One of Seattle’s more prevalent restaurant tics right now is the switch-up—restaurateurs closing their business under one name, then reopening in the same space under a different one, sometimes with a new chef or concept. The benefits of this are clear in the era of Yelp, whose reader evaluations live on into eternity. Changing names has a certain wipe-the-slate-clean appeal.
Restaurateurs Sumi and Michael Almquist got word last spring that Shaun McCrain, the chef they’d hired to launch their Book Bindery, would be leaving to open his own place. With McCrain taking his general manager and beverage director with him, the Almquists were looking at a fresh new start for the classic space appended to their winery in the office-park district across the ship canal from Fremont. They ate around town and found at Artusi Nico Borzee, a young Frenchman who had worked in Michelin-starred restaurants including San Francisco’s Coi. They closed for a couple of months, painted creamy surfaces a more contemporary blue, rewrote the menu, and in October Hommage was born.
They weren’t looking to recreate the Book Bindery, it of the elegant appointments and modernist meat-and-potatoes preparations and Seattle Tennis Club guest list. No, Hommage was going for something more youthful, more everyday in its appeal (even, as Sumi Almquist has said in interviews, a place to bring the kids), more comfort-food oriented, more accessible. Indeed, we walked into a room both darker—against which the twinkling bar seemed to loom larger—and louder, pulsing with chill music. More youthful, absolutely.
More accessible…not so much. Speaking literally, the restaurant’s lack of a sign ensures that. (Already one of Seattle’s guaranteed U-turns, finding Hommage without a sign all but guarantees a long overshoot, then a U-turn.) The menu is organized not by course, but by type of food—Dairy, Seafood, Animal—which delivers another layer of obscurity as you work out how to put a sensible meal together. Study the menu awhile and you’ll see by the prices that two of the Seafoods and two of the Animals must be entree-sized (waiters are supposed to mention that; ours did not). Less dinner house than nosh bar, Hommage is the restaurant a winery built—loaded with fromages and terrines (including a terrific rabbit terrine with onion jam and potent mustard and sea salt on the side) that beg for fat cabernets.
It’s precious and meant to be; the kind of place where the bread plate is listed under Dairy as beurre, and not just any butter, but butter that has been cultured with charred corn husk. (Bring the kids?) Hommage is aiming a straight pitch at the young cosmopolitan connoisseurs who roam the world’s cities photographing their plates.
Some of Borzee’s food they’ll love, like his clever potato salad (unhelpfully listed on the menu just as pomme de terre) mingling halved potatoes with slivers of Granny Smith apple, a lush aiolilike egg sauce called a gribiche, and speckles of leek oil: stylish and satisfying. Similarly, Borzee’s sea scallops in two sauces—one a caramel of star anise, the other a lush cauliflower-coconut puree—were tons of fun, spangled with cauliflower bites. A dessert—a cloud of foamy chocolate mousse surrounding a dense cold core of bitter chocolate sorbet and a dulce de leche fascinator that ate like the textural love child of a crackling wafer and a chocolate bar—was a magnificence of saturated flavor, brilliant in execution: the best dessert I’ve had in ages.
And then there was the boeuf Bourguignon with mushrooms and truffle potatoes gratin: so overrich and overdone it had no business in a restaurant, period. Ah inconsistency…perhaps the most youthful quality of all. The folks seated next to us, young tourists from Japan, took avid pictures of all their dishes, both the ones they enjoyed and those they didn’t, decamping after entrees to Uber it up to Capitol Hill. “That’s where the nightlife is,” they told their waiter.
Across town, Borzee’s former boss Jason Stratton (Cascina Spinasse, Artusi) presides over his own switch-up, the Italian Vespolina (nee the Spanish Aragona) on First and Union. Much attention was paid that turn-on-a-dime conversion last September, wrought after Stratton and his investors realized nobody understood the arcane Catalan dishes he was producing there. Folks would sit down, scan the menu, then stand up and leave—a shock of cold water to the face of the chef whose Italian Spinasse and Artusi on Capitol Hill were nightly turning folks away.
It is to Stratton’s great practical credit that he swallowed his ego and let the market drive him back to the Italian lineup of antipasti, housemade pastas, and crowd-pleasingly meaty mains that work so well at Spinasse. A turn, as at Hommage, for the accessible. Mind you, Vespolina is no Spinasse redux—the decor of the high-ceilinged, high-windowed room, virtually unchanged from its gig as Aragona, is airier and colder than the burnished-wood warmth that is Spinasse.
Moreover Vespolina lacks Spinasse’s pasta—and not just its signature rich tajarin. No, it lacks Spinasse’s way with pasta; detectable on several visits in the form of a gummy lamb ragù cavatelli, a bland and bloodless guanciale carbonara, a cliche of a squash ravioli with sage butter and amaretti.
Let the tourists order these—for Stratton has figured out that that’s who he’s cooking for in this Four Seasons Hotel district. Stratton fans should aim instead into the ragged chicory salads and antipasto plates and sagey glazed-carrot contorni and, mostly, really fine meats—from a braised duck leg with pears and vivid taggiasca olives to a killer plate of slow-roasted pork ribs over tuna sauce. This last is a Piedmontese leitmotif from Stratton’s other Italian houses, for delectable reason. He also has no qualms about reprising stuff from the old Aragona card, only in Italian garb—the same stuffed trout, only now with prosciutto and Marsala; the same fried dough dessert with truffle salt, now called bombolini, and every bit as sexy a triumph.
From the look of it, guests are liking Vespolina better than they ever did Aragona. Does that mean it is better? Well, now we’re in the realm of philosophy. Two restaurants, both of which reinvented themselves in a more populist direction, are currently taking stock. Hommage isn’t as solid or as compelling yet as Book Bindery was, while Vespolina is much more satisfying than Aragona—but for these establishments’ owners, the proof of the success will be a matter of butts in seats.
And butts in seats ultimately comes down to three things even more important than menu organization or pasta proficiency: location, location, and location. Hommage wants a young hip demographic, but can offer neither the buzzy neighborhood nor the foot traffic to draw them in. Vespolina knows it needs tourists and has offered the centrally located, accessible Italian menu no tourist in history has ever been known to resist.
In the end, perhaps that’s the only verdict needed.
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.