MAN, I LOVE eating out in this town.
Surprises happen here every day. A known restaurant graveyard will suddenly yield a winner. A competitive local press will sniff out the most dazzling independents. A flourishing restaurant scene consistently incubates fresh culinary talent, in the form of hot young chefs who then spin off marvelous kitchens of their own.
And restaurants like Dinette are born.
Melissa Nyffeler had been dreaming up the place since she was 15 and waiting tables. Developing interests over ensuing years led her closer to the kitchen, then closer to the kitchen’s bread oven, as she refined her baking technique at Palace Kitchen, Dahlia Lounge, and Le Pichet. “I’ve always loved to put things between bread,” she sighs. “My love of bread is really what Dinette is about.”
Actually, it’s now about a lot of people’s love of bread: Dinette, open just under a year, has become a pretty populated little joint. You walk in any dinner hour and spy far more “occupieds” than “vacants” at the composite-wood tables, with a Capitol Hill crowd—young and not-so-much, fashionable and come-as-you-are, gay and straight and heteroflexible—contributing their individual streams of chi to one crackling urban vibe.
That vibe feels fresh and vivacious, in part because the space looks like somebody’s funky first apartment. The Olive Way storefront is awash in sunlight and sky hues, with nailpolish scarlet painted in for good measure. Gold filigree embellishes the decor, along with Nyffeler’s gilded Florentine tray collection. Paper lanterns sway. After dark when every table is full and the votives come out, the place twinkles like a warm house party. Like I said, funky first apartment.
But what’s best about the Euro-retro-homespun atmosphere is how precisely it matches the spirit of Nyffeler’s cuisine; a cuisine built both literally and figuratively upon, like the woman said, bread. Toast takes up a fair portion of the card: thick-cut Columbia City Bakery bread, slathered -perhaps with tarragon-speckled smoked halibut rillettes and crowned with a magenta tiara of pickled red onions; or thinly glossed with a cannellini bean spread and lavished with roasted eggplant caponata; or shingled with slices of nobly truffle-oiled portobello and shavings of parmigiano reggiano.
At any given dinner Nyffeler offers five varieties of toast; one particularly shameless evening found me smile-deep in all of them. The one spread with a strapping fig-anchovy—walnut paste and topped with arugula and prosciutto di Parma hit that rare sweet spot where shrewdness and surprise meet sheer delectability. These toasted wonders were dressed in elegance, but mostly they were, well…what toast is. Comforting. Earthy. Lo -falutin.
Beyond toast, the nightly selection includes “Bowls,” “Snacks,” and a daily fresh sheet called “Plates,” all recalling lost weekends in Tuscany or Provence or Andalucia. Housemade ricotta gnocchi with braised beef short-rib ragu was appropriately robust. A butter lettuce salad combined fava beans, shallot frizzles, and pecorino Toscana in a briskly refreshing mint-lemon créme-fraîche vinaigrette. A wedge of tortilla Española dolloped with smoky paprika aioli went nicely with a glass of La Bardonne Bordeaux off a well-chosen European-heavy list. (A short -selection of cocktails lent color and no shortage of exuberance to one visit—particularly a lemony little number crafted with vodka and flecked with rosemary. But let’s be clear: This is red wine food.)
Even most of Nyffeler’s more complex stretches worked, including a beautifully proportioned romp of a roasted lamb and bread salad, and a rustic plate of pan-seared scallops, cleverly served over lemon risotto. An admirable compilation of pepper piperade, marinated leeks, and thick chickpea crepes were marred only by their star player, an undercooked hunk of black cod. The only other misstep was one curt server who did not possess, alas, the “hospitality personality” evinced by virtually everyone else.
Desserts are predictably strong from this pastry aficionado, particularly one lush almond pastry—I get all bothered just recalling it. Indeed Dinette’s the sort of place that tends to draw emotionally exaggerated responses. “Someone really cared about this lentil soup!” I scrawled purply in my notes, which would later recall an ingenuous remark Nyffeler shared when I phoned: “People tell us they can taste the love in the food.”
Anywhere else, that would sound hokey. At Dinette it just sounds true.
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