There is an obvious upside to being a high-profile chef like Maria Hines, the James Beard Award-winning owner of Tilth and Golden Beetle. But there is also a downside: Each accolade, every success, boosts the expectations of critics and the dining public alike. Thus I expected to be wowed by her newest restaurant, Agrodolce — and eventually I was — but it took three visits.
An ode to Southern Italy, Agrodolce opened in Fremont just before Christmas. It was a turnkey operation for Hines, who put her stamp on the front of the house, invisibly by improving the acoustics, and visibly by hanging splashy abstract canvases that pop with Mediterranean warmth against the subdued earth tones of the former 35th Street Kitchen + Bar.
Most of the creative energy went into the menu composed by Hines and since tweaked by executive chef Jason Brzozowy. A five-year veteran of Tilth, he was at her side in the “Iron Chef” competition, too, and has charge of the kitchen here, which is still getting up to speed.
Carlo Middione, author of “The Food of Southern Italy,” describes the cuisine of this region as “riotous … in color and combination.” Agrodolce’s best efforts fit that profile. I’m thinking of panelle, slim, golden-fried chickpea cakes seasoned with plenty of pepper and spice; of lonzino, fat-rimmed slices of cured pork loin anointed with chili oil, shaved fennel and chive; and the sweet-sour tension in caponata made with Brussels sprouts instead of eggplant.
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There is playfulness afoot, too, when citrus, honey and mint cavort with creamy white burrata and blood-red baby beets; and in the way roasted chickpeas, preserved lemon and a trickle of black-olive vinaigrette ruffle the calm intensity of puréed cauliflower soup.
But the shellfish and tomato risotto could have used more zip — and a lot more seafood: I found just three clams and three mussels, and no sign of Gulf prawns in the $23 dish. Steamed clams also disappointed; though I dug plenty of plump Taylor Shellfish bivalves from the couscous-thickened fennel-tomato broth, off-tasting guanciale marred the dish.
At lunch, a robust tomato- and wine-kissed sauté of chard, pine nuts and golden raisins cradled tender lamb meatballs. But what was billed as arugula salad was half romaine, while the namesake “agrodolce vegetables,” an expertly cut brunoise of carrot, celery, mushroom, onion and eggplant, needed a bigger dose of sour (agro) and sweet (dolce) to counter heavily smoked mozzarella in a panini sandwich.
Panini are made with the house focaccia. Fresh from the oven, the bread makes a soft, slightly tangy sponge for grassy, sea-salted, extra-virgin olive oil. (As at Tilth and Golden Beetle, Agrodolce is certified organic. Almost all ingredients are either organic or wild and, when possible, sustainably produced and locally sourced.)
Pasta, too, is crafted in-house. Ribbons of tagliarini had a firm bite and the right suppleness for twirling in béchamel bright with Meyer lemon, bitter with dandelion greens and crunchy with toasted pistachio — a dish as light as spring sunshine.
Cavatelli get an earthier treatment. Marsala wine gathers the dainty dumplings in a sweet and sour embrace along with nubbins of ground duck, numerous wild mushrooms, crisp pancetta and wilted chard.
Though listed under “secondi,” rabbit cacciatore is mainly pasta: fregola (similar to Israeli couscous) lustily endowed with cured black olives, oven-dried tomatoes and fragments of succulent rabbit pulled from the bone.
The most impressive entree was crepinette of ground lamb and pork, a dish solidly in the Tilth tradition. Herby, oniony, richly bound in caul fat and beautifully browned, they are ably supported by green lentils and baby artichokes (puréed and braised) bearing a touch of lemon and mint.
I’m rarely dazzled by Italian desserts, but I loved all three offered here: a single, sensational orange cannoli filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and a touch of chocolate; limoncello sorbetto with almonds and candied fennel; and fritters of rice pudding with a citrus-honey drizzle and caramel sauce for dunking.
Given its ambitious menu and its attentive staff, Agrodolce already competes at a higher level than most neighborhood restaurants. Though I found the dining experience still a bit more sour than sweet, expect improvement, because the performance expectations of Hines and her team are likely greater than anyone’s.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.