Volterra has been a Tuscan-inspired favorite in Seattle for nearly eight years, so a second Volterra in downtown Kirkland was cause for excitement.
The two restaurants are far from clones: Ballard’s Volterra has an old-world charm that suits its vintage brick building; in Kirkland, the vibe is distinctly modern. Food-wise, however, something has been lost in transition.
Both restaurants’ menus are virtually identical, yet some dishes here seem like weary retreads of the originals. That’s too bad because the service is so warm, the setting so attractive and the atmosphere so congenial.
The Swarovsky-crystal-and-Murano glass chandelier above the front door, where a pleasant young man took my coat, isn’t by Dale Chihuly, but the shimmering drawings in the bar and lounge are. They add a touch of exuberance to the room’s contemporary elegance, much as the open kitchen adds drama to the sleek dining room. Wide windows welcome natural light by day; the mood is more seductive after dark when conical glass pendants create pools of clear light amid deep shadows.
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Jocular waiters know their way around the wine list, and they know the menu (many having worked at the Ballard location). They know when to engage with customers, and disengage. (Bussers, though, are a bit too keen, eying tables like crows cruising Dick’s.)
“This is the dish that drove Volterra’s success,” a waiter said proudly, delivering the wild boar tenderloin that once enchanted Rachael Ray. The quite tender meat tasted rather tame, as did the gorgonzola-mustard sauce, blanketing it like gravy over chicken-fried steak. Still it was a satisfying dish, sided with crisp roasted potatoes and fennel sautéed with frisee.
A similar mix of fennel and greens accompanied roast chicken, a glorious bird whose crisp, herb-rubbed skin was as golden as the copious pan juices puddled around a mound of mashed potatoes.
Celeriac purée supported branzino, among the daily specials. Two fillets of fish with skin as crisp as bacon sported a boutonniere of orange segments and micro greens. A dash of pomegranate molasses added a welcome note of acid.
Roasted eggplant agnolotti showed the most finesse of three pastas I tried. Those delicate bundles, made of pasta squares with the four corners pinched together, enjoyed a garlicky tomato sauce and shards of pecorino pepato, a Sicilian sheep-milk cheese studded with peppercorns.
But triangular ravioli filled with beef tenderloin were tough around the edges, their “angry tomato sauce” more of a rabble-rousing condiment combining olive oil, garlic, chopped fresh tomato and a big dose of hot red peppers.
I sat close enough to the kitchen on one visit to notice bowls of par-cooked, pre-portioned pasta waiting to be finished in boiling water and sauced. That explained the clumps of orrechiette, little pasta ears that stubbornly stuck together even sauced with a luxurious, gently herbed, lamb ragu.
A heavier hand made the lamb meatballs. They were overworked, over-herbed and so salty the lamb flavor was lost. The trio, cushioned on bland spaghetti squash and garnished with sharp green Cerignola olives and Calabrian chili peppers, had a superfluous coating of goat cheese “cream.”
Potato, spinach and goat cheese crostata wore a similar white sauce, a cumbersome cape for that dainty puff pastry pie. Conversely Caesar salad was insufficiently adorned: the $11 plate of chopped romaine had little dressing, scant cheese and dull croutons made from the unsalted house bread. (The bread basket comes with a welcome bowl of fennel salt and bottle of olive oil.)
Assorted antipasti sorely disappointed. Of nine “little bites” arranged on Volterra’s signature white china artist palette, only duck confit could legitimately be called “homemade.” The rest were cheeses, Salamis, olives, dried fruit, plus a couple of tired salads composed of fresh fruit or pantry items straight from the jar or can.
While Chef de cuisine Andrew Gribas helms the kitchen, Volterra’s chef/owner, Don Curtiss, and Michele Quisenberry, his wife and managing partner, weren’t present on my visits. Perhaps four months is too soon to leave their new arrival unattended.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.