How to Cook a Wolf Fumbles a Little, Then Sinks Its Teeth Into the Zeitgeist

Ethan Stowell’s new restaurant looks like the inside of a cigar box. And isn't much bigger.

If there's a chef who can read the zeitgeist, at least when it comes to dining in Seattle, it's Ethan Stowell. He seems to have Tom Douglas' expansionist spirit as well as Douglas' knack for identifying a scene that needs to be made. With Union, the downtown restaurant that earned Stowell his reputation, he combined business-suit panache with soulful Northwest cuisine. Tavolata, with its pastas and family-style entrées, tapped into Belltown's late-night party vibe last January. Now, with How to Cook a Wolf (yes, that's the name), on the top of Queen Anne, Stowell is thinking tiny and intimate, serving small plates for people who eat out as a lifestyle rather than a special treat. Of course the room is already stuffed with customers—Wolf has 30 seats and a pedigree. When you enter Wolf, whose sign is so discreet that its presence is more like a vacuum between shops, you can immediately sense everything Stowell and co-owner Patric Gabre-Kidan (also involved in Tavolata) intended the restaurant to be. Only a half-wall separates the narrow alley where diners wait for a table and the galley kitchen where the cooks arrange salads and shuffle pans on the hot top, their hips swaying with invisible hula hoops to make room for one another. A stonework wall marks the division between kitchen and bar, where children of the 1980s nuzzle up against each other, and occasionally look up from their bowls of pasta to wave at a neighbor passing outside. Stowell tells me that he originally thought up Wolf as a family wine bar, where his wife, Angela, could set the wine list and his dad, Kent, now retired from leading the Pacific Northwest Ballet, would work a few days a week. But as Ethan and Gabre-Kidan thought about the space they secured, their idea got bigger, and they brought Ryan Weed over from Tavolata to run the kitchen. The partners tricked out the restaurant to look like a sauna, or the inside of a cigar box, and not much bigger than either. Its wooden walls, which curve up to become the ceiling, are interrupted by a stripe of hammered copper. The light reflecting off it makes the space glow the color of flesh. The closeness is so immediate, I overheard two customers commenting on the wedges of cheese sitting on the wall between customer and cook. "I hope that's just for display," said one patron. "They can't be serving it." The other one assured him that would never happen. Um...that's kind of the point of the restaurant: It's casual if you're the kind of person who enjoys hanging out in tiny, refined spaces and is comfortable ordering off a menu that refuses to define itself in courses. A meal at Wolf might start with a salad or some raw tuna, which gives way to bruschetta, then a bowl of pasta, moving light to heavy, cold to warm. The dishes are of the moment, both in terms of food trends (crudos, mostardas) and the seasons. However, my two visits to Wolf reminded me that it can take a while for even the most thought-through of concepts to coalesce. My first meal, though it contained a few stunners, just didn't come together. You know when you sing a note, and the person next to you sings a note that's allllmost the same, but instead of blending together the notes set off a discord that makes your teeth buzz? The culinary version of that phenomenon happened a few times: Seared scallops, served with a sunchoke puree that melded velvet and butter, were topped with small dots of a green olive and lemon pesto that was so sharp it combined with the sweet mollusk flavor to taste antiseptic. A stuffed, roast quail was sauced with a chestnut honey so fragrant that it called out the faint livery tinge of the game bird and made it cloy. Strangely enough, the crab apple conserve spooned onto a round of sharp goat's milk cheese did the exact same thing. Our server had his eye out for our table, but my guests, who were visiting from the Chicago area, were put off by Stowell hanging around near the entrance dressed in a T-shirt and cargo pants. "Why was the owner the sloppiest person in the restaurant?" one asked. I told them he was just being "authentic," but there's no explaining some things to out-of-towners. It was a frustrating meal. Yet I was so taken with the space, and the way the menu mirrored it, that I took hope from two great pastas we ate that the rest might come around. Potato gnocchi tossed with hedgehog mushrooms and cured pork jowl tasted like a fall hunt, simultaneously wild and soothing. And the cauliflower agnolotti were masterful: The pureed cauliflower that oozed out of each al dente square when I cut into it had all of the vegetable's meatiness with no cabbage-y reek, and its faint sweetness met that of the mellow aged balsamic vinegar drizzled over it. Oh, yeah, that was why I thought balsamic was the best thing ever when I first tasted it in the early 1990s. My hopes were realized when I returned a few weeks later. The wait for a table was no less intense (take your cell phone; they're good about calling you at one of the neighboring bars and cafes). This time Gabre-Kidan was running the front of the house, and the flow of waiters, cooks, and manager between the kitchen and table had an ease to it that hadn't been obvious before. The food was more sure, the missteps less jarring. There was a trio of bruschetta mounded so high with sautéed hedgehog mushrooms that I kept having to follow up each bite by chasing down all the ones that escaped. There was a squid and white bean salad with rings of white meat that slipped across the tongue, and beans that were too crunchy for my taste but deeply flavorful. A couple of dishes had an allllmost quality to them, but this time it didn't set my teeth on edge: The richness of a beet-orange salad was pitched to take on the full flavors of duck breast arrayed across it, but the meat was cooked a fashionable medium-rare, preventing its full roast-meat character from emerging. And orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) were tossed with cauliflower and "grated bread" in too much oil, so the crumbs fried up gritty and slick. When Wolf's food is on, though, it's simple and magical: skinny twists of trofie pasta with a bracingly herbaceous parsley-walnut pesto; translucent pink rounds of veal carpaccio, the subtle flavor of the meat a secret revealed only when you joined it with a shaving of Parmesan and a bite of salty anchovy. Modest plates, modest spaces, and best yet, modest prices—all signs of the time.

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