A little more than a year ago, a feature film producer named Skip Williamson wanted to start a restaurant centered on protein and clean-eating. First, he needed a chef. He began his search on Instagram, exploring what came up when he searched #butcher. After some pretty off-topic posts, a photo of a short rib appeared, from a vendor at the popular New York foodie destination, Smorgasburg. This is how, in January, three New York chefs — James Zamory, Aaron Saurer, and Sean McDermott – found themselves in Bellingham.
The trio first met while working at The NoMad, a Michelin-star restaurant based in the city. After discovering how well they worked together, they opened Carnal, eventually landing a coveted spot at Smorgasburg. Their reputation grew, and soon their short ribs were attracting hour-long lines.
Although the vendor lifestyle was good, it came with lots of movement and uncertainty. During the winter season, when Smorgasburg closed, they brought Carnal on the road, doing pop-ups in places as far as Berlin and Osaka. This is why, when Williamson approached them with an offer to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Bellingham, a place they’d never even heard of, they didn’t immediately brush him off. Instead, they made a visit to the Pacific Northwest.
The mountains, the water, and the islands were all a draw, but it was the Bellingham Farmers Market that sealed the deal.
“We were looking at these vegetables and literally in shock at how beautiful they were. We’re not used to this kind of produce in New York City,” Zamory says.
Today, you can find Carnal on State Street in downtown Bellingham, where The Up & Up and Rudy’s Pizza once stood. Those familiar with the former establishments will be amazed to see the new space, which is clean, modern, and casually elegant. The large outdoor dining area features string lights, greenery, and handsome tables designed by Bellingham’s Nook Studio. The covered eating area is perfect for a romantic dinner on a drizzly autumn night.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the results,” Zamory says of the space. He, along with Williamson, Saurer, and McDermott, played a large part in the remodel, doing a lot of the construction, demolition, and installation. “We know the building inside and out, every little pipe…we’re deeply connected to it.”
Inside, you’ll find food-based art made by Zamory himself, including a piece made from coffee grounds. In one corner, hollow rib bones glued to the wall create an intriguing coral-reef-like pattern.
Carnal’s mission is to offer hyper-local ingredients that highlight the bounty of the season.
“It’s textural, it’s bright, it’s acidic. We try to achieve some kind of balance in every single bite that you get,” Zamory says.
On the menu, the most obvious choice is the Slow Cooked Beef Short Rib with Bone Marrow ($23), the same rib whose Instagram photo caught the attention of Williamson. The meat is cooked for 24-hours and then finished over a maple and alder woodfire. Marrow is painted over the meat, so it’s the very first thing you taste. The meat is juicy, so tender it falls off the bone. For much of it, you don’t even need a knife.
To balance the fatty flavor, the ribs are topped with greens and a pineapple relish flavored with lemon oil and Urfa chili. The chili adds a chocolatey spice to the sweet citrus relish. The result is layers upon layers of flavor. In all, the dish exceeds its reputation. I’m not surprised people waited an hour for it.
The Roasted Half Chicken ($13) is deboned, cooked skin-side-down, and glazed in a sauce made from smoked chicken fat, eggs, butter, and summer savory. A topping of greens cuts through the fat, adding balance and freshness to an otherwise decadent entree.
Not to be overlooked, the sides at Carnal are also exceptional. The Marinated Avocado ($10) features generous chunks of fruit marinated in a lime vinaigrette seasoned with black lime powder. Radishes, radish greens, and local Holmquist hazelnuts add crunch. If you like avocados, you’ll love this dish. (Pro tip: I used my leftovers to create extra-delicious avocado toast.)
The Crispy Potatoes ($10) are incredible, thanks in large part to a clam aioli made from Taylor Shellfish clams. Meant to mimic clam chowder, the dish also features celery done three ways — stalks, leaves, and salsa verde form — as well as dehydrated seaweed. In sum, these potatoes are really, really tasty.
Going forward, the menu will always include a chicken, fish, and veggie option, as well as the signature short rib. This fall, expect to find squash and other seasonal veggies. The restaurant will also be selling their signature beef jerky snack, which they plan to expand into a national brand.
Carnal is open seven days a week from 4-9 p.m. I have a feeling it’s soon to become a Bellingham favorite. 1234 North State St., Bellingham, 360.306.3587, eatcarnal.com
For more like this, check out our Taste section here.