Chef Brian Clevenger, who owns Vendemmia and Raccolto, brings his style to Eastlake with Le Messe.
When I scan the menu at a Brian Clevenger restaurant, I always pick the pasta I want first, then plan the rest of the meal around it. Clevenger has gotten really good at making pasta.
Three years ago, when the Tavolata and Staple & Fancy alum opened his first restaurant, Vendemmia in Madrona, he made a few fresh pastas to augment the high-quality dried noodles he sourced from the Italian company Rustichella d’Abruzzo. By the time he opened Raccolto in West Seattle 18 months later, he had acquired a pasta extruding machine. Soon he and his team were cranking out 40 pounds of fresh pasta daily. Now that he’s added Le Messe on Eastlake to his string of sleek, neighborhood Italian restaurants, they are going through upward of 300 pounds of semolina, 150 pounds of flour and six cases of eggs a week to keep up with demand.
At Le Messe, I marveled at the dainty size and shape of the cavatelli. Later I learned each one gets an extra pinch by hand so that the shell-like noodles better capture the sauce, in this case a meaty Bolognese lightened with mint. Double-twisted gemelli are sturdy companions for braised pork and diced root vegetables that relinquish their combined essence into the pan sauce. Cappaletti are intricately folded “little hats” with tall brims that look like old-fashioned nurse’s caps. Their sauce is classic: brown butter, sage and toasted hazelnuts. But lemon zest in the ricotta filling and celery root purée saucing the plate raised the dish above the ordinary. Squid-ink spaghetti is currently the only pasta not made in-house. The black noodles get the simplest of sauces: a slick of Plugra butter, a pinch of chili flakes, lemon and marjoram. Boost the funk and brine by adding grated bottarga (cured fish roe) for an extra $3.
Le Messe ★★★
1823 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle
Hours: dinner daily 5-10 p.m.
Prices: $$$ (small plates $5-$15; pasta $14-$18; mains $24-$31)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; predominantly Italian wine list
Service: relaxed formality
Parking: on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
A few large, protein-focused dishes and several small plates round out the pasta selections. It’s a menu format anyone familiar with Raccolto and Vendemmia will recognize. The dishes often appear artless but require hours of labor, solid technique and superior ingredients to be as good as they are. À la minute pan sauces are rooted in braises and stocks that are sometimes days in the making. Dicing, roasting and sautéing are done with precision. Being able to pull off any kind of consistency, on a daily basis — across three restaurants — demands a deep bench of talent in the front and back of the house, especially tough at a time when all restaurants are scrambling to find experienced staff. Chef Rock Silva, late of Vendemmia and earlier RN74, takes up the mantle here.
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Small plates lean toward vegetables and seafood. (Madrona’s East Anchor Seafood is another Clevenger enterprise.) A flash of heat or acidity, or both, are Clevenger trademarks. Some examples: Orange, radish and Calabrian chilies animated an elegant ahi tuna crudo. Aged balsamic ruffled a rich fonduta sauce that coddled grilled Castelfranco radicchio, and lately rapini. Hubbard squash soup sparkled with the sweet-sharpness of apple cider vinegar even as it melted in the mouth like whipped butter.
I can’t recall a better roast chicken than the one I had here. “Mary’s chicken” is an organic, free-range bird from California’s Pitman Family Farms. Brined and partially boned, the petite half bird was as moist as you could wish for, the skin so rigid it looked ironed on. It gets that way by being cooked skin-side down the whole time, first on the stove, then in the oven. Stock made from the bones and feet is reduced and finished with butter, resulting in a sauce as golden and rich as the skin.
The chicken had no accompaniment beyond that sublime sauce and some watercress leaves, nor did it need any. Sea scallops, on the other hand, were the center of a busier plate; plump specimens, lightly browned all over and warm right to their centers. Sautéed wild mushrooms were tucked next to them, along with kale two ways (creamed and crisped). Black-garlic sauce attempted to pull everything together. The waiter diffidently described it as having “lots of umami, if you like that sort of thing.”
The scallop dish skewed tediously rich when I had it; since then it’s been tweaked with lemon zest and apple cider vinegar. Servers are more relaxed and confident now that Le Messe has been open almost two months, but the kitchen still has some bumps to smooth. Lamb meatballs in a rousing tomato sauce were not as yielding as they usually are. A gem lettuce salad was short on imagination and seasoning. Most desserts lacked the finesse of the savory items. Caramel sauce overburdened a carelessly assembled chocolate mousse terrine. Cheesecake was a bit clay-like, though brilliantly topped with kumquat and Meyer lemon agrodolce. Bittersweet chocolate cake enriched with Sibona amaro and drizzled with crème fraîche was the least pretentious yet the most compelling.
Clevenger has named each of his restaurants with an Italian word that translates as “harvest.” Le Messe (pronounced leh-mess-eh) is the largest yet. It fills a triangular space on the ground floor of a building shaped like a flat iron. Windows on two sides form a V, with the front door as the vertex. It took a few weeks of tinkering to get the mood right. The track lighting and graceful hanging pendants are dimmer now, the heat is better controlled, the noise somewhat abated by sound absorption panels. (More are needed and on the way.)
The kitchen is the focal point. It has a chef’s counter with six seats that can’t be reserved. They are for walk-ins. If you covet one, better arrive early or be willing to spend time in the bar, where a glimpse of the Space Needle across Lake Union offers some consolation for feeling like you’ve been banished to Siberia. Diners at the counter may order from the regular menu, but also get exclusive access to a few daily specials made in limited quantities. Your strategy should remain the same: first pick a pasta.