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cantinetta outside

Gather round, cats and cabbage, and allow me to offer you a rare glimpse behind the curtain at the House of Icarus.  When I initially began blogging about the Seattle food scene (after that fateful meal at the Corson Building last summer), I made the conscious decision to do so anonymously.  It was my intention to provide objective commentary in as pure and unbiased a way as possible, admitting that the subjective nature of taste and experience inevitably renders this endeavor difficult.  Still, I felt that going into it without any strings attached, without any presumptions about who I might be or what I might say would prove to be a far more honest approach – and ultimately provide more value to you, the reader.

So what on earth does this have to do with Cantinetta?  Well, a few weeks ago we were entertaining guests from out of town, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make the trek out to the residential hinterlands of Wallingford and see what all the buzz was about.  Cantinetta only accepts reservations for parties of six or more, and when we showed up on a Saturday night, the tiny Italian joint with a big reputation was already spilling onto the streets (staff scrambled to accommodate demand, setting up impromptu tables on the sidewalk outside).  We were told an hour wait, minimum, and slowly made our way through the crush of people towards the bar, also packed.

My first impression was that, for such a cramped space, Cantinetta sure manages to accommodate a surfeit of shrieking banshees.  The room is a sonic onslaught of noise, a din comparable to a Sonic Youth freakout (or Columbia City Tutta Bella on a Friday night).  The décor is rustic, with white lace curtains and antique mirrors and distinctive, almost medieval-looking wooden chandeliers.  There’s a dozen or so tables and banquettes of varying size, including one large communal table in the back.  The kitchen is separated from the main dining area, but remains visible through framed glass windows which lend the bustling chefs an almost voyeuristic appeal.  The whole scene is rather hectic, and didn’t exactly transport me back to Tuscany.

cantinetta inside

I was too busy observing the room and enjoying a glass of Sangiovese to notice that one of my party had broken away from the crew and was making small talk with a gentleman at the end of the bar.  She soon wandered back and I inquired after their conversation.  Imagine my chagrin – my horror – when I discovered that she had unwittingly “outed me” to one of Cantinetta’s co-owners.  Or maybe he was a business partner?  I can’t remember exactly – I was pretty mortified when he eventually approached me.  He then introduced me to the bartender, Randy Quarry (also part owner – eep!), who was very pleasant and amiable, while I in turn stumbled around and made an ass of myself.  We were seated five minutes later.

Coincidence?

Who knows, but the whole incident illustrates why I strive to keep a very low profile.  I don’t want preferential treatment – I want a genuine experience.  I want to be able to convey the closest approximation to an experience that you might have at any given restaurant on any given night.  Thankfully, nothing else transpired throughout the evening that struck me as partisan.  But enough of this navel-gazing!  How was the food, dammit?

We started with some antipasti, which was mostly fair to middling.  A plate of avocado and grapefruit with cured olives and chilies was smooth and salty, with a little kick, but nothing much else beyond simple presentation.  A panzanella salad with fresh raw cucumbers, tomatoes and onion was just fine (the tomatoes were ripe and juicy, but the bread was overly stale and hard to chew).  A skewer of porchetta wrapped in pancetta and served over grilled polenta with raw sage leaves was fatty, undercooked, and looked like a sad lump of gray matter on the plate.  Not good.

But all was forgiven when we arrived at the main courses.  This is clearly where executive chef Brian Cartenuto shines in the kitchen (I know very little else about Cartenuto, except that he’s from out of town).  I was ecstatic over a hot bowl of tagliatelle with rabbit ragu and succulent, earthy morels.  The broth was light and aromatic, a vegetable-base with lots of carrots and celery and black pepper.  The rabbit was mild and exquisite, and the noodles were perfect.  And yet, even this spectacular dish was upstaged by a sumptuous risotto stewed with confit of pheasant, shittakes and truffle oil.  The light gamey flavor of the pheasant provided a perfect balance to the creamy risotto and savory mushrooms.  Those two dishes alone warrant a repeat visit, and are easily some of the best food I’ve eaten all year.  The rest of the meal was rounded out with a meaty Hen of the Woods and prosciutto tortellini and a particularly fine hanger steak with Walla Walla onions and buttery porcini.

Desserts were a mixed bag, with a Rainier cherry custard that had a very strange, rubbery texture and a key lime cheesecake so utterly out of place on the menu that we simply had to try it (the Cantinetta folks must know something about Tuscany that I don’t).  It was awesomely tart, with a beautiful raspberry coulis and chocolate and graham cracker.  We finished up and rolled out into the warm night air.  I breathed a small sigh of relief.

In addition to the (mostly) stellar food, the waitstaff were pleasant and unpretentious, helpful with the wine list and generally attentive.  If only they could do something about the noise level… I feel compelled to repeat that the place is crazy loud.  Know what you’re getting into.  Maybe try hitting it up before the supper rush?  Maybe bring earplugs?  Cantinetta has great potential to be a romantic dining experience, with the oil wick candles and cozy room – but it’s all very boisterous at the moment.

Anyhow, I know this was a little more personal information than I usually inject into these posts, but I thought the experience and my reaction deserved mention.  Thanks for indulging me.  More importantly, thanks for reading.

Cantinetta on Urbanspoon

anchovies & olives

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).

anchovies & olives inside

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.

Anchovies & Olives on Urbanspoon

stinking rose outside

At the end of a long weekend gallivanting about the Bay Area, we again found ourselves in sunny San Francisco in search of sustenance.  Destination: North Beach.  At the intersection of Big Al’s and City Lights Bookstore, we returned to the venerable Stinking Rose in what must have been the first time in at least a decade.  I’m happy to report that nothing has changed.  I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but when I was growing up The Stinking Rose was one of those magical places we always somehow wound up visiting on special occasions (well, it was either there or Julius’ Castle… which I just discovered is now closed!  Sad face).  Anyhow, if company was visiting from out of town or it was the last day of school or if we just needed an excuse to celebrate in the City, the Stinking Rose was the place to be.  And so began my love affair with garlic.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the whole point of the Stinking Rose is garlic to ridiculous excess.  Garlic to the extreme.  Garlic to the max, man.  Their motto: “We season our garlic with food.”  I guess I’m forced to recognize that the landmark restaurant has some tourist appeal, because the place is always packed and lively – you can probably expect a line out the door.  On the other hand, the interior is deceptively large, an endless winding maze of rooms and tables and booths and curtains leading from one dining area to the next, so the wait generally isn’t too bad.  There is a dizzying array of gaudy fixtures plastered throughout the space.  If there is a surface, something will be on it.  A mural, a photograph, a 10 foot tall bottle of olive oil.  Strands of garlic and empty chianti bottles hang from the low ceiling.  Thousands of corks dangle on strings.  There is history everywhere.

stinking rose inside

We were seated relatively quickly and ordered a liter of the house red, a California Burgundy that was nothing special, but it didn’t really matter because we were soon about to obliterate our palates with an order of Bagna Calda – “garlic soaking in a hot tub”.  Whole, oven-roasted garlic cloves in extra virgin olive oil and butter with a touch of anchovy, served in a small iron skillet set in the center of the table.  The roasted garlic was mild and sweet and spread easily on chunks of fluffy, house-baked focaccia.  By contrast, a jar of raw green garlic on the table was hot and sharp and brought tears to my eyes.  TEARS OF JOY.

For the main course, there was nothing in the world I wanted more at that moment than the Forty Clove Garlic Chicken.  Two enormous pieces of savory breast and leg meat, roasted on the bone with rosemary and served with silky smooth Yukon mashed potatoes.  The chicken was a touch on the dry side, but I didn’t really mind because the flavor was perfect – it tasted like chicken!  Also, the dish was garnished with lovely grilled green onions and forty cloves of frickin’ garlic.  Did I eat them all?  Yes.  Yes I did.

stinking rose chianti room

The waitstaff was a little inconsistent, with quick service followed by long gaps of inattention.  I wasn’t particularly surprised given the frenzied nature of the restaurant, and I had nothing better to do than reminisce about old times and old friends.  This particular jaunt down to the Bay Area for the long weekend was action-packed and over far too soon, but I’m always happy to be back home in Seattle (especially since the weather here has been crazy beautiful – first the snowpocalypse and now record-breaking heat in June?  It’s totally the end of the world).  And while my next visit will undoubtedly find me hitting up Michael Mina’s new joint, or Coi or Ad Hoc or something else bleeding edge, this little trip was all about nostalgia.  Plus I got my garlic fix, yo.  Vampires need not apply.

The Stinking Rose on Urbanspoon

tavolata

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

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