Olivar on Seattle's Capitol Hill may have the magic formula to make the formerly unlucky Loveless Building location a success.
The Loveless Building, with its glowing murals that illustrate Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century tale of jealous sisters, an exiled heir and a swan-princess, is a storybook setting ready made for magic. Enchantment proved short-lived for Fork and Coco La-Ti-Da, the most recent restaurants to inhabit these quaint quarters, but with the debut of Olivar last summer, Prince Charming may have come at last.
Chef/owner Philippe Thomelin looks the part. Tall, broad-shouldered and handsome, he grew up in France’s Loire Valley, but his menu pays homage to his adopted homeland, Spain.
It’s a concise card that opens with a few cold salads, then moves on to hot plates, both small and large, with perhaps a half-dozen more daily specials posted on a chalkboard. Order a few or several, have them in any progression you like, share them or not; the estimable staff adapts to your wishes and your pace.
The most riveting dishes I sampled illustrate both the menu’s variety and the chef’s skillful weaving of flavors and textures, often incorporating an audacious flourish. Fork into albóndigas and you’ll find the interior of those crusty lamb meatballs are rosy with paprikalike poivron rouge. Joining the three fiesty amigos are chunks of sautéed eggplant sprinkled with cilantro and surprisingly sweet tomatillo chutney.
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Sweet meets sweeter when caramelized sea scallops are embedded in butternut-squash purée. But their calm is deliciously ruffled by the fruity tang of arrope — a drizzle of syrupy grape must — and the sharp bite of a Parmesan crisp.
Similarly, fork-tender rashers of grilled pork belly Grenobloise get a jolt from several tart, salty and rich garnishes: capers, hard-cooked egg, parsley and cornichons, each chopped and arranged in tidy rows as you would plant a garden.
Patatas bravas con huevo y morcilla is a tempestuous marriage of meat and potatoes tamed by the rich emolument of a poached egg. A hint of clove or bay leaf haunts the dusky disks of morcilla (blood sausage); the crisp wedges of fried potato are burnished with a lively spice blend that includes smoked paprika and cayenne.
Follow those hot potatoes with an invigorating cold plate, perhaps ensalada de boquerones, vinaigrette-dressed greens with pickled anchovies and strips of roasted red pepper arranged like spokes on a wheel.
Among large plates, rabbit impressed mightily, both for its finesse and presentation. The meat is prepared three ways: Serrano ham as brittle as bacon wraps the moist loin; a savoy cabbage leaf enfolds savory leg meat braised with carrot, celery and onion; and tender confit packs a crisp buckwheat crepe bundled like a beggar’s purse. These small packages, along with some roasted fingerling potatoes, are arranged on a petal-shaped platter splashed with jus.
Cazuela de arroz con carne y mariscos, a distant cousin to paella, is pleasant but unexceptional. The seafood in this saffron rice casserole (mussels, clams, squid and a firm white fish) is more notable than the meat (dry chicken and mild chorizo).
More than a few dishes eschew meat and fish altogether. Gnocchi was the more successful of two meatless pasta offerings. The sautéed dumplings could have been firmer but the real treat was deeper in the bowl, where a cache of chanterelles snuggled, their earthy appeal heightened with chives and melted manchego.
Black-olive pasta tossed with peppery goat cheese was an example of execution gone awry, however. The spaghettilike noodles had an unappealing grayish cast and a sobalike softness too similar to the entwined strands of carrot and zucchini. Pine nuts tried but failed to deliver much textural contrast.
Blandness plagued egg noodles paired with a sliced, boneless chicken breast, selected from the chalkboard specials. Though fragrant with shaved Oregon truffle (more potent than that domestic fungus usually tastes), the dish wanted salt.
Potted tuna rillettes, another special, had plenty of zip: lemon and cayenne informed every yielding, spreadable bite. But I wished for something sturdier and less sweet than toasted brioche to carry it to my mouth.
Brioche was perfect for the chestnut bread pudding, lending lightness to a potentially heavy dessert. Topped with house-made cinnamon ice cream, the pudding toed the line between savory and sweet.
Cinnamon, cheesecake and strawberry were the ice-cream flavors du jour. A fun trio of profiteroles featured one of each, sauced with caramel, chocolate and strawberry respectively. And though panna cotta seemed too dense to me, it was smooth and rich and, like so many dishes here, accessorized with flair, in this case with bits of sweet-tart quince and a delicate manchego tuile cookie.
Olivar is informal and inexpensive — small plates average $9; no large plate exceeds $20. It’s just what you want in a neighborhood restaurant — and so much more. Among the extra niceties: fresh flowers on the marbled bamboo tabletops, complimentary green olives and good bread to accompany each meal; a thoughtful, well-priced wine list; and servers with detailed knowledge of both food and wine, who work in concert waiting tables as well as welcoming guests, for there is really no room in this cozy, candlelit cave for a host stand.
In all, it adds up to some enchanted evening.
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