The fourth and most recent entry into celebrated restaurateur Ethan Stowell’s growing empire is also the one I have been most eagerly anticipating. I am a huge fan of Tavolàta and How to Cook a Wolf, and now Mr. Food and Wine Best New Chef 2008 was poised to open a seafood joint in my very own hood? Was this at long last going to be the answer to my prayers for an innovative fish dish? Would there be any reason to ever again leave Capitol Hill??
Hyperbole aside, the truth is that Anchovies & Olives is pretty great, but it’s not the end-all-be-all dining experience I was hoping for. The industrial, mid-sized space still has that new restaurant smell, with lots of concrete and spare walls and deliberately exposed filaments. Soft globes of light line the ceiling from one end of the room to the other. It’s a little sterile, but if you happen to catch a breathtaking Summer sunset over the downtown skyline through giant plate glass windows while sipping a glass of prosecco, you’re not going to notice the lack of fixtures. If you’re particularly lucky, Stowell himself will be at the helm of the most audacious open kitchen in town – seriously, you can see everything everyone is cooking or prepping or plating at all times (the polar opposite of Wolf). Otherwise, chef de cuisine Charles Walpole will be at the helm, executing Stowell’s vision with steady hand and shaved head.
The most immediately remarkable thing about A&O is that it boldly rejects the locavore trend currently dominating the Northwest scene. None of the fish is locally sourced. There are no lengthy paeans to this organic ingredient or that sustainable farm. It’s almost an affront to open a seafood restaurant in Seattle without a single instance of salmon to be found anywhere on the menu. Stowell is throwing the gauntlet, and there’s a brazen defiance to his approach which flies in the face of the sanctimonious tilth crowd (indeed, our server even boasted “Fish from the East Coast just tastes better”).
But does it really?
If we’re talking about the crudos, then the answer is a resounding Yes (although it’s admittedly futile to try and separate the food from the chef). Stowell’s raw dishes at A&O handily steal the show. A plate of Hamachi in a basil reduction sauce with rhubarb and pea vines is painted with eye-popping pinks and greens and has a gentle, grassy flavor. Soft and pale Fluke, a usually very mild fish, is elevated by gems of cubed grapefruit and brilliant mint. Some ideas work better than others. For example, on a recent visit, a piece of Yellowfin Tuna was regrettably drowned in an overly sweet strawberry sauce with crushed black pepper (a misstep to be sure, but I sort of appreciate the risk).
The actual main entrées also succeed to varying degrees. I found a hot filet of grilled Spanish Mackerel served over blanched fingerling potatoes with capers and a “salsa verde” to be smoky and flaky and a little bit dull. It was completely upstaged by a piece of Striped Bass with fennel leafs, beets and tiny, salty sea beans. The Bass was meatier, tastier and juicier than the Mackerel, and the vibrant green sea beans gave a wonderfully briny flavor to the dish. I was initially excited to try some Soft Shell Crab, but the overly chewy texture and intense saltiness was fairly off-putting (and it didn’t help that the accompanying Swiss chard was bitter and tough).
On the other hand, it’s no surprise that Anchovies & Olives fairs much better in the pasta department. I was thrilled to see that my beloved anchovy, garlic and chilies dish was on the menu (most recently served over thick Bigoli noodles). There’s Octopus Gnocchi and Salt Cod Puttanesca and Squid Pappardelle. But even better than all of the above (and an early contender for my favorite dish of 2009), is the Tagliarini with Uni, pangrattato and chives. It’s a completely original dish, unlike anything I’ve eaten, and wonderful in every conceivable way. The sea urchin is blended with butter to create a rich orange sauce which clings neatly to the tender, flat ribbons of pasta. The pile of shaved breadcrumbs gives additional texture to the sweet, bright, oceanic flavor. Each bite is an epiphany.
In keeping with the custom of Stowell’s other places, there are no reservations available at Anchovies and Olives. You’ve just got to show up and hope for the best. There is however, a more casual, almost loose vibe here which clearly sets this restaurant apart from the others. I mean, they were playing Bob freakin’ Marley in there the other night. No kidding. -10 hipster points. Although, to be fair, A&O is hardly playing to the usual Capitol Hill crowd (especially with prices ranging from $14-18 a plate). Regardless of musical proclivities and some inconsistencies in the food, I’m happy to finally have Stowell in the hood, and will no doubt make this a destination when the inevitable request is made by visitors for “Northwest seafood!™”
Won’t they be surprised.