“It looks like Martha Stewart puked in here,” Lex laughed as we pushed our way into the adorable, immaculate nook that is Ciao Thyme’s On The Side lunch restaurant.
With the matching orange set of Le Creuset pots simmering delicately on the stove, the tiny potted succulents in the window, and $12 jars of specialty jams and pickles in heaps arranged just-so on the counter, she had a point—but I’d still let Martha redecorate my kitchen any time. This place was off-the-charts charming and my crummy leather jacket suddenly felt a little too dingy, so I stashed it out of sight to better blend in with the polite, nice-looking adult-types who filled the space.
Counter service is a fact of life in Bellingham and I have no real problem with that. What can be frustrating, however, is when the process of ordering isn’t intuitive and you wind up bopping around a line of people hoping you won’t look like an idiot when it’s your turn to order. In this establishment, small squares of paper in a little stack at the edge of the counter detailed three different menu options. It took a few minutes, but we eventually figured it out: for $18 you could have the entrée paired with two sides (all bundled neatly into preset menus), or you could break it up and order items separately. It’s a relatively economical way to taste a chef’s vision of flavor pairings, but we weren’t in the mood to drop $18 a piece on lunch, so we opted for two entrees only.
A quick aside on cost, however: tax is included and gratuity is “politely declined,” so at least you don’t have to factor in those dollars. If you’re like me, though—which obviously plenty of you are, since the café was packed to the brim—you believe that food made well with outstanding ingredients and care are worth a little extra money. At On The Side, that idea turned out to be completely true.
Lex ordered the special of the day ($12): a croissant of unquestionably high quality with apricot preserves and an incredible salad loaded with candied walnuts, pomegranate seeds and paper-thin white radish. After careful scrutiny of every item I settled on the Polpettine meatball sandwich ($12), made the traditional Italian way from organic chicken thigh. The added complexity of soffrito and fried gremolata brought it all together. Topped with thick slices of fresh, mild mozzarella and served in a dense, yet somehow not-chewy roll, the sandwich was outstanding. We shared a generously sized pomegranate black currant spritzer, which was bubbly, subtly sweet, and tasted like Christmas ($3). Other menu options were tempting: their bahn mi looked delicious as it sailed past our spot to another customer, and I’m curious to try their coconut cream and sweet potato soup.
What struck me most about the restaurant was their attention to detail. It looked as though absolutely nothing was out of place, and the cooks took their time applying every garnish with care. Despite the fact that customers crowded the ordering space and filled the large dining room, the staff was easygoing and pleasant. As someone who works in the industry, I have a soft spot for restaurants that maintain an atmosphere of effortlessness, as Ciao Thyme has done. I would have guessed that with so many entrepreneurial endeavors (catering, cooking classes, Incognito dinners and community involvement), a lunch restaurant on top of it all might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I’m going to mix my metaphors, and dub it the icing on the cake. Clearly, they’re doing something right. Their hours are limited (I mean, they have a lot of other stuff going on!) but if you’re downtown during the lunch hour, it’s a great place to get your hands on some creatively put together farm-to-table fare.
Read more on Sally’s food blog, http://www.wolfsoup.com
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