Perfectly Served at Branzino

Even in uptight Seattle, sometimes it’s a delight to be waited on well.

Seattleite attitudes toward service--from both a care-provider and a care-receiver perspective--seem as conflicted as our feelings about light rail. We're not quite sure what it means to get or give a lot of attention. Does paying a stranger to take care of me make me elitist? If I smile once too often at him/her, am I being patronizing or sexually predatory? By waiting tables, am I selling out my dreams? That uncertainty translates into a laid-back style of waiting tables that in other cities might have customers pounding on the table and demanding handwritten apologies from the manager. Not me, though. Unless waiters forget to bring a dish, or display obvious signs of insanity, I'm generally focused on the food. Yet service is the element that most impressed me about Branzino, a two-month-old restaurant on the corner of Second Avenue and Blanchard Street. Three small elements particularly caught my notice: 1. Remembering the importance of first and last impressions. Each time I entered the restaurant, co-owner Michael Don Rico—whose eight years at El Gaucho explains the front-of-house training—met us with a huge smile, led us to a table, and dispatched a waiter. She came over right away to make introductions, see if we wanted some background info on the restaurant or the menu, and make sure our immediate needs were met. (The fact that every single person in black pants looked like an extra on CSI: Miami made an impression, too. Not that any of us are lookist or anything.) When we left, Rico made sure to catch our eye and thank us—one of those little niceties that when overlooked makes me feel as though the owners couldn't care less whether I return. 2. Psychic bartending. As my party sat at the bar for a few minutes one night, the bartender asked one of my guests what she wanted to drink. Worst-case drinker: She wanted something sweet, maybe lemony, but couldn't think up a specific drink name. Within two minutes she was sipping one of the bartender's own cocktails blending gin, Lillet, and lemon juice, which fit both her mood and her palate. By the time we secured a table, she was already a fan. (Also, every by-the-glass wine recommendation comes with a pre-pour taste, so you're not completely at the waiters' mercy.) 3. Great choreography. For a restaurant that when I first visited had only been open six weeks, there was an assured syncopation to the servers' stops at our table: Waiter brings course. (Beat.) Busser fills water, checks bread. (Beat.) Waiter stops back to make sure everything is good, immediately notices almost-empty beer glass, and fetches another. (Two beats.) Busser glances over the table, moves on. (Long pause, filled with chewing sounds.) Manager, making a broad sweep around the room, smiles at us and once-overs our table as he passes, silently ensuring we know people at the top of the chain are looking out for us. And so on. Only once or twice did the presence of so many observers feel overattentive—I've grown acclimated to Seattle, after all—and never did it intrude. Rico and his partners hired chef Ashley Merriman away from Tilth, where she had worked under Maria Hines, and she's pretty much doing a Tilth take on Italian cuisine: local, seasonal, straightforward. "I know how to make foams and raviolis using chemicals, but don't have any interest in doing that," she says. "I want to make perfect ravioli using the best flour, the best eggs, the best salt." Naturally, most of the pastas are made in-house. So are the jars of preserves lined up along the front of the open kitchen like Obama buttons on the chest of a campaigner. Merriman's food is uncomplicated but not boring—she has too much of the hedonist in her for that. Her maltagliati, a flat, wide noodle, is tossed with morel mushrooms and satiny shreds of rabbit in a rich sugo with a little wine in the braise to liven it up. Her classic linguini with clams has toasted garlic to ground the sweetness of the clams, as well as enough butter to reassure you that eating seafood isn't always good for you. And she serves asparagus with a bacon-fat hollandaise that leaves me with many, many questions. How can I not order it? How can it not taste good? Is the gut-pull toward smoked pork genetic? Can I turn it off? To make sure her desserts are properly hedonistic, she makes them flat-out big, whether it's a slice of a professionally moist three-layer chocolate cake that overwhelmed three diners or a gelatinous panna cotta served in a flat bowl that could double as a water dish for a mid-sized terrier. But if the food isn't boring, it can be too cautious. The restaurant's namesake dish, a Mediterranean sea bass, came in lovely, moist fillets, but were set on a pool of cool, delicate green gazpacho with grapes, cherry tomatoes, and toasted almonds that chilled the fish and bleached out its flavor. I wished that her tastefully dressed panzanella with toasted bread cubes, wedges of golden tomatoes, cucumbers, and cubes of housemade mozzarella had been left to sit, so that the bread wasn't so crunchy and the cucumbers weren't quite so crisp—some messiness is never out of place when you're dealing with summer tomatoes. Or that a side dish of baby zucchini and pattypan squash had been roasted in the pizza oven just a little longer until the vegetables' crispness melted away and the edges began to blacken, just as the opal basil leaves they were seasoned with did. And, of course, simple Italian food means that when your flatiron steak comes with only a chilled pat of ramp butter, fingerling potatoes, and some slow-cooked tomatoes, it's easy to notice that the meat is medium instead of medium-rare, and that the veal meatballs on your spaghetti with red sauce are packed too tightly and with too much salt. But for every "Well, that was pretty good," there is a dish like the lobster gnocchi: snipped potato dumplings, light and far from gummy, with fat hunks of crustacean meat and, to interrupt their richness, the fresh crunch of barely blanched snap peas. Like a scrim behind—or maybe in front, it's hard to tell—the action on the stage, all the flavors are made softer and dreamier by the faint aroma of truffle oil. At 8 p.m. on an already too-perfect summer evening, Branzino's romantic patina seems a little thickly applied: Umber walls stretch up to a high, dark-brown ceiling, broken only by a flash of red tile behind the galley kitchen. Customers slide into dark-wood, high-backed booths that seat six (or eight Belltown beauties, provided they're carb-restricters). The men's bathroom stall is lit only by candlelight. But Seattle is only picnic-worthy three months a year; during our nine months of drippy gray nights, the paper-covered lamps will cast the creamiest, most inviting glow. Branzino's Italian bistro fare is an awful lot like that at Tavolata, not even a block away, but the restaurant is designed more for quiet talkers who perhaps don't want to sit next to strangers or share all their food (I'm not being sceneist, mind you). It should be a successful formula, since wild experimentation is not what the neighborhood seems to want. In the past three months, most of Belltown's ambitious restaurants have fled: Qube never made it. Cascadia's chef-owner is leaving for the hotel world. Lampreia's moving. Mistral's chef is "reformulating concepts." Maybe the neighborhood never fully recovered from the loss of its brash dot-com high-rollers, maybe the zeitgeist doesn't favor splashy, big-budget restaurants. So with its approachable, timely, affordable Italian food, an ambience perfect for couples and winter nesting, and service so good it attracts the notice of a former cook whose blinkered mind is normally fixed on reverse-engineering dishes and thinking about what's going on in his mouth, I'm confident Branzino is going to do well. To make the most of your meal there, Seattleite, relax and enjoy the attentions of the servers. Just don't smile at them too often, you perv.Price Check

Panzanella $9

Maltagliati with rabbit sugo $16

Linguini with clams $16

Branzino $21

Flatiron steak  $23

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