Petite Soif | ★★½ | Wine bar | $-$$ | Beacon Hill | 3309A Beacon Ave. S., Seattle; 206-420-7131; petitesoif.com; Tuesday-Friday 4-10 p.m., Saturday noon-10 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m.; no reservations
PETITE SOIF lives along the same stretch of Seattle’s Beacon Hill that’s now got a microbrewery (Perihelion, which has already expanded once) and the hot restaurant Homer, which is set to open a second spot along the same strip. In such a scenario in our city right now, could a natural-wine bar be far behind?
Natural wines have been trending across the country, and it’s a good trend. It just means wine made by small-scale producers doing it old-school-style: using naturally occurring yeasts, little to no additives and environmentally friendly practices — as opposed to wineries that use pesticides, chemical fertilizers and any of dozens of different compounds to change color or flavor. Just in the last few years around here, places including L’Oursin, Champagne Diner, Baker’s and Vinnie’s have opened on board.
But the new neighbors on Beacon Hill are old hands at doing this right. Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead opened their first spot, Vif, in Fremont in 2013 with their hearts in the right place and without making a fuss. They first met working at Seattle’s storied Campagne back in 1999. As wine director there, Mead started stocking natural wines instinctively, way ahead of the curve, just because she liked them best. Feldman was a pastry chef. They became friends, realized their dreams aligned and bided their time. Years later, they started Vif.
Petite Soif isn’t trying to do anything wildly different, anything big. The name is French for “little thirst,” and the DNA of Vif, which means “bright,” is definitely there: the small but airy spot, the friendly feeling, the short-but-interesting menu, the wine presented in an anti-intimidating way. At Petite Soif, shelves and a central table hold lots of bottles. The marble-topped bar seats a dozen, with the tiny open kitchen behind it running on just a small-sized convection oven and one induction burner. The place doubles as a wine shop, with 150-ish carefully chosen bottles sold either to drink here or at a lower to-go price.
Feldman aims to keep Petite Soif’s menu simple and affordable, with pretty much everything under $15. In the department of “Snacks,” she’s selected time-tested, Euro-style, wine-loving ones, like a dish of Italian cerignola olives with crushed fennel or a plate of La Quercia prosciutto. Fans of the meat-frosting that is chicken liver pâté might want to come alone and eat an entire order, for it is exactly gamy enough and phenomenally creamy, served with lacy crostini and the happy innovation of sweet-and-sour pickled golden raisins. The little pile of Maldon salt doesn’t seem necessary, but a few snowflakey grains make life even better.
A couple of Petite Soif’s salads right now might be in the running for all-time favorites. An antipasti one borrows big pieces of thin-sliced Fra’ Mani salami, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chickpeas and bits of various pickled vegetables from its namesake, then adds croutons and kale chiffonade. The whole is so nicely balanced and so much more than the sum of its parts — why have we been stupidly separating these ingredients from each other for so long? The salad with olive-oil-packed Spanish tuna, superlative local potatoes, red onion and capers in a pool of pale gold Sicilian olive oil with a lemon wedge might be the best and prettiest near-niçoise you’ll ever see. Another gorgeous one, of candy-cane-striped chicories with a sweetish apple-cider vinaigrette to counteract their bitterness, was merely very good, and maybe would’ve liked some nuts.
While salads here let the super-fresh vegetables, high-quality olive oil, various vinegars and even the black pepper shine, the category of “Hot Things” — a couple of rotating main-ish dishes per day — didn’t fare as well. The lone standout: beautifully braised pork shoulder falling apart in a slightly spicy yet fresh and light tomato sauce, served over polenta that softly but eloquently argues for polenta’s comeback. Disappointments: an open-faced croque forestière with its ham and king oyster mushrooms lost under a heavy blanket of Gruyère; a potato, parsnip and celeriac gratin with undercooked potato throughout; and an underseasoned beef hand pie, oversweet from root vegetables, not much saved by its accompanying mustard.
The single “Sweet” selection at Petite Soif changes, too — one evening’s panna cotta with lemon curd was a paragon of the form — but the chocolate chip cookie that everybody loves at Vif is always on offer. It’s almost more chunks of chocolate than not, and given the 70% cacao Theo dark chocolate used here, if you’re going to pair cookies and wine, this is the cookie for that.
BUT WHICH WINE? The approach at Petite Soif is anti-prescriptive at every step. “I want to put something in people’s hands that they’re going to be happy with,” Mead says. “It’s not about me — it’s about you.” She’s spent much of her career trying to take wine off its pedestal. And for those who might be shying away from natural wines, having had some that taste overfunky like cider or kombucha, her selections hew to more classic styles. (If you do like the funk, Mead promises to guide you to something “interesting.”)
Staffers here do subtle detective work, listening with care, maybe starting with open-ended questions about what you’ve liked in the past, where you might like to go now. (They also choose the anti-uptight music, ranging from Funkadelic to Talking Heads and beyond.) My server one rainy night had fuzzy, pink pom-pom earrings and responded with enthusiasm to my unimaginative request for a crisp, dry white. “We have a joke around here that every day is Muscadet!” she said. It’s a varietal that can easily get too tart or sour to me, but unbidden she elaborated, “This one has a really nice minerality to balance out the acidity.” The straw-colored Bellevue she brought tasted bright, very slightly limey, rounder than some and excellent as a foil for the buttery richness of the chicken liver pâté. It was all her doing, but I still felt smart.
From elsewhere on Petite Soif’s by-the-glass list, an Arndorfer grüner veltliner got called “fun — it’s very green,” making me think of the color of a tennis ball when I tasted its citrus zest. A sangiovese by Mani di Luna didn’t seem special on its own, but came alive with the pork’s tomato sauce and dusting of salty Parmigiano-Reggiano. The blackberry-ish aggressions of the sparkling red Il Negrese Gutturnio from Italy seemed almost repellent at first, but then I couldn’t stop sipping it to try to figure it out.
Wines by the glass range from $8.50 to $12, but Petite Soif’s Wine Share program is a special deal. Choose any bottle on the shelves to try here and they’ll pop it open — you just have to buy two glasses at the in-house price. Whatever you don’t drink goes on the Wine Share blackboard, available for others to try. If you bring a willing friend, this effectively turns the entire place into a by-the-glass wine list (though you’ll have to share your pâté). Mead thought it would just be her “wine geek friends” taking advantage of this option, so its popularity makes her very happy. “Everybody loves it!” she exclaimed.
I happened to talk to Mead the day after President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to press pause on the implementation of massive tariffs set to double the price of European wines here in the United States. “Oh my god!” she said. “I say this in all honesty: It was keeping me awake at night. We were terrified that we were going to lose our businesses.” She spoke of her extreme stress — she and Feldman had just opened Petite Soif when Trump raised the possibility of the tariffs — and of the uproar in the industry as a whole, with even domestic wine producers worried about the breakdown of distribution systems and closure of wine outlets.
A 25% tariff has already been enacted, which Feldman and Mead have struggled with, and the much bigger one has only been tabled, to be reconsidered at the end of the year. “When it comes to Trump,” Mead says, “it could be a relief today and he could reenact it tomorrow…. This kind of grudge politics is really something that he uses, and folks like us are the victims of it.” But, she said, it did provide the opportunity to talk politics with customers, to urge people to contact their representatives and speak out. She and Feldman themselves wrote to several politicians, from the local to national level, in protest.
She expressed hope about the upcoming election, then turned philosophical, calling wine an avenue for learning more about not just politics but history, art, the environment, interconnection. “It’s one of the things that I love about it … ” she said. “There are so many conversations to be had.” Maybe Petite Soif isn’t thinking so small after all.
Petite Soif: 3309A Beacon Ave. S., Seattle; 206-420-7131; petitesoif.com; Tuesday-Friday 4-10 p.m., Saturday noon-10 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m.
Recommended for natural wines made in classic styles to drink in-house or sold to-go, and for simple, wine-loving snacks and salads
Prices: $-$$ (snacks $3-$12; salads $9-$14; “hot things”/mains $9.50-$16; desserts around $8; cookies $2.50)
Noise level ranges from tranquil to somewhat loud, depending on the crowd; they plan to adjust for greater quietude as needed.
Service is friendly and knowledgeable, while also anti-wine-snobby.
Drinks: French and other European wines all made natural-style, with a Wine Share program that makes exploration of the 150-plus bottles for sale to-go possible in-house, too; by-the-glass list $8.50-$12; in-house bottles $35-$150; to-go bottles $15-$80, with many under $25
Access: no obstacles, two gender-neutral restrooms