"IS THAT GIRL NAKED?” the guy at a table behind us blurted.
He was staring at a large portrait hanging in the lounge behind the bar at Cuoco, in which a young woman reclining in a bathtub is eating what looks like Tom Douglas’s coconut cream pie.
In fact the woman was naked—modestly so, which for Cuoco’s proprietor, Tom Douglas, isn’t quite naked enough. “My staff talked me out of the portrait I really wanted,” he quipped to another table, his laugh edged with genuine wistfulness.
The big boss himself had come to deliver a slice of that triple coconut cream pie—the dessert he’s now so famous for no one orders the other desserts on his menus. That’s why it’s not on the card at his new Northern Italian pasta house, to give the semifreddo a fighting chance. But the folks at this table really wanted a slice, and the bakery is just steps away.
Cuoco is Douglas’s 15th enterprise, depending on how you count them up, in a food empire crammed into one square mile of downtown real estate. It includes six restaurants, a hotel food service operation, a catering outfit, a pair of pizzerias, a bakery and its retail operation, a couple takeouts, a Tibetan dumpling house, and a tavern.
Six of them have opened this year, within lunch-break distance of South Lake Union’s Amazon campus. Of these Cuoco is the headliner; visually it may be the showpiece of his entire collection. Carved out of a brick warehouse with raw old-growth beams and paned windows spilling light, the sprawling room feels at once capacious and intimate, clad in various surfaces from wood to sparkling red glass tile and pooling into a handful of private dining alcoves. These enclosures and the range of moods and dining styles they afford recall another South Lake Union exemplar of design, MistralKitchen.
Douglas wanted real housemade pasta to be the premiere message diners get at Cuoco—Italian for “cook”—so he installed a pasta station, a la Osteria La Spiga, opposite the door.
Fully 10 pastas are presented nightly. The tajarin in sage butter, though not as ruggedly sauce-grabbing as the city’s original rendition at Cascina Spinasse, was solid, and simply draped in a very buttery sage sauce. Cappelletti, little hat-shaped raviolilike pastas, were sumptuously stuffed with pecorino and served in a rich cheese sauce, then topped with delectable charred broccoli. (Fans of the blackened broccoli at the Belltown pub Black Bottle: This one’s for you.) The seven-layer lasagna, throbbing with its robust Bolognese, was not the masterpiece of delicacy that is Cafe Lago featherweight prototype—but it came within striking distance.
Best of the pastas were two more original compositions. Yukon gold gnocchi (you could taste the buttery Yukons) were served in bright nettle pesto, then deepened with hazelnut chunks and chewy pancetta bits. This was a marvelous dish. Ravioli, for their part, were stuffed with insanely flavorful spring lamb, then embellished with green garlic, English peas, and pecorino Romano.
Most of the pastas were cooked to the tooth; some were sticky, even gummy. Those in butter sauces, a Northern Italian signature, were almost uniformly overbuttered. “We use Plugra,” one of our terrific and informed waiters boasted, referring to the high-fat Euro-style butter. Not a great boasting point.
We had the most fun off the secondi list. A hunk of Alaskan halibut was flawlessly seared, then lavished with flavorful chunks of artichoke and tomato. An odd but ridiculously eatable pork shoulder production featured the lissome meat reposed on ricotta-slathered bruschetta, the lot swathed in a strong salsa verde and chunks of mild radishes for magenta crunch. The plate went all to goo in no time flat—blame the ricotta’ed bread—but the rustic textures and powerful flavors were a hoot.
That good idea—meat on bread—found its apotheosis in the best dish on Cuoco’s menu: the dry-aged Washington bistecca, served (in two sizes) on a groaning platter of grilled bread salad. Good bitter greens and roasted peppers and tender spring onions conspired with the rib steak—served in smoky, gloriously marbled slices—and Tuscan bread and curls of fine Parmesan to produce a major romp for the palate.
Best, it felt like Tom Douglas. For all the heat this guy takes for going all 15-restaurant-corporate on us, this exuberant bistecca reminds us that this is the dude who gave Seattle its first artisan burger, its first citrus-onion coulis on salmon, its first Asian fusion. Tom Douglas is first and foremost a visionary.
Which is why it’s startling that Cuoco, for all its rustic loveliness, lacks a fresh vision. The starters and salads are just fine—see the creamy burrata starter with macerated figs, arugula, and tapenade crostini; see the roasted beet salad with sauteed beet greens and Gorgonzola—but they resemble the starters and salads you’d get at Serious Pie or Dahlia Lounge.
Where the Dahlia felt bold and groundbreaking when it opened, and Serious Pie bristled with artistic intention, and Palace Kitchen gave locals a warm kitchenful of comfort, Cuoco feels derivative; as if Douglas cast his hungry eye around town cherry-picking concepts he admired. Small rooms like Mistral, tajarin like Spinasse, a pasta station like La Spiga’s. Elsewhere he’s had something to express; at Cuoco it feels like he has something to prove.
His detractors will say, Well, that’s Tom Douglas Inc. for you. But look around the neighborhood he’s building and you’ll see a biscuit bar and a Tibetan dumpling house he created from nothing but innovatively tasty ideas. It’d be great if he could deliver more of those to Cuoco.