates, so I was a bit nervous – my stomach was already threatening to explode.
There was no assigned seating area here; instead, we sat along the bar, which, combined with the music loud enough to drown out quiet chatter, made group socialization difficult. (Anne and I ended up by ourselves in one section opposite the rest of the group.) The servers brought out chicarrones de pollo, small bites of fried chicken, and carne frita, a mini pork rib with shredded onions.
I admit, I tried only one bite of the chicken, which was mainly grease. I am not going to judge La Isla’s food based on this, and feel it deserves a second chance.