WHENEVER I START thinking that “restaurant critic” is a frivolous occupation to put on a tax return, I reimagine myself as a consultant, someone whose experience dining out can help not only a consumer to find a decent meal—but a restaurant to find a better self.
This thought occurred to me after three meals at Avila, the sleek new storefront restaurant on 45th in Wallingford. Owners Jared and Bronwen Carpenter are newbies to the business, and he’s just a year out of culinary school. When his and buddy Alex Pitts’s cooking jobs at the Rainier Club evaporated last year, a restaurant broker put them in touch with Bella Cosa, a specialty foods operation on its third owner in five years.
Enticed by its pedestrian-heavy location amid the Wallingford crush— Molly Moon’s is barely a scoop’s-melt away—the Carpenters acquired the space and hired Pitts to be their chef. They installed a gleaming new kitchen behind a dining counter and made that the centerpiece of three rooms—the first an entryway bar scattered with tables, the last an open dining room well-lit from back windows. With black tables, plywood floors, and clean lines, the place feels minimalist without being stark. “Last week someone called us hip!” young Jared enthused.
And hip it is, with clear neighborhood-casual appeal. It would be great to see Avila succeed. But after those three meals—moments of which were exemplary—it’s clear (that sound you hear is me strapping on my consultant’s hat) that Avila could use some tweaking. A few suggestions:
WRITE A BETTER MENU. I don’t mean conceive of better dishes; chef Pitts applies a fascinating sensibility to global comfort food. Starters like a fragrant pumpkin pudding crunchy with black rice and topped with crisped edible leaves, or mains like beautifully roasted black cod over bacon-potato hash served with piroguis (fried dough crescents) of scallions and sour cream shimmer with originality and a high degree of success.
It’s the menu descriptions that need work. An entree described as “chicken and slippery dumplings, boudin blanc, brussels”—leaves the diner to wonder how the chicken is cooked (sous vide, then sauteed, then beautifully crisped in the oven), and what’s inside the dumplings (Surprise! They’re little pasta sheets), and what the heck is boudin blanc (a loose French white sausage, highly seasoned), and whether “brussels” are in fact Brussels sprouts. (They are.)
Nor will the diner suspect that lurking within cabbage leaves is a little tangle of sauerkraut—one ought never be surprised by sauerkraut—or that this chicken dish is anything but tame. When a chef is as innovative as Pitts, the menu needs to spell these things out.