Surprised by Sauerkraut

How a hip neighborhood spot can exploit its virtues.

By Kathryn Robinson February 17, 2010 Published in the March 2010 issue of Seattle Met

WHENEVER I START thinking that “restaurant critic” is a frivolous occupation to put on a tax return, I reimagine myself as a consultant, someone whose experience dining out can help not only a consumer to find a decent meal—but a restaurant to find a better self.

This thought occurred to me after three meals at Avila, the sleek new storefront restaurant on 45th in Wallingford. Owners Jared and Bronwen Carpenter are newbies to the business, and he’s just a year out of culinary school. When his and buddy Alex Pitts’s cooking jobs at the Rainier Club evaporated last year, a restaurant broker put them in touch with Bella Cosa, a specialty foods operation on its third owner in five years.

Enticed by its pedestrian-heavy location amid the Wallingford crush— Molly Moon’s is barely a scoop’s-melt away—the Carpenters acquired the space and hired Pitts to be their chef. They installed a gleaming new kitchen behind a dining counter and made that the centerpiece of three rooms—the first an entryway bar scattered with tables, the last an open dining room well-lit from back windows. With black tables, plywood floors, and clean lines, the place feels minimalist without being stark. “Last week someone called us hip!” young Jared enthused.

And hip it is, with clear neighborhood-casual appeal. It would be great to see Avila succeed. But after those three meals—moments of which were exemplary—it’s clear (that sound you hear is me strapping on my consultant’s hat) that Avila could use some tweaking. A few suggestions:

WRITE A BETTER MENU. I don’t mean conceive of better dishes; chef Pitts applies a fascinating sensibility to global comfort food. Starters like a fragrant pumpkin pudding crunchy with black rice and topped with crisped edible leaves, or mains like beautifully roasted black cod over bacon-potato hash served with piroguis (fried dough crescents) of scallions and sour cream shimmer with originality and a high degree of success.

It’s the menu descriptions that need work. An entree described as “chicken and slippery dumplings, boudin blanc, brussels”—leaves the diner to wonder how the chicken is cooked (sous vide, then sauteed, then beautifully crisped in the oven), and what’s inside the dumplings (Surprise! They’re little pasta sheets), and what the heck is boudin blanc (a loose French white sausage, highly seasoned), and whether “brussels” are in fact Brussels sprouts. (They are.)

Nor will the diner suspect that lurking within cabbage leaves is a little tangle of sauerkraut—one ought never be surprised by sauerkraut—or that this chicken dish is anything but tame. When a chef is as innovative as Pitts, the menu needs to spell these things out.

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Global comfort food Fragrant pumpkin pudding with crisped leaves shimmers with originality.

IMPROVE THE STARCHES. A chef I respect once told me he spends about twice as much time on starches as he does on meats. “Starches,” he said, “are the key to a diner’s heart.” Avila: Listen up. At brunch, if you’re going to serve ebelskiver, those spherical pancakes stuffed with huckleberries and cream cheese, make them sweet enough. You have it in you: Your housemade bread is terrific (loved the knots of soft challah) and your tater tots, little truffle-oiled matchstick-potato hedgehogs with mashed potato centers, are just wicked yummy—particularly when dredged through tart plum ketchup.

REMEMBER THAT SERVERS SHOULD BE LEADERS. As so often happens when back-of-the-house folks become restaurant owners, the front of the house suffers. One friendly, attentive waiter had us in the palm of her hand, leading us expertly through the menu. Not so the others, who provided little direction on a menu that begged for it (“Everything is good!”) and at least one who haplessly seated us at a table we said we didn’t want. People.

FOCUS ON EXECUTION. A restaurant charging $25 for entrees has no business letting visibly wilted Bibb lettuce salads leave the kitchen. (Pity: The tarragon dressing was lovely.) A salmon steak was undercooked, an omelet overcooked, a chopped salad overdressed. From our table we consistently spied more cooks in the kitchen than diners in the house. And this is the kitchen that gave us a gnocchi starter with Dungeness and horseradish bread crumbs that was so subtly, mellowly terrific, I scrawled “Best appetizer of the year!” in my notebook.

You can do this.

DIAL DOWN THE PRETENSION. You are hip—great streetside bar, a particular affinity for appetizers…even a plywood floor, for pete’s sake. So exploit it already. Ditch the high-end focus and become the affordable, drop-in, stylish-with-good-food joint Wallingford actually needs.

Because face it: On that piece of 45th, you’re sitting smack in the middle of a string of other one-word restaurants— Joule, Sutra, Tilth —which pretty much corner the market on food that’s originally conceived, impeccably sourced, and priced accordingly. No sense taking them on when you could apply your considerable wit and verve to something a little more suited to weeknight casual than weekend destination. You’re already doing it with your lunches and brunches, both priced more for a deli than a dining room.

Do it for dinner, too, and your makeover will be complete. And we’ll call you for the reality show.


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