Nothing on chef Jason Stratton’s résumé to date would lead anyone to guess he would open a Spanish restaurant, but that’s just what he did at the foot of Union Street downtown.
Stratton’s first kitchen job, as a teenager, was at Le Gourmand under chef Bruce Naftaly. Following that grounding in French technique, Stratton spent five years with Holly Smith at Café Juanita, immersed in Northern Italian cooking. He cooked with Jerry Traunfeld at Poppy before taking over the kitchen at Spinasse, where he interprets Piedmontese cuisine like a native, and eventually launched Artusi, its bar-centric companion.
Who knew that all the while Stratton was pursuing a love affair with Spain? It started with his first visit to Granada as a college student and deepened with annual trips, once for a six-month stay.
Aragona springs from this grand passion. Stratton’s dream come true is a fully realized dining experience, with top-notch food, beverages and service in a visually arresting space.
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ZeroPlus, the architectural firm behind Poppy, Artusi and Spinasse’s expansion, collaborated with Stratton on the design, mixing contemporary and traditional style. In the dining room, designer Erich Ginder’s orange globes cluster like giant Chinese lantern blossoms, shedding diffuse light on white oak tables and banquettes. Simple farmhouse cabinetry frames the exposed kitchen. Seattle artist Kate Jessup’s mosaic-clad pillar recalls the Moorish influence in Spain.
Aragona is named for the medieval kingdom of Aragon, precursor to modern Spain, but the food is particularly inspired by Andalucia, Catalonia and Valencia, coastal regions that give way to mountains.
Mar i muntanya, literally sea and mountains, is a theme that runs through much of the recent menu. It is actually the name of one outstanding dish: chicken, prepared two ways. The breast is grilled; the thigh is braised in a stew of small white beans, squid and foie gras. You taste both ocean and offal in the complex stew; the chicken links the two.
Land meets sea again in Arroz caldoso, a rice dish meant to be soupy, like almost-finished risotto. The short-grained rice rides a briny wave of geoduck; bits of it are in the rice, along with tiny turnips to stem the tide. Similarly, a fragile omelet (tortilla) is filled with thin slices of sunchoke and topped with tongues of sea urchin and sea urchin aioli.
Grilled octopus wraps its tender, char-blackened arms around pale green romanesco florets; underneath them, purple pearl onions melt into a cauliflower purée. Almonds thicken the bright, bold, saffron-scented broth of a traditional Catalan fish stew, made with black cod and artichokes.
Salads had both feet on the ground. Fresh hearts of palm with celery were a sweet, crunchy delight, though somewhat overpowered by grapefruit. Shaved cabbage, warm but not wilted, shot through with pomegranate, chopped marcona almonds and shards of sweet, salty ham (lomo ibérico de bellota) was exceptionally delicious and well-balanced.
So, too, were desserts by pastry chef Clare Gordon, among them an unforgettable rice pudding topped with vibrant passion-fruit curd, bits of hibiscus gelée, sweet rounds of coconut cream, squiggles of white chocolate and a pile of toasted pistachios. For an extra treat, pair it with a glass of Malaga wine, a fragrant muscatel that was “medieval Spain’s greatest export.”
Tip of the glass to master sommelier Chris Tanghe for his erudite wine list, and for educating the staff on which wines play well with which dishes. A salute to the server who suggested two of us could split a glass. We would have felt like cheapskates asking. Her advice: Ask.
Cocktails include sophisticated riffs on the Spanish obsession “gintonic,” as well as a nutty, sugar-kissed but still refreshingly dry “Sherry Cobbler” served over crushed ice. On the darker side, the bourbon-based Novela Negra is just what you’d imagine a “brooding pulp fiction anti-hero” might drink.
Just over 2 months old, Aragona already exhibits the polish and poise of a mature establishment. Credit for that goes to Stratton’s entire team: from chef de cuisine Carrie Mashaney, who executes his vision with such finesse; to the dining-room staff, who meet every need calmly, at times ceremoniously, stealthy as fog; to the hostess who takes your coat at the door and, without benefit of a claim check, has it ready as you leave. Bravo, all.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.