A Star is Reborn

Who needs paparazzi when the calamari is this good?

By Kathryn Robinson January 7, 2009

Image: Amos Morgan

A TERRIFIC RESTAURANT IS LIKE a starlet who debuts to fawning adoration only to get kicked to the curb when the next “It” girl comes along.

From the moment Ponti opened her doors in 1990, her sun-drenched palette and grandstand view of the Fremont Bridge attracted admirers. And her kitchen’s enthusiastic way with seafood—a dash of Pacific Rim, a soupçon of Mediterranean, a bushel of Northwest freshness from Tom Douglas protégé Alvin Binuya—devoted them. Owners Richard Malia (the Snug, Mrs. Malia’s) and Jim Malevitsis (Adriatica) were well seasoned in the biz and steered the tidy canal-side ship like shrewd captains through the heady ’90s, that bet-a-million decade when nobody went downtown for dinner and the hotel concierges all had Ponti’s reservation desk on speed dial.

Time passed, downtown sprouted its own restaurants, Belltown exploded. One of the restaurants to open there in 1997 was Axis, Malia and Malevitsis’s second collaboration, which peeled both Malevitsis and chef Binuya away from Ponti. Big chain eateries invaded downtown, while stunning independents turned heads away from the pretty gal by the Ship Canal. Somewhere along the line the “It” girl had become…Kathleen Turner.

Such is the predictable arc of restaurant popularity—remember when Campagne, the Hunt Club, Flying Fish, and Brasa were all scorching hotties?—until the place either goes irrelevant or is forged into a classic. So when a press release arrived announcing a new executive chef at Ponti, a 24-year-old named Giles van der Bogert, I wondered which way the old girl had gone.

Considering it was summer, which at Ponti has always meant delectable food on a balmy patio overlooking impressionist Paris—I concluded it was time to find out. And considering it was Seattle—it was dumping rain when I arrived. I dropped my car with the valet and huddled in through the stucco courtyard entrance, where a greeter asked if I would like a seat in the bar. The restaurant, she explained, had been booked for a private party.

For a watery town, Seattle remains oddly shy of waterside restaurants, especially along the Ship Canal. Perhaps that’s why when I walk into Ponti I can never quite believe I’m in Seattle. The canal meanders below like the Seine. The bridge looms above, angular and blue.

The main dining room was still every inch the looker, with burgundy banquettes and mottled butternut walls that reach like outstretched arms toward the view. That triangular configuration, along with the curving bay windows in each of the four rooms, registers subconsciously as an embrace. For all its sophistication, Ponti is one of the coziest restaurants in Seattle.

Likewise the bar: a snug two-room enclosure with butter yellow walls, glossy dark wood, café tables, a fireplace, an affable barkeep, a couple of TVs tuned to sports—and a posse of regulars. “Just brought a boat down from the Aleutians!” barked a strapping Nordic blond who looked like he’d spent his life commuting from Ballard to the Bering Sea, and who was making quick work of a $4 wild king salmon slider. I had arrived during Ponti’s happy hour, a Seattle institution featuring $5 bar noshes and $4 well drinks every day at 4pm. Across the way a handsome fiftysomething couple nursed highballs the way they’d doubtless been doing since courting here in their 30s. They were carving into $5 plates of Caesar salad: romaine spears reposing under snowdrifts of Parmesan alongside tangles of grilled bread, red onions, Spanish white anchovies, and a leggy dressing all but bubbling with garlic.

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Image: Amos Morgan

I took my seat at a table in the rounded room just off the bar, where I could spy the canal through swaying birch trees and an ancient rhododendron. Next to me the private partyers giddily dispatched a plate of the calamari I’d remembered from years back. Still trotting out the same calamari? Sigh. That’s when I noticed the menu was loaded with musty standards—grilled swordfish, linguine alla pomodoro, add a king crab leg to any dish for $30. I resigned myself to the calamari. Meaty, succulent, no breading in sight—these pieces of squid had been grilled to just tender, then tartly offset with an inspired, Mediterranean mess of picholine olives, tomatoes, garlic, watercress, and gremolata. It’s not hyperbole to call this the best calamari in the city. No chef in his right mind would take a stunner like that off his menu.

After that, I ordered with abandon. Seared scallops came on an arugula salad over a buttery ginger sauce, which the chef perfectly modulated. A chunk of grilled halibut on a mango-and-papaya soba noodle salad with green curry was mostly monochrome in hue and predictably flavored, but back-of-the-throat spicy and unassailably delicious. Thai curry penne, Ponti’s longtime signature, bore the polish of years of refinement: charry scallops and shreds of basil over pasta studded with big crab pieces and finished with two dollops of tomato-ginger chutney, the last a piquant spank and a swell contrast with the other fat flavors.

For a watery town, Seattle remains oddly shy of waterside restaurants, especially along the Ship Canal, the most underexploited scenic vista in town.

That sure-handedness, from the proportion of Point Reyes blue cheese to Pink Lady apples in the organic salad to the studied collaboration of sweet notes in the satiny lemon tart, spoke volumes about the steward in the kitchen, never mind his youth. (Chef Van der Bogert, it turns out, apprenticed at Ponti before returning in the big toque.) You can taste care in a kitchen, and this kitchen has it.

Alas, the front of the house needs it. Ever personable, one server nevertheless ground pepper onto a salad unbidden. Another sniffled liquidly through our entire meal (please, dear—that’s what sick days are for). And two others recited a Copper River salmon special without mentioning its price—an annoying omission in any case; a criminal one when the price is $45.

But, oh…that salmon! Briny and unctuous, tweaked with arugula and feisty, sweet Peppadew peppers, imaginatively strewn with Rainier cherries, and accompanied by Yukon Gold potatoes cooked in duck fat—this sumptuous, intelligent plate revealed Van der Bogert as much more than a steward.

As I savored the last molecules of my fish, I overheard that private group beside me gloating over having snagged the entire restaurant for the evening—great for them, irritating for us hoi polloi. Yet Malia’s private party trade, which accounts for some 40 percent of his business, has allowed Ponti to remain viable in the face of fickle public appraisal, sort of like Kathleen Turner taking off her clothes on Broadway.

As I eavesdropped I learned that the guest of honor that night was himself a restaurateur who had rejected his own establishment in order to host his friends at Ponti. Of course he did, I thought. The lady’s a classic.