Out of Focus at Enotria

Too much too soon at new Laurelhurst eatery.

The waiter brought our appetizers with an easy flourish, seemingly unconcerned with gravity. The plates floated down to the table, and out came a pair of forks for some old-school service: Wielding the utensils like chopsticks, he ferried slices of cucumber, pink-edged Chioggia beets, and nuggets of blue cheese to each of our plates, then divvied up the sweetbreads, making sure each diner got precisely the same number of chanterelle mushrooms on top. The plates smelled as good as they looked, which was a huge relief--this was not going to be a repeat of my first meal.

Enotria opened two months ago on the Laurelhurst stretch of 45th Street in the space that used to house the Union Bay Cafe, which closed after 21 years in business. David Hahne, formerly a restaurateur in Minneapolis, has recast the room in moodier hues, with dark woodwork, black tables, low-low lights, and bussers dressed in black shirts and aprons. The focus of the room, really, is the silvery white gleam of the window into the kitchen; if you're seated across from the cooks, it's hard not to spend your meal trying to figure out what they're doing with their hands, invisible below the bottom sill.

The name Enotria, which means "land of wine," suggests that wine is the principal focus; the wine list divides between Northwest and Italian. But on that first night, our server clearly knew nothing about the titular beverage. He told me an Oregon pinot gris was one of the richest whites on the by-the-glass list, when it turned out to be well on the dry side; and when I asked him for Enotria's lightest red, he recommended the negroamaro—which happens to be a deeply fruity varietal from southern Italy whose name, "black bitter," isn't ironic.

He was equally unhelpful when it came to the food. On first look, the menu piqued my interest: appetizers, pastas, and entrées made with Italian flavors and seasonal Northwestern ingredients, such as a rabbit loin stuffed with sausage and chanterelles, and a gnocchi with crab and lemon. But these were just the daily specials; on the other side of the page there was an even longer list of appetizers, pastas, pizzas, and salads. When a menu lists an item for every three seats, I start to worry. It means either that a number of dishes will be hastily assembled, frozen until needed, or spoiled. (By a similar token, in a tiny/empty restaurant with a big menu, I rarely order seafood on a weekday.)

"With all these kinds of dishes, how would you recommend we order?" I asked the waiter.

"However you want," he stuttered.

Our meal was as uncoordinated as the service. Our first course of stuffed rabbit loin tasted richly autumnal but rubbery and overcooked, accompanied by a few stalks of crisped broccolini leaching oil. On the plus side, the gnocchi I had for my second course were handmade, irregular blobs, not the evenly scalloped dumplings sold in shelf-stable packaging at Safeway. And the crab meat they were tossed with came in large, coral-tinged chunks, which the chef didn't stint on. But Hahne tossed both with so much lemon juice and melted butter that the impromptu vinaigrette would have overpowered a head of romaine, let alone a small bowl of pasta. While I was picking my way through the grainy gnocchi, salvaging the crab, I looked up to see my guest rolling nuggets of wild boar sausage off his pizza, leaving only a few roasted tomatoes and blobs of goat cheese.

"Smell this," he said, pushing the plate over.

Boar is a gamy meat, to be sure, but there was a beyond-game funky sourness to the sausage that made us, both former cooks, recoil. It was that too-old-to-serve smell, the toss-me-now reek familiar to every cook who has to check the freshness of all his products at the beginning of every night. We couldn't finish the course, and when the waiter displayed to the neighboring table a dessert tray with dried-out bread pudding and a panna cotta that had spread out into a pale, jiggly blob, we lost heart. Check, please.

Was it the two-week wait between visits that made the difference, or did I just order better? Because although my second meal at Enotria was flawed, it wasn't an utter rout.

In fact, it got better as it went along. The flesh of the sweetbreads, sliced into medallions and sautéed in nutty brown butter, was as creamy as I'd hoped. (Though the chef didn't prep the glands thoroughly to remove all the connective tissue, so that I had to pick around chewy strings to get to the tender bits.) The "mountain Gorgonzola" on the beet-cucumber salad was sharp enough to knock out my taste buds, but once it was rolled aside, the harmony between the roasted beets and thick, mild mustard vinaigrette came through. Chunks of house-made pork-fennel sausage, tossed with garganelli pasta, roasted red peppers, and capers, tasted fresh this time, and the entire dish came off bright and balanced. The dessert that night was perhaps the most polished dish: a tart with a butter-crisp shell and sweet pears fanned out across its top, sinking into a puffy layer of almond frangipane as the tart baked.

Clearly, too, we'd landed a waiter whose skills went beyond the trick with the forks. He scheduled the entrées so they arrived just long enough after the appetizer plates departed to create a suitable pause; and with our entrées, he recommended a silky, feminine pinot noir from the Willamette Valley that sang in the exact same key as our second entrée, the duck.

But the duck proved yet again the dangers of writing up a menu too big for a tiny staff to execute with skill. It wanted to be a great dish. I wanted the duck to be a great dish, and I found hints of one in the spiced poached pears and light, meaty reduction sauce that accompanied the meat. But underneath a gorgeous crust, the duck breast was rare (instead of a juicy pink medium-rare-to-medium) and unpleasantly chewy, and worse, the polenta came spooned out in dry, grainy chunks. It was a last-minute cornmeal mush, not coarse-ground polenta stirred over a low burner until the grains swelled, exuded their starches, and formed a creamy porridge. That's the polenta the duck wanted, the level of attention and time every dish on Enotria's menu deserved. And until Hahne trains every waiter properly and works on a scale he can master, attention is precisely the element Enotria lacks.


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