On my first visit to Alcove Dining Room, chef Emme Ribeiro Collins’s younger brother, Tony, greeted diners with salt cod fritters and miniature cocktails of vodka and Brazilian Guarana soda. The four-course chef’s menu was built around a big bowl of braised oxtails, so good I heeded Collins’s suggestion to just pick up that knobby segment of meat and bone and go after it like a marrow-rich cob of corn.
But something was off. Only two parties turned out for that night’s seating. We didn’t come close to filling the four massive trestle tables inside the University District restaurant, where Collins’s parents ran Tempero do Brasil for 20 years.
Without bodies to heat it, the room gave off a chill that seeped into my toes via the concrete floor—not exactly the languid equatorial vibes most people associate with Brazilian food.
Two months later, the pay-in-advance set menu had vanished. Giddy bossa nova floated from the sound system; couples scattered along those big tables ordered skewers of juicy seared chicken hearts, yuca fries, and those excellent salt cod fritters. A few discreet space heaters and a caipirinha menu took care of the rest.
The multicourse chef’s meal had seemed so sensible to Collins—a semblance of order, clear-cut finances, and the latitude to cook her own style of food. And yet “people are a little hesitant about paying beforehand,” she says. Even the best nights weren’t sufficiently busy.
Survival and bottom lines shape a lot of Seattle’s restaurant realities right now. But for every bland fast-casual concept, there’s someone like Brian Clevenger, whose GH Pasta Co. pulls off arrestingly good bowls of $10 bolognese and tagliatelle for the Amazon lunch crowds. Or Mike Whisenhunt, who transformed Eric Banh’s Seven Beef into a more relaxed interplay of Vietnamese flavors and Texas-style barbecue. Or, in this case, Collins—channeling her industry’s many constrictions into an impetus for creativity, forging something better where others might see an excuse to phone it in.
Collins entered the restaurant game only because her parents had decided to close Tempero do Brasil, meaning the loss of the kitchen space that enabled her catering and private chef gigs, not to mention her unofficial second home. When she heeded customers’ interest and decided to make her twice-monthly petisco dinners a nightly event, she made some tweaks to Brazil’s tradition of tiny snacks.
Her version includes entrees and sides, like a whole branzino fried in manioc flour and feijão, black beans braised at length with beef and pork belly, so savory they feel like the main event.
However she stuck to her original plan in matters of feijoada. Collins serves the famed stew of pork and black beans just one Sunday a month, at 2:30pm, so anybody with a reservation (still mandatory, still prepaid, and a bargain at $35) can show up and feast.
For a woman who didn’t intend to run a restaurant, Collins was quick to grasp one of the industry’s fundamentals—“If you don’t make things available easily, people get more excited about it.”