For a lot of dedicated diners-out, the opening of Union in 2003 marked a kind of threshold. It was totally food-centered, yet easy to dine at; a beautiful balance between Temple of Gastronomy (like Lampreia or Lark) and Sophisticated Hangout (e.g., a Steelhead Diner or le Pichet) The balance was all the more remarkable in that Union was Ethan Stowell’s first-ever restaurant. Few chefs exhibit such certainty of purpose and precision of execution at the inception of their careers.
Union was a success; but as the years rolled by and the economy slowed, juddered, and toppled over, it seemed ever more a succès d’estime. As Stowell proceeded to open other restaurants (Belltown’s pastacentric Tavolata and Queen Anne’s faux-rustique How to Cook a Wolf in 2007, Capitol Hill’s extreme-seafood spot Anchovies and Olives in 2009) he found his own dining ideals shifting.
“I learned that a small place that’s full is more satisfying for everyone than a larger place that’s not,” he said last week, a few days from opening his fifth restaurant, Staple & Fancy Mercantile, in the heart of the Ballard Avenue club strip.
Stowell’s pre-kitchen life provided the kind of rich experience of high-style dining which most American chefs of his generation missed out on. Growing up in the entourage of his dancer-choreographer dad Kent Stowell and dancer-ballet-mistress mom Francia Russell, Stowell and his two brothers routinely ate with his parents and their friends in posh traditional restaurants — “probably more often than we really should have,” he remembers. He recalls no culinary epiphany along the road to adulthood. “I just gradually realized that food was going to be the main thing in my life.”
What remains startling, though, is the kind of food that Stowell has excelled at creating from the very beginning. In visual style, it resembled the nouvelle cuisine fashionable in France while he was growing up: small, even tiny, portions of exotic ingredients combined in unexpected ways and presented in splendid isolation on a plain ceramic bckground.
But — a good thing in the U.S., where the whole nouvelle fad was a bust — each of Stowell’s mini-masterpieces was a mouth-filling symphony of tastes. Union offered conventional main dishes to seekers of conventional formal dining, but its major delight were its little-bite appetizers, designed to be nibbled one after the other right through the menu (and beyond; Stowell always had a few unlisted novelties ready for the adventurous).
Good as the food at Union was, its invitation to make-your-own-tasting-menu required too much initiative from many diners. So Stowell has made sure his later ventures haven't made unnecessary demands on the clientele.
Their atmospheres are nicely matched to their neighborhoods, with functional, even downscale decor and plain-English menu prose. But each quietly offers some off-center Unionesque flavor delights. (Even the relentlessly focused Tavolata with its bevy of fresh-made-daily pastas offers striking novelties: raw yellowtail with coriander and fennel, for example, or a two-pound grilled steak served Tuscan-style with fried potatoes and rapini.)
Staple & Fancy, which opens to the public this weekend, maintains the aggressively unpretentious atmospherics of Tavolata, but its menu is, implicitly, more of a return to the culinary aesthetic of Union. The opening menu main dishes, hearty in character, still offer some mouthwatering twists: mackerel (the most sadly neglected Northwest fish) grilled with a side of ham hock and fried cauliflower ($18); veal breast stuffed with figs, mint and feta ($20). On the pasta lineup there’s ravioli stuffed with fresh corn and dressed in speck (juniper-cured dry ham) and first-of-the-season chanterelles ($16). The one appetizer salad mixes beets, soft boiled egg, watercress, avocado, and radishes ($11).
You’ll have to ask your server to explain “vitello tonnato, kinda” ($13), but grilled asparagus with a fried duck egg and parmesan ($12) is self-explanatory (though highly unconventional). Best of all: Stowell has a bunch of off-menu small plates for fans who ask no better than to graze their way to satiety.
Around the country, in funky nooks and inelegant venues, young chefs are pursuing ever-new variations on the themes of fresh and seasonal, simple yet imaginative. But there’s another theme even more relevant to the contemporary dining experience. Ethan Stowell made a custom-built refectory-style table the focal point of his Belltown restaurant and named the place “Tavolata,” which in Italian can mean simply “table,” but emphasizing not the physical entity but the social unit seated round it. Staple & Fancy looks to be just such another experience: not for dressing up but getting down, for dining well on homey 21st-century haute.
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