So remember how I mentioned in my last post that the James Beard Foundation is inviting everyone to nominate their favorite chefs for the award this year?  Well, I’d probably put safe money on Ethan Stowell taking home the prize.  A nominee last year, and named one of the Best New Chefs in 2008 by Food & Wine magazine, Stowell is rapidly building a restaurant dynasty in Seattle à la Tom Douglas.  Along with his business partner Patric Gabre-Kidan, Stowell’s empire now extends from the metropolitan Downtown destination Union, north to Belltown with his superlative Italian restaurant Tavolàta, up to the top of the Queen Anne Counterbalance with the intimate How to Cook a Wolf, and now over to Capitol Hill with the recently announced Anchovies and Olives (set to open early next year).  All of the menus feature constantly rotating seasonal offerings, with some greatest hits and variations depending on the venue.

Of all of Stowell’s establishments, my very favorite is Tavolàta at 2nd and Battery, and a recent visit only cemented this notion.  I arrived late with a large party after an evening of drinking, which is the best time to visit this cavernous, industrial expanse in the heart of Belltown.  The energy is astonishing.  The bar is packed.  The wait is ridiculous.  But it is so worth it.  Put in your name, have a breathtaking glass of Sangiovese from Moris Farms and enjoy the endless stream of beautiful people.  The central space is dominated by a massive 30 foot communal dining table next to the open kitchen.  A handful of small tables and one-on-one booths line the walls, and upstairs some comfy lounge chairs and sofas are arranged near the windows with a scenic view of the crackheads in the alley (Welcome to Belltown!).

Stowell’s dishes are deceptive in their simplicity.  Ingredients are used sparingly and in harmony to create a perfect gestalt where the final product always equals the sum of its parts.  Try some antipasti — the Prosciutto di Parma with reggiano and trampetti olive oil is not overly salty and will simply melt in your mouth.  The Garden Greens salad is one of the best in the City, with fresh and leafy baby lettuce, ricotta salata and pistachios.  On this occasion, I swooned over a lemony cauliflower salad with golden raisins and pine nuts.  The florets were warm and crisp, and the raisins were a revelation of sweetness.

But the real star of the show is the handmade pasta.  The pasta dishes run the gamut, and it’s always fun to try something new and serve family style.  I nearly always order the Spaghetti since I can’t even begin to approximate the perfection of this humble noodle in my own kitchen the same way it shines here.  Tender and firm and perfect, with house cured anchovy, chili and garlic – a veritable bitchslap of flavor, instant sobriety in a bowl.  The Strozzapreti with braised pork cheek and mascarpone will give you further strength for the bus ride home – the juicy, rich meat and large rolled noodles are substantial and will definitely require sharing (fun fact: strozzapreti means “priest strangler”).  Linguine with mussels and garlic is another fan favorite, served in a bowl retaining the starchy, briny broth the shellfish and noodles were cooked in.

On this occasion, the hands-down winner was a seasonal offering, the toasted orechiette with butternut squash, chanterelles and oregano.  The tiny ears of pasta captured the squash and mushrooms perfectly, and the oregano was easily the finest, most flavorful herb I’ve tasted in ages.  I have no idea where Stowell scored such outrageously good seasoning, but for me, the oregano alone stole the show that night.

Go now and prepare for a wait.  Because that’s nothing compared to the time it will take to get into Tavolàta if Stowell does win James Beard this year…

BONUS REVIEW!  Earlier this Spring, I was invited by Seattle’s favorite alt-weekly The Stranger to guest blog with a couple of other regular commenters over at the Slog.  It was shortly after How to Cook a Wolf opened, and I was totally infatuated with Stowell’s newest space.  I felt compelled to write a review at the time, and so here it is for your enjoyment.  That experience obviously had a profound effect on me, and successfully planted the seed for what you are reading today, so a big thanks to America’s Hometown Newspaper!

Tavolata on Urbanspoon