Aragona Brings Spanish Chic—and a Little Confusion—to Downtown Dining

The minds behind Spinasse put Catalonian cuisine on the menu.

When I last interviewed Carrie Mashaney, recently eliminated on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters and chef de cuisine at Aragona, a new regional Spanish restaurant she’s helming with her former Spinasse boss Jason Stratton, I asked her about a trip to Spain that the pair took—a tasting journey to help them conceive Aragona’s menu. Pressed about her favorite meal, she talked about a restaurant right on the ocean in Barcelona, the meal’s highlight “a bowl of perfectly cooked peas and thinly sliced jamón.” How delightful, I thought.

Since then, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the restaurant’s opening, excited by the idea of Catalonian-style cooking, with its heavy emphasis on seafood; of the quaint but quintessential simplicity one could relish in a bowl of peas. I’d thought about my own time in Spain, the seaside restaurants where I’d enjoyed things fresh from the ocean with little more than a squeeze of lemon, like whole grilled anchovies and bubbling bowls of paella.

So though I knew Aragona was to be a highly designed downtown spot, right across from the Four Seasons hotel, I somehow wasn’t prepared when I stepped into the cool, massive, modernist space—right next to the water, but with scant views of it (except from the bar, which is nicely situated apart from the dining room, at the entrance). It’s disarmingly urbane with its geometric, colorful paper lights; its “centerpiece” mosaic column bejeweled with white marble, pops of red, and a sparkling burst of gold at its base; its ubiquitous sheen of blond wood; and its surrealist “private” room for four that—in contrast to the rest of the restaurant—looks ironically like an old Spanish grandma’s dining room and feels like an installation piece in a contemporary art museum, or perhaps a stage set.

A Seattle restaurant with a well-thought-out design concept—something beyond exposed concrete and reclaimed wood, something to have a strong opinion about—is refreshing. I just had to remind myself that instead of a cozy seaside spot, I was maybe eating in chic downtown Barcelona. This isn’t a romantic kind of place where you’d hunker down with your lover and devour a bowl of clams (or peas)—the stark lighting, certainly, will kill any amorous intent. Instead, imagine Pedro Almodóvar taking Penélope Cruz out for a drink and a well-appointed meal to discuss their latest project, dressed to be seen.

But when the food began to arrive, I was struck by how unsure it seemed of itself and of its place in the almost avant-garde space: a gallimaufry of rustic and revisionist dishes which, depending on what you order, will alter your experience dramatically. From the moment you “break bread,” according to our waiter, over a housemade sunflower cracker and nibble on some tiny olives, you feel you’re meant to embark on a homey culinary journey. But that just doesn’t jibe with the fanciful decor. The confusion continues: You may leave very taken by the artistry and execution of an entrée; very let down by its ambitious failing; or, on the flip side, wistful that a Spanish staple didn’t get a splashier treatment.

It was among the appetizers that I found the best execution and the right choice of old-meets-new. The spot prawns with cider sauce is one I’ll tell friends about—it snagged a spot in my brain where my most memorable meals live on. Small dots of red shrimp roe coalesce, waiting for a spoon to spread them about and permeate the pungent, cider-infused broth with salinity. The five smallish spot prawns are so delicate and tender (yet firm), it’s as though someone thought to cook them for a moment, then suddenly decided to pull them from the heat. They’re not raw, but the juice of their bite is sweet and fresh. Who knew shrimp could taste this bright—not heavily spiced or blackened or pickled in citrus for ceviche? When my daughter reached for her second, my maternal instincts darkened for a flash, realizing I’d only get one (particularly given the $22 price point for this little, exquisite plate).

Fortunately, the adobo cod appetizer was plentiful. About seven chunky “nuggets” of cod come lightly fried; their tangy juices squirt out as you chomp into their crispy exterior. The choice of a vinegary adobo for a fish like cod was a great one. This is something you might easily find at a tapas bar in Barcelona, only better. The beef tongue, too, served escabeche (acidic) with currants and capers, had a beautiful bite, and the play of the sweet currants and salty capers was not only delicious but playful—being, as it was, hard to tell which was which. All these appetizers read clearly to me as very thoughtful—and ultimately satisfying—elevated Spanish fare.

But then a sunchoke tortilla (a take on a simple Spanish-style quiche one often encounters in tapas bars) came with little flavor and was rather dry, ostensibly heightened by the addition of sea urchin on top. Oddly, the urchin was quite bland and did nothing to improve the dish—rather, it called attention to its shortcoming. The braised beef cheeks with King Bolete mushrooms and puff pastry, on the other hand, were like a fantasy version of a pot roast, so tender and falling apart it seems to be cooked for dainty fairies without knives. Or, as my daughter so eloquently put it, “This meat doesn’t need to be broken” (read: cut). Its texture was so incredibly moist that it was easy to mistake a bite of it for the smoothness of the accompanying mushrooms, while the mushrooms were so flavorful as to resemble the meat. Close your eyes and take a wild guess as to which of the two you’d just bitten into . . .

But order, say, the rice with squab, and spend your time ferreting out the small bites of olive and kohlrabi just to give your taste buds something. Though the squab wasn’t overcooked, it had no flavor, and was the worse for the toothsome, lackluster rice it was served atop. Same for the $30 chicken cooked two ways with squid, foie gras, and white beans. The grilled chicken was unforgivably overdone and the pieces of braised chicken not actually flavored much by being cooked, as we were told, in the squid juices; the few bites of foie gras were hard to find. The foie gras was essentially a hollow attempt to fancy up a hearty stew, as the sea urchin attempted to do for the tortilla. But throwing exotic ingredients haphazardly at a classic Spanish dish doesn’t necessarily make it good. It just makes it more expensive.

And though the soupy rice with geoduck, in theory, is a nice Pacific Northwest play on rustic paella, it doesn’t deliver in all the right ways. It’s bracingly briny, which may appeal to some but turn off others. While they’re smart to work in sweet, braised turnips to offset the fishiness, a few more would really help balance this dish perfectly. Yet still I felt most emphatically that this entrée was very authentic, just as I’d expect it to be in Spain, where tastes are perhaps more accustomed to stronger flavors: classic, as opposed to the very revisionist chicken with squid. The question is: Will diners looking for a “sophisticated” experience embrace a simple bowl of seawater-like soupy rice (at $26, no less)?

Dessert, too, suffers from an identity complex. Would I be most satisfied with the fried xuxos (basically Spanish donuts, in this case filled with vanilla cream) or the more inventive-sounding steamed almond and sweet potato cake with chestnut, honey, and muscatel? Thanks to the outstanding waiter I had on both my visits—extremely well-versed in the details of every dish, unexpectedly down-to-earth given the posh environment, funny, and opinionated to boot—we ordered the xuxos. I joked with him that if they came out tasting any better than basic sweet fried dough, I’d be thoroughly impressed. They did indeed; the sweet cream interior and truffle-salted fried exterior were pitch-perfect. For comparison, we ordered the sweet potato cake (oddly, $2 less), but were disappointed. Expected to be dense and moist, it was terribly dry, and even the few tasty bites of chestnut semifreddo couldn’t make up for that.

While there is certainly plenty to savor at Aragona, the question of whether to stick to—and perfect—more regional dishes or artfully reimagine them is one that begs for an answer. If that answer is, in fact, both, that’s OK. But if so, the execution needs far more tweaking. Because ultimately as a diner, you can’t help but want to try to understand a restaurant’s intent—the promise it makes to you when you sit down and open that menu. Without that clarity, inconsistency can abound and your confidence in ordering can be shaken.

And if you’re leaving a neighborhood to fight downtown traffic, find and pay for parking, and spend far more on your bill, that confidence can’t be compromised. In my interview with Mashaney, she talked about the decision to be downtown and how she hoped that more quality restaurants would do the same, potentially enlivening what’s generally thought of as a place for tourists (and restaurants that cater to them). While I too wholeheartedly embrace infusing downtown with character, I can’t help wondering if locals who’ve been thoroughly romanced by the trend of great, small, and affordable neighborhood restaurants will be game to take the leap of faith. I believe there are plenty of Seattleites willing to pay more for exceptional food, and with luck, Aragona will eventually deliver it.

Seattle, in my opinion, needed an ambitious Spanish restaurant. But how that loftiness will translate into consistently great cuisine, particularly given the price point, still remains to be seen. But if Spinasse is any indication, we can only hope that Aragona will find its sweet spot yet.

ARAGONA 96 Union St., 682-3590, 5–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.

MORE! Read Zach Geballe's take on Aragona's wine list and conversation with the restaurant's master sommelier Chris Tanghe.

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