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.