A restaurant's ambience can set the stage for the meal to follow, but rarely is the decor such a declaration of independence from expectations as it is in Alavita.
Though themed "locally inspired Italian" cuisine, the new venture from Fork owner Cameron Lumsden is far from the Americanized version with which most of us are so familiar.
The efficient, compact dining space announces the difference - itself a clash of ideas. There are no droopy vines, no poster art, no Chianti-bottle candle dripping with wax, no Sinatra. Over the horseshoe bar in the center of the room are six drum lights, glowing like nuclear hot rollers. One wall is exposed warehouse brick, with chandeliers dangling in front of murky antique mirrors.
Elsewhere, the walls are dark wallpaper with flocked velvet feathers; lighting is midcentury; and overhead is a suspended landslide of lodgepole pines shellacked silver. In the back is the open kitchen, where white tile meets new stainless steel and a vintage, fire-engine-red mechanical slicer.
On each table, instead of bread served with olive oil, a glass is filled with wandlike breadsticks.
On the menu, nothing is deep-fried, and the first courses are striking, with a few touches I had not seen before. My wife and I enjoyed the grilled broccolini ($8), spooned with balsamic and topped with a unique item: an egg that is poached, shocked in cold water, dredged in bread crumbs, and pan-seared - and whose yolk still opened up to yield a silky sauce. Most outstanding was the burrata ($10), a deceptive ball of cheese, with a shell of familiar fresh mozzarella but a creamy, ricotta-like core. This arrives dusted with sea salt and served with a dab of dried apricot mustard and toasted baguette. Every bite gets better than the last.
Though less thrilling than the other appetizers, the gouda fondue ($9) with buttons of housemade pretzel was pretty great, too.
The spinach salad ($9) with duck and a sliced egg was a revelation - duck breast is braised in balsamic and shredded, simply set atop the spinach, so the jus of the meat creates the salad's dressing. In this, technique is everything - the duck could be too dry, the vinegar too sweet or acidic. Of any menu item, this most achieved the restaurant's ambition of "getting out of the way of the ingredients."
Entrees are promising, but with some room for refinement. Though we appreciated the lightness of the shrimp with angel hair ($16) and liked the flavor of the made-fresh-from-regionally-milled-wheat pasta, it seemed a little safe amidst the other ambitious calamity - a weeknight dish at home. The sweet potato puree under the halibut ($18) was gorgeous, but the fish itself was cooked to leaden density and the thick crust of salty pesto was overwhelming. The halibut needed a squeeze of lemon, nearly impossible to wring from the artistically fanned slices provided. All of this, though, can be fixed.
The only dish misguided from the start is the saltimbocca ($18) - a classic combination of chicken (or often veal), crispy prosciutto and sage leaves. Here the prosciutto is rolled inside the chicken - any textural relief is lost, and the flavor is buried. The sage is, for some reason, sieved out of the brown butter sauce, which could have also provided contrast to the creamy polenta.
One entree that absolutely threads the needle - and one that I will go back to have, more than once - is the garganelli ($16): hand-rolled flutes of pasta with Northwest short ribs braised in red wine, with shards of pecorino cheese.
While the tiramisu's flavors hadn't quite come together, the other dessert we tried, the budino ($7), was flawless. This is a vanilla custard with a pitch-perfect salted caramel sauce, with a piece of chocolate pretzel.
Service is just right, well-coached on the nuances of how a meal should proceed, deftly moving away plates and preparing the table for the next course - especially laudable in the row of snug two-seater booths along the brick wall, where economy of movement is essential.
The staff is sharp with menu knowledge, much appreciated as the restaurant is still spanking new.
There is little doubt that Alavita is professional and has already achieved something special, having opened the door on the right note. In this business, you can never say success is assured, but Lumsden has every right to be confident enough to sign a long lease - which he has done.
As slick as it is, one thing I hope to see grow here is a little more heart. There is an elusive but real difference between doing it because you must and doing it because you can. As is, Alavita is already worthy of attention.