He’s a bearded giant who was born in Iran, but isn’t Iranian. She’s a freckle-faced redhead from New Zealand and only five feet tall. Together they have two boys, a daughter named Amelie and a restaurant called Blackboard Bistro. If you know how to get to West Seattle, you should check it out. The menu is divine, and if bites are made better by a good back story, it’s got that too. I don’t pretend to be a food critic, but I am definitely a food snob, and this place is yum.
It gets friendly when we walk in and see people we know. It gets interesting when cooing sounds come from the next table and regulars separate from their spoons long enough to whisper that the seafood special is amazing and don’t we dare order anything else. Yes, they cooed. It gets entertaining when our server whisks out her Kiwi accent and tells us she can now handwrite the menu on three huge blackboards with a piece of chalk in less than hour. And, it gets sad when my date doesn’t feel up to ordering dessert. Seriously.
Blackboard is recommended to me by Pete at C&P Coffee Company—you probably want to go there, too. Pete lives in West Seattle and he and his wife just enjoyed a fine meal at Blackboard. I explain to him, as he designs a heart of steamed milk on my mocha, that my date is a “foodie.” After being introduced to Seattle restaurants Mamnoon and Shanik, it’s obviously my turn to impress with the restaurant choice. So… I mean… how good is Blackboard… really?
Now I know. It’s really good.
Jacob Wiegner is the chef. He was a year old when his American parents holed up in a hotel and waited for a flight out of Iran; the Shah was gone, the hostage crisis about to explode, it was 1979 and there was fighting in the streets. Back in North Dakota, he was probably the only second grader teased for having hummus in his school lunch. At 18 he was a struggling actor in London, so when the cook called it quits at Bar Oz in Baystown, Jacob took the job. It was a freezer to fryer cooking gig, but enough to stir up new passion and pay rent. He eventually dropped Shakespeare and went for a world class Le Cordon Bleu culinary education. It meant sleepless, 60 to 80 hour workweeks in intense European kitchens and a “yes chef no chef, ” no music, no fun, no small talk environment. If you were late, you were fired. When the ceiling in his apartment finally collapsed in London, he moved his career to Florida. He didn’t go alone.
Ginger Wiegner-Booth is patient, adored and adorably short. She was 18 when she left Wellington for her Overseas Experience or ‘OE’ as it’s called in New Zealand, that’s the two year period most young Kiwis spend abroad. She went to London and was the barmaid at Bar Oz in Baystown, and most certainly the reason Jacob happened to be hanging around when the cook resigned. Now Ginger has three kids and lives in Seattle because the land and water remind her of home. One of her favorite words is sparkling, and it’s what she wants in the personality at the front of her restaurant—she’s interviewing candidates. Being on staff at Blackboard is being part of the family. When Ginger places her husband’s food on tables, she’s thinking “here’s all of our love” with each plate.
And it’s true. I can taste the love in my crab salad with snippets of apple and a dreamy dressing; in the seafood dish, which was really more of a coconut and dumplings seafood smattering to die for; in the pork scaloppini, which I don’t usually eat, but just can’t help myself because there are mushrooms involved.
“There’s always something for a foodie, and for a non foodie…those people who want to see something they recognize on the menu, and those people who don’t. Some people come for something special, like offal.” Ginger tells me.
So, call me squeamish, but to me offal sounds awful. I’ve never been able to stomach it. When I come back to meet him on a different day, Jacob objects to my objection.
“I love all the old school things—heads, feet, organs. Sure you scrunch your face but if you’ve had them done right…” he says, plotting to prepare duck heart and gizzards for my scrunched face.
His favorite dish, or execution meal as he calls it, is Salade de Museau, a classical French salad made from thinly sliced head cheese, red onions, capers, croutons parsley and mustard dressing all tossed together.
“Nobody likes head cheese, but it’s one of the most divine things you can possibly be fed.”
Jacob doesn’t perform on stage anymore, but he reads his menu aloud like it’s poetry and he’s the Bard of Blackboard! He promises the Fleischkuekle is made with old German recipe secrets from a family cookbook in North Dakota: it’s meat wrapped in dough and fried—how good does that sound? English food comes and goes, Italian is a favorite and Mexican food shows up on the boards too. The menu changes often, the Wiegners say it’s never weird for the sake of being weird.
Before opening his own place, Jacob spent a few years as Philippe Thomelin’s sous-chef at Olivar in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where he liked the blackboard at the bar. Now celebrating almost three years, Blackboard remains the couple’s labor of love. Advertising isn’t cheap, and the location on California Street isn’t ideal because there’s not a lot foot traffic this far from the junctions. The last few restaurants in the same space didn’t survive long. I hope the Blackboard sticks around a while, these guys love what they do. For about a hundred bucks for two, I love what they do, too. I try the gizzards Jacob prepares, but it’s the crab salad that will keep this food snob coming back for more. And I still need dessert. Seriously.
By the way, the couple’s top restaurant pick is May Kitchen on Vashon Island. They say it’s worth the ferry trip, and is hands down the best Thai in Seattle! The Stranger says so too. I think I’ve got my restaurant pick for the next date night.