When people ask me what the best restaurant in Skagit County is, I always tell them, “Nell Thorn in La Conner.” I’ve gotten into a few arguments about this, mostly with fans of the Rhododendron Café, but I stand by my choice. Casey and Susan Schanen have made a cozy, comforting restaurant with great food that’s sourced locally and prepared with incredible attention to detail.
Do you eat upstairs or downstairs? It’s a tough choice. The slightly fancier upstairs dining room takes reservations, which is a very useful thing at Nell Thorn, especially on Friday nights, or when you’re taking your parents out to dinner. But if you don’t mind the occasional wait, I like the downstairs with its cozy English-style pub with wooden booths and funky corner seats. There’s also a deck that’s open in good weather.
Fortunately, the menu is mostly the same upstairs or downstairs. The menu is broken up into “appetizers,” “salads,” “delectable pub grub,” “pasta,” and “from ocean, field and pasture.” If you share with several other people you might be able to try something from each section, but, alas, portions are hearty enough to limit me to just an appetizer and one other dish.
The bread that’s brought to the table when you order is made in-house with the restaurant’s own sourdough starter and hearty whole grain flour. Served with a dish of good olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar, it’s the kind of bread that could make a meal all by itself.
It’s impossible to skip an appetizer. A friend of ours is addicted to the duck confit, and often orders it for dinner. At $10 it’s a steal. My entire family is passionately fond of the Calamari Greco ($11, or $6 at happy hour), a dish of squid sautéed with garlic, herbs, chile and a dollop of aioli. The fried polenta with mushrooms and Gorgonzola sauce ($11) is amazing. And I can’t say enough about their oyster shooters (only a buck each during happy hour), which come drenched in spicy horseradish cocktail sauce and a drizzle of salsa verde. Last summer we ate lunch on the deck and went through a plateful of shooters with glasses of chilled rosé, and nothing could have been better.
Salads are stunningly good. I recently overheard another customer asking if they had any salads that weren’t so “weedy,” but I appreciate the fresh mixed greens that change through the seasons. My husband frequently gets the steak salad ($15.95), a huge plate of fresh greens, liberally drizzled with gorgonzola dressing, accompanied by a perfectly cooked piece of steak and a bright green herb sauce, with fun little piles of beets or other vegetables. When the same salad is available with fried squid on top, I nearly always fall for it.
I’m extremely fond of the Pasta del Mar ($21), a tangle of thin noodles drenched in garlicky olive oil and parsley and studded with shrimp, squid and clams. I could eat this forever. There’s also a tomato sauce version. Often there is some sort of handmade fettuccine with wild mushrooms or broccoli rabe.
The menu changes constantly, so it’s always worth checking it over for specials. They always, always have steak frites ($24), and it’s a winner—perfectly cooked hanger steak with a huge mound of fries seasoned with “Herbs de Skagit.” The Nell burger ($13.95), available in the downstairs pub, is wonderful plain, but even better with good cheese and some sautéed shiitake mushrooms. But depending on the season or on whatever farm has brought in something unusual, there might also be lamb necks, goat burgers, halibut with miner’s lettuce, albacore with truffled white beans and chanterelles, rabbit with radishes and spring garlic, or nettle ravioli, all made with locally produced or foraged ingredients (a blackboard on the wall near the door lists all the farms and fishermen currently supplying the menu, and it’s a long list).
On our most recent visit I tried the lamb shank. The meat was falling off the bone and incredibly smooth, silky mashed potatoes soaked up the juices. Around the edge were various vegetables, lightly cooked so they retained some crunch, the perfect foil to the tender meat. Last winter I had a very similar dish made with goat shank in Moroccan spices. Both were wonderful.
We rarely get dessert at Nell Thorn—usually I’m just too full and happy—but they have a nice assortment of classic bistro desserts and many gluten-free options, as well as a list of dessert wines and spirits. No matter how you end your meal, you should feel extremely happy.
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