Something’s fishy. Why does West City Sardine Kitchen pop up when you search online for Westcity Kitchen?
General manager Jessica Freeman explained. When the partners behind this new West Seattle bistro first walked through the narrow California Avenue storefront, once home to The Bohemian, they joked that it felt like a sardine can. West City Sardine Kitchen became the project’s working title and the name they used for the initial applications. Early media reports picked it up and mentions proliferated.
The restaurant’s real name is Westcity Kitchen, but winking references to the fish tale remain. On the neon sign out front, three little fish swim between the words “Westcity” and “Kitchen.” Fish are also worked into a stunning steel railing created by Steve Howell of Ballard Forge.
That railing divides the L-shaped bar from booths and tables in an attractive space that is nothing like a sardine can now. Artful lighting casts a glow on the honey-hued, wood-paneled walls and bar-back. Wide plank flooring extends from the front windows to the peekaboo kitchen in the rear. Huge chalkboards front and back list daily specials.
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Of course, sardines are on the menu, which tilts Mediterranean yet still seems thoroughly American.
Those little fish — two grilled beauties with a salad of shaved fennel and arugula and a salty, fiery relish of coarsely chopped capers and Calabrian chilies — make a great shareable starter. So do warm olives (sharp kalamatas and rich Castelvetranos) baked with cherry tomatoes, mustard seed and garlic, served with crostini. Squid stuffed with sweet sausage, paired with pickled fennel and sweetly piquant Peppadew aioli, pleased as well.
Consider kicking off the evening with one of Freeman’s creative house cocktails. An absinthe wash lent a bracing anise note to the rye-based Westcity Whiskey Cocktail. The “Baked Apple Manhattan,” served up with a cinnamon swizzle stick, combines spice-infused bourbon with cardamaro and Calvados in a comforting concoction just right for the rainy season.
With your drink, snack on fried chickpeas sprinkled with sumac and lime, or nibble long, skinny truffle-scented fries dusted with pecorino. Better yet, order both.
The menu is a collection of good ideas executed with varying success. Salads are an example. Whole leaves of baby romaine with smoked walnuts, poached fig and ricotta salata needed more lubrication to help bind the red-wine gastrique to the lettuce. Spinach salad, with roasted beets, pistachios, goat cheese and mustard vinaigrette, was much better integrated.
Pan-roasted chicken was delightful. The mostly boneless half bird was moist, tender and aggressively seasoned with salt and pepper. If the acorn squash risotto on the side wasn’t quite risotto, it was satisfying nonetheless.
The terrific burger is fashioned from a half pound of well-seared, incredibly juicy American Kobe beef. Stacked with arugula, smoked Gouda and lots of house-made sweet-and-sour pickles, it comes on a Grand Central potato bun thickly smeared with garlic aioli. I only wish the bun had been toasted.
The burger rightly attends those aforementioned fries, but I asked to substitute a side of oven-roasted seasonal vegetables. I received a colorful array of fingerling potatoes, beets and turnips, all just tender and nicely caramelized but needing salt and pepper, which are on every table in a set of tiny, adorable square bowls.
Squash and pear-stuffed ravioli and handkerchief pasta are both house-made. The pasta was lovely, but the finished dishes lacked finesse. The ravioli were drenched in brown butter, beleaguered with unevenly cooked cubes of butternut squash and burdened with too many whole hazelnuts. Layers of delicate handkerchief noodles clumped together under a heavy short rib ragu; the questionable addition of a fried egg that was anything but “over easy” didn’t help.
After barely four months, opening chef Kym Goheen is moving on and sous chef Colin Sabbatelli succeeds her. (Both previously cooked together at Pair.) I hope she leaves behind the recipes for her light, lemony ricotta cheesecake and “dark chocolate dolci” — a double dessert of chocolate gelato studded with pinenut brittle and dense chocolate mousse topped with a layer of ganache.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.