THE LATEST PROPERTY in restaurateur Ethan Stowell’s metastasizing empire went mythic right out of the blocks. For months before its opening, local food cognoscenti had been jawing in earnest: Was the menu really going to be all fish? Would the wine list really hold only whites? The February night it opened the newborn restaurant instantly inherited a slew of preconceptions based on Stowell’s earlier ventures. Preconceptions that my visits proved completely wrong. Hence: The top five things you thought you knew about Anchovies and Olives.
Stowell made his name with his spendy flagship Union in the Symphony district, and he’s been bucking the reputation ever since. First, he opened a Belltown pasta house for night prowlers (Tavolàta), then a drop-in neighborhood joint for Queen Anne-imals (How to Cook a Wolf), and finally slashed prices at Union. The Best New Chef award last year from Food and Wine only burnished his aura.
Anchovies and Olives brings things a little closer to earth. Oh, it’s stylish—Where did all these shiny-pated architecty-looking men with heavy black spectacles come from? But Mountain-ish adult alt music roars. Droves of wandering Pike/Pine bohemians ebb and flow, unscripted as the tide. (Like Wolf, A & O doesn’t accept reservations.) Stowell, who divides his time among the four restaurants, roams his little domain in jeans and shirtsleeves; his staff is similarly casual. Issuing from that staff was a whole lot of friendly where pretension might be expected. “Now here’s how clams are supposed to taste,” grinned one waiter, a Massachusetts native, as he set down my Ipswich clams, served in a paper cone fashioned from yesterday’s menu: lushly fried and served with basil aioli and filled with that meaty, juicy, slightly rank brininess that’s so alluring in a bivalve.
He was right.
Meet A & O via its menu and you might conclude that it’s a bargain. What a steal—scallops with grilled ramps and maitake mushrooms for $21! Housemade conchiglie pasta with prosciutto and tuna for $16!
Look again. Pastas and entrées were on the small side of typical—it’s not quite a small-plate place; more like a small-and-a-half-plate place—so one apiece for most diners wouldn’t suffice. (Maybe three for two diners, plus an appetizer or not.) Fresh oysters, reposing prettily on ice with various mignonettes and ices, cost $3 a pop—but must be ordered in threes. You even pay for the bread. Sure, it’s airy Columbia City Bakery focaccia served with a handful of arbequina olives and good oil, and you won’t mind paying $2 for it. But pay you will.
IT’S JUST ANOTHER SEATTLE SEAFOOD PLACE
As the rumor had it, Stowell indeed includes fish in every cooked preparation, which explains the sea urchin in the tagliarini and the cured tuna with the soft-cooked eggs and aioli. (The other early rumor, that A & O would offer only white wines, is false. The wine guru at both A & O and Wolf is Stowell’s wife and business partner Angela, who wrote a terrific list that’s heavy on whites, all Italian, and refreshingly affordable.)
On our first visit to Anchovies and Olives we got fluke, a succulent flatfish I rarely see locally, with English peas and controne beans in a lemony, essence-of-springtime dish. Across the table was a plate of Arctic char in a lively production including fregola (the nutty Sardinian beads of semolina pasta that are making their first inroads into the American market) and nettles, currants, and speck. Props to chef Charles Walpole on this canny romp, where our forks dueled over sweets and meaties and savories deep in conversation, in lightly Middle Eastern accents.
The crudo menu offers the coolest seafood of all, brisk from local waters. Swimming-that-day shellfish from Shelton’s Taylor farms arrives in the Walpole kitchen every other day, which on our visits included the new “It” oyster, the shigoku, whose crisp intensity was shrewdly encouraged with marinated horseradish.
Call Anchovies and Olives just another source-obsessed, fanatical-about-freshness seafood place if you must. I’ll just call it thrilling.
IT’S AN ETHAN STOWELL PLACE, SO IT MUST BE FLAWLESS
Alas…no. Chef Walpole, who hails from the late Mistral, displays obvious chops, literally, from the most visible open kitchen in Stowell’s empire. But on my visits he faltered more than he should have, both in conception (a too-rich brown butter sauce walloping a fine piece of skate) and execution (a hunk of smoky octopus, lyrically offset with bitter endive and tart gremolata, toughened on the grill). It ain’t there yet.
ANCHOVIES AND OLIVES BREAKS NEW GROUND FOR STOWELL
It really doesn’t. Sure it’s his first fish house, but the menu traffics in the same acerbic, briny, and tangy flavor families that dominate dinner at his other joints. Of course there’s lots of spicy tomato and big steaky chunks of tuna in the conchiglie pasta; plenty of anchovies and garlic and chilies and nettles in the spaghetti. Both are very good; both we’ve had countless beta versions of at Tavolàta and, even more, Wolf.
All this we considered as we settled into a particularly lush cheese plate and a tart little dish of orange-fennel sorbet, made in-house, for dessert. How many lush cheeses and tart sorbets had we now enjoyed in Stowell restaurants? How many more could we enjoy before we tired of them?
A whole lot more.