Ventana in Belltown is a high-energy urban dining room for the hip-at-heart. Forthright flavors and original combinations make this small-plates menu more compelling than most. Consider: Korean short ribs with congee, kimchi and cantaloupe or gnocchi with turnips, pork trotter and foie gras brodo.
Wander into Ventana too early in the evening, say before 9-ish, and you might wander right out again. Belltown restaurants tend to fill up later than restaurants elsewhere in Seattle, and despite the drama of its Elliott Bay view, Ventana’s soaring, glass-walled, triangular space feels just a little too chilly when it’s empty.
Don’t be discouraged by the lack of greeting. Don’t assume just because everyone is clustered around the bar that food is secondary here. Instead jockey for a spot at that crescent counter and enjoy the deft ministrations of Armin Moloudzadeh. His title may be manager, but his real role is impresario of your good time.
As skillful with schmooze as he is with booze, he concocts a Bloody Mary with bacon vodka and rims it with chipotle sea salt. When he offered to make me something “fun and fabulous,” I couldn’t refuse. He mixed a mink coat of a cocktail: rich, dark and luxurious with spicy rye, orange notes and a chocolate finish.
Dining at glass-topped tables that resemble window frames (Ventana means window in Spanish), you are away from Armin’s charmed circle and in the hands of accommodating servers who show a surer grasp of the menu than the wines, an international list that is as eclectic and idiosyncratic as the menu.
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Armin can sell Chef Joseph Conrad’s menu better than any server in the place, but really the modestly priced small-to-medium-sized plates sound so enticing they sell themselves.
Consider: Korean short ribs with congee, kimchi and cantaloupe; pork spare ribs with watermelon, pomegranate and cocoa nibs; or gnocchi with turnips, pork trotter and foie gras brodo.
They taste as good as they sound.
Brittle twists of pork rind lent texture and smoke to impeccable gnocchi nestled with baby turnips in a delicate foie gras broth.
Both the beef short ribs and the pork spare ribs had the melting quality of meat cooked long and slow. A dip in the deep fryer after days of smoking gives the pork a slightly crackling exterior. The beef’s disparate accompaniments — creamy rice porridge and fiery kimchi studded with sweet, crunchy nubbins of crystallized cantaloupe — helped neutralize a piercingly salty barbecue sauce, much as cool cubes of minted watermelon countered the salty pomegranate glaze drizzled on the ribs.
Conrad markets a line of flavored sea salts called Secret Stash on the side, so it makes sense that salt figures prominently in his cooking — sometimes too prominently.
I’m no saline sissy, but halfway through a paper cone of hot, crispy truffle-salted fries my lips were burning. Plump hen of the woods mushrooms served with a fried duck egg on rustic toast were so salt- saturated my tongue cried uncle after three bites.
But other dishes found just the right balance of seasonings. Fried Brussels sprouts with chopped white anchovies in lots of lemon-kissed, chili-stoked brown butter were simply amazing. Charred octopus, smoky and soft, sat on buttery potato purée beside a tangy salad of red grapes, green tomatoes and tiny croutons.
The pronounced salinity of Chinese black-bean sauce worked to the advantage of Australian hiramasa, a firm, white-fleshed yellowtail fillet, seared rare, set over bitter gai lan and a forest of slender hon shemiji mushrooms.
Only roasted cauliflower with slivered almonds could have used more salt to balance the heat of Arbol chilies and the complexity of ras el hanout, a North African spice blend that hints of cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove and smoked paprika.
The chef’s penchant for forthright flavors and original combinations extends to an elegant dessert ensemble of financier cake soaked in Meyer lemon syrup crowned with fennel ice cream and fresh tangerine.
If Conrad’s name sounds familiar (and you haven’t read “Heart of Darkness”), you may recall he succeeded Lisa Nakamura at the short-lived Qube in Seattle, but he trained in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, and his résumé also includes San Francisco’s Aqua and Rubicon. He’s a talent to watch — and that’s not to be taken with a grain of salt.
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