WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
Host of the Town
Pioneer Richard Malia makes his mark
with fresh ideas and genuine warmth
Richard and Sharon Malia at Ponti Seafood Grill proudly display their Seafood Paella, which is based on a recipe from Sharon's family in the Andalusia region of Spain.
SUPERIMPOSED AGAINST views of the Fremont and Aurora bridges, white tablecloths gleaming in the candlelight, the elegant dining room at Ponti Seafood Grill does not immediately conjure the notion of a pioneer. But spend an evening with owner Richard Malia, who built the place, or talk to any one of his many friends in the Seattle restaurant business and before long, the subject will come up.
When Starbucks was still a single store a stone's throw from The Snug, his first restaurant near the Pike Place Market, Malia was the first restaurateur to pour the locally roasted coffee. Before "local" was a marketing buzzword, the soups and sandwiches he served were made with farm-fresh ingredients from the public market. And at his second restaurant, Mrs. Malia's, on the corner of Second and Marion, Malia launched the first Washington wine dinners and the first regular wine-maker dinners in Seattle.
"Yes," she said, still smiling that smile. She was a sorceress watching for the results of her latest charm to take hold.
"Everything started at Mrs. Malia's!" exclaims cookbook author and restaurant consultant Sharon Kramis. "I ate my first oyster there. Bill Webb brought in those wonderful Westcott Bay oysters and I've loved them ever since."
It was Ron Irvine who initially approached Malia with the idea of doing the wine dinners. Irvine, who owns Vashon Winery and wrote Washington's wine-making history in "The Wine Project," brought in the wine-makers for spirited dialogues with diners. Kramis helped the cooks plan the menus and drafted Charlie Billows, who started Charlie's Produce, to find local ingredients.
Irvine had met Malia when he was running The Snug. "I used to go in there for lunch," Irvine recalls. "The food was so fresh and healthy, and I loved the fact that he was using locally grown product."
At Mrs. Malia's, Malia "always remembered everyone's name and made each person feel so welcome. He has some kind of gift that way." Indeed, it is his role as a host, characterized by personal warmth and genuine caring, that defines Malia's restaurant career.
After The Snug and Mrs. Malia's, Malia partnered with Jim Malevitsis, who opened the late, great Adriatica with John Sarich at the stove long before Sarich became the culinary force behind Chateau Ste. Michelle. Together Malia and Malevitsis opened Ponti in 1991 and Axis in Belltown in 1997. A parting of the ways in 2001 gave Malia custody of Ponti while Axis went to Malevitsis. Along the way, Malia fostered another culinary child, the very successful "Twenty-five for $25 program," which promotes prix-fixe menus at some of Seattle's finest dining establishments.
Today, his unique brand of hospitality is what makes Ponti such a wonderful place. Granted, the food and wine are great. Executive chef Joshua Green shares Malia's commitment to regional ingredients; entrées like rich Alaska sablefish served with Washington cranberry butter help define Northwest flavors. And certainly wine steward Darrell Statema knows his way around a wine list; the extensive selection of Northwest wines is punctuated with superb selections from France and California. But unlike chain restaurants where the food and service may be equally polished, Ponti has something that cannot be replicated — genuine character.
"Some guys say I'm not a restaurateur as much as an innkeeper," says Malia. Indeed, like the great hosts, Peter Canlis and Victor Rosellini, Malia reminds us that the restaurant business is about more than food, wine and service; it's about people and their relationships.
"You don't get a second chance to make a special occasion perfect," he says. "So I wanted to open a place where people could celebrate — anniversaries, birthdays, family gatherings, corporate events, whatever. And that's what Ponti is all about."
Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and a culinary consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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