How to Name a Restaurant

At How to Cook a Wolf, Ethan Stowell delivers simple plates, simply.

By Kathryn Robinson January 5, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Seattle Met

WHEN M.F.K. FISHER wrote her classic How to Cook a Wolf, the year was 1942 and wartime shortages were ravaging ordinary kitchens. The book was an elegant instruction manual for eating well, even gloriously, on the cheap—the wolf in question being the one at the door—and it was full of wry inspiration about how to prepare the least expensive cuts of beef, how to economize by making soup stocks from the water you steamed the vegetables in, that kind of thing. Between the recipes for scrambled eggs and “honest bread,” Fisher’s animating principles leapt off the page: Eat intentionally. Eat thriftily. Eat the freshest food, simply.

Fast-forward to 2008—and if the wolf isn’t exactly at the door, he may lately have been spotted about the neighborhood. There’s a new economy in the air, and a good number of the finest restaurants to have opened in the last year—see Café Presse, see Joule —have smelled it. Even Union, where celeb chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless choose to sup when passing through, recently shaved its entrée price tags to below $20. Union ’s owner, Ethan Stowell, opened his Belltown pasta house Tavolàta last year with a similarly down-market emphasis. And now Stowell gives us his lowest-ticket restaurant yet: a tiny pasta house on the top of Queen Anne called, you guessed it, How to Cook a Wolf.

“The restaurant is not based on the book,” Stowell insists, explaining that his mother—the former Pacific Northwest Ballet codirector Francia Russell—is an admirer of Fisher’s. Stowell’s father Kent, the other half of the former PNB team and reportedly a fine amateur cook, sometimes staffs the door of his son’s third restaurant.

Which at Wolf, believe me, is no retirement cakewalk. The 28-seat eatery does not take reservations, to allow diners time for their evening to unfold at a relaxed pace. As we arrived for our first visit on a Friday evening, our gentle greeter—not the danseur but someone every bit as hospitably graceful—explained all this as she seated us. We’d been advised to arrive no later than 5:15pm to secure the table for six, so she guessed we might have waited upwards of two hours had we arrived any later. We could have hung out at Opal’s big bar around the corner or Portage’s little one across the street, she explained, waiting for the Wolf to howl through our cell phone.

The irony is that Wolf’s purportedly relaxing “no reservations” policy—part of a sweeping larger trend that’s hard to see as anything but restaurateurs serving their own interests at the expense of their customers—created an almost humorous antithesis of a relaxed evening before our dinner had even begun. Would anyone choose a 5:15 table on a Friday evening? Can anyone make it anywhere in Seattle by 5:15 on a Friday evening?

The place is small enough to size up in a couple of eyefuls, and immediately it becomes clear that Wolf’s diminutive size is a huge part of its appeal. A barrel-vaulted pine ceiling imparts a sense of the room enfolding its inhabitants. Decorative elements strike simple, almost rudimentary notes—cork tables and bar, a strip of luminous copper girdling the walls, a wall of stone separating the kitchen from the dining room. The effect of that chimneylike wall in this cozy enclosure aglow with low light and capped by a dome is that of sitting inside a hearth.

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Except for maybe a stone cottage with dirt floors and fluttering curtains on the shore of Lake Geneva, it would be hard to come up with a more fitting shrine to M. F. K. Fisher’s Old World earthiness than this. Perhaps, as Stowell affirms, he didn’t intend it. Perhaps his menu didn’t intend it either—but there is no escaping the fact that dinner at Wolf embodies the very pleasure Fisher spent her career extolling: Food too fresh and fine to require adornment.

No chef in town is as enamored of a dish of Castelvetrano olives; a soft-boiled egg with silky anchovy mayonnaise; a plate of ahi presented simply and stunningly in the chilies and lime that cured it. In that first meal, after a round of Negronis woke up our 5:30 appetites, we reveled in bowls of trofie pasta, intensely brightened with parsley-walnut pesto and Pecorino Toscano; orecchiette pasta with cauliflower, screaming with garlic and anchovies; squid salad, pocked with Controne beans and shallots, brisk with breezes of chlorophyll and brine.

Wolf’s chef, Union and Tavolàta alum Ryan Weed, sears scallops just to caramel, places them atop a schmear of artichoke puree, then dots them with Taggiasca olives; he fans thick slices of blush-perfect duck across a plate with beets, onions, and mandarin oranges and calls it a salad. (It’s a sensational one.) This is about as wacky as Wolf gets. These guys are fond of big European flavors and the minimalist treatments to showcase them: the tuna and capers in the garganelli, the garlicky clams in a winey linguine. “But anyone can make clam linguine!” cried one of my tablemates, mistakenly conflating innovation with prowess. Wolf is not an innovator; it simply does simple plates beautifully. In that way it’s like an Italian version of Madrona’s Crémant, where the French classics are interpreted in such exemplary ways that their novelty is their very lack of novelty.

If the wolf isn’t exactly at the door, he may lately have been spotted about the neighborhood.

Besides—not everyone can make clam linguine. One of the glories of Wolf is that everything we tasted was executed to a turn. (Almost everything: Stuffed quail—$16, the most expensive item on the menu that evening—was tasty but overcooked.) There’s an easy fluidity between the front and the back of the house here, as there is in all of Stowell’s restaurants, which means the servers stay in close contact with the chefs and are thus infected with the love of the food. To a person, the staff hit that sweet spot of low-key graciousness and invisible efficiency. Indeed, professional evenhandedness compels me to admit that midway through my second dinner I realized with a thwack of chagrin that this focused, foodcentric service may trace directly to Wolf’s maddening refusal to accept reservations. Nobody’s stressing out a seating chart. Nobody’s turning a table.

Things feel, I’ve got to admit it, relaxed. In Union, Stowell gave us the serious downtown foodie destination; in Tavolàta, the festive drop-in dinner party. In How to Cook a Wolf, the latest in his ongoing survey of the ways we eat out, he’s given us a casual, affordable, simple home away from home. It was a fitting match to the zeitgeist of 1942; it’s a perfect one in 2008.