95 Pine, 442-1121 lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-11 p.m., bar menu 11 p.m.-1:30 a.m.
Mediterranean-influenced restaurant. Pike Place Market. Last-minute delay when chef Jason Wilson suddenly departed because of "creative differences." Lucky the three-strike rule only applies to baseball and drug offenses, or Vivanda Ristorante would've been over before it started. And that, my friends, would be a sad thing.
No matter what your annual income or budget for dining out is, you want the same thing from a restaurant experience as everyone else. Engaging, competent service. A comfortable seat and pleasing surroundings. A noise level that allows you to actually converse with your companions. Food that provokes only a satisfied "mmmmph!" and emphatic nod when your server asks how everything is. A final price tag that doesn't cause undue palpitations. Ideally, these things all go together, but we know this is rare. And that, my friends, is also a sad thing.
Vivanda, however, is a happy thing. Each potential strike against it has been gently coerced into a positive. The Mediterranean influences are subtle, and they are found in the context of exquisitely fresh local fish and bivalves. The tourists of Pike Place Market are welcomed by a warmly professional staff that is also plenty hip enough to deal with the local downtown crowd. Chef Jay Perry (trained in Italy and California) has stepped in and changed "creative differences" into simply "creative." Topping it all off like the cherry on a sundae, it's pretty. Comfy striped booths, mesmerizingly glittery tabletops, a wee deck, and an extremely private room that'll keep the party-givers out of your hair. A small warning, like the ingredients on that bottle of maraschinos: Each bathroom has three bottles of perfume on the counter, and the scent is gaggingly overwhelming.
Onward: Start with a salad, any salad. The Vivanda house treat ($7.50) is a juicy little surprise, with dried cherries, creamy ch趲e, and toasted pine nuts. Bing—sweet! Boom—crunch! Twang—salt! Every bite is a unique combination, and every bite is good. Similar in its bing-boom-twanginess is the watercress with tart apples, candied walnuts, and pecorino cheese ($6.95). Julienne of Granny Smith is indistinguishable on the plate from the thin strips of cheese, making each bite a surprise—will it be salty, or tart, or both? Watercress is perhaps the only green that could hold its own next to these tastes, and its peppery bite is a super complement.
So now that the healthy nonsense is out of the way, it's time to splurge. Before getting your little heart set on any one item, ask—as one waitress said, "We have the opposite of specials. Let me tell you the things the kitchen has run out of," and proceeded to run down a list of three or four items. Chalk it up to a brand-new operation and relax; there's still plenty to choose from.
If you're in the mood for fish, go for something that seems shocking: a lovingly tended grilled king salmon swirled with a fascinating sauce of saffron and vanilla ($14.50). Expecting a heavy sweetness, finding a beautifully balanced savoriness—quite the dining-room thrill. The saffron brings out every dusty, exotic bass note Madagascar vanilla has, while Ms. Vanilla flutters a floral lightness over Mr. Saffron's muscles. Tagliatelle ($14.95) was on the opposite end of the food spectrum, with a lightly bland sauce and tiny tidbits of crab and asparagus. Truly excellent fresh pasta, but it's a dish for a delicate palate; Blanche DuBois would be tickled if a kind stranger deposited it on her table.
On the meatier side of things, you'll have just a few choices, all tempting. Cornish hen ($12.95) sits on a little nest of buttery herbs—the tenderness of the bird makes a knife unnecessary. "Land and Sea" ($32) includes a lobster tail and an extraordinary filet mignon: Labeled simply "aromatica" on the menu, it arrives with the top crusted over with an unappealing dark green sludge. That sludge turns out to be a paste of rosemary and salt, with perhaps a few other treats thrown in the mix. You will never be happy with non-aromatica steak again. It's like standing in a field of herbs under a warm sun while eating a very tender, exactingly cooked filet mignon.
If you were lucky enough to get the potato dauphine, you'll eat every bite of your starchy side dish. Layered with a thick, creamy filling and broiled with plenty of rosemary and basil, it will turn anyone into a demanding little princess of France—I want more! Maintenant! The potato pur饬 satin smooth and buttery, is what little baby gods must have eaten on Mount Olympus. Too bad the garlic mashed spuds don't quite meet expectations—not much garlic, not enough liquid, a bit too lumpy even for those who appreciate lumps.
Desserts dwell mostly in the gelato/ sorbetti range, nice for warm summer days but disappointing if you want a decadently fudgy pile of goo. Flavorful. Refined. Satisfying. None of these add up to "Entirely worth the caloric load and you should save room." Instead, treat you and yours to something unusual from the wine list; Eric Brisbin (lately from Sazerac) has put together a list of treats from all over the place, and prices aren't excessive.
So parking is fairly impossible. So tourists are in the way at lunch. So you think you're tired of Mediterranean. So what? Go anyway, and appreciate every little thing this restaurant gets right.