The surest recipe for failure in the restaurant industry is well-funded food lovers with no restaurant experience who chuck great careers to open their own bistro. Opening a restaurant is a quixotic enough risk for vets who can parse out the food costs in every scrap of tomato or walk into a dining room and calculate the profit being made that night. No matter how hard they're told the industry is, or how entrepreneurially savvy they are in their first careers, newcomers just don't realize what sharklike hunger for weakness hides behind the business' mask of pleasure. Before granting loans to fund restaurants, banks should require starry-eyed gastronomes to complete six-month apprenticeships as bussers and dishwashers. There should be lectures, and perhaps interventions, at every step of the permitting process.
Price Check Cauliflower frites $8 Lamb meatballs $12 Tuna with olive relish $10 Leg of lamb $18 Chicken tagine $15 Molten chocolate cake $7 Artemis Café & Bar 757 Bellevue Ave. E., 860-2752, www.artemiscafe.net. CAPITOL HILL. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
That's why, when I was reading the media reports about the opening of Artemis Café & Bar, on Bellevue and Roy in Capitol Hill, and I saw new owners Oscar Velasco and Boris Gorodnitsky described as "Microsoft employees," I thought, oh, dear me.
Then one evening, a friend and I walked down the Hill's darkened residential streets, the Space Needle as our guide, until we came to the golden glow of the bistro's front door. Velasco ushered us in through the door—not in that ostentatious "Greetings, I am the owner of this fine establishment" way, but more "Hey, glad to see you, c'mon in." As I stepped over the threshold, the vibe of satisfaction emanating from the crowded room scattered all preconceptions. There were a dozen moneyed, North Capitol Hill customers eating at the tiny bar at the entryway, more sitting around the gas fireplace along one wall. Back past the packed tables on the mezzanine level, through the wall of windows, I could spy the thousands of lights on the hills beyond Lake Union. The unexpected romance of the scene surprised me: It was like going out for beer with a drinking buddy and suddenly realizing you wanted to kiss him.
Now, after two contented meals at Artemis, I've come to the conclusion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take the decor, which uses rich reds and big plants to hide the exposed pipes and spare lines of the space; you can see the room's bones—before the owners refashioned the building, it had been a corner market for decades—but they're not what your eye focuses on. Most important, the owners didn't let anything get in the way of the view that's selling million-dollar condos at the "Bellagio on Capitol Hill" next door.
Turns out, the two software engineers had never before in their lives worked in a restaurant, but they picked good mentors: people like Scott Carsberg of Lampreia and Peter Lewis of Campagne. Wisely, too, Gorodnitsky and Velasco have turned the kitchen over to a more experienced hand: Chris Hunter, who's spent 30 years in the industry—the last 10 running the kitchens of Jazz Alley, Supreme, and Etta's. With Hunter, they were able to refine their "Mediterranean" theme, combining it with a focus on small plates—and lo! a restaurant well tailored to its swank-casual neighborhood took shape.
Hunter's food has the same slightly functional charm—fine, but it rarely stops conversation. A few of the dishes stood out: cauliflower "frites" with the most delicate of batters that could also have been billed as "tempura"; a trio of bruschetta tiled with slices of seared tuna covered in a punchy green-olive relish. A main course of leg of lamb was rubbed with a little North African pepper paste and cooked to the exact quarter-temperature it was ordered at ("oh, medium, but leaning toward medium-rare"). It came with silky sautéed spinach and a cinnamon-onion jam cooked down so slowly that it almost made the case for the onions to be reclassified as a fruit. A predictable "molten chocolate cake" came in an unpredictable oven-friendly mug—just pulled out of the oven, in fact, where it was baked to the perfect midpoint between pudding and brownie.
Other dishes simply served their purpose: a salad of romaine with feta, onions, and olives in a decent vinaigrette; lamb-and-pork meatballs with a good garlicky kick but too dense a texture; and a dessert of a wedge of buffalo-milk ricotta drizzled with honey whose virtue was its greatest appeal.
The nice thing about free-form, small-plates-oriented meals is that dishes like those balanced out less successful ones, like the sunchokes roasted with baby artichokes that had turned leathery in the oven, or scallops with a lovely brown-butter sauce that came out overcooked and undercleaned (sand in the teeth, mmm). I was least content when I had to focus too much of my attention on an entrée like a sloppily plated tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and olives, or savory but overcooked cod with clams and chorizo in a watery paprika broth.
That third element of a good restaurant—service—is what brought all the parts together. I don't think Gorodnitsky and Velasco have lost their sense of being enthusiastic diners, a memory that can fade in the us-versus-them team mentality of restaurant work, and they're good hosts. When they told us on the phone, "Oh, we don't take reservations, but if you come in we'll take care of you," they meant it; we entered and were shepherded to the bar, and they quickly found a spot for us. It took a few tries for one waitress to gauge my table's no-rush mood, but then she picked that up and had everything to us right when we wanted it. In its second month of business, Artemis has already built a bar crowd—people who are there just to hang out—which says a lot about its appeal.
You know how there are places that take a long time, if ever, to find their way, and always feel slightly unfinished? Then there are other places—most recently, I can think of Serious Pie, Cafe Presse, and now Artemis—that from opening day seem to have established the clientele and vibe that they will have five years in. How the planets align to make that happen is still a mystery to me, even after 15 years working in and writing about restaurants, but Gorodnitsky, Velasco, and Hunter should be sacrificing chickens and burning incense to whatever gods have aided their success. I will be doing the same, actually, praying that all the other daydreaming food lovers who get inspired by Artemis will come to their senses in time.