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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

Branzino: A neighborhood ristorante, Belltown style

Providence Cicero reviews intimate, high-energy Branzino, where house-made pastas and pizza highlight a short, ambitious seasonal menu that is equal parts meat and seafood.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Beet salad $9
Pizza $12
Pappardelle Bolognese $16
Gnocchi with lobster $19
Rib-eye steak $27

Branzino

2 stars

Italian

2429 Second Ave., Seattle, 206-728-5181

Reservations: Recommended.

Hours: Dinner 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Prices: $$$ (plates $7-$32)

Drinks: Full bar; short, solid list of mostly European and domestic wines.

Parking: On street or in nearby lots.

Sound: Very loud.

Who should go: Neighborhood paisanos.

Credit cards: All major.

Access: No obstacles.

Peter Lamb's restaurant progeny all share a certain look. They are clubby, comfortable, classy dining rooms where the bar is integral to the fun. He has been a partner in Il Bistro, Queen City Grill and the short-lived Café Zafferano in West Seattle. He even had a hand in designing Via Tribunali. Think of those, and you'll get a feel for the ambience at his newest offspring, Branzino.

It's dripping with dark wood, jammed with booths and lit with a terra-cotta glow that makes everyone look like they summered on the Cote d'Azur. It's intimate but high-energy, just the sort of neighborhood Italian place you'd expect to find in Belltown. Since it opened in late May, the 10-seat bar is often standing-room only, and dinner reservations are a good idea.

Lamb is joined at Branzino by an equally well-pedigreed managing partner, Michael Don Rico, whose front-of-the-house expertise was honed at upscale places such as the Columbia Tower Club, Il Terrazzo Carmine, El Gaucho and Ibiza. Chief barkeep Miles Thomas is a pro as well. He devises exquisite cocktails using his own flavored vodkas, bitters and even tonic water.

Young chef Ashley Merriman cooks from scratch, too. The New Hampshire native's résumé lists Butter in New York City, along with Brasa and Tilth in Seattle. Her kitchen is cramped (what you see is all she has), thus her seasonal menu is short, but ambitious.

It starts with antipasti, among them a pizza du jour and house-made charcuterie. Several pastas also are made in-house. Meat-eaters have the option of steak, pork, chicken or lamb sausage. Seafood choices include octopus, sardines, scallops and the restaurant's namesake fish, branzino.

Branzino is Mediterranean sea bass. The version here is stuffed with aromatics and roasted whole encased in a salt crust. The result is delicate, moist and lemony; so delicious naked, I found no need to dress it with the potent parsley sauce served on the side.

A great fuss is made with the presentation: The fish is liberated and filleted tableside. Unfortunately, mine ended up more flayed than filleted, and looking around the room I saw I wasn't the only one fishing in my mouth for tiny bones.

We were encouraged to order contorni (side dishes), as the $32 branzino comes with no starch or vegetable. I'd encourage you to bypass the undercooked green beans and indulge in butter-rich lobster and corn risotto, sweet and creamy with a hint of smoke, or beet and arugula salad embellished with plums and Marcona almonds.

Merriman's late-summer menu makes good use of fruit. Raspberries accented a terrific bay leaf panna cotta, and blueberries dotted tangy buttermilk ice cream. Blackberries lent welcome acidity to the sauce for rib-eye steak. Figs sweetened a sublime pan sauce for sea scallops. The impeccably sautéed foursome surrounded a mound of shaved fennel salad. From its topper of rosy, fresh fig quarters flew a crispy flag of fried prosciutto.

Fig and fresh prosciutto turned out to be the highlight of the charcuterie plate. The quantity and quality of this antipasti assortment, which also included olives, mortadella, duck rillettes and chicken liver mousse, disappointed. The rillettes tasted of duck fat and little else, while the mousse was runny and unappealingly sharp.

Pizza got things off to a better start. The soft savory meatballs on top were divine. The crackling crust was thin and nicely blistered, and the sauce had a spicy kick.

If piquant is your thing, hail a Yellow Taxi — that's the name of the golden tomatoes simmered into a sauce with a mustardy turmeric bite that does justice to an excellent lamb sausage.

If pasta is your preference, choose the gossamer pappardelle in a beefy Bolognese sauce that's mellow and sweet. Or try maltagliati (literally "badly cut"), made from scraps of those same noodles and bathed in a robust rabbit sugo that was lean on rabbit meat but replete with morels.

Plump gnocchi looked so pretty in a pink and green mosaic of lobster chunks, chives, basil and shards of snap peas, but the dumplings were a little too large and too dense, a flaw somewhat ameliorated by the buttery, truffle-flecked sauce.

But there was no saving the overly charred octopus. Not even fried parsley and briny putanesca sauce could overcome its acrid taste. Focaccia "toast soldiers" conscripted for guard duty should be given permanent leave: They were too big to be croutons and too hard to cut with a knife.

More troubling than that were persistent service snafus. We were frequently flagging down a server — for a menu, a wine list, a drink, a fork. Pacing was problematic. Pasta came to the table before we had finished the antipasti, flummoxing the runner. A server came by to suggest dessert, not aware that we were still waiting for entrees. Often we had food but no utensils. One young person dispatched to bring forks and knives was so rattled she not only laid them incorrectly but set one of them upside down.

Some of these service issues may stem from the tight quarters and labyrinthine layout of the room: Cul-de-sacs cause frequent backtracking; high booths impede sightlines. On each of my visits the house was packed. The waitstaff clearly is trying its best; some are seasoned, others clearly struggling. Branzino's management has a wealth of experience; they need to spread it around.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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