OH, THE GLAMOUR and intrigue of life as a restaurant critic.

A few Mondays ago my eight-year-old daughter and her friend were racing snails in our driveway when I remembered I had a review to do that evening. “Grab your coats, girls!” I shrieked. The place was Tavolata, Ethan Stowell’s new rage in Belltown, which doesn’t accept reservations for small parties. I knew from experience that if you don’t get there by 6pm you’re probably looking at an hour and a half in the bar.

The girls got most of the snail slime off their hands, I think, but we still looked like refugees from Hooterville when we walked in. It was all of 5:30 on a Monday night—and already the place was well stocked with the cool urban prowlers that give Belltown its edge. Tribes of twentysomethings, with their antigravity hair and untucked shirts, posed at the bar. Large after-work parties filled the central communal table, where the chatty cocktailers were already saying things they’d regret at the office tomorrow. Hip middle-agers who’d drifted down from nearby condo towers nibbled on plates of the housemade pasta on which Tavolata, in its four-month life, has already built renown.

All of them looked flawlessly staged against the sandblasted cement walls and buzzing open kitchen of this shaft of a room, which stretches from Second Avenue just north of Bell Street to the alley behind. Exposed ducts, raw beams, nicked fir floors, the punctuation of wrought iron and pendant glass, a mezzanine above, and that patented view of an alley that grants any restaurant instant urban cred—the scene is liable to bring back faint whiffs of a loft party in Brooklyn or a lost student weekend in Firenze.

And yet, for all the Euro style, this mom and two kids—every restaurant’s worst nightmare—were received with genuine welcome. “How about a couple of Shirley Temples and a plate of Tater Tots?” asked Mr. Perfect Waiter, a fellow who was warm, wry, informed, available, and savvy enough about children to recast an appetizer of fried polenta with bagna cauda as the fast food it resembled.

Of course the Shirley Temple was almost unrecognizably exotic, elevated with imported Italian cherries, and therefore the most transporting confection the girls had ever sipped. And I knew the food would be equally outstanding, being, after all, the province of this young toque, who has redefined Northwest seasonal cuisine at his downtown restaurant Union.

For Tavolata (the Italian term for “communal table”), Stowell teamed with former Tom Douglas pastry chef Patric Gabre-Kidan to create a casual late-night joint for fresh housemade pasta. It was a brilliant idea—late-night being one rare bird in this town; fresh pasta, oddly, still rarer—and eagerly anticipated by Stowell’s colossal fan base, who waited, and waited, as permit snafus delayed Tavolata’s opening by months.

And so with mounting excitement I dredged a polenta Tater Tot through its accompanying dip. The menu calls it bagna cauda, but it was more like anchovy aioli than that classic oil bath. The polenta nuggets were silky inside and crunchy on the outside. Alas, with the dip, they were rendered briny and shrill, and without it, the polenta became—as it often will when it has no dazzling complement—dull.

This I did not expect. From what Stowell has shown us at Union, he is a maestro of flavor composition, assembling plates whose components harmonize and surprise, and where execution is always spot-on. This can happen at Tavolata—yet not often enough.

We found appetizers we relished, like veal cheeks—the face kind—braised to spoon-tender in a potent wine reduction and presented alongside peppery watercress and a tangle of pickled shallots. On another plate, miner’s lettuce, golden beets, and crostini spread with pecan butter each added earthy animation to a mild ovoid of handmade mozzarella. Here was the cerebral culinary mastermind we knew.

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There were also main dishes to recommend. A fleshy double-cut pork chop was carefully cooked and fancifully accessorized with spring onions, bits of pancetta, and fiddlehead ferns. At $28, it shamed pricier steakhouse versions. (And it’s one of the spendier items at Tavolata, which provides one of Belltown’s more affordable nights out.) A special of branzino, the trendy whitefish formerly known as Mediterranean sea bass, arrived whole and resplendent on a platter—and made a fluffy, delicate feast with greens and fried potatoes.

It was a brilliant idea to create a casual late-night joint for fresh housemade pasta.

But ironically, in this pasta joint none of our pastas approached the quality of the mains. Stowell’s byword on the pasta is simplicity: simple sauces, minimal embellishments. Strozzapretti (literal translation “priest strangler”—apparently the Italians’ first association with pasta in the shape of a long rolled-up towel), featured the sinister little noodles with chunks of pot roast in a resonant meat sauce. On another plate, rigatoni appeared with Italian sausage in tomato sauce, breathing fresh marjoram so overpowering the whole dish tasted like a sachet. The same preparation on a second visit was better but nowhere near outstanding. And these were the best we tried.

Sometimes the problem was conceptual, as in a touted special in which gnocchi, cauli-flower, and taggiasca olives added up to far less than the sum of these unintegrated parts. A bland dish of agnolotti pasta, stuffed with veal brains, lemon, and ricotta, left one to conclude that this calf wasn’t having very interesting thoughts. A classic spaghetti treatment screaming with anchovies, garlic, and red chili would have been terrific but for the tough spaghetti, miles from the gentle resistance of al dente.

For dessert, the item Mr. Perfect Waiter proffered as doughnut holes disappointed even the kids. “They’re soggy,” the eight-year-olds pronounced of the lemon-flavored zeppole, the sugared nuggets of southern Italy. I had to agree.

When we all dove into our glassy mounds of perfect chocolate sorbetto, it hit me: Tavolata’s trouble is its short-order identity. At Union, Stowell composes works of art for destination diners. At Tavolata he and his crew must choreograph deep fryers and pasta pots for the quick turnarounds of Belltown’s short-attention-span crowd. Maybe that’s why the entrées outshone the pastas: They best reward the kind of concentration Stowell brings to the party.

And Tavolata is a party, an irresistibly fizzy urban party, which makes for one enchanting night out. That it also makes for crazily inconsistent eats is, given the chops of this chef, probably not the last word to be written on Tavolata.


This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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