IF A RESTAURANT could express the soul of a city, Washington, DC, would be a chophouse for deal makers; New York City a four-alarm ethnic mom ’n’ pop. Seattle? I’ll vote neighborhood bistro, effortlessly swanky and crammed with regulars, where food and drink are taken seriously and nothing is serious in the least.
Meet Mona’s, wedged between two other neighborhood icons—Krittika Noodles and the Latona Pub—in the lucky Latona district east of Green Lake. Chances are you’ve already met, as Mona’s opened 13 years ago. Two years ago the owners doubled the restaurant’s size, knocking down the wall between it and the former baseball card shop next door, adding a central horseshoe of a bar. One year ago they sold the place to their bartender Quinn Gallagher and then-girlfriend Aleece, the pastry chef for Lowell-Hunt Catering who’d been a regular at Mona’s for almost 10 years. (Her ex-brother-in-law had owned the baseball card shop.) Eight months ago Aleece and Quinn married, and naturally held their reception at Mona’s—the place they owned, but more significantly, the place where they met.
Walk into Mona’s and immediately sense that three-degrees-of-separation sizzle. Everyone’s a regular; so much that those whose job it is to greet guests may simply expect them to know they can sit wherever they like. On the restaurant side, perhaps, beneath oversize paintings at glossy tables, alongside purple velvet drapes. Or on the bar side, beneath oversize mirrors beside windows that open onto the sidewalk in summer. Its walls coolly warm in bold vermillion and periwinkle, its ceilings elegantly soaring—Mona’s shimmers after dark in a sexy starlight of pendant lamps and twinkling votives, that centerpiece bar glowing like a box of jewels.
Surveying the room you’ll spy singles at the bar—an uncommonly good spot for solo dining, the bar is suitably anonymous but still right in the middle of the party—along with romancing couples and merrymaking chums. Weekends live Brazilian samba coaxes dancers to their feet. Dangerously perfect cocktails flow freely, especially during Happy Hour.
So is Mona’s a bar with a dinner menu, or a restaurant with a great bar? The latter. It’s one of several places in town that recharged its culinary reputation the moment the tobacco ban cleared the smoke away. But more than that, Quinn the bartender-turned-owner knew the value of a talented chef. So he brought Micah Windham into the kitchen in March.
Windham, whose career had propelled him through the kitchens of Salish Lodge and Ovio Bistro, reined the menu back to its Mediterranean origins and turned his attention toward the integrity of its ingredients, from securing pristine sources for heirloom tomatoes to handcrafting his own cotechino sausage.
On one visit, that sausage arrived in three savory patties alongside a whole roasted branzino fish. The dish was a tabula rasa inviting diners to embellish at will with the accompanying plate of grilled peppers, onions, fennel, and lemon, fragrant with epazote leaf. More than tasty, this was intelligent too, rife with mix-and-match aromatics and textures. Similarly smart was Mona’s signature arugula salad, a stunner that’s been on the menu for years. Bitter arugula arrived drizzled with sweet truffled honey and arrayed with roasted red peppers, crunchy pistachios, and a ripe slab of Humboldt Fog chèvre. Exquisite.
Some dishes offered less conceptual artistry but were nevertheless tasty, like a pork loin saltimbocca with corn-encrusted patties of gnocchi romana, sweet red pepper sugo, and an overabundance of reggiano; or a duck confit salad, in which a darkly moist duck joint, crackly skinned and delectable, arrived over too bland a mélange of French lentils, feta, and greens.
Only one disappointment marred two delightful visits—overly tart dolmas promising Dungeness crab, then delivering none of its flavor. But they remained delightful visits. It’s the kind of place that will improvise a plate of truly careful macaroni and cheese for the kid at the table. The kind of place that may begin your meal with a gratis amuse-bouche, perhaps a whisper of creamy robiola cheese lavished with Yakima Valley peach confiture and a cloudburst of olive oil, if you haven’t yet stuffed yourself with spiced almonds and lamb pitas off the Happy Hour menu. It’s the kind of place where desserts are benedictions—a wedge of dense hazelnut cake presented with caramelized bananas and nut brittle; a dish of fresh Washington cherry clafouti crowned with housemade amaretto ice cream. All restaurants should be owned by pastry chefs.
And, it seems, bartenders. “Welcome to Mona’s, thanks for coming!” smiled the affable Quinn on our initial visit.
Yep. It’s Seattle all right.