A Long Way to Aragona
Artiste chef Jason Stratton brings arcane Spanish food to a storied downtown space.
Allow me to narrate the stream-of-consciousness inside my head as I walked into Aragona: Damn, heavy door. I think this used to be…hi hostess…one of the Rosellinis’ restaurants: skinny space, long ramp, weird layout. Mmm, awesome bar along the left side of the ramp! Sweeping view, romantic. Okay…still climbing. Dining room finally in view…casual, smooth surfaces, cool. -Geodesic-shaped pendant lights hanging in clusters…they look folded out of cardboard origami paper…
Now the same observations, only in the words of Aragona owner and chef Jason Stratton. “I’m fascinated by the idea of stepping into a space and having a through-the-wardrobe kind of experience. Step in off the street and be transported. I was taken by the length of this space. When I walked in, I had this idea of a journey into the dining room. With glimpses along the way of the mini spaces throughout. Part of my interest in design is, what can you do with more common materials to transform them and elevate the surroundings?”
Jason Stratton—chef, artist, poet, philosopher—sees things in a highly singular way. He inherited his first restaurant, the Capitol Hill Piedmontese treasure Cascina Spinasse, stewarding it to near-unanimous acclaim without major changes. But he created Artusi, the Euro aperitif bar next door, according to a decorative vision based on hexagon shapes (“to look at how nature orders itself, and how it breaks down,” he explained, inexplicably).
The takeaway, however, is that in Stratton’s world there is meaning in every detail, true at Aragona right down to its address. Stratton wasn’t formally trained as a chef but he had a parade of marquee mentors—Holly Smith at Cafe Juanita, Jerry Traunfeld at Poppy—beginning with the great Bruce Naftaly, late of Le Gourmand. Naftaly hired the 16-year-old Stratton to wash dishes in the mid-’90s. Naftaly, for his part, had begun hisSeattle career washing dishes, under the forward-thinking restaurant-family scion, Robert Rosellini. That restaurant was the Other Place, which Rosellini ultimately operated out of…whaddya know, this very space.The decorative motif at Aragona—which in its seven-month life has become the It-est of Seattle’s It restaurants—is herringbone: the pattern by which shards of pink and brown tile strikingly climb the room’s pillars, echoed in the wood filigree framing the opening to the kitchen. (Even cooler is the kickass tile-work “graffiti” in the ladies room.) Stratton told me about the meaning of the herringbone; I can only report that it had something to do with how gem shapes move into space. Sorry.
It’s a meaningful lineage, for the local--and-seasonal Northwest cuisine these chefs so passionately pioneered takes center stage on Aragona’s menu. Seafood heavy, the menu written by Stratton and his right hand, Carrie Mashaney, casts Northwest ingredients in Spanish productions. Stratton dreamed it up during a couple of extended visits to Spain between cheffing gigs; before Spinasse was even a glimmer in his eye, he had drafted the menu for Aragona.
The vision was a regional Spanish restaurant honoring the ancient kingdom of Aragon in Eastern Spain, tending to simple treatments of medieval flavor combinations (legumes, fruits, nuts). The menu would include a few starters, a few salads and vegetable plates, a couple of rice dishes, a handful of mains. What it wouldn’t include were the foods most of us associate with Spain: the paella, the tapas classics, the sangria. Aragona requires its diners suspend cliches and open their minds to a Spanish cuisine they may not know is Spanish.
And sometimes what results is a thing of beauty. A whole trout, all pin-boned and crackle-skinned, arrived perfected with a filling of caramelized onions and heady jamón Serrano, brisk with gusts of juniper. Fluffy flesh, crispy skin, sweet and savory filling—this was elegance. Ditto a starter of tripe—diners can usually play “spot the tripe” on any Stratton menu—stewed to pastalike density, deepened with black truffle and soft sheep’s cheese trailing its barny ripeness across the whole. A pork chop, overgrilled, alas, arrived in charred slices on a plate over garlic cream and prunes with Amontillado sherry, which mingled into a lush sweetness. And for dessert, intelligent composed interplays of sweet-savory included xuxos caseros, or crispy pastry bullets filled with vanilla cream, fried with restraint, and dusted sublimely with truffle salt.
All of this we enjoyed, in spite of the bummer that the waiter on our first visit neglected to explain that the platos principales—large platters of protein—are meant to be shared; augmented perhaps with one of the two nightly arroces (rice dishes), which really oughtn’t to be ordered as an individual diner’s main course. Sigh. This left one of my companions gamely slogging through a big bowl of vermicelli pilaf with geoduck, oyster mushrooms, and the Catalan aioli allioli—liking it well enough but finding its charms unequal to its size.
Which happens when you order a side dish as your main, right? (Let the record show: The waiter on our second visit was more helpfully expository.) In fact, this rice dish’s blandness and lack of harmony revealed a deeper conception problem. For all the talent at its helm, this kitchen on my visits proved regularly challenged by nuance. A braised endive starter over cauliflower puree was a shimmery plate of liquefied greens, their provocative bitterness left without a counterpoint. A halibut special featured a walloping tapenade, rendering the whole dish a one-note affair. A plate of heartbreakingly fresh and beautifully grilled spring lamb chops were served with equally winning complements—delectable chickpeas, grilled spring onions, a vivid romesco—but no overarching flavor principle to unite them.
This lack of coherence, along with the dearth of recognizably Spanish touchstones, proves visibly confusing to diners—already an oil-and-water mix of hipster Stratton devotees and tourists from downtown hotels. I watched a tableful of New Yorkers react to their Russian salad with obvious disbelief: This mayonnaise-heavy, potato-pea--frisee salad with fat chunks of Dungeness crab is being served in an upscale urban restaurant? In 2014? To the untrained palate the dish is a pedestrian throwback to 1964 luncheon fare—never mind that Stratton reveres it as an homage to food Spaniards really eat.
And that would be fine, if it offered even a whiff of the fragrant transport one craves from a Euro dining experience. What it delivers instead is a textbook example of how Stratton’s meaning-laden artistic vision can get in the way of the food people want to eat.
Which tells me that the journey into the dining room might be just a skosh too long.