Image: Amos Morgan

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.